Why my New Year’s resolution is to travel without flying – for the fourth year in a row

Flight-free travel helps you spread your wings in other ways (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Flight-free travel helps you spread your wings in other ways (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“Oh, are you still doing that? I’d presumed you’d stopped!”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this remark, delivered casually, from a colleague or acquaintance. The person in question is well-meaning – there’s nothing judgemental or accusatory behind the words – but it’s a tad frustrating nonetheless.

They’re referring to my decision to give up flying, first taken as a fairly radical New Year’s resolution in 2020, and one which I’ve committed to every subsequent year since. Including this one, 2023.

The presumption – that it was a one-off, fleeting fad of a thing – irks me because, well, nothing has really changed. The need for us all to take fewer flights, for there to be fewer planes in the sky year-on-year if we’re to have any hope of hitting Net Zero by that hallowed date of 2050, has not magically disappeared.

I am, admittedly, being something of a hypocrite. After all, my original plan was to take the Flight Free UK pledge – which challenges Brits to swear off flying for one year – in 2020, and 2020 only. It would be a cool thing for a travel editor to do, I thought.

I could inspire people with all my exciting slow travel tales; I could educate myself on the reality of aviation emissions and how harmful they really were amid the mounting talk of the climate crisis. But, I naively imagined, I’d be hopping back on a jetplane the minute the clock struck 12.01 on 1 January 2021.

2022 brought a flight-free trip to Alderney in the Channel Islands (Helen Coffey)
2022 brought a flight-free trip to Alderney in the Channel Islands (Helen Coffey)

Two things forced me to deviate from this plan: 1) the Covid pandemic; and 2) I decided to write a book about flight-free travel. Entitled Zero Altitude: How I learned to Fly Less and Travel More, it was to be a mix of anecdotal, travelogue-style chapters about my journeys swapping planes for trains, ferries, bicycles and my own two legs. These would be interspersed by research-based chapters exploring the climate science behind needing to cut down on flying; policy and legislation; offsetting; tourism; and future aviation tech.

The first of these unexpected happenings – the small matter of a global pandemic – meant that overseas travel by any mode of transport was off limits for the majority of 2020. I managed to squeeze in one overland trip to Rijeka in Croatia, but not much else. As that hardly made me the radical exception – “I’ve gone flight-free too!”, joked nearly everyone I knew – I decided to take the pledge again. The following year was scarcely more “normal” for travellers, so I renewed my resolution once more.

Every journey, whether domestic or further afield, felt imbued with a subtle kind of magic

By this time, 2022, my once deep-rooted travel habits were changing. I’d not only realised how many possibilities there were when exploring without wings; I was actively enjoying the delight that comes with the more romantic-feeling, old-school slow travel options of rail and sea. What an antidote to a world increasingly obsessed with everything happening now, immediately; what better answer to the head-spinning, clamouring impatience of the modern age!

You could see – really see – the landscapes you were travelling through, giving an unmatched sense of place and distance. Every journey, whether domestic or further afield, felt imbued with a subtle kind of magic – a sense of adventure I’d rarely experienced in my eight plus years in travel journalism.

The best bit was setting off without a trace of the usual dread at spending hours hanging around airports, boarding an uncomfortable tin can thrown at velocity through the sky, waiting endlessly at baggage claim, and figuring out how to get from the airport to my actual destination. Instead, I was just as thrilled by the giddy prospect of the journey as I was by the destination itself.

This spark remained undimmed in the year just gone, in which I took UK mini-breaks in Whitstable, Devon, Cornwall and Hastings; sailed on a luxe ferry to Bilbao and journeyed across Spain to Zarautz, San Sebastian, Valencia and Barcelona by coaches and trains; crossed to Guernsey by boat and went island hopping to Herm, Sark and Alderney; caught trains to Bruges, Antwerp, the Swiss ski resort of Andermatt and Vienna respectively.

Then, the second happening: I wrote a book. I’m not just sharing this information as a shameless plug (though of course, feel free to purchase it from all good bookshops) – but more to explain that, perhaps unsurprisingly, when you spend 18 months interviewing leading climate scientists, behaviour change researchers, activists, campaigners, sustainability gurus and sustainable travel experts about whether our flying habits need to change, you find your own attitudes irrevocably altered, too.

Like many things in life, it is much easier to be ignorant. Once you’ve looked the threat of climate change in the face, and been fully versed in how the ever-increasing number of flights is completely at odds with humanity’s urgent need to become carbon neutral to avoid making our planet uninhabitable – well, it’s impossible to look away again. It’s impossible to unknow what you know.

The New Year’s Resolution prompted a book (Helen Coffey)
The New Year’s Resolution prompted a book (Helen Coffey)

“But the pandemic!” you might shout in consternation. “Flights were grounded the world over, surely that made a difference?” In fact, the changes were incredibly short-lived: according to the latest data from Eurocontrol, which monitors Europe’s air traffic, 2022 saw 9.3 million flights take off, a return to 84 per cent of 2019 levels. Some markets’ flight numbers have already exceeded 2019 levels; budget behemoth Ryanair is up 9 per cent, averaging 2,536 daily services. If our behaviour doesn’t change, aviation emissions will never stop growing.

If our behaviour doesn’t change, aviation emissions will never stop growing

And so it is that I make my well-worn New Year’s Resolution once more. So it is that I find myself clicking through to and signing this excellent campaign’s pledge for the fourth time in a row. Yes, I’m “still doing that” flight-free travel thing. No, it is no fly-by-night (excuse the pun) fad. And, if you too are looking for a sustainability or green lifestyle change that can make a big difference, I’d really encourage you to consider joining me in signing up for 2023.

You may just find yourself beguiled by the slow travel life as I have been; just as smitten with taking your foot off the gas and leaving room for the extra exhilaration that overland travel inevitably brings. Just be prepared for the fact it might be one resolution that lasts longer than a year...