I can’t travel by train, so I can’t travel sustainably

Lizet Wesselman - 07/02/2024

I can’t travel by train, so I can’t travel sustainably

Lizet Wesselman - 07/02/2024

Train travel is a big focus of this blog, and for a big part, that’s because I love it so much. But also, because at the moment, I’m mostly travelling in Europe. I’m aware that train travel isn’t as easy in every country, as it is in Europe. I also know, that taking a 20 hour trainride isn’t doable for everybody, if you have limited vacation days. However, I often hear people say “I can’t travel sustainably because I can’t travel by train”. And that’s not true. Let me give you some tips on how to travel sustainably, even if you take a plane.

Sustainability and transport

Sustainable travel has different layers. The first would be about CO2 emissions and reducing those. In that case, flights are the biggest issue, because flights are the biggest polluters. So, yes, trains will make a big impact. However, even in terms of transport, skipping flights isn’t the only way to lower your footprint.

Flights and cruise ships are the worst polluters. Yes, cruises as well, mainly due to what they dump in the ocean.

Cycling and walking are best, public transport next and then cars. But of course, that is now also divided between electric cars and gasoline cars. So, these are the things you can do, in terms of sustainable transport:

  • Yes, first and foremost, try to take less flights. This could mean you’d take a ferry instead, but even taking a train one way and taking a flight back, already cuts a flight.
  • Try to find direct flights. Take off and landing take most energy of a flight, so those cause most emissions. If you have a layover, you’ll take off and land twice for one journey, which increases the pollution. For that same reason, short flights are more polluting than long flights (per km/mile).
  • Pack light. This might seem weird but makes so much sense. If you lift a heavy bag, it takes more energy, right? Same goes for planes, cars, busses and even trains. The heavier the cargo, the more energy (gas) it uses. So, yes, packing 14 kg instead of 20, actually makes a difference.
  • Avoid taxi’s when on your destination. Take public transport from the airport to the hotel and around the city.
  • If you want to rent a car or scooter, try to find electric alternatives over the ones on gasoline.
  • Consider a cyling tour, instead of a car roadtrip. This also makes for a great slow travel alternative.
  • Going one a daytrip to a place without public transport? (Beach, nature, small town) Look into a tour company before renting a car. There are often tour bus services that will bring you, then let you roam around by yourself, and drive you back at a certain time. Sure, it will slightly limit your time flexibility, but these travel hours are based on the general time spent in a certain place, and it’s usually cheaper than a rental car. You can find these kind of tours on GetYourGuide for example.
  • Walk walk walk. Of course, I don’t expect you to walk the entire route of a 2-hour car drive. But often busses or trains bring you to the edge of a place, like down a mountain area. Get off and walk into nature, instead of driving 200m further up and start the hike from there. It’s also just healthy to walk more.

We can also make changes in our daily lives. At the end of the day, we share this planet. Whatever we choose to do in our daily lives, impacts other countries miles away. Taking a few flights across the world each year? Try to take trains to work. I wrote an article about my emissions in 2022, which were about 25% lower than the Dutch average, even though I took 7 flights. Why? Because I don’t drive, at all. Taking trains in my daily life, compensated for the high number of flights I took. It’s all about balance.

So this is all in terms of transport, which does make a difference. But that’s not all that sustainable travel is about. It’s also about respecting the area you visit and the impact you make on those places and the people. A lot of countries benefit from tourism but don’t have the money to put an extensive train system in place. Should we avoid those countries, because we might need to rent a car or even fly? Absolutely not, because that would actually harm their tourism sector and entire economy.

The local impact of your trip

But aside from transport and emissions, we also need to think about the places and the people we visit. What’s our travel impact on them? Are we helping them, by visiting their country, or are we harming their nature and properties?

A lot of countries really rely on tourism for their income, while others have a thriving economy anyway. We clearly saw which countries rely on tourism when the world shut down during the pandemic. A lot of people lost their jobs and in certain countries, this was causing serious problems with poverty, closed businesses, building projects that couldn’t be continued et cetera. But on the other hand, certain places thrived on the peace and quiet and came up with ideas to battle mass tourism and the negative effects it has. Examples are Amsterdam and Prague, working on ways to attract more cultured tourists, over alcotourism, the party types that only show up to drink and cause trouble.

So another part of sustainable tourism, is to be aware of the countries that could use your visit. And even within countries, be aware of the area’s where they need and want you the most.

The other side: mass tourism

This is also layered. You have those countries that thrive on tourism, countries like Fiji, Maldives and even Croatia or Albania. They’ve structured their economy around it. In the Maldives you have entire islands that are built for tourists. If there are no tourists, it’s empty and people lose their jobs. In the capital city, it’s like you’re in a different country and things are very different. If you feel like a carefree holiday, go to the Maldives and just enjoy the tourist stuff.

However, most places aren’t built for big tourism numbers. Social media plays a big role in promoting pretty spots. Which, of course, is great. But it also means that places get flooded with an amount of tourists that they can’t handle. We’ve reached a point where even us creators sometimes wonder if they should keep places a secret, and I’ve even heard locals ask creators to not share their location online. It’s getting out of hand.

For example, in the summer of 2023 the people of Hallstatt, Austria, blocked tour busses from coming into town. Around 900 people are living in that small village and they’ve seen an increase to around 10.000 tourists a day!! I can’t blame them for being fed up with it. It’s such a pretty place, but tour agencies easily take advantage of supply and demand. Those 10.000 tourists want to go, so they’ll arrange for busses to go. If you’re not a responsible traveller, you might think “but there are busses and they’re not full, so I guess we can go”. But unfortunately, it’s not that black and white and people take advantage of opportunities, without considering the consequences for others.

What can you do for responsible travel?

If you care about people, local cultures and your local impact, there are a few things you can do:

  • Do your research. If you see places promoted on social media, do a quick search. It’s pretty easy to find news articles on mass tourism, if there’s an issue. It’s also pretty easy to figure out that 500 blogposts about that one pretty beach in Bali means it’s crowded. Other giveaways are lines, charges for a photo or even a photographer on site. (Doesn’t this mean they earn an income? Yes. Grey area. More on this later.)
  • If you came to the conclusion that it’s crowded, go elsewhere or go in off-season if possible. If there’s a stunning white-sand-blue-water beach somewhere, most likely there will be another just around the corner. Yes, some places are unique and worth a visit. But those places are often used to the crowds. So it helps to ask yourself the question of how big your chances are that you’ll find something similar closeby. If not? Definitely visit the epic spot. If yes, google, or use maps to just zoom in on stuff and try to find a pretty spot that you might have to yourself.
  • Support locals. If you end up going to crowded places, make sure to support the people who might be harmed by it. Buy something in a local shop, even if it’s just a bar of soap. Go to a restaurant for lunch, instead of going back to the location of your accommodation and eat there. Or do a tour with locals, instead of going solo. Make the most out of your visit.

Supporting locals and trying to travel in off season are both great ways to travel responsibly in general. I spend the winter months on Zakynthos, Greece. It was deserted, so not much fun if you like to do stuff. But the beaches were empty. And I don’t need to visit the island in the summer to know what kind of lines you’ll find at the viewpoint of shipwreck beach.

So, most importantly, do some research. Don’t blindly follow people who tell you to go somewhere and keep peak season in mind. First of all, it’s annoyingly crowded, expensive and hard to get a unique, local experience. But it also means that people might struggle to make ends meet in the other months and will be extra appreciative of your visit in the off-season.