How to travel the world without flying


After nearly four days at sea, as I sat across from two Norwegians in their mid-twenties in an old-fashioned sweater on the leather sofa in the cigar room, pushing my glasses on my nose, I realized I had forgotten how to talk to my peers.

I didn’t have exact figures for the average age of the passengers on board Cunard’s Queen Mary II, but here 65-year-olds represented the wild youth. The most popular activities were bridge and square dancing. I overheard others at the dinner table talking casually about how they lived through World War II. There was a lot of pudding.

But somehow I met this Norwegian couple – we call them Emilie and Lukas – who happened to be in their early 20s. Like me, Emilie has not flown. She used to do that, but her fear of flying made it impossible to continue. “I was thousands of feet in the air and I just couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Why? Why am I doing this?” Emilie said. Just like me, Emilie didn’t want to be stopped from crossing oceans. So she and Lukas laid bare for five months, traveled through several European countries by train, took the Queen Mary II to America and then traveled to Orlando, Miami, Washington DC and New York on a combination of Amtrak and Flixbus.

The Cunard Queen Mary 2 docks in Southampton, UK. | Cunard

That’s why?” Emilie wondered while floating in the air, something many young travelers are increasingly asking. Even people who aren’t afraid of flying are expressing that they’re fed up with the whole process, concerned about fossil fuel emissions and just curious about a different way of seeing the world.

As a lifestyle, not flying is strange, lonely and expensive. For every pro you can count, there’s a glaring con. With America’s lack of high-speed trains, the irregularity and price of cruise ships, and the confusion about exactly how to board a freighter, fear alone is not enough to compel today’s non-flyers to travel without an airplane. Instead, they had to find a purpose beyond fear, a deeper purpose. Emilie told me that because she doesn’t fly, she can see more of the places she visits. “I don’t think I would have ever seen or spoken to these parts of America if I’d just flown in and out,” she said.

An Amtrak train speeds through Fishers Peak, Colorado. | Photo courtesy of Amtrak

When I tell people I don’t fly, they usually look at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity, imagining that I could never go anywhere or see anything. And while it’s true that I can’t just hop on a plane and be in Tulum for brunch, I’ve crossed the Atlantic and seen so much of the American West that I never would have otherwise. I once had a random two day layover in Chicago that ultimately led to my decision to move there. I’ve spoken to so many different people on trains — those who have recently been released from prison, the Amish — and it’s all broadened my perspective.

But this expansion would not be possible without time – which I have in abundance as a freelance travel writer. Emilie and Lukas were able to take so much time off work because they run their own businesses. Amid the 2008 recession, Steve Griffin and his partner, both 28, were taking a break from work when they decided to book different trains Reposition cruises to travel from San Diego to Istanbul. “I think we were the youngest people on the cruise at about 30 years old,” says Griffin. “I read a lot, ate good food and looked for flying fish. We’ve stopped in Tenerife and Corsica – most people don’t stop there when flying to Europe because it’s out of the way. All in all a great time.”

The author enjoys the sun on board a commuter ferry. | Photo courtesy of Nylah Burton

However, unless you’re willing to take it really hard, not flying can be prohibitively expensive. A round-trip transatlantic cruise on Cunard can cost up to $30,000 for a Queen’s Grille Suite. If you’re able to book a steerage cabin (what they call “Britannia Inside”) for $4,000, that’s considered a bargain. Amtrak bus fares are reasonable, but right now a sleeper car — the only convenient way to travel long distances by rail in America — is at least between $1,000 and $1,700. And with long stops and unreliable schedules, you’ll have to spend money on hotels during stopovers or even plan to spend a month on a completely different continent while waiting for a repositioning cruise. Even if prices fall, not everyone can take enough time to do all of this. “A lot of people either fly or stay at home,” says Emilie.

