Grounded adventures

Four years without flying

Last week I felt a mix of emotions hearing about great talks and fun at iOS Conf SG. Four years ago in 2020, flying back from Singapore to London after speaking at the conference was the last time I went on a plane.

Photo of London at night from a plane window.
My last flight landing over London in the early morning on 20 January 2020.

From 2016, I flew around the world as a digital nomad, but by 2019 the high environmental impact of flying was weighing on me. In this article, I’ll talk about my journey from globetrotter to not flying at all. I’ll cover what I’ve been doing instead to be happy with my lifestyle.

Flying as a digital nomad

I had a great time during my ‘digital nomad years’ from 2016 until early 2020. I mostly travelled within Europe, but I was also fortunate to have trips to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Thailand. I loved exploring the world and experiencing the diverse cultures.

If often found it hard to stay any one place for long time, partly because of things like Christmas and weddings and company retreats, and partly because I had no strong reason to be anywhere in particular for a long time.

Following digital nomad communities like Nomad List, there seems to be a consensus that most people gradually shift from ‘nomads’ to ‘slowmads’. The novelty of moving often wears off, and instead it’s more appealing to go back to the same places you’ve been before and stay for several months at a time. This is essentially having two or three homes. A key benefit is you can build a social circle in each place and strengthen it with each visit.

While many digital nomads favour warm places like Bali, Thailand, Mexico and Portugal, the place I kept going back to was Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps over winter. The mountains are beautiful, and there are many fantastic places to ski at the weekends. (Digital snowmad?)

Switching to trains in Europe

Travelling by plane is hugely damaging to the environment. The number of flights happening today isn’t sustainable with current technologies. It’s easy for ‘sustainable’ to become a buzzword, but not being sustainable means that flying as humanity does today will not be possible in the future. Technological progress will regress.

Going into 2019, the high environmental impact of flying was weighing on me. Trains are much better in that respect. Fortunately I’m European, and we have an excellent train network across most of western Europe. My personal goal at the time was to never fly in Europe again (unless a sustainable means of doing so becomes possible). At the time, I didn’t see a way to avoid flights to go further afield.

Photo of a Eurostar train at London Saint Pancras station
Eurostar at London St. Pancras station.

After a couple of trips — London to Switzerland to Berlin and London to Barcelona — it was obvious that train travel worked well for me.

How about not travelling at all?

Of course, compared to travelling by train you can have an ever lower environmental impact not travelling so far. Or not at all. It wasn’t the plan, but 2020 and 2021 showed us just how little it was possible to travel. I waited out the worst of the covid-19 pandemic in England. It was easy to have a low carbon footprint when we were hardly allowed to leave our homes.

Thus the covid-19 pandemic gave me a nearly two-year no-flying streak through no choice on my part.

That said, as a nomad, I sometimes felt like I was moving without purpose. I was wandering the world for the sake of it. Travelling was my hobby, and frankly I had become a bit bored with it.

Moving again

As the public health situation in the UK became better towards the end of 2021, and we were allowed to go out and do things, I started lessons in ice skating and kitesurfing (and later on, wakeboarding). These were effectively replacements for travelling as a hobby. But with the travel restrictions lifting, I missed the mountains and what I really wanted to do was go skiing.

My base is a rural area close to London where avoiding using a car is not particularly practical. I put my lockdown savings into buying myself an electric car, and soon after set off in it for the mountains. In early 2022, I was back in Innsbruck for a couple of months, and it was fabulous.

Photo of snowy mountains and valley
‎⁨View above Hopfgarten im Brixental.⁩

Later in 2022, I resumed occasional train travel within Europe. It was a delight to catch up with friends across the continent who I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. New family members had appeared!

I’m not sure when I decided I was on a deliberate no flying streak. At first, I was anxious about going on a plane because of covid. However with no WWDC or any other iOS development conferences, there wasn’t a strong push to fly for a specific reason.

I’m pleased to see these conferences are back (except WWDC only partially), but I’ve found I’m OK without intercontinental travel. I like my newfound hobbies and want to see how long I can make my no-flying streak.

The overland travel mindset

The main concerns about overland travel compared to flying are usually cost and time. These are practical concerns that will have a different impact for everyone. I won’t talk about that for now, but I will say how I found adopting a different mindset beneficial.


Trains are usually more expensive than flying. I assume this is still true, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t look at the prices of flights. Given I decided not to fly, reminding myself of the difference isn’t going to be helpful. I’m an obsessive planner and optimiser, so I book in advance to help keep the price down, but in the end I just acknowledge the overland cost as the cost of travel.

I hope that a societal shift can move the economies of scale away from flying towards lower-carbon forms of transport, but we’re not on right track for this so far.

Coming from the UK, Eurostar is unavoidable and is especially expensive. I’m going to Berlin this July, and the cheapest Eurostar tickets were already taken at popular weekend times when booking in November: eight months in advance!


