Earth Notes: Low Carbon Family Holidays

Updated 2019-05-22 07:43 GMT.
Be a social superstar without 57 foreign holidays every year! Cut stress and cost and carbon and have loads of fun. Also #TravellersCheck food waste.
beach near Agde

Why No Fly?

Flying isn't bad in and of itself if it weren't for the carbon footprint. It's a safe and moderately* efficient way to shift a human body wherever it's going per mile. Indeed a fully-loaded small car is comparable. You just wouldn't dream of trying to drive to a holiday in Australia in a Mini even if it were possible. And most people wouldn't regard a road-trip across a continent with small children as much fun either. The enemy isn't the plane, it's the distance. The jumbo jet encourages us to take far longer trips than we otherwise would, and thus have a much larger footprint than necessary. For example, in summer 2016 we went to the south of France by train, at reasonable lick.

Your destination doesn't have to be foreign or far-flung to be fun...


carousel fairground ride

So, if we're not demonising the mode of transport, just concentrate on staying closer to home! The ultimate 'staycation' is to have a relaxing break at home and not travel anywhere. But if you want a little more variety than that, a holiday within the UK or nearby in Europe, by public transport for still lower carbon, may be the way to go.

(Again, jamming yourself into a small car may be as efficient per mile but still encourages you to haul around extra clobber that you won't really need.)

Though I have flown a lot in the past, partly on business, airport stress and a tiring flight is not something that I'd wish upon my children. (All made worse by lunatic and pointless security theatre: you won't see me going near the US again any time soon.)

Beside the Seaside, Belay the C

We've been taking sun-sea-'n'-sand seaside holidays (by train) for the last few years (as of 2012) with our small children, starting from our home in London, and we're hoping to write up a few of our experiences and tips, including saving cash and hassle and shampoo(!) in case it is useful for ideas.

We do intend to take long-distance holidays in future, but as rare and special events rather than routine: there feels like little point in carefully conserving carbon at home all year only to blast it out several times over out the jet engine in a few hours!

Agde in France by train

In August 2016 we ventured to Agde in the south of France, by train, and a very good holiday it was too. We did check air travel prices, but they were far higher as it happens!

Avoiding Holiday Food Waste: #TravellersCheck

beach near Agde

In 2016 Hubbub piloted their campaign "#TravellersCheck your fridge and wave goodbye to holiday food waste," and it reached 1 million people.

Going on holiday, but still have food in your fridge? You’re not flying solo. Each year in the UK £half billion worth of perfectly edible food gets thrown away when people head off on holiday.

For example, Hubbub reports that:

81% are happy to receive food from a neighbour, but only 13% already do this.

Also plan ahead a little before you go, keeping a list of things that are open and to be finished off: it's like using left-overs after Christmas!

#FreezeBeforeYouFly would be a reasonable hashtag too, though not endorsing the flying bit! Louis Theroux announced, for example, "Feeling pretty pleased with myself. We are going away and I turned all the leftover veg into 2 soups for freezing."

This does not just apply to summer holidays. Much the same goes for (say) a lengthy Christmas break for example.

Brussels Grand Place ice skating at Christmas

TL;DR: use odds and ends of food up, freeze it, give it away to your neighbours and friends, or at worst get it into your food-recycling bin in reasonable time. Don't let it moulder in your fridge or breadbin or fruitbowl!

How-To Holiday Low-Carbon

Guest piece by Jean Ryder April 2012

Before having children we spent a lot of our holidays abroad, not thinking about how many flights we were taking or carbon emissions. Since having children I have gone back to my childhood and started holidaying every year in the UK (with one exception of taking the Eurostar to Lille). We don't own a car, so we can't go to totally remote places or places that are too far for two small children to travel to, but we have had very good holidays, and also visiting friends and relatives without one.

It can take a bit of planning for the longer journeys by train (we only hired a car a few times), to make sure you get your timings right and any connections you need. I normally have a look at first to get an idea of train times and how many changes and also the price. If you book in advance you can save a lot of money compared to paying on the day. I also have a family and friends rail card which can save 1/3 of the price of the tickets. Also booking in advance means you are more likely to get a reserved seat, which when you have children, means you are more likely to be sitting together.

