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My Spanish ‘Traincation’

Travelling across Europe by train can be great fun whilst saving carbon.

This summer I travelled to Spain for a family gathering. In recent years I’ve been trying to fly less in order to keep my personal carbon footprint down. I know it’s technically possible to travel around the globe using low emission forms of transport, but could I make it work for a week’s holiday in Spain? The good news is that choosing trains and buses is a doddle these days. When I interrailed as a teenager I remember lugging around a timetable the size of a telephone directory. Now, you can book everything with just a smartphone. Planning my trip wasn’t complicated and I arranged everything online in advance.

Kings Cross Station, London

My route was relatively straightforward too. I caught the train from Newcastle to London Kings Cross, the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Paris, a sleeper train from Paris to Biarritz and then a FlixBus coach to Bilbao. The journey took 28 hours from Newcastle to Bilbao, with a couple of hours at each changeover point to allow for possible delays, although every connection ran on time. I could have got there faster using the TGV through France, but I would have had to stay a night in Paris or Biarritz which would have added time and cost. The return fares totalled just under £500, about the same as flying. Using trains instead of planes saved an eye watering 850 kgCO2. That’s over half the carbon emissions from heating and powering my home for a year.

Couchette cabin on French sleeper train

Those are the technical details of my trip, but these numbers completely miss the bigger picture. A journey like this can be great fun! Yes, I could have spent a shorter time in air terminals and on planes. However, there is something far more rewarding about slow travel. It’s easy to appreciate the landscape as you move through it. I brought a sketchbook and some watercolours and used the extra time to paint my way across the UK, France and Spain. The Intercités de Nuit sleeper train from Paris to Biarritz was a highlight. I was in a couchette cabin with 5 strangers, but everyone was very respectful and SNCF prepared everything to make the journey comfortable and safe.

Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro, San Sebastian

I can understand why this sort of travel isn’t for everyone. My trip actually cost a little less than flying, but that’s mainly because there were no budget airlines flying direct from Newcastle to Bilbao. More often than not, flying is the cheaper option. But what about the extra time needed for travelling by train? For me the day and a half of travel at each end of my trip was just part of my holiday, but if you’re short on time it could be frustrating. Thankfully, some employers are helping to empower staff to make clean travel choices. Climate Perks works with employers to give their staff additional holiday time for slower but more sustainable travel options such as trains. I can’t say that every trip I make from now on will be by train, but I can say that it was far easier and much more fun than I was expecting. This certainly won’t be my last ‘Traincation’. 

Comparison of my journey by train or by plane

Train and BusPlane
Cost£490 return£505 return
(Air France, via Paris)
Time28 hours (each way)8 hours (each way,
including check-in )
Carbon Emisssions78 kgCO2940 kgCO2
(including RF)

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