Going Jet-free: Alternatives to Flying

I’ve got a full bladder and a thread-thin polyester blanket stretched around me. I can’t reach the valve for the cold flow of air pouring over my seat and I can’t get up to use the bathroom because there’s a half-eaten microwaved meal on a tray table locking me in place.

Wine barrel airplane. Now that’s alternative energy! At Mas de Gourgonnier, an organic vineyard in Provence making a good quality boutique wine as well as olive oil.

Each time I take this flight between France and the United States I wonder how it is I paid (in my freelance world) the equivalent of one or two months’ salary for these conditions. The misery isn’t even rewarded with a rich tale to recount or reflect on later. It’s just a sterile, uncomfortable and really damned expensive experience. Add to that the massive environmental costs of the flight and the fact that if this plane goes down the likely-hood of survivors is, well, unlikely, and voila, you see the inspiration behind this article.

Though I haven’t found an alternative to the flexibility of ocean-crossing flights, I have found some general flying alternatives that make me feel more comfortable about the possibility of these being my last moments. So what could be better than cramming myself on a jet in the final hour? How about cleating the halyards of a sailing vessel headed toward somewhere far, or resting under a blanket of stars so thick I think I can see tomorrow.

Our bus travel in Senegal. Rough going but so much more fun than the sterile airport!

If you share my sentiments, maybe you’ll appreciate some of the alternative ways I’ve found to travel.


A good option if you have time and a flexible budget. Contrary to popular belief, traveling by freighter is not cheaper than flying. Freighters generally cost around 100 € a day. From where I live in France to an eastern port in the United States I can pretty much count on 10 days. So for about 1,000 €, I can get home one way. My last round-trip flight from Barcelona, Spain to Cincinnati, Ohio cost around 600 €, a big difference from the 2000 € a round trip freighter passage would have cost me.

But if I chose to go by freighter I’d be paying for ten days at sea with meals and room included. In essence, a cruise of sorts, with the added bonus of getting me where I want to go. A friend married to the captain of a working ship recently took her first voyage with him. She wrote me saying:

I had the most relaxing and pleasant three months perhaps of my life – sleeping, eating, reading, walking on deck and seeing the beautiful ocean, seas, gulfs, clouds, sunsets and sunrises as a regular part of my daily life. I also enjoyed watching the ship’s activities as we traveled through the Suez Canal and around the Middle East in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.

Most people who travel by ship do it as a cheap way to get away for extended periods. A few books with such accounts are:

Travel by Cargo Ship by H. Verlomme
Running Away to Sea: Round the World on a Tramp Freighter by George Fetherling,
Around the World by Freighter by Bob Hartley
Bureaucrat to Tramp: A Freighter Cruise Adventure by Kenneth M. Peterson

But if you’re interested in booking a ship in place of a direct flight to a destination of choice, you’ll have to be prepared to pay more, plan more and relax more. Bookings need to be made at least six months in advance and even then, your departure could be delayed as ships change schedule according to unanticipated need.

So for my once a year trip back to the United States I would need to pick a date well in advance and then be prepared to spend 20 days at sea (round trip) with about a week’s wiggle room on either side to account for delayed departures. As difficult as this may sound, it’s entirely possible. The managing director at The Cruise People Ltd [Trans-Atlantic Passenger Ship Service] recently wrote me, “By the way we have a few regular clients in France and we have regular commuters by ship, one of whom does so to/from Australia and another to/from Singapore.” Sounds like I need to get my spontaneous life in order and join the ranks of responsible folks committed to an air-free lifestyle.

Two of the most helpful booking companies in my efforts toward this direction have been:

You can also book passages directly with ships. The friend I mentioned above told me, “I read that French Container Carrier CMA CGM of Marseilles is offering voyages around the world (or parts thereof) on six of their medium-sized container ships.” Going to your nearest port might also prove fruitful.

Another helpful site is http://wikitravel.org/en/Freighter_travel


One of the most energy efficient ways to travel is with the wind. Better known as hitchhiking across oceans, travelers wanting to crew on sailing vessels have to work to find the ride.

Berths can be found on charter boats, boat deliveries, cruising sailboats and on boats making ocean crossings, circumnavigations or year-long voyages. The most important thing a would-be crew member has to offer is free time as few people can just take off and leave a job or family for weeks of sailing.

