Flight Free UK is an organisation making the case for travel without planes — where could staying grounded take you?
Did you know that one transatlantic flight generates more emissions than driving a car for a year?* Or that a beach holiday in Cyprus could wipe out the carbon savings of being vegan for a year?**
Most people don’t know how carbon-heavy air travel is, and how just a few flights could wipe out any carbon savings made elsewhere. While people are willing to do many things for the environment, that action often stops when it comes to flying.
At Flight Free UK we aim to address this. One part of our work is to give accurate information about the climate impact of travel, so people can make an informed choice. For example, choosing to take the train to Barcelona rather than fly can save 90% on your emissions***, which is the kind of reduction we need to see if we are to properly address climate breakdown.
The second part of our work is inspiring people to travel without flying. Because not flying doesn’t mean not travelling! There is a lifetime of exploration here on our doorstep if we choose rail, sea and road over air. We are so lucky here in Europe, with a huge variety of holiday destinations within easy reach. For everything from mountains and snow to beaches and ancient culture, we needn’t limit our horizons just because we’re limiting our emissions.
The great thing about overland travel is that it is a much more enjoyable experience than flying. It sounds like a cliché, but the journey really does become part of the holiday. You learn how language, culture, food and landscapes connect, which can be a much more enriching experience than being flown through the air, removed from the land you’re whizzing over. Slow travel is authentic, calming and good for the soul.
Yes, there are barriers. The time taken is often longer, although in reality this doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. By the time you’ve added transfers and check-in time, the overall journey time is pretty much equal for short-haul travel. And when you travel by train, you can use that time productively, by working or reading or simply daydreaming. When you’re flying, a lot of time is wasted standing around, waiting for the next thing.
Another barrier can be cost. With no tax on airline fuel, budget airlines can afford to tempt passengers with rock-bottom prices. This gives air an unfair advantage over rail, which cannot compete. Having said that, again, once you’ve added all the extras — getting to and from the airport, baggage, sometimes even your seat — the prices begin to look more similar. Added to that, if you see your train ticket as an investment in your journey, and ultimately our future, it’s a price worth paying.
Flight Free UK was set up in 2018 by Anna Hughes (pictured), a behaviour change specialist and long-time advocate of flight-free travel (Image credit: Flight Free UK)
At Flight Free UK we ask individuals to change their behaviour, not because individual change on its own is enough, but because this leads to the system change we need to see. We can influence industry with our consumer behaviour. We’ve seen it with the rise of vegan offerings in supermarkets and restaurants across the UK, as more people choose to eat less meat. We’ve also seen a resurgence in night trains across Europe as more people choose to fly less.
And that’s the main purpose of our campaign: to create a culture shift and move away from flying as the default. Many people book a flight because they simply don’t know that there are alternatives available. Cheap flights are a recent phenomenon but have quickly become the norm. Our aim is to disrupt that narrative and change people’s habits.
We do this by asking people to take a year off flying. It’s a great way to quickly bring emissions down, but also to break a habit, try the alternatives and discover new ways of travelling. Most people are daunted at the prospect of stopping flying, but when they give it a try, they find it to be much easier than they thought.
The more people who sign up to our flight free challenge, the easier it is for us to put pressure on government and industry to make low-carbon travel more accessible for everyone. There are many, many things that need to happen in order for the travel industry to become a low-carbon industry: a fairer pricing system, and easier booking for rail travel; a moratorium on airport expansion; for rail travel to receive the same level of government support that air travel does currently; to tax people, not reward them, the more they fly; and honesty from the government about the limitations of technology, rather than pretending that if we offset everything the emissions problem will go away.
The reality of the climate crisis is that we must change everything about the way we live. But that doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. We can still live a life full of excitement, travel, exploration and discovery, but do it in a way that is as good for us as travellers as it is for the planet.
More and more people are choosing not to fly. Could you join them?
Find out more and take the flight free challenge: flightfree.co.uk
How we got the numbers
*One transatlantic flight generates more emissions than driving a car for a year:
- Average car produces 1.73 tonnes CO2 annually (2019 figures) source: https://www.nimblefins.co.uk/average-co2-emissions-car-uk
- A return flight to Nashville TN produces 1.75 tonnes CO2 per passenger. source: flightemissionmap.org, accessed May 2023
**Beach holiday in Cyprus wipes out the carbon savings of being vegan for a year:
- Savings from a year of veganism are roughly 0.8 tonnes CO2 (2017 figures) source: https://www.lunduniversity.lu.se/article/four-lifestyle-choices-most-reduce-your-carbon-footprint
- Return flight to Cyprus per passenger = 0.836 tonnes CO2 source: flightemissionmap.org, accessed May 2023
NB: We’ve included when flightemissionmap.org was accessed because the numbers are updating all the time based on the most recent data.
***Taking the train to Barcelona rather than fly can save 90% on your emissions:
- One-way travel from London to Barcelona per passenger is 81kg by plane and 7kg by train = 91% saving. Source: raileurope.com