Avoiding flying for holiday reasons can be easy to do. But what’s it like when you have family overseas, and going somewhere else just isn’t an option?
This month we are talking to Bonnie, Sebastien and Catherine, who all travel regularly to see family and friends.
Travelling to see family and friends is the fastest growing category of visits overseas by UK residents. It has grown from 6.6 million visits a year twenty years ago to 23.5 million visits in 2019, according to the International Passenger Survey. It now accounts for a quarter of all visits abroad. Nearly 90% are by air.
"Travelling to see family and friends is the fastest growing category of visits overseas."
Most people would consider flying to see family more important than a holiday or a work trip. But the emissions are still the same no matter what the purpose of the flight, which puts people in a really tricky situation.
Let’s meet today’s guests.
I’m French but I have lived in Dublin for twenty years. My parents live in France, and my sister lives in Cambridge in the UK. I’m very aware of the environmental footprint of flying. I stopped flying before my son was born (he’s eleven now), so every year we travel to see my family without taking a plane.
I am Dutch and I’ve been living in the UK since 2006 with our two kids. My sister and her family still live in the Netherlands, and my parents live in Switzerland. Usually, we drive to see them. But there are occasions like funerals when you have to fly to go back.
I live in England and my parents are in Northern Ireland. I’ve been in England for twenty years and mostly I fly back and forth. I have two kids: one three-year-old and the other eight months. We are going back again on Sunday, and I did look at getting the ferry this time, but with young kids, they are not going to hack the long journey.
Flight Free UK
Travelling with children is a good thing to mention, because not only does it make the journey different, it’s also a time when you particularly want to go and visit your relatives.
Yes, this is the first time my parents are going to see the baby. So it’s definitely a necessary trip.
It’s a lot more difficult travelling with children compared to before the kids were born. There’s a lot more stuff, and more to plan, and a lot more emotions to deal with along the way. I think it would really be hard to do it another way at the moment. Possibly in the future, when the children are older, it will be easier to do.
Flight Free UK
Seb and Bonnie, you’ve both got older children. Have you got any tips on travelling overland?
I totally agree with Catherine that it is very difficult when your children are small. It doesn’t really get easier because they still want to stop and do their own thing. But on long journeys, we make sure we take the time and make sure we stop somewhere nice to stay the night. For instance, in France, we stopped over at a place where they had yurts, and the kids still talk about it.
Seeing your family and friends is quite hard work! I’m always exhausted when I come back, and then on top of that, the kids also have their emotions, so it’s very demanding. So we try to do the kinds of things to make the family visit more of a holiday and a bit more fun.
In my experience, the younger age is actually easier. We travel by ferry overnight to France so we rent a cabin which is exciting. And we travel by train as well. Small kids really love trains and big ferries. It creates a lot of memories. That’s what travel is about, it’s all those memories. So in my experience, it has been fine, and we’ve done it since he was a baby.
"Small kids love trains and big ferries. It creates a lot of memories. That's what travel is about."
Flight Free UK
Is there anything the train and ferry companies could do to make things easier for parents travelling with children?
I think more routes, and faster, and less expensive!
I think we’ve seen a breakdown in the whole Rail and Sail system. I remember as a youngster travelling by sail and rail, and there were so many more people travelling as foot passengers back then. It’s changed dramatically in recent years. In the waiting hall they only have a dozen people at best, whereas it used to be packed. In Dublin there used to be two ports, with fast ferry sailings to Holyhead from Dun Laoghaire, just 99 minutes for the crossing, but now there’s only Dublin Port where the slower boats operate. The airlines have become the dominant form of transport. I think government intervention is needed to promote low carbon forms of travel.
Flight Free UK
How frequently do you make these trips?
We go on average about once a year. We plan it in advance so you can book your train and set your route out, and you can get the best fare or make a good plan. It’s the short-notice visits that I find difficult and I generally say no to, because with a full-time job and kids going to school, it’s difficult to go by train at short notice. Taking the train from Exeter to London is as expensive as taking the Eurostar from London to Amsterdam. Because I don’t want to fly, I just have to say no, and I have to disappoint people and that’s the hard bit.
"It's the short-notice visits I say no to. Because I don't want to fly, I have to disappoint people."
In my case, it’s also just once a year. I think my family understands because it takes more than a day to travel to see them from Dublin, so they don’t expect us to do it too much more frequently. We see all of the family in that one trip.
Flight Free UK
What have you been doing during the pandemic to stay in touch and show your family they are still important to you?
It’s been all about Zoom. Before the pandemic, I would sometimes just forget that I needed to call my parents. Now, every Sunday, it’s definitely happening! And my parents have got better as well. They both sit down and actually talk to us. I have been sending lots of videos as well, especially of the baby, so they see him growing up.
At 4 o’clock on a Sunday me, my sister and my parents all dial in on our phones. It’s really nice to have that weekly point of contact, to hear how everyone is doing. With my friends, we have WhatsApp groups. When you live abroad, you lose touch a bit, and thanks to COVID, we moved online and we now share more, and that has made me feel much more part of things. We even did a whole memorial service on WhatsApp for one of the fathers who passed away, which was, for me, a blessing, because in a normal world I could never have gone at such short notice. This way at least I could be part of it.
"When you live abroad, you lose touch a bit, and now we've moved online and we share more."
Flight Free UK
Would you recommend overland travel?
Definitely. I really love the journey from Ireland to the UK because you travel along the North Wales coast. The train goes right beside a castle, and there’s the sea. It's just beautiful. Even when things don’t work well – if a crossing is cancelled or the train is delayed and you miss your boat – that’s the essence of travel. It’s an adventure.
Destination of the Month
This month we are recommending islands.
Maggie recommends the Isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. Rachel recommends Brownsea Island, in Poole harbour. Seb recommends the island of Ireland and also Dalkey Island on the edge of Dublin Bay. Catherine recommends St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Bonnie recommends an island in the Netherlands called Ameland.