For a shorter journey like London to Paris (340 km) or London to Amsterdam (360 km), the overhead of air travel is likely to result in the train being faster, but it depends on your exact start and end locations. For longer journeys, flying is faster, but it can still feel like the journey takes up a day. Most places I want to go to are possible in a day on train, even Vienna to London (1200 km).

I usually work on trains, so the time doesn’t feel wasted. Not being able to make use of this time would be a huge drawback.

For very long trips that can’t be done in one day, you’re on an adventure. The journey should be a part of the experience. Staying overnight may mean you get to see a city you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you have the time the very best way is to travel just a few hours in between the checkout and checkin times of your accommodation, so there’s plenty of time to settle in and see the city.

I love feeling connected to the ground. On a plane you can get the sense that the places you go are separate worlds. You disappear in one world and appear in another. On a train, you see the fields, forests and towns in between. It’s a reminder we’re on one connected planet.

Examples journeys

Below are more details about a couple of my trips. If you want to learn more about train travel, the ultimate resource is The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

London to Berlin (930 km)

Low-cost flights have made going on a weekend city trip in Europe very practical. If you work Monday to Friday, this is a way to see friends and cities across the continent while taking no time off work (or perhaps a minimal amount). You might think this kind of trip is impossible by train, but if you can work remotely, you can probably work on a train.

Recently, I planned to trip to Berlin with friends to meet a new baby in the group. Some time-constrained friends who live in London went by plane and needed to take Friday afternoon off work for this. Setting off from the same place, I took the Eurostar Friday morning, followed by Deutsche Bahn. I did a full day of work on the trains and arrived in Berlin an hour or two after my friends. I’d say I came out ahead though.

London to Budapest (1500 km)

Last summer, our PSPDFKit retreat was in Budapest. This is too far to reach from London in one day, so I thought about the nicest way to split the journey.

I left home near London around Friday lunchtime, taking an afternoon Eurostar into Brussels followed by an ÖBB Nightjet to Vienna, arriving on Saturday morning. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to spend a night but did make very efficient use of time since I covered such a large distance overnight. In Vienna, I went wakeboarding on the Neue Donau and stayed with friends Saturday night. On Sunday, I joined my Vienna-based PSPDFKit colleagues on the train to Budapest to meet up with the rest of the team. Overall a very relaxed and enjoyable way to make the journey.

Sunny photo of cable wakeboard park by river with a queue of people on the dock
Wakeboarding in Vienna.

After a busy week with the company and a few extra days in Budapest, I made my way back via a weekend in Bratislava and a few days in my top city Innsbruck to see the maintains in the summer.

Since this was a bigger trip, an Interrail/Eurail pass was a cheaper option than booking the tickets separately. You might still get better prices separately if booking well in advance, so it’s worth checking both possibilities. One advantage of the pass is you can decide your route and times last-minute (except for on the Eurostar).

What do I miss about flying?

I miss the conferences. The single event I miss most is Apple’s WWDC. However, this event has evolved into being online-first so it wouldn’t be the same even if I did still fly. The iOS/Swift developer community is a wonderful professional community, and WWDC brought us together from across the world.

I miss the cultural diversity. One country I particularly miss is Japan, where I was lucky enough to have trips in 2016 and 2019. It would be a dream to go around the world without flying and visit Japan again on the way, but practically I’m not sure this is going to happen.

Photo of temple steps up a mossy hillside in Japan
Kyoto. It’s very nice.

Environmental impact aside, I believe a more connected world is a better world. Travelling to experience a range of cultures and make friends across the globe makes you a better person. It’s tragic to lose this by not flying.

What’s next

Some friends are getting married in Greece this spring, which I’m taking as a challenge to push my no-flying boundaries. The route looks very doable. The minimum journey time is three days, but I’m going to spread this over ten days on the way out and five on the way back because it’s about the journey as well as the destination. I’ll see a few towns along the Adriatic coast of Italy and wake up on a ferry seeing the shores of Greece. I’ve booked most of my tickets already on Trainline.

Life is full of surprises, and perhaps sometime a situation will arise that leads me to fly somewhere, but for now I have no intention to end my no-flying streak. Looking at the last couple of years and my plans for 2024, my years are spent with 8–9 months at home in the UK, two months in Innsbruck, and around a month elsewhere. I still have adventures, but they’re closer to home in Europe. The slowmads were right: It’s nice to focus your life on a smaller number of places. I really enjoy having a firmer base with actual hobbies like ice skating and wakeboarding (like a more typical person) instead of travelling as a hobby.


Seeing people having a good time at iOS Conf SG last week, I was happy for them, and it was a nice reminder of the great experience I had there four years ago. But underlying this, I felt a deeper sadness to be missing out. I’m sad that we can choose to travel and have friends across the globe (as I did in the past), but there’s an intangible cost to doing so. It’s not an easy choice to make.

Please consider the environmental impact of your travel choices, and think with an open mind if there are alternatives that would still let you get what you want out of life.