Catherine Livesley is a sustainable travel expert who has crossed almost every country in Europe by land. She has created dream journeys at some of the world’s largest sustainable travel and rail companies and has worked as a consultant for independent travel agencies. She is the founder of the tour operator and flightless travel club, No Fly Travel Club.
While working as a bespoke travel specialist, frequent flights were as much a part of my life as a beer after work. But when the pandemic hit, I was forced to stay on the ground much longer than expected. This led to a slow reveal. Increasingly concerned about the climate crisis, it became clear that my flying habits had to change. Not only that – I also wanted to help others make the change.
In November 2020, I quit my job to start Flightless Travel Clubusing my expertise in overland travel to help others trade their wings for rails.
We specialize in overland travel starting and ending in the UK – as well as a membership club for those looking for advice and inspiration for traveling without flying.
If you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint without reigning in on your adventures, here’s all the insider info on how to travel Europe flight-free.
Train travel is great value for everyone – but especially for one type of traveler
When planning an overland trip, ask yourself these two questions: how much time do I have and what type of vacation do I want?
Want to city hop? Hiking in a beautiful setting? Or just relax on the beach?
The more you plan ahead, the cheaper your trip will be. Ideally, you should book the trains 2-3 months in advance. This will give you the most choice for the lowest price.
Another way to save money is to be flexible with your dates. For the best deals, aim to travel outside of school holidays and weekends. For journeys with many stops, you should also check whether a Interrail pass would be cheaper in the end.
With some insider knowledge, traveling by train can be particularly economical for families, as many train operators offer free and discounted seats for children.
Taking the train with kids could be a lot cheaper than flying
Most European train companies offer free tickets for children (exact age limits vary but can be up to 6 years old). There is no need to buy a ticket – just buy a ticket for all other passengers and take your children with you.
If you wish to reserve your own seat for your little ones, you can do so with a “child seat supplement” from just €9 per person.
Some trains in France, Italy and Switzerland even have carriages specially designed as playgrounds, so that children can run around freely.
For children under 12, the reductions are usually around 50%. Simply add each passenger’s age when booking and you’ll automatically see the prices. This is particularly useful if you are traveling on an overnight train as you can secure all the beds in a cabin for your family at a discounted price. It’s a great way to enjoy the extra privacy offered by train travel.
How to travel to the best destinations
France – the land of cheese, wine and picturesque villages
France has spent decades investing in its high-speed rail network, making it perfect for exploring by train.
Known as the TGV, France’s high-speed trains connect major cities at an impressive speed of 320 km/h. If you take into account travel time to the airport, check-in and baggage claim, getting to France by high-speed train becomes more or less comparable to flying. The most familiar route for British travelers is, of course, the Eurostarlinking London to Lille in 1h15, and Paris in just 2h30.
These two Eurostar hubs offer a wide choice of connections. Connecting in Lille is ideal if you want to avoid having to cross busy Paris. Major cities in regions such as Brittany and the Loire Valley Alsace can easily be reached in 4-5 hours from London, and you could be sipping Pastis in the Mediterranean region of Provence in as little as 7 hours.
Regional trains, known as TER services, link smaller destinations and offer a cheaper, slower option for intercity travel. There are also a small number of night trains connecting Paris to the south of France (destinations include Nice, Toulouse, Marseille and Perpginan). Reclining seats are the cheapest option – starting at around 19 euros per person. You can also opt for a “berth” for budget (and family-friendly) accommodation, or upgrade to a sleeper cabin for ultimate overnight comfort.
Italy – beaches, vineyards and pizza are easily accessible
Once in France, Italy is easily accessible. High-speed connections link Paris directly to Milan and are offered by SNCF and TrenItalia. With routes priced from rival low-cost airlines, there are plenty of bargains to be found. Fares start at €39 per person and the journey takes approximately 7 hours.
If you live in London, it’s possible to go as far as Turin or Milan in a day – or for those coming from further afield, I recommend breaking up the journey with a stop in Paris or Lyon.
From Milan, travel to most parts of northern and central Italy is quick and easy thanks to the excellent high-speed rail network. Overnight services also run south, allowing you to travel to Rome, Naples or Sicily in style. Tickets can be purchased from TrenItalia, as well as the private high-speed train operator Italo.
Greece – jump from train to boat to explore hundreds of Greek islands
Have you arrived in Italy? Then you are just a boat ride away from Greece. Ferries cross the Aegean Sea from many destinations along the east coast of Italy.
The high-speed train connects the main Italian ports like Ancona, Bari and Brindisi. These offer daily crossings to Igoumenitsa (on the west coast of Greece) and Patras (where you can catch a bus to Athens). There are also frequent sailings to Corfu and other Ionian islands – but check your dates as they don’t run every day. Most offer overnight trips, taking between 8 and 24 hours depending on the destination. As with night trains, you have different options at different prices. You can sleep ‘on deck’ for the cheapest price or book a cabin for an additional charge if you want to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep.
Turkey – stay on the ground until you reach the hot air balloons of Cappadocia
Although best reserved for more adventurous travellers, it is possible to reach Turkey overland from the UK. The easiest option (available late April – early October) is to travel from London to Munich via Brussels. From there, you can take night trains to Budapest and then Bucharest, with a final night hop taking you from the Romanian capital to Istanbul – and the far end of the continent – on Day 4.
While it can’t beat a race’s 4-hour flight, you’ll be able to soak up the scenery in three of Europe’s most exciting cities along the way – and that’s something no airline cannot offer.