So far for our main and self-catering holidays we have travelled to Torquay, Weymouth, Ivybridge, Hemsby in Norfolk, and the Isle of Wight.

So, how do we get all the things we need for holiday without a car by train? Well I first make a very detailed list of all the things we will need, organising it into people, bathroom, kitchen and other. I will then gather things together from when the holiday is booked so I am not rushing to get the things at the last moment. I used to buy everything new for holiday as I thought "Well why not it's holiday?" But I found that we did not use say all the shampoo up etc and had to bring it back. So now I will take bottles etc. when they are coming to the end and have enough for the holiday and means that I can recycle them there and not have to bring things back with us (more space for souvenirs!).

I also write a list of the things we will need to buy when we are there and as we don't have a car, make sure we have a shop/supermarket that is walking distance. And I find we only buy what we will use on holiday and not waste food (we do eat out for meals). Also we have been at places that have meters for gas/electricity so like at home it is possible to monitor how much we use on holiday too. So you can keep a record if you wish.

I have found space-saving bags that you don't need a vacuum cleaner to take the air out, so means that I can get all the clothes and towels into one suitcase for the four of us. I also now try to make sure that we have a washing machine or at least be near to a laundrette, so we can take far less clothes with us and wash there. So after choosing the clothes to take, I will then do a thorough going over saying "Do I really need to take all these t-shirts?" etc. Then you are more likely to use the things you take, by mixing a matching and does it really matter you where something twice before washing it? I will also try to have a washing-line rigged up if we are at a chalet park that does not have drying facilities and that will limit the use of a dryer (I love the smell of air dried clothes) and I also don't really want to pay for drying clothes if the sun can do it.

I am going to tell you a bit about the holidays we have been on without a car and will include places you can get to easily when you are there and also websites for further information. This is just my experience of travelling without a car or going on an aeroplane and hope it may help you. But one day we will take the children on an aeroplane or on the ferry to Europe as I do want them to experience being abroad, but as they are young a beach (and sometimes grandparents) are good for them.

August 2018: Brexit Confession

Right from the time of the Brexit referendum result up to when we had to have booked a 2018 summer holiday to get a decent deal, it has not been clear what would happen after Brexit. Would a "no deal" abrupt exit make it hard to travel anywhere outside the UK in 2019?

We had half agreed that we would like to visit Spain in summer 2018, and considered, for example, Barcelona by train, which is definitely do-able.

However, given the possible slamming down of the barriers for 2019, I suspended my "no flying" views, and we decided to go to Mallorca while we could.

The plane's emissions for all four of us, London to Palma (LGW/PMI) return is about 1tCO2. DEFRA's recommended additional Radiative Forcing factor is ~1.9, so maybe this is best treated as about two tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) total.

(This was the first time that our kids have ever flown, incidentally.)

One reason that I relented on flying is that Mallorca is still within a plausible travel distance without flying. Indeed it's a ferry ride from Barcelona.

It is possible to get to Mallorca from London by ~18h train then 5h ferry, eg see The Man in Seat 61's suggested routes. My daugther tells me that she would have no problem with this for another holiday... Electric train (with high load factor) may be 5x--20x lower CO2e/km than plane; ferry part still unknown (eg does it burn revolting high-carbon high-sulphur bunker fuel, and idle in port?)...

Incidentally, the Balearics' site itemises how the islands are funding some eco improvements from a tourist levy.

Air Travel Efficiency

: though I stand by my assertion that the big problem with flying is that it is cheap and fast to travel distances that would seem off-putting by other means, various discussions and articles indicate that air is still many times the climate impact per passenger-kilometre of, for example, EV or electrified rail. Please don't fly frivolously.


