“Where are you going?” asked a friend we’d just bumped into on Hitchin station. “New York!” we chimed as one. This was to be a 21st-birthday holiday trip for my twin sister and me. “Wow, New York!” he chuckled, obviously not expecting such a far-away answer. “Have a good time.” We soon alighted in London, him heading for the office and we for Heathrow.
And have a good time we did. At the age when we were obsessed with Friends, we spent a few busy days absorbing the sights familiar from our TV screens: the Empire State Building, Central Park, Bloomingdale’s, Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge. We ate slices of pizza from a street vendor in Soho and tried eggs, bacon and maple syrup on our breakfast waffles. We walked for miles through the grid-like streets and took great pleasure in ticking everything off our list.
On face value it was the trip of a lifetime, but in reality, it was very difficult. The flight made me desperately sick – I have vivid memories of throwing up in a bin on arrival in the hotel lobby. We were reprimanded by the police for ‘jay-walking’, even though we didn’t know what it was. We got lost. Our birthday being in January it was bitterly cold with a ferocious, biting wind, and as cash-strapped and naive tourists there was nothing for it but to walk the city, practically running across Central Park just so we could ‘do’ it before our toes fell off, and entering every department store, museum and cafe we passed just so we could warm up.
Of course, we were excited to be there, in the Big Apple, walking down the streets of our Friends heroes. But while it was a memorable experience and a fun holiday, as I have learned more about the world I realise it gave me nothing that I can’t find closer to home. The UK has tall buildings, too, and parks, and suspension bridges across rivers. The bustle of our cities is just as thrilling as New York’s buzz, if only we stop to look. One can be a tourist in their own city – all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes.
But ultimately, it's about the environmental impact. As I’ve grown older and more aware of my place on the planet, my overriding consideration for any holiday destination is the emissions. “Don’t you want to go to America?” interviewers ask when discussing my decision to no longer fly. “Won’t your life be all the poorer if all these destinations are off the table? What about New York?”
“Well, New York is fine,” I reply. “But so is Paris.” The key point is that I can get to pretty much any European city by train for less than 20kg of CO2. Flying across the ocean to New York will emit 1.9 tonnes – that’s tonnes, as in 1000kgs – of planet-busting emissions straight into the upper atmosphere, where it does the most damage. And that’s not the emissions for the whole plane, that’s per passenger. Nearly two tonnes of CO2, per passenger.
Long haul encourages us to travel vast distances that are essentially not going to happen by other means. It’s unlikely you would choose to drive to India, but a flight to Delhi is easily booked. New York is only an ocean crossing away, but who has 10 days to spare either side of their holiday to go by boat?
On the other hand, our short-haul flights can much more easily be replaced by other means, and are close enough to home for the timings to work, too. Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Milan, Barcelona – all are accessible in a day. For the Baltic, the Adriatic, the Balearic islands and even Athens, two days is all you need. Sleeper trains, overnight ferries and overnight coaches are a fantastic way of speeding you to your destination while you sleep. And emissions can be slashed by up to 90%.
In addition to the carbon savings, it's about the experience. Travelling across land by train is hands down a more pleasant experience than flying. You see so much more, and feel connected to your surroundings and your fellow travellers. You can get up whenever you like and go to the toilet, or wander down to the cafe bar.
With a lifetime of travel on my doorstep I don’t feel one bit that I’m missing out by not travelling long haul. Sure, until time and money allows me to sail around the world (only partly joking) there are a huge number of destinations that I will never see. But there are a huge number of equally compelling destinations here that I won't get around to seeing either – and for them, I wouldn’t need an emissions-heavy jet to do it. Shunning long-haul is fine by me – the jet lag and sick-in-a-bin misery isn't worth it, and much more powerfully, I just cannot justify the extreme emissions when there are so many other destinations within easy reach.
Not long after the New York trip I went to York with my boyfriend at the time – Old York, by train, tracking north-east out of Manchester where we were studying, skirting the edge of the Peak District, passing through the old industrial towns of Huddersfield and Dewsbury with their tall brick chimneys, then speeding onwards through Leeds and the villages of central Yorkshire. Our hotel was near a Wetherspoons – students both, it was all we needed.
The weekend was spent walking around the walls, visiting the sights and sitting in cosy pubs. I had as good a time in that classic Yorkshire city with its narrow cobbled streets as I did in its American equivalent. Because it ticked all the boxes of what travel should be: spending time with someone you love, in a place where you can discover new things, with good food and drink. Isn't that why we travel? Perhaps experiencing New York through watching all those episodes of Friends is good enough.