Grounded for Good

A unique new website is building an online community of people helping each other travel the world without flying.

For many, cheap flights overseas are a guilty pleasure. Aircraft currently produce 4% of Europe’s CO2 emissions and recent research by Jeff Gazzard, of the Aviation Environment Federation, has found that aircraft emissions have up to 2.7 times more impact in the air than they do on the ground due to the delicate nature of the upper atmosphere.

When planes were grounded across Europe earlier this year, due to the ash cloud from Iceland’s volcanic eruption, people were forced to find an alternative route home over land and sea. During this period, Tom and Lorraine McMillan witnessed a 700% increase in visits to their website, which they founded in January. Although visitor levels normalised after the cloud passed, Tom believes people are falling out of love with flying.

“It used to be a luxury form of travel, but now all the focus is on cost, and not on customer service,” he explains. “With increased security checks and baggage restrictions, flying is becoming more and more of a drag. Trains, buses, ferries and cruises are on the whole getting cleaner, smarter and faster, so travelling by these modes is becoming an attractive option.”

The McMillans were inspired to create the website after trying to return home to Scotland with as little environmental impact as possible following 18 months abroad. They managed to get all the way from Singapore without taking to the sky; a journey across 14 countries that took 85 days, using 22 buses, 14 trains, 11 boats and numerous tuk tuks (rickshaws).

Tom and Lorraine’s interactive website is a one-stop travel resource where members can add their own flightless travel itineraries and give a rating for different routes, while exchanging tips and information with other users. On the website, I type in my start location and not only does it tell me how I can get to various far off locations, but it also shows via which routes, how long the journey will take and how much it will cost.

Tom explains: “We’re working on the bottom-up approach by providing as much information as possible on flightless travel routes, making it quick and easy for people to access the information they need and details of which agents to use.”

But, Tom believes, there also needs to be a top-down approach from governments. “The simple fact is that it’s never been cheaper to fly, and it’s often cheaper to fly than get a train or a boat, so until aviation is taxed more heavily, it’s always going to be difficult to wean people off their flying addiction.”

When it is so easy to book that package holiday, what is going to persuade people to choose a more ‘real’ and ethical one? ‘Slow-travel’ is clearly better for the environment but Tom feels that it has many other benefits: “It’s a great way to watch the world go by – to try out local food, to savour the moment and get lost in your thoughts. It will take you to places that you have never heard of and you’ll meet a most wonderful and strange array of people along the way.”

Flightless travel can also offer amazing adventures, which could not occur when hopping by plane from one place to the next. “When we were travelling through Cambodia, we met an English teacher in Battambang who talked us into going to his school,” Tom recalls. Jumping on the back of his moped, they headed along rural dirt tracks until reaching his village where they had a drink with his family before visiting the school. “We had no idea where we were going and took a bit of a chance but that’s what life’s about.” They ended up teaching English for the afternoon. “Even now, two years later, I feel quite emotional thinking about it,” Tom remembers.

For families, with young children, who might be thinking slow-travel is impossible with ‘screaming tots’ in tow, Tom points out that if you go via car and ferry there are next to no luggage restrictions. This year, he and Lorraine are planning a trip from Scotland to Italy with their nine-month-old son. “It’s quality time together; no television, no work, no chores, just time to read, chat and play cards, and remember what life is really about.”

The McMillans say they have had many positive responses to their website from people who have been inspired to go on flightless trips. Keen to gradually change travel habits one person at a time, Tom and Lorraine envision tens of thousands of routes being logged online by members in the future. “Hopefully, one day, we will get a critical mass, where people begin to move away from air travel on a large scale.”


Lorraine and Tom McMillan visit the Great Wall in northern China
Photo: copyright Tom McMillan

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