My body tingles with excitement as we await the departure of the 13.31 Eurostar train to Paris. We’re on the first leg of our five stage journey to the Greek island of Corfu: the place where Nathan and I fell in love almost 17 years ago… and now the destination of our very first family holiday.
The significance of returning to Corfu with Zephyr makes the trip particularly special but that’s not the only thing giving me butterflies in my stomach. This holiday has been a long time coming and has taken several days worth of research, planning, booking and confirming to get us sat in the tidy, wide, reclining seats of the Eurostar. After such a prolonged build-up and having spent many an evening immersed in research, being at the very start of the journey feels both exhilarating and intense. I’m acutely aware that if I’ve made just one little mistake in the timing of things, not left enough transfer time between trains for example, the whole thread could disintegrate and we could find ourselves stranded – and only able to move on at great expense. So as I sit here in my unsettled (bordering on mild anxiety) state, I try to enjoy the sensation of being at the beginning, of not knowing how it’ll all pan out and of hoping we arrive in Corfu on Friday morning as planned!
Of course, it was partly a desire to inject into our holiday some of the adventure and wonderlust we had enjoyed pre-parenthood that led us to opt for taking the train and ferry versus the plane. Our main motivation though was to travel in a way that would minimise our impact on the environment. As we plan to be away for a little over three weeks, the extended journey feels doable. Plus, Zephyr loves traveling by train and is currently obsessed with a well-known tank engine named Thomas, so all in all our plane-free trip makes a lot of sense.
I knew we would be saving a fair few kilogrammes of CO2 by choosing not to fly but I was surprised to find that a return flight to Corfu yields a whopping 1646kg of CO2 equivalent (I used Choose Climate’s online carbon calculator – recommended by The Guardian as one of the better ones for air travel calculations) . – The ‘equivalent’ part is a universally recognised measurement that allows for the comparison of different greenhouse gases based on their ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. In the case of aviation emissions, their increased effect on climate change – via nitrogen oxides, water vapour and the fact that CO2 emitted at high altitude causes greater damage – can be accounted for by multiplying CO2 emisions by DEFRA’s recommended Radiative Forcing factor of 1.891.
When you consider that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, every man, woman and child on the planet will need to stabilise their annual personal carbon footprint at 1500kg by 2050, 1646kg emitted on a return flight looks somewhat incompatible with living a sustainable lifestyle*. By contrast, the same return journey taken by train and ferry emits 124kg of CO2 (according to calculations I made using Carbon Footprint’s calculator and Carbon Independent’s estimation of ferry travel emissions). This works out at over 13 times less carbon than flying. For those of us concerned about our impact on the environment, minimising plane travel has got to be a major consideration.
Needless to say, traveling by train and ferry to Corfu takes significantly longer than an EasyJet flight: 45 hours door-to-door it turns out as compared to around 7 by plane. It is also, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, a bit more expensive. Not, as some people assume, on account of the high prices charged by train companies (train travel within Europe is actually pretty reasonable) but as a result of the enormous tax breaks the aviation industry benefits from. Did you know that the UK government subsidises the airline industry to the tune of £8.5 billion every year? – That’s around £320 each year from every UK household. And that a £150 return flight to Corfu would cost an extra £133 if a fuel tax and duty were applied to flight prices in the same way they are to petrol?
Still, it’s a little known fact that for those of us with a child (or children) between the ages of 2 and 4, the cost of traveling by train is comparable to traveling by plane. This is because although airlines start charging full whack for children once they turn 2, train companies wait until they’re aged 4 – and even then they pay a much reduced fare. This means that whilst the train and ferry (and a 3 mile taxi ride) from London to Corfu cost nearly £600 for the three of us, a return flight from London Gatwick to Corfu booking around the same time would have cost us approximately £450 (including baggage but excluding Nathan’s guitar – both of which were free on the train and ferry). So if you’ve got time, a young family and an adventurous spirit, traveling to your European holiday destination by train and ferry is not as expensive as you’d first think. It is however several times less damaging to the environment.
My meticulous nature means I spent a great deal of time researching our various travel options, but it has to be said: train travel within Europe is a lot easier than it used to be thanks to specialist train booking site Loco2. Whereas previously you’d have to search for and book each leg of the journey separately according to which train company serviced the route, with Loco2 you can book the entire train journey from start to finish (in our case London – Bari) with one search.
Booking the ferry from Bari in Southern Italy to Corfu was a little less straightforward. There is no definitive site for booking ferries to and from Greece although Greek Ferries positions themselves as offering the service. A plethora of companies purport to run ferries from Italy (Bari, Brindisi and Ancona) and mainland Greece (Patra and Igoumenitsa) but as far as I could tell only one (Superfast) does the Bari-Corfu route, certainly during the month of May when we wanted to travel. Frankly, I found the whole thing quite confusing and I suspect the fact that we were traveling out of season made it that little bit trickier. Still, after much to-ing and fro-ing and some playing around with dates and times of trains so as to match the one ferry a week with the requisite train timetables, I booked an overnight ferry making up the itinerary we now find ourselves part way through. For the record here it is:
After a slight (half hour) delay – not nearly enough to make us miss our next train: overnight from Paris to Milan – we were on our way. As if to ease us in gently, Zephyr slept for the first half of the two and a half hour journey to Paris. When he woke up he was chilled as you like, tucking into the M&S bought humus and pitta bread and sitting quietly listening to Julia Donaldson CDs on his newly stickered-up CD player.
And so it was that after a relaxed start to our journey, we arrived in Paris feeling optimistic and inspired about the remaining 40 hours ahead of us…
To be continued…
Tips for booking your European holiday by train and ferry
- Use seat61.com to check out possible routes for your journey
- If your journey involves ferry travel, be sure to research this part first so that you can work any train travel around it
- Use loco2.com to book train travel within Europe – you can book the whole journey through them and they’ll even calculate how much carbon your journey will emit…
- If you don’t mind taking on the responsibility of missed trains yourself, you can save a few pennies by booking each leg separately (eg. we booked the first two legs London-Paris and Paris – Milan via Loco2 and the third leg separately via TrenItalia).
- Save money on the ferry by not booking a cabin and opting for a reclining seat or deck travel instead. We were booked to stay on the deck which believe it or not means sleeping outside (!) but in practice the ferry was far from full (and we were told usually runs at far less than capacity) so we got to stretch out across 4 seats each. OK, so it’s a long way from a VIP cruise but made for a perfectly good night’s sleep (especially after sampling the local dessert wine!)
This post is the first in series detailing our adventures travelling by train and ferry for our family holiday to Corfu and Italy.
*I confess, I’m not a scientist and I couldn’t work out whether the figures given for annual personal carbon footprints referred to carbon or carbon dioxide. My limited understanding tells me that the two are different but I can’t tell how exactly they relate! The figures I’ve given for plane, train and ferry travel emissions are definitely for CO2 so an accurate comparison with targets for an annual personal carbon footprint would likewise need to be for CO2 emissions. I suspect that 1646kg emitted on a return flight would in any case be incompatible with a sustainable lifestyle, but it would be good to have accurate figures! If anyone out there can clear this up for me, please do so…