Gather round, children, and let your Uncle Dave tell you a story about the good old days of air travel.
This story starts back in the foggy mists of time. Back before Michael Jackson died and Britney lost the plot. Before Enron went bust and commuters started sprouting white earphones. Before Bush stole the presidency and Gore became the Climate Crusader. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about those mystical decades known as the late 20th century.
Now I know you’re not going to believe this, but back in those halcyon days air travel was actually quite exciting and going to the airport was almost fun. The security lines didn’t take two hours to get through, and you didn’t have to take your shoes off and stand there like a naughty toddler while you waited for your intrusive pat down. Klaxons didn’t go off if you had a bottle of water in your hand luggage. You didn’t get to star in your own soft porn film as you walked through full body scanners. And as the TSA didn’t yet exist, there was even a chance that some hired goon wasn’t going to rifle through your bags and pick out the best stuff to sell on eBay.
All this changed, of course, when a few madmen decided it’d be a great idea to fly some planes into a building. Since then, air travel and everything associated with it has become steadily less enjoyable. Every part of the process takes longer and is more stressful, humiliating and frustrating than it used to be. Justifying the environmental impact has also become harder to do. As a result, and despite ticket prices steadily decreasing, I now look seriously at any other option before handing over my credit card number to the airline. For the really long trips there’s obviously not many other choices – hitchhiking from Sydney to London isn’t especially practical for most people – but when distances are shorter, you could do a lot worse than consider any of these instead.
If there’s a group of you, self-driving can be a great idea. You have the ultimate flexibility about where you go and when you go there. Renting a vehicle can be reasonably cheap, and gas prices have fallen from the stratospheric heights of recent years. If you stay away from the major highways, you’ll actually get to see some of the scenery and visit smaller places off the beaten track, and you get to listen to your own music, consume your own food and drink and best of all, won’t have to watch yet another boring safety demonstration. More than any other form of transportation, a road trip confirms the cliche that “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. After spending several days or hours in close proximity to your travel buddies, mind you, the destination might start to look quite appealing…
I’ll admit it, I’m not the biggest fan of long haul bus trips. Sure they tend to be cheap, and in some cases are the only viable way to get from place to place, but 20 hours in a dodgy bus wouldn’t be something that I’d usually go for in preference to a cheap plane ticket. For shorter trips though, they can be a good choice – National Express in the UK isn’t a completely terrible option, and the north eastern cities in the US have several cheap, well-equipped buses servicing them. Some, like Bolt Bus, even have power and free wi-fi onboard. Four hours catching up on emails in a leather seat between New York and Boston for twenty bucks, rather than the hassles and delays of JFK and Logan? Yeah, I’ll take that thanks.
All of the guide books and travel sites warn against hitchhiking these days, and probably with good justification in some cases – it’s become more dangerous and a lot less acceptable in some countries than it was a few decades ago. Having said that, there’s still plenty of people out there that do it, both for short trips and much longer ones. For god’s sake don’t take this as any kind of recommendation, but if you’re looking for an ultra cheap, flexible adventure to get you to your destination, hitching is certainly one way of doing it. It’s a perfectly normal thing to do in those parts of the world where cars (and in fact any sort of motorised transport) are uncommon, for instance. If you’re not comfortable with the risks involved, make a different choice – otherwise take a few sensible precautions, follow your instincts and you’ll probably get where you’re aiming for just fine. Just don’t blame me if you don’t.
There’s so many options when it comes to travelling on the water, from cruise ships to inner tubes, short hops to half way round the world, and everything in between. Ferries between neighbouring countries or islands can be a cheap alternative to flying, especially if you are a walk-up passenger, and some rides – between the North and South Island of New Zealand, for instance – take you through beautiful parts of the world that you just don’t see by plane. If time is on your side, a cruise ship may be an interesting option, and not always that much more expensive. River boats in the Mekong, felucas on the Nile, yachting around the Mediterranean or Caribbean – all viable and even, dare I say it, far more fun alternatives to spending any time whatsoever at an airport.
Let’s face it, you’re not going to burn many calories on a plane. Unless you’re planning on joining the mile high club, the only exercise you’re likely to get is from squirming around in your seat trying vainly to get comfortable or chewing the indigestible slop that masquerades as airline food. If you’re looking to get buns of steel en-route to your destination, cycling could be the answer instead. Eco-friendly, slow travel that gets you looking great and meeting new people along the way. What more could you ask? Whether it’s a slow dawdle through the French countryside or something just a little more hardcore, you’ll be talking about your journey for years to come. Probably a lot longer than, say, any plane ride you’re likely to take. Ever.
If two wheels are your thing but propelling them yourself isn’t, it’s time to find a motorbike. From the Easy Rider tours in Vietnam to taking the long way round from London to New York, there’s a road bike, dirt bike, chopper or scooter that’ll fit the bill nicely. With most of the advantages of having your own car and even more freedom to travel where, how and when you like, it’ll turn your routine journey into an adventure. The hard core bikers out there wouldn’t even consider anything else. For the rest of us, it’s still one hell of an exciting option. Even if, like me, you’re likely to put anything bigger than a moped into the nearest ditch.
In some parts of the world – Europe and parts of Asia, for instance – the high speed rail system makes train travel a delight. Fast, regular, reliable services run between major centres and the slower local trains often wend their way through spectacular countryside. Depending on distance it can actually be quicker to take the train from city centre to city centre rather than fighting your way to and from the airport and spending hours in various queues – taking the Eurostar from London to Paris is a prime example. The trip itself is also much more comfortable than sitting crammed with your knees touching your forehead in an economy plane seat, with sleeper options often available on longer services. The food usually still sucks though. Some things never change.
There are a number of other options that I’ve left off this list, not because they aren’t awesome ways to travel but because other than for the comedy value they aren’t really sensible alternatives to flying. So yeah, journeying on the back of a camel, or by Alaskan dog sled, or by rowing across the Pacific will need to wait for a different post, about the craziest ways of getting from somewhere to somewhere else entirely…
What’s your preferred means of transport? Does the speed of flying make up for the pain of the process, or do you choose anything else when you have the chance?