Flying sucks. We all know that.
When Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial flights on 11 September 2001, did they foresee the long-term consequences of their actions? Not only the deaths of 3,000 people, but also the millions of dead hours wasted by millions of travellers shuffling slowly in queues, having already crammed their toothpaste into a clear plastic bag and removed their shoes to be X-rayed.
For 22 years, the most advanced and hitherto the most glamorous form of travel has been reduced to a grinding, dispiriting conveyor belt.
However, even as some of those restrictions are coming to an end, we are coming to understand that hydrocarbon-fuelled aviation should not be the whole future of travel if we truly value our planet, and indeed our own species. There are, potentially, other and better ways to fly but these are not currently available.
Precious summer holiday
For many people, their precious summer holiday is still firmly predicated upon flying somewhere nice and then hiring a car to get around. How far, after all, can you really get otherwise?
This brings me to my curious and permanently restless husband. We rarely go back to the same place twice and tend to explore our chosen location in ever-widening, motorised circles. In contrast, I’m at risk of turning into a proper public transport nerd. One of my favourite things to do in any new place is to crack the local transit system – to find out how the locals get about. In a car, you skim across the surface of places. To really immerse yourself, you need to get on a bus.
Increasingly, I am pushing for our holidays to be less fly/drive-centric. This summer, I scored a major victory.
The Baltic rim
I spotted an enticing triangle – Stockholm to Helsinki to Tallinn and then back to Stockholm can all be done by ferry. Not cruise ships, just ordinary passenger, roll-on roll-off ferries. Here were three European capitals that we had never visited and which could be accessed by sea crossings where we would sleep in cabins decorated with Moomins. That’s right, DECORATED WITH MOOMINS! Would this cut it, I wondered?
The idea went down well with both the husband and the teenager but – and really, I should have predicted this – it expanded somewhat.
The teenager pointed out that we could get to Stockholm from Copenhagen by train, via the 8km bridge that connects Denmark to Sweden. I don’t have much of a bucket list, but the Øresund Bridge is definitely on it, as it probably is for the thousands of fans around the world of Malmö’s most famous fictional detective, Saga Norén.
Now we were up to four European capitals. Why stop there? Rather than return to Stockholm from Estonia, we opted to push further south to Latvia. Riga is a straightforward four-hour bus journey from Tallinn. And surely it was only reasonable to complete our expedition around the Baltic rim by finishing in Lithuania?
But that turned out to be a step too far. There is no easy way back to Manchester from Vilnius. Here’s where I hold my hands up. This wasn’t a flight-free holiday. We flew into Copenhagen from Manchester and back home from Riga. It is certainly possible to get from Manchester to Copenhagen by train or bus, but it takes a couple of days. Longer if you want to sleep at any point. That was too tough a sell. My intention this time was simply to prove that a rewarding holiday doesn’t have to involve a Jumbo Jet and a grey Fiat 500 from Hertz.
Did it work? Yes, beautifully. All five countries are in the Schengen area so once we had entered Denmark, there were no bottlenecks caused by passport and luggage checks.
At Copenhagen main station, we strolled down to platform 26 to catch the train to Stockholm. It was considerably more leisurely than the Le Mans-style crush that we regularly endure at Euston. The seat reservation system worked too – a distinct novelty for those of us accustomed to Avanti or Northern Trains.
We had been particularly looking forward to the Stockholm to Helsinki crossing but when we got to the ferry terminal, our hearts sank. There were hundreds of people waiting in the lounge. It seemed likely we’d have to face some airport-style queues after all. But no. The credit card-sized boarding passes got everyone through the electronic gates in a matter of minutes and then doubled up as cabin door keys as well. Again, we were reminded that, with no need to check passports and luggage, travelling doesn’t have to be a miserable experience.
The ferry was a behemoth. As well as the foot passengers, dozens of massive lorries and hundreds of cars were efficiently packed onto the lower decks. The crossing takes 16 hours. There’s no getting away from that, you do have to build it in to your itinerary. But it’s an overnight trip so what you spend on the ticket, you save on the price of a hotel room. We had a standard cabin (complete with Moomin decals) with two single beds and two fold-out bunks above. Attached was a decent en suite with a really good shower.
90% of world trade is transported by sea and global shipping accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions. It’s hard to know exactly how ‘green’ our crossing was. But there is no doubt that this one single trip transported more people than several flights, as well as keeping cars and lorries off the roads.
The Helsinki to Tallinn ferry leaves from Helsinki’s stunning West Terminal. It is not only beautiful, but is designed to make embarking and disembarking as smooth and snag-free as possible. It’s a wonderful example of the modern architecture scattered throughout the Finnish capital. The journey takes two hours and there are several crossings a day. For Helsinki residents, a day trip to Tallinn’s mediaeval old town (plus a chance to stock up on alcohol which is far less extortionately-priced in Estonia than in Finland) is undoubtedly as normal an experience as a quick booze cruise over to Calais used to be for me and my family in Kent. As a bonus, the Tallink ferries use Liquefied Natural Gas.
The final leg of our marathon was Tallinn to Riga. A local bus got us from Tallinn’s Baltijaam (railway station) to the Bussijaam (bus station) where we boarded an enormous coach. Seat belts, air-conditioning and even an aeroplane-style entertainment system with films, games and a progress tracker to keep you entertained during what is undeniably a not-terribly-exciting road trip.
Yes, a couple. Our booking out of Copenhagen got rescheduled from 9am to midday. We were given plenty of notice but no explanation and no chance of negotiation. It didn’t matter to us but it could potentially be awkward if one had other commitments.
And the ferry crossing we booked from Helsinki to Tallinn disappeared. We weren’t told about this, we discovered it only when we tried to check in for an 11:30am crossing that no longer existed. The staff were charming and apologetic. They re-booked us on the 1:30pm ferry and gave us business lounge access in compensation. It’s hard to imagine that happening in today’s UK. The attitude is more likely to be, ‘you didn’t turn up at the right time, you’ll have to buy another ticket’. Again, it wasn’t a problem to us but that’s hardly the point.
We also booked all these journeys in advance. I don’t know how easy it would be simply to rock up and buy a ticket. That would presumably be subject to availability and the journeys we made were all pretty full.
Would we do this again? For sure, in a heartbeat. The romance of travel is not dead, you just have to think laterally. In fact, don’t tell the family, but I’m already making plans to complete the set by going from Oslo to Vilnius next summer.