How to Travel the World Without Flying

Girl looking out the window on the Devil's Nose train from Alausi in Ecuador
Girl looking out the window on the Devil's Nose train from Alausi in Ecuador | © Kike Arnaiz / Stocksy
Photo of Holly Tuppen
3 September 2021

Boarding a plane is the easiest way to zip across the globe, but what if there were a more ecofriendly option? From hopping on a container ship to bikepacking, here are Culture Trip’s recommendations for the best alternative ways to travel.

A round-trip by plane between the USA and Europe equates to 4.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. That’s almost twice the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended annual carbon budget per person to avoid the worst impact of the climate crisis. Luckily, ditching planes to travel by land and sea not only has environmental perks; going slow adds to any adventure, offering insights and experiences often overlooked when we jet in by plane to a new country. Read on to discover alternative ways to explore the world.

Looking for an immersive, culture-rich getaway? Check out TRIPS by Culture Trip, our collection of small-group adventures to some of the most exciting destinations on the planet.

Crew a sailing boat

Crewseekers is like Tinder for seafaring folk. Boat owners post on the website, looking for helping hands. They’ll specify what trip they are hoping to make and potential crewmembers post their level of experience and where they want to go. After a little online matchmaking and optional in-person meetups, Crewseekers can offer even the most inexperienced sailors the chance to cross an ocean. Completing a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Day Skipper Sail course is a good idea to prepare you for everything the sea can throw your way.

Sailing is becoming an increasingly popular way to travel | © Gary John Norman / Getty Images

Hop on a container ship

Container ships are hardly an environmentally friendly way to get around. However, hopping on an existing route as a humble passenger can be a convenient way to avoid flying, not to mention a unique chance to experience life at sea. The Cruise People sell everything from 10 to 125-day trips on 300 cargo ships worldwide. Despite preconceptions, it’s usually a relatively luxurious experience with passenger suites, freedom to roam the entire ship, and three-course meals in the captain’s mess.

Hire a campervan

Campervan travel has exploded in popularity of late, with some van vendors even offering to repurchase vehicles at a higher price to meet demand. Hiring a van is a more sustainable and cost-effective option. It’s also now a lot easier, thanks to a rise in Airbnb-style services for campervan owners. Outdoorsy lists thousands of RVs, travel trailers and campervans for hire across the US and beyond. New Zealand, for example, is one of the world’s most popular campervan destinations, with many ecofriendly RVs to choose from.

RV is a popular way to travel the Alaska Highway in the Yukon | © John Elk III / Getty Images

Take the shoe leather express

The slower the mode of travel, the better for the environment – and there are few things slower than walking. The world is full of long-distance hikes that offer the simplest way to get from A to B, from the recently completed Armenia stretch of the Transcaucasian Trail to the 2,200mi (3,540km) Appalachian Trail in the US (the longest hiking-only footpath in the world). Wandermap and Waymarked Trails provide searchable and interactive maps of official and user-generated hiking routes and ways.

Know your rail experts

There is nothing quite like the rhythmic clatter of a train to encapsulate a bygone era of slow travel. Thanks to a surge in demand, rail travel is getting easier. This is particularly true in Europe, where several operators across France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia plan to reintroduce overnight international rail trips. Logistics can be tricky, so expert advice is invaluable. The Man in Seat 61 is a guru for rail travel worldwide with detailed itineraries and trip notes. Green Traveller is another good resource for European overland trips.

The Gornergrat Railway is a metric and railing electric traction rail linking Zermatt to the Gornergrat near Monte Rosa | © Ascent/PKS Media Inc. / Getty Images

Ditch a cruise for ferry travel

Whether on a “booze cruise” across the Channel or snoozing on the deck of the Amazon riverboat from Belem to Manaus, ferry travel offers a little more insight into a culture and place. Ferries often perfectly complement rail or bus travel, linking up destinations and adding a welcome jot of blue to any expedition. For example, exploring West Sweden’s coastal islands from Gothenburg, island hopping around southern Thailand, or catching the Pukwan Ferry from South Korea to Japan.

Take to two-wheels

Cycling long distances needn’t feel daunting. If time is on your side, fitness grows each day and with all your food, water and shelter packed away in handy panniers, there’s no limit to how often you take a break. Warmshowers is a community of bicycle tourists that support one another by offering showers, washing machines and camping spots worldwide. The website is also a great source of info. An excellent alternative to independent bike-packing is going with a reputable adventure cycling company like Saddle Skedaddle or Slow Cyclists.

Travelling by bicycle often throws up sweeping views | © Tobias Titz / Getty Images

Holly is a sustainable travel writer and expert. Her debut book, Sustainable Travel: The essential guide to positive impact adventures, was published in June 2021.

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