Ben’s Strategy Blog: Flight Free
In Ben's latest strategy blog he uses his experience as a seasoned 'train-setter' to look at why, and give practical tips of how, to travel Flight Free.
I pledged to go ‘Flight free 2020’ recently – it’s a campaign to get 100,000 people pledging to do the same in the UK and beyond. Creative Carbon Scotland has a general ‘no flight’ policy. Interestingly, ‘flightshame‘ is now so common in Sweden that an orchestra is banning conductors and soloists from travelling by plane to get to them, so we’re not alone. I’ve seldom flown in the last few years so it’s no big deal for me, but people are amazed that you can travel – even live! – without flying. So here are a few thoughts about how to do it.
Don’t travel at all!
Of course the first thing to do is question whether you need to travel at all: would a phone call, video conference or email do the trick? Or a holiday nearer to home? Travel wastes lots of time, is tiring, is quite often rather boring and lonely, is never risk-free and is environmentally unfriendly. It may be flattering to be asked to speak at that event or seem crucial to attend that conference, but consider whether it’s really time well spent. We’ve delivered talks by recorded video in the last few months.
There’s a lot of talk about the importance of artists making international connections, but Mozart, Shakespeare and Caravaggio, to name a few dead white men, seemed to do pretty well despite travelling a lot less than we do today. And will a holiday including a long trip to Turkey be better than renting a house in the hills or by the coast in Scotland? To coin a phrase, ‘Is your journey really necessary?’
Everyone always says that trains are so expensive compared to flying or driving. Well, it’s not necessarily the case. Depending on where you’re going and when, you may need to do a bit more planning, but not always. However, you do need to know some tricks.
Travelling in the UK, buying a ticket to your final destination can be very pricey but splitting the journey can make it much cheaper. For example, going to my parents’ in Shropshire near Craven Arms always involves a change in Crewe. Advance tickets to Crewe, plus a standard ticket from Crewe to Craven Arms work out much cheaper than a through ticket. Even booking today Thurs 27 June for Monday 1 July, so not far ahead, a through ticket will be £177.45 one way, while booking an Advance Single to Crewe is as cheap as £33 and the ticket from Crewe to Craven Arms is £22.70. It’s worth splashing out on an ‘anytime’ ticket from Crewe, just in case your first train is a bit late, but if you’re happy to take the risk you can go even cheaper and buy another Advance for £15.50. So instead of paying £177.45 you will pay about £50.
There’s a website https://www.splityourticket.co.uk/ that will do this work for you but it charges a small fee and it’s easy to do yourself: just book the first ticket then most rail company websites invite you to ‘book another ticket’ before you pay, so you get it all in one transaction. By the way, I always use LNER.co.uk to book my tickets as it doesn’t charge fees and is pretty straightforward. All train company websites offer the same trains and same prices (except Raileasy – see Europe below).
Booking to London needn’t be so pricey either. Edinburgh to London trains booked today to travel on Monday go from £70 upwards for an Advance ticket with city centre to city centre journey times of about 4 ½ hours and trains every 30 minutes. Air travel + getting to the airport + security + boarding + getting out of the airport + getting into town will take you about the same time and at today’s price, Easyjet will cost you £61 at the lowest, flying to Stansted, and you’ll have to pay to get to/from the airport at each end, plus any baggage costs.
Get a railcard
If you are travelling in the UK regularly with someone else, or sometimes even for one long journey, get a Two Together Railcard. You don’t even need to be friends! £30 for two for a year gets you 33% off most tickets. You need to travel together but you don’t have to have the card when you buy, as long as you have it when you travel.
Time – and not wasting it
By the way, driving to Craven Arms takes about the same time and is maybe 300 miles: at 50 miles a gallon that’s about 30 litres of petrol, say £33. But that doesn’t take into account the wear and tear of your car or the hours of time you’ve wasted. If you’re sharing a car with others it obviously makes it much cheaper (although almost as much of a time-waster). And four people travelling in a small car is actually pretty carbon-efficient, so feel free to do that!
If you’re going further afield to Europe, the website you need is www.seat61.com. This will tell you just about everything you need to know. It’s a bit dense, but it’s worth the read. Choose the country you’re going to and it will tell you about the routes, the timings, the prices and where to buy tickets etc. Most of the information assumes you’re travelling from London, so remember to factor in the Scotland-London trip in times and prices.
The site for buying tickets to most places is www.raileurope.com, but Seat61 may direct you for particular offers to Deutsche Bahn for trips to Germany, or to other operators for night trains etc, so read the details.
Eurostar, booking alerts and Raileasy
One thing to remember is that Eurostar tickets can be expensive, especially for trains that weekenders are likely to use, and they go on sale long before most European tickets. You can buy the Eurostar ticket separately early and so cheaply, but the advantage of a through ticket to your final destination is that if your Eurostar (or any other train) is late, you’ll be put on to the next one at no cost, whereas if you have separate tickets they may not be so obliging. Use the ‘booking alert’ system on raileurope.com to hear when tickets are available.
If you want to book your European trip but advance tickets for the UK leg aren’t yet available so you can’t get a cheap through ticket, here’s a crucial tip: www.raileasy.co.uk is the only place to sell tickets to ‘London International (CIV)’. What this means is that if your train from Scotland to London is delayed and you miss the Eurostar check in, you’re entitled to get on the next one and any subsequent trains. And similarly you can book from London International (CIV) and your ticket is valid for any train within 24 hours of your arrival on the Eurostar. Prices can be surprisingly good. Raileasy charges a booking fee but it’s worth it as you can book your cheap Eurostar/European tickets early knowing that you’ll be able to book an advance ticket to/from London later on with the confidence that you can manage any delays.
One thing to think about is whether it makes sense to do a stopover. When one of the Creative Carbon Scotland team and I had to go to Brussels for our EU project, she stopped over in London and saw an old friend while I went to see some family in Kent and got the Eurostar from Ebbsfleet. We both did a full day’s work on Tuesday, had a good evening and a good sleep and arrived in Brussels on time and relaxed. Colleagues from another Scottish company got up at 3:30am to catch the early flight, slept badly, were knackered at the meeting and had a lot less fun!
Hotels in London can be awful and expensive but check out the Hub by Premier Inn five minutes’ walk from King’s Cross and 10 from St Pancras International which has nice, modern rooms fairly cheaply and a decent breakfast for £5. And Premier Inn has fairly good environmental credentials, too.
Sometimes the recommended itineraries on Seat61.com don’t work if you’re coming from Scotland unless you stopover in London, but look at your itinerary and think about stopping in Paris – always cheaper and it has a certain je ne sais quoi, too. Brussels can be pricey, but you can get to Bordeaux, Strasbourg or various other places on the way to points south and east where you can have a good cheap sleep and be on your way the next day. Strasbourg has a cathedral that’s well worth visiting and cheap Ibis hotels right next to the station, Bordeaux is a pleasant place with no end of places to stay and eat: why not enjoy the travel? Use Booking.com to find a decent hotel near the station you’re leaving from in the morning and then book the hotel direct if you can – often better prices and better for the hotel.
Caledonian Sleeper and checking in for Eurostar
I used to recommend catching the sleeper to London, but it has become very expensive since it had a makeover: gone are the happy days of the £19 Bargain Berths! It might be worth it, but I’d check the price of the Hub hotel first. Note that the sleeper usually gets you in by about 7.30, but it can run a bit late so leave a good margin. Check-in for the Eurostar at St Pancras is a good 15 minutes’ walk away from Euston where the sleeper arrives, and you need to leave at least 45 minutes in my experience, preferably a bit longer (post Brexit update: I have no idea how long it might take now…).
By contrast, King’s Cross, where the East Coast trains arrive, is about two minutes from the Eurostar check-in desks. (Exit at the front of King’s Cross and turn right and head slightly away from the busy Euston Road, cross the smaller road and take the large side entrance into St Pancras International and you’re there.)
No need to stop
But you may not have to stop over. Catriona and I went to Dusseldorf in February. The train journey took about 11 ½ hours door to door and it was solid good work/relaxing time: easy connections, good wi–fi all the way, no hassles. And if you can book in advance it’s not so expensive: booking today, Glasgow to Paris in early September will cost you about £100 city centre to city centre and takes eight hours. Easyjet will cost you a minimum of £54 plus getting to and from the airports etc. It takes two hours in the air, but add another 2 ½ hours at least for checking in etc. And the time will be stressful and wasted hanging around in queues rather than working or relaxing on the train. (Booking today for next week the prices are pretty much the same for train and plane.)
Of course if you have a railcard it will reduce the price a bit – but it only applies to the UK leg.
One other useful thing to know is that InterRail, that thing you did when you were young and impoverished, has modernised and is now both available and feasible for all of us. It’s worth looking at the Seat61 InterRail page, as it explains it pretty well, but a few key things to know are:
- It will cover your journey from within the UK as well as the European bits, but only to the Eurostar and back
- You will have to pay supplements to go on the Eurostar (£28.50 each way), some high speed trains, sleepers etc, but they generally don’t add up to much and get you the reserved seat
- The total including supplements may well be cheaper or at least not much more expensive than the point to point tickets, and it gives you more flexibility and allows you to book later
- You can get passes that cover 3 or 5 days, so they may be good for longer and more complicated journeys, like the ones we’re taking to Sweden in November for our EU project Cultural Adaptations
- You can get a first class one if it takes your fancy!
So do the calculations and see whether it works out better or more convenient. You could even do a little side trip if you have an extra day of travel free. And let us know: I haven’t actually used an InterRail pass yet, although I think I will in the summer.
To sum up, here are a few things to think about:
- Planning – book early;
- Planning – check whether it’s really more expensive
- Split tickets if in the UK; use Raileasy if you can book the Eurostar early
- Consider all costs: getting to and from airports, baggage
- Consider timings – trains may be more frequent so no extra overnights etc
- Would an InterRail pass be better value or more convenient for complicated journeys?
- Consider all time-costs: getting to and from airports; check in, hanging around uselessly
- Consider timings – fewer flights so you may need to arrive or leave too early or be hanging around until late
- Consider work time – is the time more useful on the train for work/rest/research than on a plane, in airports, in transit, in queues?
And finally, if travelling both ways by train seems too big an ask, why not go one way by train and return by plane for your next trip? You’ll almost halve the carbon emissions and you’ll get the hang of it. Soon you may become an ardent Flight Free Fan like me!
Flight Free UK is a people-powered campaign which asks people to agree not to fly in the year of 2020 – knowing that 100,000 others have pledged to do the same. It’s about taking collective responsibility to reduce the amount we fly in order to lessen our impact on the planet. If you’re not in the UK you can find campaigns in Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Canada or start your own!