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Should We Stop Flying As Sustainable Travelers?

written by Samantha Anthony March 8, 2019
Should We Stop Flying As Sustainable Travelers?

There’s a trend going around of sustainable travel bloggers and other influencers that stop flying.

While we completely respect that, we aren’t one of them.

In this article, we’ll look at why we are not quitting flying (entirely). However, first we’d like to quickly look at why flying is so problematic to begin with.

Why is Flying Bad?

In a nutshell, flying produces a massive amount of carbon emissions. In a time when climate change is a crucial issue, it’s paramount that each of us take responsibility for our personal carbon footprint.

If you’re a frequent traveler who flies a lot, then your carbon footprint is likely astronomical. (Calculate your footprint here).

Consider that a roundtrip transatlantic flight emits around 2 tons and then compare that to the global average of 4.9 tons emitted per person per year – just in that one flight you’ve used up over half! In most African and Asian countries (China being a huge outlier as the #1 polluter), an individual doesn’t even reach 1 ton of emissions per year.

If you’re a data nerd, you can check out this list put out by World Bank on carbon emissions per country and per capita.

But the US contributes the second largest amount of emissions to the atmosphere at around 16-17 tons per person, over 14% of all emissions. And considering Americans fly a lot and American airlines have an abysmal carbon footprint, there is a lot of room for improvement both in the American lifestyle and in American corporations.

Ok. So now that we are on the same page about just how detrimental flying is for the environment…how can we possibly say that we aren’t going to stop flying? And while we encourage people to reduce their flights, why aren’t we telling others to stop flying?

There’s no doubt about it: the constant flying that privileged travelers do needs to be reduced. We just don’t believe that urging everyone to stop flying is a realistic solution.

There are several factors at work, but keep this in mind throughout the article: sustainable, responsible travel isn’t exclusively about emissions. Yes, this of course plays a major part. But there are other things to consider when talking about sustainable travel.

Most People* Won’t Stop Flying

*Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: when we talk about people, we are talking about the privileged travelers and inhabitants of developed countries that have the means to travel at all. Aka those that are reading this article. And as we’ll discuss later, we’re not saying to fly somewhere every weekend. Excessive flying is definitely a problem. We’re just not sure that it’s realistic to call for a flying ban. *

We admire and applaud people who can completely ban flights. We’re not hating on people who have stopped flying. In fact, we thank them because they’ve started this conversation!

There are many different ways of sparking conversation online. Everyone has a different approach and everyone identifies with something or someone different. A public figure who has vowed not to fly and speaks up about why might inspire others to do so or cut down their flights. So we aren’t diminishing the impact that anti-flyers can have.

HOWEVER.

That’s not our approach. We prefer practicality and solutions for people who aren’t ready or can’t (for reasons we’ll discuss below) quit flying. Also, we practice what we preach. We aren’t going to stop flying entirely right now (again, for reasons we’ll get to below). So obviously we’re not going tell others to do so.

We’d rather open a discussion about how to travel more mindfully (which does include reducing flights) rather than simply tell people they need to stop. Quitting flying seems insurmountable and impossible for most travelers. Many people will relegate this into the category of “That’s for hardcore zero waste/sustainable travelers and doesn’t apply to me.”

If you think that this isn’t how most people think, let’s apply this to another topic that is near and dear to our hearts: veganism.

(Quick aside for those who might not be familiar with the impact of the animal agriculture industry on our environment: this industry is one of the biggest polluters in terms of carbon emissions, responsible for huge amounts of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, plastic pollution of the oceans, and so much more. Read this article in the Guardian to learn more: Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.)

We have talked to many people who don’t want to or can’t go vegan for whatever reason. Instead of reducing their animal product consumption, they just wrote off veganism as something that didn’t apply to them and thus wasn’t something they needed to think critically about.