  • 2019-05-22: Could you give up flying? Meet the no-plane pioneers: Growing numbers of travellers are abandoning air travel to help save the planet – even if it means spending 14 days on a train.
  • 2019-04-11: Climate change: yes, your individual action does make a difference: In a survey I conducted, half of the respondents who knew someone who has given up flying because of climate change said they fly less because of this example.
  • 2019-04-07: Green Swedes shun holiday flights for lure of the train: Alejandra Fuentes and her family decided to let the train take the strain when they went on holiday from Sweden last year to Torremolinos in southern Spain. And they are not alone. Climate change concerns have prompted tens of thousands of Swedes to join a movement via Facebook. It is so popular that 500 are joining up every day.
  • 2019-03-20: Why you should embrace the 'microadventure': Microadventures help you to develop practical skills in low-risk, accessible situations that can later be applied to bigger, more exotic adventures. They reveal the beauty and wonder of the region in which you live, something that is often overlooked. They're kinder on the planet because you're not hopping on a plane to get somewhere exotic. And they cost relatively little, aside from the upfront expense of buying some basic camping gear, but even that can be borrowed, rented, or swapped.
  • 2019-01-30: Aggressive railway expansion could cut emissions.
  • 2019-01-08: The Ecotricity Guide to sustainable tourism: As the tourism industry grows, so does its impact on the environment. The industry now accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. But you don’t have to stop travelling completely and never go on holiday again to save the planet.
  • 2018-12-17: Ecotricity launches partnership to help green up UK holidays: Global tourism is growing at a rate of 5% every year and is responsible for nearly one tenth of the world's carbon emissions – with everything from air travel to poorly energy efficient accommodation and cheap souvenirs contributing to the significant emissions.
  • 2018-09-13: Liebreich: Planes, Trains and Automobiles – the Electric Remake: Lithium-ion ... battery energy density [is] the equivalent of nearly 20 percent of that of jet fuel. Still not enough to cross an ocean, but enough to power flights of 200 or 300 miles. For trains: Another way to eliminate emissions without electrifying the whole track would be for the train to carry a battery and recharge periodically en route...
  • 2018-04-15: Visit Great Britain: Visiting Great Britain and taking holidays close to home provides an opportunity to explore one of the most varied and captivating landscapes in the world and as a special bonus, completely removes the need to fly.
  • 2017-10-09: 10 of the best no-fly holidays from the UK c/o Mark Smith (The Man in Seat 61).
  • 2017-07-17: Fighting summer food waste; check the fridge before going away, and freeze, cook or share food to stop it going to waste. Applies beyond summer in fact! #TravellersCheck #FreezeBeforeYouFly!
  • 2017-07-12: The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions: ... four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less).
  • 2017-06-25: Top tips for holiday-proofing houseplants.
  • 2017-05: Zero Carbon Future (low carbon present): EV, vs diesel van vs flying.
  • 2016-08-09: 8 ways to reduce the environmental impact of your holiday.
  • 2016-04-18: Too much air time: Efforts to curb aviation emissions remain stuck on the runway, grounded by social norms ... A study by Graham Miller of the University of Surrey in England identifies a sense of entitlement with regard to holiday travel, an urge to keep up with the Joneses (what other researchers have termed “trophy tourism”) and an unwillingness to take fewer vacations. Even people willing to make eco-friendly adjustments at home are not willing to change air travel patterns, which are linked to aspirations of freedom and mobility, according to a study led by Stewart Barr, a geographer at the University of Exeter.
  • A Free Ride: one possible approach to tackling aviation emissions ... replace the current tax on flights with a fairer system that taxes people according to how often they fly. Everyone gets one tax free return flight each year. Tax kicks in at a low rate from the second flight, then goes up a notch for each extra flight in that year. The aim is to shift air tax to wealthy frequent flyers.
  • how Spain's Balearics are funding eco improvements from a tourist levy.
  • ATOC analysis for Greengauge 21 on the CO2 impacts of High Speed Rail. [PDF]
  • Twice as many Brits plan 'staycations' in 2012.
  • 10:10 travel: Low-carbon holidays.
  • Sankey Diagram for a Cruise Ship (propulsion not necessarily main energy use).