Last year, something clicked for me, just as it did for so many of us. I realised that just because I live in a cave that doesn’t need heating or cooling, and just because I’m vegan, that doesn’t mean I can hop on multiple flights a year with a clean conscience.
We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, and we all need to be doing everything we can.
So, I started looking into more sustainable methods of transport, but was a bit overwhelmed by the logistics of a journey from Granada, in the south of Spain, back to the UK.
And as so often happens just when you need it, the universe presented me with Dan.
He’s a temporary resident of Granada, taking a break from his mission to #BUSKtheGLOBE, which will take him over six continents, over six years. He travels with his collapsible bike, his violin, and doesn’t take any commercial flights.
He’s been at it for about three years now, and knows Europe’s train, bus and ferry routes like the back of his hand. Just like me, he’s currently spent lockdown holed up in Granada.
As I (normally) do a lot of work in the travel and tourism sector, I was curious to hear and share some of Dan’s tips for no-plane travel, and hear his thoughts on what impact the current health crisis, which has grounded many of the world’s planes, might have on travel in the future.
- Please give us a quick intro – what’s your story, and what’s Busk the Globe all about?
I’m Dan, I’m a classically trained folk violinist from Brighton, currently half way through a six year tour around six continents, fully funded by collaborations and street performances during my travels!
I’m trying to better understand the effect music can have on people, cross-culturally, as well as gaining an insight into the sheer diversity of music across the globe.
This is all underpinned by insatiable wanderlust and ambivalence towards modern society and the (classical) music establishment.
Through my articles and social media I’m attempting to present an alternative, ethically informed lifestyle, driven by the power of music, human connections and “eco-travel” – by train, sailing, hitchhiking, and cycling (no commercial flights!).
- Where have your sustainable travels taken you so far?
I’m currently viewing my travels in chapters, of sorts, in an attempt to keep on top of these rambling movements over the years.
I began chapter one trying to understand my own country first, visiting every county (except for Notts & Bucks, but what’s to see there anyway eh?) right up to John O’Groats and the Orkney Isles in Scotland.
My first real taste of Spain followed, living on my uncle’s farm in Galicia, busking my way through the northern provinces as far as Mallorca.
Chapter 2 took me through Benelux up into Scandinavia for a 5-month tour of the Nordic & Baltic countries, as far north as Svalbard – the polar archipelago host to the northernmost settlement in the world and a higher population of polar bears than humans!
Oh, and somehow I was roped into a short, bizarre Bollywood music project in India at that time?!
Chapter 3 I spent hitchhiking on sailboats in the Caribbean and hopping freight trains in the deep south of the USA.
Chapter 4 in Italy and New Europe, exploring the majesty of the Balkans post-Iron Curtain, and Chapter 5 cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, ambling through France and eventually winding up here, in Andalucía, Spain.
I’ve been able to travel much more slowly having a base here in Granada, including some terrific trips spanning the width and breadth of this marvellous country and abroad to Morocco.
- What are the bonuses of travelling without taking flights, and what are some of the drawbacks?
By avoiding flying, you instantly open yourself up to a far more profound connection to the journey. Travel is not just about the destination, as clichéd as it sounds. The essence is found in the kinetic energy and adventure that comes through the joy of movement!
Scenery changes gradually from one region to the next; places you’ll likely never visit pass you by, however fleetingly. You meet people and engage with the culture along the way.
Airports are void of such things, a vapid space which people frequent only in the hopes of being somewhere else! Train stations around the world are so varied, most having been built in centuries past and thus dripping with heritage in a time when countries and regions were far more distinct than they are now. Each station is a portal to a new place, a first taste illustrated by its people, its architecture and its food.
And the angles are even sharper when touring by bicycle, or hitchhiking. The abhorrent environmental costs of flying are hardly worth mentioning when the pleasure of a different kind of journey is so clearly evident, though travelling with a clean conscience definitely helps!
All this being said; navigating European rail websites to find prices that rival those of budget airlines isn’t always that easy, so you often stand to pay more. And of course, journey times can clock up to being quite a bit longer.
Though this is often isn’t the case. Travelling to nearby European countries often works out quicker and far less stressful by ferry or Eurostar when compared with ludicrous check-in and wait times at the airport, the added costs and mile-long journey to get to that godforsaken airport and the equivalent transfer faff at your arrival destination! (They’ve had to be positioned far out of cities to minimise their environmental damage, of course.)
Train stations (usually…) are slap bang in the city centre. How many airports are a 10-minute walk to the best a city can offer?! Sleeper trains are another fab little trick, a terrific adventure-filled hostel on wheels, meaning you wake up, refreshed, in a new city!
Any fears that journey times by rail are too long can be remedied here, by using the time you would have spent sleeping anyway to get from one place to another.
- Have you got any tips for people who want to reduce the amount they fly, but aren’t sure where to start?
Terrific news! The first step revolves around a willingness to think local, and travel slower.
Unless you’ve 2 weeks each way of time to spare and a couple of £k lying around, you won’t be getting out to Thailand without flying (though that would be a once in a lifetime adventure to take, via China and the Trans-Siberian railway).
That being said, there is SO MUCH to see, and such nuance within the most culturally diverse region on this planet (Europe!). From the UK, trips to Ireland, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany are all within extremely easy reach, for a 3-day weekend for example, with journey times of just 2-7 hours (equivalent or less than your average plane journey time when factoring in check-in, travel to airport etc).
With just a little more time to play with (5+ days), suddenly most of Europe is at your fingertips! Overnight ferries can take you to northern Spain, then onwards by land to Portugal or Morocco if you’re bold enough.
High-speed rail links from Eurostar termini Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam can take you to Denmark, Poland or Switzerland. The fabulous bargain sleeper train from Paris to Milan and Venice costs only 30EUR including your bed!
Or travel to Austria, from which every single Eastern European nation is now just a stone’s throw away by direct train (more or less)!
But amidst all of this, don’t forget the untamed, half-forgotten beauty of so much here on our own shores, from Scottish Highlands to Welsh sand dunes, rugged West Country scenery and breathtaking national parks the width and breadth of the nation.
With a railcard and a little advance planning, it needn’t cost the earth, nor much time to reach any of these fabulous destinations.
- Are there any handy apps or websites that every aspiring sustainable traveller should know about?
www.seat61.com is my bible.
Run by train guru and former London Bridge and Charing Cross stations manager Mark Smith, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the world’s rail networks and booking systems has been exhaustively and accessibly laid out in one website.
You can search most primary routes across Europe as well as from London to almost anywhere in the world by rail (and sail)! Routes are clearly and succinctly described, as well as varied advice on how to find the best ticket prices, and how best to enjoy the scenery during the ride!
www.bahn.de is the German national rail operator, and has the most up to date rail timetables of EVERY single European country in their database.
That’s German efficiency for you! On their app “DB Navigator” you can weigh up those eight different routes and all the train changes available from one village in Bulgaria to another village in the Dordogne (for example).
The Interrail “Planner” app is also good for this, and it works offline!
I’ve recently been having better luck with the French national operator’s app, “OUI.sncf” as I have an account with them, and can link up my railcards and bank cards etc, as well as enjoy member benefits and discounts.
However, it will always work out cheapest to buy your ticket from the country’s national operator’s website, rather than going through a booking agent website like RailEurope. In Spain, I buy tickets from RENFE, in Italy I use Trenitalia etc etc. Google can be your friend here for finding the right company.
www.rome2rio.com is an excellent resource to get a vague overview of all travel possibilities between two locations.
It will often put the “flying is faster” argument into context when plugging in two cities and seeing the time comparison when travelling by boat, train, bus, car, taxi, foot, bike or plane…
Its public transport suggestions might be out of date or the connecting services inaccurate, but it’s certainly a good place to start. The app’s a little buggy, so I’d stick to the website.
www.omio.com (formerly GoEuro) is a good source to directly compare the difference in cost between the options of flight, train or bus.
While I’m a huge train fanatic I must admit that there are many occasions when the bus works out as a cheaper option. Though take care, as baggage restrictions usually apply, and overnight bus journeys are one of the grimmest (yet at times necessary) components of modern day travel. Both app and web versions are excellent.
While I’ve found none to be complete compendia, www.directferries.co.uk is the best chance you’ve got for comparing prices of ferry companies on competing routes.
It’s also a good spot to browse ferry routes worldwide to brainstorm future trips (though many are not listed).
www.blablacar.com is another terrific way to travel if you’re keen to meet people, travel cheaply, reduce your carbon footprint, or maybe like the idea of hitchhiking but prefer to choose a ‘safer’ approach.
It’s a car-sharing service, so all of the drivers and passengers have referenced profiles by other members, and once you’ve paid online the driver is obliged to take you on the journey. No waiting on roadsides for hours on end with your thumb out, as thrilling as those adventures can also be!
www.hitchwiki.org is your go to resource if you’re looking to hitchhike.
If you’re going off the beaten path I’d recommend some form of open-source map (or even “maps.me”). The “OsmAnd+” app is my favourite for any kind of hitching, cycling, or distance walking.
And finally, do yourself a favour and pick up a paper copy of Thomas Cook’s “European Rail Map”. It’ll do you a world of good to be able to visualise and plan your routes like this, and even has scenic rail routes highlighted!
- Planes are grounded all over the world. Do you think lockdown will change the way we travel?
