Travel can be one of life’s most enriching and inspiring experiences, for those of us privileged enough to have the opportunity. But how does it fit into modern life? In a society that sometimes values productivity over well-being, and indeed quantity over quality, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating holidays like a kind of work. For many, it starts with scouring the internet for the cheapest flights to the most exotic and must-see destinations. Then, once you get there, you feel pressured to see every sight, take perfect Instagram photos and tick off experiences like a to-do list. In this rush you might find yourself missing out on experiencing the true character of that place you visited, and feeling more exhausted than refreshed.
Enter, slow travel. This concept celebrates staying in one place longer and taking the time to fully appreciate its culture and unique “personality”. It’s all about getting off the beaten track and experiencing life through the eyes of a local. The end result is cultural enrichment, new connections, and ultimately a more meaningful getaway.
How does all of this relate to the environment?
Slow travel is less harmful to the planet than “fast travel” for several reasons. It is less consumerist and focuses more on simple pleasures and local produce, diverting your holiday spending money away from big tourism companies and towards local businesses. Staying in one place for longer also reduces your transport-related carbon footprint. Nearby attractions might be close enough to walk to, and if it’s a long walk all the better to help you get to know the area! Alternatively, public transport is highly accessible in many parts of the world, and catching a bus or train is all part of the adventure, not to mention often being cheaper (and less carbon-intensive) than flights, taxis and cruises.
Crucially, the mindset of slow travel embraces the concept of not flying. The aviation industry is responsible for almost 2% of global yearly anthropogenic carbon emissions, (about the same as that of 100 billion cars) and 81% of that is from passenger travel.
I get it, one thing people often want most from a holiday is a change of scene, so of course it’s tempting to jet off to the far corners of the Earth. But hear me out. New experiences and beautiful scenery are never far away if you keep an open mind. A trip within your own country can still feel a world away from your everyday life if you immerse yourself in the local sights and activities.
Besides, ditching flights has plenty of benefits for you as well as for the planet, the most obvious being affordability. In the UK, “staycations” saw a boom in the 2008 recession (and then again during the covid-19 pandemic) and experts believe that considering this year’s cost of living crisis, it’s a trend that is set to stay. On top of that, there is convenience. A domestic holiday eliminates the stress of airports, language barriers, queuing for passport control and airport security, and the need for currency exchange and mobile network arrangements, plus you can bring your pets with you!
How can I travel more slowly and sustainably?
Slow travel and sustainable travel go hand in hand – here I’ve listed my top tips on how to get more out of your trip, by taking less!
- Let go of the all-inclusive! Package holidays, whilst convenient, offer the ultimate potential for missing out on the real joy of travel. Instead of big hotel chains, look for small, local, independent hotels- or, if travelling as an individual or small group, be adventurous and try out a homestay or hostel. A 2022 report found that hostels are approximately 75% less carbon intensive than hotels, not to mention being more fun!
- Controversially, skip the hotspots! Whilst there may be good reason for a certain site or area to be top of the tourist to-do list, those attractions can often be so overwhelmed by visitors that it detracts from your experience and also the surrounding environment. For example, Greek islands like Santorini and Corfu face serious waste disposal issues, in part due to the amount of waste produced by mass tourism. This can lead to beaches covered in litter, and plastic or other waste entering the oceans, where it is hard to control and extremely detrimental to ecosystems. In the UK, national parks such as the Lake District have suffered from extreme erosion to footpaths and viewpoints as a result of huge tourist numbers. Escape overpriced tickets, tour packages and claustrophobic crowds by hitting up hidden gems such as a local nature reserve, a favourite independent coffee shop of your hostel staff, or a local culture festival or craft market. You could also consider visiting those top attractions at off-peak times, giving you more time and space to appreciate them. Read more about overtourism here.
- Travel lighter! Packing just one suitcase or backpack will enable you to travel more freely and choose public transport or a short walk over a taxi, reducing the carbon footprint of your trip. Lighter luggage also requires less fuel to transport, which makes a big difference if you do take a flight. Bonus points if you can leave some space in your luggage for a locally made souvenir!
- Fly greener. If you have no choice but to take a flight, there are still ways to make the trip less carbon-intensive. Business class seats take up more space for fewer passengers, so choose economy to maximise the capacity of the plane. Always look for direct flights where possible, since taking off is the most fuel intensive part of any flight– therefore short flights are also especially high in emissions.
- My final tip applies less to holidays and more to life in general. If you have your heart set on that faraway destination, why not consider staying for longer? Graduating university, working remotely, taking a sabbatical, or being mid-career-change are a few great opportunities for longer term travel. With opportunities such as work-exchanges and working holiday visas, it doesn’t even have to be expensive. Plus, one long trip is less carbon intensive than several smaller ones.
Having spent the past year travelling and working, staying at least one month in each place, I know how rewarding slow travel can be, but I also understand how hard it is to avoid flying at times. The aim of this article is not to criticise anyone’s holiday choices but to encourage a different way of thinking about travel and maybe inspire a more fulfilling trip.
The rest is up to you!
- Pledge to fly less with Flight-Free UK or USA and check out Byway Travel for totally flight-free adventures.
- Rediscover your home! Practise slow travel without even packing a suitcase by exploring nature, culture, and local products and businesses in your area.
- Get on your bike! Cycle holidays offer beautiful scenery with low-cost transport, as well as a physical and mental health boost. Check out Sustrans.org for UK cycle routes and Eurovelo for routes in Europe.
- Become a public transport expert with the Seat 61 website.
- Read more about travel and the environment on our website: