Sustainable travel: flying, driving, or taking the train?

What is the most sustainable transportation option? The answer to this question seems obvious. We all know that travelling by airplane is the worst option and travelling by train the best option, right? It is however a bit more nuanced than that. To my own surprise, travelling by car in some cases produces more CO2 than travelling by airplane! And did you know that taking the ferry is even more sustainable than hopping on a train? In this blog post, I give clear insights into which travel option to choose for your next sustainable travel adventure.

Since the term ‘flight shame’ was introduced in 2018, originating in Sweden, more people started to become aware of their personal impact on the environment by flying to multiple destinations per year. As a result, people committed themselves to fly less or even declare a whole year flight free. Annually, the aviation industry produces around 2% of the global CO2 output. Looking at the CO2 production from flying per capita, especially in higher-income countries, the individual contribution can be quite high. For example, in most Western European Countries, the United States and Canada, the average person is responsible for a CO2 output between 500 and 800 kg per year.

However, to my surprise, a little investigation showed that flying is not always the worst option when it comes to CO2 output. In some cases travelling by car produces more CO2 for the same destination. For example, if I were to travel by myself from Amsterdam, the Netherlands to Valencia, Spain, travelling via air would produce 311 kg of CO2 per person. Travelling by car on the other hand would lead to a CO2 output of 410 kg of C02 per person. While it is not very likely that you will drive almost 2000 km by yourself,  for destinations that are relatively close,  the impact of flying and driving is almost equal. For example, if we look at destinations that are around 500 km away, which is only a 5-hour drive (for example Amsterdam – Paris), it shows the CO2 impact of flying and car hardly differ with around 120-130kg of CO2. This shows that air travel is not the only ‘bad guy’ and that we should be careful to assume that travelling by car is always the more sustainable option.

Driving by car
Despite car travel not always being the most sustainable option, in most cases it does lead to the least C02 production per person. In the first place because by choosing car travel as your mode of transportation, you automatically opt for destinations that are closer to home. You most likely won’t travel to the other side of the world by car, so if you are choosing between destinations based on what is possible by car, you will automatically end up with the more sustainable option. If you have already picked your destination and are deciding between car or air travel, when travelling by yourself, it might not be the most sustainable option to choose for the car. However, all of this changes quickly when you add more passengers (and more fun!) to the trip. Travelling with a party of two or more per car always leads to a lower carbon footprint per person. With only two people the difference is not that big, especially not for destinations that are between 1500 – 2000 km away but starting from three people per car you really make a difference! Short on travel pals? Take a look at initiatives such as BlaBlaCar and see if you can add some travellers to your trip. By doing so, you reduce that carbon footprint of your trip even more while receiving some money for petrol while you are at it.

The absolute winners: bus, train and… ferry!
Probably you already know this: taking the bus or train is the most sustainable option no matter where you are travelling (given that not every destination can be travelled to by train of course). But did you already know that taking the ferry is an even more sustainable option when available? (Not to be confused with a cruise which is the worst polluter of all!). By choosing either of these transportation options you will reduce your carbon footprint with up to 90% (!) per trip. Unsure about which option is best for your trip? Have a look at EcoPassenger (for EU destinations) for a personalised calculation. Of course, the availability of these transportation options is highly dependent on your geographic location. Trains are generally more common at European destinations but buses can be found almost anywhere. It sometimes takes longer than flying, but not always – especially if you also calculate waiting time and transportation to and from the airport. It sometimes costs more, but there are times when taking the train or bus is actually cheaper. So why not explore your options and take some responsibility for your impact on the environment?

To some it up, as a rule of thumb: choose destinations that you can travel to by bus, train or ferry. If these options are not available to you, choose to travel by car, preferably with two or more people to destinations that are between 500 and 1500 km. If you decide to travel to a destination that cannot be reached via ground travel, avoid layovers (each one adds approximately 100kg of CO2), fly economy class and, consider offsetting your carbon footprint.

CO2 output per km per travel mode. Sources can be found here and here, via EcoReizen