The travel editor who quit flying (and what it’s taught her so far)

Helen Coffey, travel journalist, was stunned when her colleagues told her she had quit flying. But she soon wondered why she hadn’t done it before

Hello. My name’s Helen and I’m a (former) frequent flier. It’s been… two and a half years since my last flight.

The same could be said for many people – there’s nothing like a global pandemic to stymie the best-laid holiday plans – but there are two elements that perhaps set me apart from the pack. Firstly, I’m the travel editor of a national news publication; secondly, I’ve stayed grounded by choice.

Friends and colleagues were shocked when I proposed the idea of switching to terrestrial travel in 2019 when I first suggested it. I was, after all, someone who wrote about travelling for a living – and someone who had taken a whopping 24 flights in the first half of the year, nearly the equivalent of one a week (I know, I know, I’m cringing just writing it).

To a considerable proportion of Brits, ‘going on holiday’ equals ‘getting on a plane’. We flew the most internationally of any nationality in 2018, so it’s not surprising that we don’t fly as much or stop flying.

But in 2019, I finally managed to make the connection between the climate crisis, and my hypocritically wealthy lifestyle. After writing a feature on the topic, flygskam (flight shame) movement in Sweden – which saw prominent Swedes including opera singer Malena Ernman, Greta Thunberg’s mother, pledge to stop flying – and interviewing people here in the UK who had sworn to go flight-free, something clicked. I thought for a moment. Not only am I contributing massively emissions-wise via my own travel choices – I’m encouraging others to follow suit.

I was something I never thought I’d be: a bad influence. So I made a decision. I would put my money where my mouth was (literally, in many cases – trains ain’t cheap): I would sign the Flight Free UKpledge is a campaign encouraging travellers to give up flying for one year in the hope of inspiring longer-term change.

Coffey has written a book on overland travel and how it can help address the climate crisis as well as changing our perception of the world. Marcus Walters

2020 proved to be both an easy year and a difficult year to sign. Easy because nobody can fly anywhere. Difficult, as the whole point was to highlight the pleasures of slow traveling.

So it was that I took the pledge again in 2021 and 2022 – at first to swerve accusations that I’d somehow “cheated” by picking a year in which much of the world had involuntarily clipped its wings. As countries opened their doors to visitors, I realized that slow travel is more enjoyable. I discovered that swapping planes for train, boat and bike gave every trip a sense of adventure.

Weekends in Inverness and Amsterdam were made possible by the overnight ferry and sleeper train, which felt very exotic. Multi-stop rail travel to Rijeka in Croatia was thrilling. And reaching Morocco by sea from France – a journey of more than 40 hours – felt nothing short of adventurous. I fell in love with this thoughtful method of traveling the world every time I made a trip without flying.

Swapping planes for train or boat, bike, foot, and planes gave each trip a sense of adventure.

On my most recent holiday – Spain – reached by ferry on the outbound leg, returning via Paris on highspeed trains – I revelled in the journeys as much as the destinations themselves. I saw dolphins jumping alongside the ferry from Portsmouth. I also witnessed the landscape of northern Spain change slowly from lush green to arid, rust-coloured terrain. The coach took seven hours from San Sebastian to Valencia. I was able see the shimmering sea as a train from Barcelona speeded around the south coast of France before turning north.

There are many barriers to quitting the jetset lifestyle: time, expense, booking difficulties, consumer protection, and lack of consumer protection. This needs to change. But the richness of experiences for the traveller on either side of the wall makes it worth the effort.

Hello. My name’s Helen and I was a frequent flier. But not anymore. And hopefully never again.

Flint Books has Zero Altitude: How to Fly Less and Travel more now out

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