What happened when I tried to book a holiday without flying

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe.” Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Could it?

“Agatha Christie would be delighted,” declared Michael Binyon in The Times recently in an article about cross-Europe train travel, because, “The age of the sleeper is returning”.

Perhaps it has left the sidings and is chuntering towards us, but there is little sign of it yet. I am not a train nerd, but I am trying to avoid flying after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse.

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe,” and, I modestly said to myself, “And what an example we’ll set!”

In April I started with the ever-mysterious-sounding Seat61.com, but the routes highlighted were already selling for 15 times the €29 the site publicised. And the timings would have sliced through our little one’s daily routine, with the risk of causing pain to all of us.

I searched online for “no-fly travel” and found carefully curated tours of European idylls, accommodation included, but the photos were of wine glasses and sunsets, not swings and miniature trains.

I contacted a no-fly travel agent (there is such a thing), and spoke to the helpful Catherine Livesley, founder and director of the No-Fly Travel Club. For her to get us off the starting block, she required a one-year membership fee of £79 for an individual or £149 for a family which “includes up to 2 hours of support on the itineraries of your choice”. If we wanted her to book the tickets, that would cost extra.

This came as a shock after the ease of airline and domestic rail websites. But we were dealing with a business model that required work by a human rather than a search engine, and paid up. And it would be worth it – the aviation industry is responsible for around 5 per cent of global warming, after all. And what an achievement if we could steam in to our holiday destination flight-free and brimming with tales of rewarding French stopovers!

Livesley quickly came back to us with two routes: one via Paris and Milan, back on a sleeper train from Nice, and a second via the ever-picturesque Swiss countryside. A sleeper train from Paris to Nice was already booked up, so we could only take it on the way home. She had thoughtfully broken the journey up into short-ish chunks to suit a young child, but these would require more hotel stays than if we were prepared to travel at any hour for any length of time.

So we turned to the possibility of driving. Around 1,000 miles. We looked up tips for long distance driving with little ones and asked friends and family and the internet. We found exciting looking car-trains that had ceased running in the pandemic. We found a car train that for some reason offered to transport your car – a day or so after transporting the passengers. Then we found a Motorail service that reached Italy via Düsseldorf and would have transported our car as well. My husband called out as he scrolled through the timetable, “What does ‘Nicht verfügbar’ mean?” “Not available,” I replied with an increasing sense of resignation. There were technical problems on the line.

What if we did the drive by ourselves – surely it couldn’t be that hard? Au contraire: it would mean 19 hours’ (at least) driving on the unfamiliar right, with the risk of Little One getting fidgety or uttering the words, “I need a wee.” After we had begun our investigations and many evenings of discussions, we did a four-hour drive that was twice punctuated by those peace-shattering words. Both times, into action we flew, eyes peeled for the first sign of a service station, cartoonishly skidding in to race towards the facilities. The thought of executing this manoeuvre in a foreign country was not appealing.

Exhausted, we gave up. Reader, I apologise. We have booked air tickets. We are already paying for our weakness – a lack of weekend flights means that our already expensive tickets (more expensive than the train) will require several nights in a hotel. We had an option to carbon offset when we paid for them and I confess, I felt so sore to be paying more that I declined. (I’ve since made a donation to Friends of the Earth.) And yet any peace of mind about our journey was quickly swept away: the airline with which we booked has been cancelling flights.

So what to conclude? That for all our efforts we are – this year – contributing to the problem, and that our spending habits are no different from those of people who don’t care about the environment.

But also that the age of sleepers can’t come soon enough, and that car trains need to get up and running in sufficient volume; that governments may need to offer subsidies to help companies to scale up quickly so that even those with little concern for the environment are persuaded to avoid the airport. And that one way to reduce the carbon footprint of a holiday is to reduce the journey distance so that no-fly options are more feasible. In the mean time I wish Livesley and her ilk all the very best in weaning us off fast, child-friendly, easy-to-book, cheap-if-you-get-in-early, air travel.

Top image: via Queens University, Ontario