books transport

Book review: Zero Altitude, by Helen Coffey

Helen Coffey is the travel editor for the Independent, and in 2020 she announced that she would stop flying – the first newspaper travel editor to make such a commitment. Her experiences of flight-free travel have now been published in the book Zero Altitude: How I learned to fly less and travel more, and it’s very good.

As the book describes, there are a variety of reasons why flying is a particularly onerous climate challenge. It’s highly carbon intensive, for a start, and there are no immediate solutions – no technologies that can easily be swapped in to reduce emissions. It’s also an expensive activity, and so it’s something that the richest do more of. That makes it a climate justice issue, where the poorest carry the can for the lifestyle of the wealthy.

Reducing the amount that we fly is one of the most effective ways to cut our personal impact on the climate. But does that have to mean missing out on rewarding travel, and opportunities to see the world?

No, argues Coffey: “Flight-free travel is so much more than a climate commitment – so different from the exercise in joyless self-denial and martyrdom I originally thought it might be.”

The book demonstrates this perfectly, with details of trips taken without flying – by rail to Europe, by ferry to Morrocco, by bike or on foot. As you might expect, the book is full of great travel writing, evocative and often humourous, with journeys shared in a conversational tone. It’s also imaginative, as the author looks to try out as many different flight-free forms of travel possible. There are overnight trains, and an introduction to hitch-hiking. She attempts to learn to drive, since a full car is often a better option than a flight. She walks the Camino de Santiago in a chapter on pilgrimmage. All that’s missing is a horse somewhere in the mix, and you’d have a pretty comprehensive set of alternatives to aviation.

Journeys are interspersed with more informative material, with sections looking at the impact of aviation, the prospects of various green aviation technologies, the politics of aviation and the business of offsets. She interviews dedicated non-flyers for tips and recommendations. Experts in sustainable tourism are quizzed on some of the complexities, such as the dependence of island nations on tourism, and the wealth that tourism creates in developing countries. There’s also lots of good advice for those wanting to give this a go – including a few things we’ll be keeping in mind this summer ourselves, as we continue our own flight-free commitment and attempt a rail journey to Sweden as a family.

What I liked most about the book is that it isn’t really about giving something up, and readers aren’t being preached at by an environmentalist spoilsport. Zero Altitude is full of the joy of travel, the excitement of discovery, the appreciation of beauty, and gratitude for the opportunity to see the world . It just does all of this in a different way – and one that may ultimately be more rewarding. Flight-free travel moves at a slower pace, where the journey is part of the adventure, and with more time to engage with the people and the places that we pass through. “I may have stopped flying,” Coffey concludes, “but I feel like I have finally started travelling.”

6 comments

  1. It’s true that the wealthiest fly more, but I wonder whether many in the UK have the opportunity to travel in the way the author does. For many the limiting factor will be time, and that places firm geographical limits on travel without flying.

    1. Not many will have the opportunity to travel as the author does, being a professional travel writer and getting everything paid for. So the book shows what is possible and what you might like to try, without suggesting that you can do it all.

      Time is a tricky one if you’re going a long way, and so you were going somewhere really far-flung you would need to bank some time and make it a once in a lifetime expedition.

      It’s also not so much of a problem if the travel is part of the experience, and travelling overland gives you the opportunity to do more on the way, whereas a flight just gets you to one destination.

      For example, my wife has booked two weeks off for our trip to Sweden, which is basically a three to four day journey by train. That would be prohibitively time consuming if we didn’t take it as part of the experience, with city breaks in Germany and Denmark, and a camping trip with friends scheduled along the route.

  2. Just completed a train only trip to Italy from Scotland. Seamless and far less stressful that airports and flying. The only down side of the holiday was being ‘forced’ to stay a night in London either side of the Eurostar leg of the journey. Extra expense and wasted days, but without the ticketing being integrated, necessary.
    All said, train travel will now be the default and I’ll only fly if I’m being forced to.

    1. Excellent. My brother lives in Scotland and I’ve made that train journey many times myself. But we are half an hour out of London and that does make it much easier and cheaper.

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