Another traveler I spoke to, Gianluca Grimaldi, is able to adhere to his anti-flight climate principles because he is an academic researcher who can work remotely whenever he needs to board a boat or train. “I traveled the total of 20,000 miles from Germany to Tokyo [T20 Summit at the G20 Conference]’ he tells me, noting that he was also able to schedule two research trips to study indigenous groups in Russia and Papua New Guinea – he had to fly there from Tokyo as cargo ships were unavailable – on the way there. Although Grimaldi avoids air travel most of the time, he has been able to see so much of the world, including Singapore, China and Iran, all by ferry, bus, boat, train or, interestingly, by cargo ship.

Traveling on a cargo ship is a unique option for those seeking a no-frills nautical experience. | Sven Hänsche/Shutterstock

There are no cruise-style frills like butlers, buffets, or feather beds on a cargo ship. There are perhaps five passengers and thirty crew members on board, a far cry from the average 3,000 guests you’d encounter on a commercial liner. But it’s the stark nature – and the intimacy – that Grimaldi says makes traveling this way an unforgettable experience. “It’s breathtaking,” he marvels. “You don’t see another ship or land for days.”

While you’ll always need time, Grimaldi’s strategy proves you don’t have to go bankrupt if you don’t fly. He uses Slow Travel Experience, a German website that helps travelers find cargo ships and other alternative sailing expeditions, including mail cruises to remote locations in the South Pacific. And for overnight stays, he opts for Couchsurfing, which is a lot cheaper than checking into an expensive hotel. He says the couchsurfing communities in Iran and Russia have been particularly active and hospitable. “I’ve couchsurfed in Moscow, Tomsk (Siberia), Ulan-Ude (East Baikal) and Vladivostok – the woman I stayed with in Ulan-Ude was blind and incredibly nice,” he explains. “I used to do couchsurfing in Iran, in Mashhad and Yazd. [The people I stayed with] showed me Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan. It really is a fantastic experience.”

The author examines the street scene in Berlin, Germany. | Photo courtesy of Nylah Burton

For me, as a black woman, couchsurfing in Russia and Iran — or even a ride on a cargo ship — is not necessarily something I would feel comfortable with. And it’s not about physical comfort or worries about international relations. As I rode Amtrak trains across the United States, the connection between my no-fly lifestyle and my race didn’t bother me much. And when it came time to travel internationally, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry too much about a luxury cruise. But after crossing the Atlantic from New York to Southampton, England on Cunard – a British luxury cruise line with a long history – it came to mind.

During the trip I experienced some of the most blatant racism of my life. A man asked me if I was a Caribbean performer, a woman tried to touch my hair in the elevator, and an employee at Southampton Cruise Port asked me to step off the first-class line and join the ship’s crew . When I expressed her confusion about her direction, she looked me up and down and said impatiently, “I assume you’re an employee, right?” The whole experience reassured me that I need to be careful when traveling, especially when I’m committed to a slower mode of transportation for several days at a time.

Racism is one of the things that discourages people from traveling without a flight, especially internationally. Just ask Lavanya Sunkara, a travel writer who recently embarked on a modern luxury cruise with her husband. “I was sitting in the corner of a lounge minding my own business and doing work on my laptop when this woman came and asked if I was working [for the cruise]’ she recalls. “I wonder if a white woman had been sitting here would she have asked the same question? It sucks to be a brown person or a black person on a luxury cruise.”

Nothing but cool sea breezes and two sturdy wheels. | Photo courtesy of Nylah Burton

When I spoke to some Pakistani friends about doing a land crossing from India to Pakistan, they were concerned that border officials would become even more suspicious of me because I am a black woman. It left me staring at the fact that I will most likely have to put my plane-free trips on hold to visit my partner’s family in Islamabad.

But unless the situation absolutely requires it, I’m content not to fly. What started as me trying to avoid my anxiety has now grown into a way of life I can’t imagine living without. It’s helped me grow in so many ways – it’s made me more organized, empathetic, adventurous, and calm. As Grimalda says: “The experience of travel is not about the destination or the end point, it is about the journey. You can learn a lot just by looking out the window.”

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Nylah Burton is a contributor to Thrillist.


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