We completely respect that many people can’t or don’t want to go entirely vegan. We acknowledge that there might be many factors outside of someone’s control that prevents them from going vegan. However, the fact is that the animal industry is harming our environment in a massive way. And you can still have an impact just by reducing your consumption.

The so-called “reducitarians” have a huge positive impact on the environment, the lives of the animals they spare, their own health, and the people around them. It’s not an either-or situation.

Reducing our impact applies to many lifestyles.

We share the same attitude toward zero waste. While zero waste is a nice ideal to strive for, it’s simply not possible in today’s world. But that doesn’t mean we don’t or cannot strive to continually reduce our waste and make more sustainable life choices. That doesn’t mean that we don’t or can’t have an impact.

Read more: Eco-Friendly Packing List

The reality is that most people won’t be able to quit flying at the drop of the hat.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Renfe train in Spain
Doesn’t mean we don’t prefer to travel overland whenever we can!

Travel Can Change Your Worldview

We are incredibly privileged to have traveled to many countries and to have lived abroad for several years.

Our experiences abroad have opened our eyes to how people live in other parts of the world.

We’ve lived in other cultures and know that not everyone has the same way of life or priorities. We’ve witnessed firsthand the effects of overtourism and environmental destruction caused by human activity. Experiencing these things has driven our desire to create this blog. We’ve been inspired to share what we’ve learned with others on how to live and travel more sustainably.

But the catch is – if we had never traveled, we never would have reached that conclusion.

So we’re not going to tell others who haven’t traveled as much that they should stop flying.

It’s easy to quit flying once you’ve been to dozens of countries.

But what about the people who haven’t? If you’re fortunate enough to be a frequent traveler, imagine you had never been to any of those places?

Would you really take them back from yourself? Would you be the same person if you hadn’t traveled?

Traveling can give us a better appreciation for nature, other cultures, and our fellow humans.

Key word: can.

We’ve definitely met frequent travelers who have clearly not reflected on their experiences. Mostly these people are fast travelers who zoom from place to place without ever taking in the local culture and comparing that to their own life experience and privilege – something difficult to do if you’ve only spent a few days per destination.

This is why we are such big advocates for slow travel.

Read more: What is Slow Travel and How To Do It?
Slowly exploring small town America.

Flying to Developing Countries Can Have a Positive Impact on Communities

The economies of many developing or underdeveloped countries rely massively on tourism. What if people stop flying to these places? Their economies would decline even further.

Sustainable travel operators Earth Changers has a fantastic article talking about exactly this and how sustainable tourism is about a multi-faceted endeavor. Remember that how we get there is only one part of travel.

It’s important to be mindful about our travel – yes. That should go without saying in an article on sustainable travel.

But impact travel can be an important force for change. Travelers can have a positive benefit on the communities they visit (of course, with proper research and always leaving the “white savior” complex at home).

Perhaps instead of earning a living in a factory or mine, locals in Southeast Asia can conduct tours teaching traditional crafts, such as textile weaving. Or open a hospitality business such as a guest house, restaurant, or massage studio. Read more about responsible travel experiences on Roaming the Americas.

This is an incredibly salient point to be aware of as the possibilities are endless for economies to grow with tourism.

For travelers who recommend quitting flying, I’d wonder what replacement economy they have for these destinations that are highly dependent on tourism.

St. Croix, US Virgin Islands – a place that heavily relies on tourism and could use year-round, sustainable tourism

Location, Location, Location

All of the bloggers who we have seen stop flying are based in Europe. There, distances are MUCH shorter and public transportation is way more developed than places like the United States or Australia. I’ve never seen a fellow American taking a flying ban, though feel free to let us know if you know one who has in the comments below.

Most Brits I know grew up holidaying in Spain and France, and are used to having an entire continent of different cultures at their fingertips. It’s easy for Europeans to stop flying because they can still take a train to Paris. Or a ferry to Spain or Ireland. Or a bus to beautiful Scotland. While at first it can be hard to say goodbye to budget flights, stopping flying for a European does not mean stopping the exploration of other places and cultures.