The largest marina in Europe is in La Rochelle, France

Crew posts out of New England, Scandinavia and England can be found in sailing magazines and local yachting newspapers. But the best place to look for positions are at the ports where sailors often set out for ocean crossings or where they stop to re-provision. The key is being there at the right time.

The best ports and seasons are:

  • Gibraltar from October to December for Atlantic crossings, April to June for heading into the Mediterranean (also Malta, Rhodes, and Piraeus have similar seasons)
  • Canary Islands from October to January to cross to South America and the Caribbean
  • La Rochelle in France is home to the largest marina in Europe, could be a good place to find rides to the Canaries or Gibraltar
  • Antigua, Barbados, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico from October to November
  • Panama any time of year, May for west-bound boats
  • Tahiti around July 14
  • Singapore and Honolulu, months depending on direction desired
  • Miami, San Francisco, Long Beach and San Diego for charter boat posts
  • Beaufort, NC is a famous jumping off spot for sailors headed into the Caribbean
  • Floyd’s Hostel and Crew House in Fort Lauderdale, FL is good for jobs and crew posts
  • Fort Pierce, FL boasts the cheapest marina fees on the east coast of Florida, a good place to find sailors doing work to their boats preparing for long winter cruises
The beach at the marina in Dakar, where world sailors moor for cheap.

Expect to spend two or three weeks at each port searching for a crew position. One way to lessen the cost of hanging around a port is working on a yacht in the harbor. You can get paid for varnishing or painting while gaining a good reference for a would-be skipper looking to take you on as crew.

Things to consider before signing on to crew:

  • Do you have enough extra cash for airfare home should you find yourself in a bad situation (Most major airlines give a 25 percent discount on one-way fares to seamen/women repatriating? You’ll need proof that you’ve been removed from a vessel’s crew list at a foreign port).
  • Can you get along with a crew 24 hours a day for weeks on end?
  • Why is there a vacancy on the vessel?
  • Will you be charged for food and fuel, if so what is your share?
  • What will your duties be?
  • Is there a written contract for the exchange?
  • If you’re the only woman on board, have you made a few short trips with the crew before taking off for a long voyage?
  • What experience does the captain have?
  • What shape is the boat in?
  • Are you traveling light, with only one bag or backpack?

For more advice get a copy of Lin and Larry Pardey’s Self Sufficient Sailor.
The chapter Hitchhiking across Oceans is very detailed and full of personal experiences.


For island hopping voyages, a great way to see local life is to travel by mail boat. They’re slow going, but the price is right and the vantage point about as real as you can get. A good place to try this traveling style is in the Bahamas where mailboats reach the most remote out-islands in the chain. http://www.bahamas-travel.info/mailboat.htm

Over Land Travel

It’s really hard to resist dirt cheap deals through European airlines like Ryan Air and Easy Jet or US companies like Jet Blue. I know, I could fly to Morocco for 50 € tomorrow if I wanted. It takes a genuine commitment to traveling with a conscience to decline such offers. Just consider the gigantic carbon footprint left by jets and the insulated poor quality of experience you get from them. Remind yourself why you’re traveling in the first place and you’ll easily bid adieu to jets for good.

Train Jaune here in the Pyrenees. It’s a slow going electric train that dates from 1910. It runs along the mountainsides offering stunning views.

Though expensive, nothing beats the comfort or adventure of traveling by train, especially superfast trains like the TGV in France. And if you do your research, buses can often be quite economical. In my department in France I can take the bus anywhere I want to go for 1€. Though not necessarily the fastest mode of travel, the experience is almost never dull.

If you simply can’t afford mass transportation prices, ride-shares are economical and gaining in popularity. Unlike hitchhiking, where timing and benevolence are chance, ride-sharing is a planned carpool with everyone sharing gas expenses. Sites like Craig’s List in the United States, Allostop in France and Mitfahrgelgenheit in Germany are good places to start. Often times independent local bookstores, coffee shops and natural food stores will post ride shares on bulletin boards.

But if time is no consequence, the richest traveling experiences are always on your own power. When you know your traveling lifestyle is sustainable for budget and planet the choice is easy.

Get inspired to pedal

Bikes in Burgundy at the hotel Le Cep.


Get inspired to walk:

If You Only Walk Long Enough by Steve Cracknell
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail By Bill Bryson

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