Flying Versus Sailing – The Best Way From A to B

I have a deep loathing of flying, and not only from an environmental perspective, it’s the whole unedifying, dehumanising process of flying that depresses me.  From the arrival at the concrete monstrosity of the airport 3 to 4 hours before you intend to travel; through the endless monotonous queues that have people rifling through your  toiletries and then demanding you  take off your shoes; belt; jewelery and any other metal accoutrements you may have hanging from your person and finally the cramped, souless aircraft where you are doubtless sat next to someone with personal hygiene challenges and a bad cold. Yuk

I yearn for the days of glamorous, elegant travel by rail and sea where the getting there is as much fun as the holiday destination.  Where you arrive refreshed and rested after an enjoyable journey.  To this end I try to travel by alternative forms of transport (to the plane) as often as I can afford to (both in cost and time).  I have travelled through Europe by train and was fortunate enough to once take the Orient Express from Venice to London which gave me a taste for luxury, slow travel.

This year, after not indulging in a ‘long haul’ holiday for five years, I thought it would be an adventure to travel by sea across the Atlantic to the States.  At the time I didn’t really know if sailing there would be better or worse in carbon terms than taking the plane, but as it takes nearly a week and doubles up as a hotel, restaurant and all entertainment too, I thought it was worth the investment in carbon to try it out.

Happily though, I can report that crossing the ocean on a transatlantic liner is actually better for your carbon footrprint than flying London to New York!

Once onboard I enquired as to how much fuel was used on an average journey and was informed that an eye-watering 19 gallons of diesel a minute was consumed.  Over the period of the journey, for us it was just less than 6 lapsed days,  total diesel consumed was roughly 164,000 gallons.  The passenger capacity was about 2500 and the ship was nearly full.  All things being equal (and of course some passengers do have much bigger cabins than others), the footprint per passenger works out at about 800kgs of CO2 per crossing.  When compared to an economy flight from London to New York, this comes in at 930 kgs (using a 1.9 RFI uplift).  Hence you save over 100 kgs per journey.

Of course you cannot really compare a 6 day journey on an ocean liner to a 7 hour journey by plane, in any context.  The trip aboard ship was a holiday in itself and all food, energy and entertainment was fuelled by the total diesel consumed.  Whereas the flight is simply a 7 hour trial of endurance.  The crossing is obviously much more expensive than an economy flight to NY, but when you consider it includes 6 nights accomodation and meals, and is far more luxurious than turning right when you enter the aircraft, then it isn’t bad value.  It’s also probably cheaper than a business or first class air ticket.

So, from both a fun experience and carbon-saving point of view, I heartily recommend a sea crossing to the USA.  Try it some time.

However, this is not to say I am now recommending cruises as a sustainable form of holidaying.  The crossing is simply an alternative way for getting from A to B where train and/or bus is not an option.  Whereas a cruise usually involves a flight to get you to where the cruise leaves from, then a meander around coastlines to different parts of a country or continent, then a flight back home again.


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