It can be hard for most Europeans to relate to Americans travel habits for a few reasons. I say this as an American who has spent years of my life in Europe. My maternal grandparents were Hungarian and Austrian, so we visited family and friends across Europe growing up. I also lived for three years of my adult life in Spain.

Read more: Why We Moved to Madrid

So this isn’t hating on Europeans – we love and are jealous of you guys. It’s just a difference of perspective and circumstance.

Most Europeans have way more vacation days than Americans, who might get a paltry 2 weeks off IF YOU’RE LUCKY. Americans are overworked AS FUCK. We’ve grown up conditioned to do so. Read this viral article if you don’t believe me. So try telling an American living in Idaho not to go on their European vacation that they’ve been looking forward to the entire year or sometimes many years.  

Square in Biarritz, France
Seaside French charm in Biarritz, France

It’s also hard for Europeans to grasp the sheer size of the U.S.

For example: in the vegan travel Facebook group that I admin, a European recently asked for recommendations for his 10 day trip in the U.S. His plan was to fly into NYC, spend a day or two there, travel through the deep south, ACROSS THE COUNTRY by bus, and then spend time in LA.

In 10 days.

*Cue all Americans reading this article spitting out their coffee*

And this is not the first time we’ve heard similar suggestions.

Combine sheer size with shitty overland public transportation (train travel is a joke in the US), and you’ve got a lot of people for whom it’s going to be difficult to cut flying out of their lives if they ever want to travel.

This is not to say that we don’t encourage domestic travel for Americans. As much as there is A LOT (and we mean a lot – have you seen the news lately?) that can be improved about the US, there’s a lot of beauty here too.

Epic waterfalls in Ithaca, New York.

We have been slowly traveling around the US since June of 2018. The national parks system is an incredible resource and one that our government needs to take better care of. This country is incredibly diverse and many traveling Americans prefer to take an international flight than explore their own backyard, which we think is a real shame. (I used to be there so I completely understand).

If Americans took time to get to know those living in other States (like tiny countries sometimes when you compare them), maybe we’d have more solidarity and less individualist mentalities that are preventing us from enjoying things Europeans take for granted, like public healthcare and a government that actually cares about them. It’s common among East and West Coasters to call the middle of the country “flyover states.” That’s the majority of the country and there’s a lot more to it than simply a space to fy over.

Read more from top travel blogger (and fellow American) Nomadic Matt on 9 Things He Learned Driving Across the US.

I think you get my point: it’s much easier for Europeans to eschew flying without missing on exploring countries with vastly different cultures and histories.

Another reason why many people will be unable to quit flying is because…

Flying for Work (It’s Not That Easy to Stop Flying)

Again, a lot of the people taking flying bans work for themselves or online. They can afford to take longer getting places. And while more and more people are working online and/or for themselves these days, us digital nomads are still in the extreme minority. We have tremendous luxury to have much more control over our time than most.

Try telling your boss that you are no longer going to be meeting with clients because you have taken a flying ban. Then see how long you keep your job.

If you currently travel for work, while you might be able to reduce your travel, you probably won’t be able to get out of every work obligation that requires flying. Luckily, more and more companies are recognizing the benefits of video conferencing over in person meetings. If you have to fly a lot for work, it might be worth talking to your boss to see if you can reduce your work flying. It’ll save them a ton of money too!

Another key thing to remember here is that work flights are considered part of your employer’s footprint, not yours. Even the World Wildlife Fund says so in their footprint calculator. So even if you can’t talk your employer into sending you on less work trips, don’t sweat it too much. A lot of the changes required to shift climate change can happen at an individual level, but where we’ll start seeing real change is when corporations start adopting environmentally friendly policies.

So yes, by all means talk to your employer. But don’t beat yourself up about it if you still need to fly a lot for work. If you enjoy your job but fly a lot, it’s way better for your health and wellbeing (as well as those around you) than working a job you hate but that requires no flying.

Working from Laptop
We’ve built a lifestyle where we can work from anywhere – but that’s not everyone!

So..What Can We Do as Sustainable Travelers?

First, read our 20 Sustainable Travel Tips for the Conscious Traveler

In the guide, we discuss the many ways you can reduce your negative impact and boost your positive impact while traveling.

Specifically in terms of carbon footprint (which is where flying has a huge impact), you can reduce yours in several ways:

Carbon offsetting: Offset the flights that you do take. This means contributing to a program that works to reduce greenhouse emissions. You can read more about them in our sustainable travel tips article where we go more in depth about this.

Eat less/no animal products: The animal industry actually has a bigger impact than the entire transportation industry combined. Reducing your consumption of animal products (especially beef and dairy) is a fantastic way to lower your carbon footprint. Read more in our article: The Biggest Thing You Can Do for the Environment Now.

Travel overland whenever possible: Of course we should all reduce our flights whenever we can. Stop short haul flights, especially when there’s a decent train alternative. Don’t fly somewhere for a weekend unless you really can’t avoid it (I flew to the States for a week for my grandmother’s funeral this year and while I’d never do that normally, I had zero regrets about going back to be with my family during this difficult time).

Explore your own backyard more: Instead of hopping on a plane every long weekend, how about going on one or two international trips a year and spend those shorter vacations closer to home? You’ll be surprised what fun you can get up to closer to home – plus you’ll save money, time, and the hassle of flying. Lesser known destinations close to home will benefit much more from your spending than flying to a place like Venice which is already buckling under too many tourists.

Hold Airlines Accountable: Ask airlines (social media or email work great) what they’re doing to reduce their environmental impact. Are they investing in biofuels or more efficient planes? Are they working to reduce plastic use? Support airlines that are committed to sustainable initiatives when you do fly.

Buy Secondhand: This goes for clothes, furniture, cars, anything. Avoid fast fashion.

Drive Less: If you can get around without a car, that’s great! We don’t own a car. However, a lot of people might be trying to make their lifestyle more sustainable, yet live in a place where having a car is unavoidable. If that’s the case, you can still reduce your driving. Don’t pop out to the store just to pick up one item, instead, combine your errands into a single day or on your commute home (instead of going out again). Carpool if possible!

Learn from others: Follow sustainable travel bloggers, use sustainable travel hashtags to connect with others, or join our Sustainable Vegan Travel Facebook group!

These are just a few examples of how to reduce your carbon footprint. Again, we go much more in-depth into these and other tips in our post: 20 Sustainable Trips for the Conscious Traveler, so be sure to read that!

It’s easy for a frequent traveler to say: “We’re stopping flying and you should too.”

What is more difficult is to actually understand where others are coming from and look at the nuances of the situation. Solving some of humanity’s biggest problems is not simply an either or situation, climate change included. Again, the people that fly frequently are a small percentage of the population. But it’s growing as the availability of budget flights increases.

We all need to reduce and be more responsible about our flights – that much is obvious and true. We intend to reduce our flights as much as possible and travel overland wherever we can – it’s much more fun, rewarding, and obviously way less of a carbon footprint. And for those who are able to stop flying – more power to you! However, we hope this article has provided for food for thought on the implications of a flying ban for most people (again, see above disclaimer on who we’re talking about here).

What do you think – have you or would you stop flying? What do you think about it?

Part of sustainable travel involves reducing our carbon emissions. Should we stop flying as eco-friendly travelers? We talk about our decision regarding flying in this post! #GreenTravel #sustainabletravel #ecotravel #ecofriendly
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Should we stop flying for the environment? As travelers advocating for sustainable travel and giving sustainable travel tips we think about this a lot. We've decided not to stop flying (entirely) for several reasons. Read on for this responsible travel reflection! 

#ResponsibleTravel #sustainabletravel  #ethicaltravel
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