We’ve seen a 90% reduction in European air travel during these months, and a 72% reduction in C02 emissions in Paris, for example. Hard to suggest it’s nothing to do with the decrease in flights and cars on the road, eh?
We’ve got an astonishing opportunity to make this more permanent, as we all reflect on our priorities in life and make ready to have change for the better. The worn-out, monopolised and unsavoury system we were living under has been long due an overhaul.
And while Netflix and Amazon continue to flourish in these difficult times, crude oil prices have never been lower and airlines are desperately fighting to survive.
Now is our chance to make a racket from our houses about how we want to live and travel in the future, and to make our power as consumers count when economies open again. Keep the car in the garage, and get on your bloody bike! And let’s see if the next trip you make can be done by train, not by plane.
Air France’s bailout has been approved subject to certain green incentive stipulations, specifically that C02 emissions by the company are to be cut in half, and most domestic services halted and traffic to be picked up by TGV rail routes.
It’s really quite compelling; we might just be on the cusp of a rewriting of the way we choose to travel, unencumbered by strict two day weekends we can afford to take the slower route by rail and wrap up the day’s work via Zoom.
The 4-day working week may now be something within our grasp with 30% of jobs functioning remotely to remain as such, allowing for more flexible working hours and saving time by avoiding the daily commute.
A global, mutual economic slowdown should enable the planet some time to continue healing as we’ve seen happening in recent months with the ozone layer’s miraculous recovery. This all will lead to more time to travel, and a more localised approach to the way we do things.
It won’t necessarily mean that that trip to Thailand will never happen, but that it may be a once in a lifetime adventure as opposed to an annual holiday, whilst long weekends out to Europe become oh so much more frequent!
However, there are a lot of complications to make this utopia a reality. Big business has a lot of stake in the oil and airline industries, and will not give them it without a fight.
Short and medium-term social distancing measures make capacity onboard trains half their usual, and thus the risk of higher fares loom. While fear of contagion continues, the perceived safety of one’s own personal vehicle will be a mighty temptress in our battle for greener travel post lockdown. And already familiar to those yellow fever-stricken countries, ‘immunity passports’ of some form are bound to take off to minimise further outbreaks in the future.
The Schengen Zone will likely maintain most of its free movement of people when safe to do so, but how the likely responsible 14-day quarantines will operate is hard to say at this point.
There’s already talk of ‘safe travel corridors’ for countries with similarly well-contained outbreaks such as Denmark, Austria, Greece and New Zealand, and even ideas of reciprocal tourism arrangements with countries equivalently badly hit, such as Spain and Italy.
However, at least at first, international rail travel will suffer hugely; it’s just not yet safe to run services between regions with different rates of infection, and so what very little tourism may take place this summer could well be picked up by the few airlines that have clung on through.
- What are your travel plans for the future looking like?
All this being said, I’m ecstatic by the ‘free pass’ I’ve been given to explore more locally.
Restricted to the province of Granada until July, there are so many adventures to be had at my doorstep, and the same can be said of so many of us; though we’ve just always failed to see it! The idea that holidays and adventures only exist at the arse end of a long haul flight is just bollocks.
Now, more than ever, we’re all desperate to get out and explore, though where we can go is severely limited. But that’s okay! There’s plenty of time for some broader adventures in the future and for now, maybe these mini-trips and mini-adventures can remind us what’s really important in our travels. It’s not just about the country and landmark checklist, it’s about getting out and seeing new things!
I’ve already got far too many routes bubbling to the surface, from a through-hike across the Sierra Nevada (while the snow’s still around I hope!) and a trail connecting the various villages of the Alpujarras, to some day rides by bike down to the coast and to various little pueblos I’ve always intended to visit.
One arm of the Camino de Santiago trail passes through Granada too! If I can sneak across to neighbouring provinces in the coming weeks or months, I’ve pegged out a 130km converted railway line to cycle from Jaén, and a stunning hiking trail from Ronda through the mountains to Tarifa.
I’d originally planned to amble my way up to Mallorca this summer, to take some sailing courses and network there, in search of a boat and crew with whom I’d cross the Atlantic Ocean in November in order to begin my next odyssey through South and Central America.
My ‘back-up’ was to salvage the Middle Eastern tour I had to cancel last year due to visa restraints and navigate what I can safely, en route to Central Asia and its nefarious ‘Stans! Though immunity passports of some form, I imagine, will hinder such a backup. Let’s see how things unravel.
I can’t thank Dan enough for sharing all of his incredible knowledge with me. He’s been a real inspiration to me, and I can’t wait to use his tips to discover more of our beautiful planet, once it’s safe to do so.
For more from him, here are all of his online homes:
Listen to his beautiful album here: