Living without Air Travel

At the end of my long hike in Southern California, I was trying to work out a way to get to a place which had Greyhound and/or Amtrak service so I could get home. I had assumed this would involve going to the City of San Diego (I was wrong; I ended up in Oceanside instead, which was fine). There was a woman who was helping me try to get a ride. Even though I ~never~ said that I wanted to go to San Diego Airport, when she was making phone calls, she said multiple times that I needed to get to ‘San Diego Airport’ and I had to keep correcting her. It was only after she heard me have a conversation with someone else about how I do not do air travel that she finally understood that I was not going to the airport.

What impressed me was that a) she assumed that I was going to the airport and b) it was so hard to correct her. It was as if she could not imagine any other way I could get from San Diego to San Francisco without a car (even though the bus/train connections between San Diego and San Francisco are remarkably good by the standards of the western North America).

And it was not just her. There were so many people during my hike who assumed I was going to travel from San Diego to San Francisco by air, and it was remarkably difficult to correct this assumption. And last year, when I hiked into Canada, a lot of people were astonished that I was not going to ‘fly out of Vancouver’. Last year, I explained that I was not going to fly out of Vancouver because it was illegal (which was true – I could not have legally boarded any flight in Canada), but even if it had been legal, I would not have flown.

Let me explain why I no longer go in airplanes.

When I returned to North America in late 2014 (by airplane), I made a vow: I would never use air travel again for non-urgent reasons. An example of a possible urgent situation where I would consider air travel is: my uncle is in the hospital, he’s over a thousand miles away, and somebody needs to care for him. What would not count as an urgent situation: visiting friends or family when they are not in crisis (do weddings or funerals count as urgent? I’ll decide that on a case-by-case basis, but in most cases, the answer is going to be ‘no’).

At first, I did it partially because of environmental reasons (though I have since discovered that comparing the environmental impact of airplanes vs. other modes of transit is complicated and in some situations substituting a flight with a train ride does not make much difference, but that’s a topic for another post, UPDATE: I’ve written that post). However, I also do not like travelling in airplanes anyway, whereas I love trains. I do not love buses, but I would rather spend a lot of time in buses than a lot of time in airplanes.

Sometimes people ask if I will ever return to East Asia. I sometimes answer ‘maybe’ but a more honest answer is ‘probably not’. I doubt I will ever have an urgent reason to go back to East Asia, and I also do not think I will ever want to go badly enough to undertake a trans-Pacific boat voyage.

A lot of people over the years have told me that New Zealand is awesome, and that I would love New Zealand. I believe that New Zealand is awesome, and I think I probably would love to travel there – but I cannot imagine it being worth an extra-long trans-Pacific boat voyage. When I tell people I’m not considering New Zealand because of the long flight, most of them assume it’s the expense, and nod their heads. A few people then say ‘but it’s only [x] number of hours’, and even when I tell them that I don’t like long flights, they still insist the flight is not a big deal. I’ve never tried to explain that I’ve given up on non-urgent air travel.

I have discovered that, aside from the fact that being stuck in train stations/trains is way better than being stuck in airports/airplanes, that there is another, subtler benefit to cutting air travel out of my life.

I have much more appreciation of just how big North America is. And I experience more of what is in between my starting and ending points are when I go by bus or train than when I fly. I have a much better sense of all of the places between Chicago and San Francisco because I went by train than I would have if I had flown from Chicago to San Francisco (I got to go through the Rocky Mountains in winter!) Heck, I got to know the coach car attendant (we were both on the same train for three days) way better than I’ve gotten to know any flight attendant (on Amtrak, conductors and engineers take shifts, and are allowed to get off the train when their shift ends, so the conductor will keep on changing every 8 hours or so, but the attendants are required to stay on the train from start to finish, even if it takes 3 days).

And because I am basically charging myself an inconvenience penalty for travel, I savor the travel more. Instead of dreaming about visiting distant countries, I am getting to know the United States (and North America) way better than I ever did before I gave up air travel. And I am discovering more wonderful places right here in California which I may not have otherwise considered visiting.

It does not bother me that some people prefer air travel. What does bother me is how so many North Americans find it so difficult to conceive of someone covering long distances in North America without an airplane or car. It’s that assumption that I am going to the airport and ‘fly out’ or whatever. I am surprised by how prevalent this attitude is even among long-distance hikers, who know something about slow travel (though there are also a lot of long-distance hikers who are totally into trains – I have been surprised by how many long-distance hikers I’ve met on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line).

My goal for this post is not to convince anybody to give up air travel. My goal for this post is to help people grasp the concept of travelling a lot without airplanes (or cars) in the 21st century.

8 thoughts on “Living without Air Travel

    • I don’t actually know what that is like, since I have never lived in a city/town where I did not get around a lot by means other than cars (even when I lived in Mountain View, I often got around without a car).

  1. I long ago got into the habit of making the trip between eastern and southern Ontario (a distance of about 400 miles) by train rather than plane. In fact, I’m generally of the opinion that if you can get there by train in under a day, you probably should. It’s more comfortable and environmentally friendly, and even though trains travel slower you spend less time boarding and disembarking than you do by plane.

    Longer trips are trickier. I agree that seeing more of the country is an advantage. I once took the train from Vancouver to Ottawa, and, even though we didn’t make many stops, it was still a good way to see some scenery and get a sense of how “Canada’s Really Big”! Still, it was four days without showering or sleeping in a bed (as a hiker, that might have been less of a hardship for you!) and it was quite expensive, so it’s definitely not my preferred way to cross the country.

    I’ve crossed the pacific multiple times, but, like you, I doubt I’ll ever go back to east Asia. I worry about the environmental impact, and, even though there are places I’d like to return to and people I’d like to see, I don’t think I have a compelling enough reason to go. I *might* consider taking a boat, but a) I get seasick, and b) do passenger ships even still exist in this age of air travel???

    I can’t say I’ve encountered the anti-train (or anti-non-air-travel) bias that much in Canada – at least, not for travelling within a province. I was, however, quite surprised by the lack of a train culture in Australia. Even between relatively proximate cities like Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne (about 500 miles apart) train service is limited and the norm is to fly.

    • There are currently no passenger ships on the Pacific (I think there is a passenger ship that runs from New York to Southampton in the UK), but some cargo ships accept passengers. It’s expensive (you have to pay for all of your meals and the use of officers’ quarters for the voyage). It would also be an especially difficult way to get from North America to New Zealand (first of all, it’s a very long distance, and second, there are many cargo ships going to East Asia; not so many cargo ships go to New Zealand).

      I would like to ride that train across Canada one day, though I would probably make at least a couple layovers rather than go the whole way in one go. I did Chicago -> San Francisco, which is the longest passenger train in the USA, and it takes 3 days and 2 nights. That was a bit much for me. I can tolerate one night in coach class, but two nights in a row is rough. Sleeping in coach class is definitely less comfortable than sleeping on flat ground inside a tent/tarp with your own bedding, and the lack of showers is more of a problem when you are in a crowded train than when you are in the open woods. In the USA, sleeping cars have both beds and showers, but they are expensive, and coach class passengers aren’t allowed to use the showers even if they are on the same train (I suppose one reason the sleeping car fares are so high is that they cover the cost of carrying enough water to operate showers on the train). Does that train across Canada lack sleeping cars, or did you just go coach class to save money?

      I took an overnight ferry from Japan to South Korea, and there were communal baths on the ferry. I was impressed. Thus I can say that I have taken a bath while crossing international water. The ferry from Okinawa to Kagoshima (one of the longest ferry routes in Japan) also offers showers. I guess it is easier to operate showers on boats than on trains since boats can be much bigger and carry more weight. It’s also more comfortable to sleep on Japanese or Taiwanese ferries, even with second class or third class tickets, than to sleep on a coach car on a train (in Taiwan, even the 2nd class passengers on the overnight ferries can get a small bed for sleeping).

      • That’s interesting about travelling on cargo ships.

        Yeah, the trans-Canada train does have sleeping cars, but the tickets were a lot more expensive – maybe twice as expensive? – than travelling coach. And coach was already more expensive than air travel. I can see how getting off and breaking up the trip might make it more pleasant. The train didn’t make a lot of stops, but we did stop in Jasper (AB), Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and one northern Ontario town. Possibly also in Edmonton or Calgary. Lots of mountains in Alberta and lots of forest in Ontario. šŸ™‚

      • And that is why I don’t ride the sleeping cars. Some people justify paying the sleeping car fares by saying that it includes dining car meals (at least in the USA, I don’t know about Canada), but the dining car meals are also very expensive – I ate dining car meal for the experience, but otherwise just take my own food on the train because it is so much cheaper. If there were an option to get the sleeping car but without the meals, that might tempt me. And I’ve heard that it is sometimes possible to reach informal agreements with conductors about using sleeping car rooms without getting the meals or paying the full sleeping car fare, but I have not tried that yet (I once got seated in the business class car due to an informal agreement with the conductor, though I did not get the other perks of business class – and I had only paid for coach class).

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