Welcome to the First Class carriage of the 9.10 from Barcelona to Paris.
I wouldn’t normally travel First Class, but these were the cheapest seats by far (€49) — a fact abundantly evident in the crowded aisles of the carriage.
There’s a family of five occupying the three seats ahead of me (fair play to them), beside an American husband and wife team with divergent approaches to crash-learning French in the six hours before we arrive.
The wife is patiently grinding her way through Duolingo, writing out convoluted sentences like ‘Voulez-vous aller en voiture au magasin?’ (‘Do you want to drive to the shop?’), while the husband taps ‘Hello, how are you?’ into Google Translate — whereupon the app promptly crashes. He’s now playing Candy Crush.
I’m three legs into my four-legged journey back to the UK from Portugal. I left Lisbon late on Wednesday evening and, after sliding through Madrid and Barcelona, I’m due back in Bournemouth tomorrow evening.
All the friends I was staying with in Lisbon will be making the same journey by plane, a fact that’s made me reflect on why I chose to travel overland instead.
It comes down to the three essential factors of any journey, which I shall pretentiously call the Travel Triangle:
- How long does it take?
- How much does it cost?
- How comfortable is the traveller before, during and after the journey?
Most people probably only think of the first two sides of the travel triangle when they’re planning their holidays and, thanks to government subsidies and low-cost airlines, planes are perceived as both faster (obviously) and cheaper (criminally).
That’s why I want to spend a little bit of time exploring how on earth I managed to end up with an overland itinerary that was not only justifiable according to the travel triangle, but actually preferable on all three sides compared to flying.
Plane versus train: speed test
Firstly, let’s look at what would happen if we tried to match up trains versus planes on the plane’s strongest side of the travel triangle: time.
Although my overland journey will take three nights and days, I’ve calculated that it is technically possible to leave Lisbon at 10.30am and arrive in Bournemouth the following afternoon:
- 1030-0505 Coach from Lisbon to Bordeaux
- 0558-0929 Train from Bordeaux to Paris
- 1113-1230 Eurostar from Paris to London
- 1315-1600 Train from London to Bournemouth
Unfortunately, this hectic itinerary would lose out to flying on all three sides of the travel triangle:
- At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
- One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
- On this schedule, the poor traveller would not only miss out on a night’s sleep, but also spend 25 out of those 30 hours on their backside. Not healthy.
Using the travel triangle, it’s easy to see that long distance overland travel cannot compete with planes on speed. If you need to get somewhere as soon as physically possible, it’ll probably be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable to fly. Sorry.
But there is good news!
If we tweak our itinerary to favour the strengths of overland travel rather than the strengths of flying, then it’s not hard to come up with journeys where overlanding is not only justifiable, but preferable — on all three sides of the travel triangle.
Train versus plane: rematch
The following sentence sums up the great strength of overland travel:
No one (but no one) wants their plane to stop mid-way.
(Once upon a time, while waiting for a delayed train in Brussels, I heard a fellow traveller lauding this particular benefit of air travel: ‘At least you either arrive or you don’t.’)
Assuming that most people don’t wish to disembark mid-way, my friends who fly get two stops: London and Lisbon.
In stark contrast, my terrestrial alternative needs freakin’ bullet points to encompass the delightful array of city breaks I’ll enjoy:
- London (twice)
- Paris (twice)
This was my first trip abroad since 2019, during which time two friends had moved out of London to live in Paris and Bayonne respectively. So, when my co-writer Beth Granville suggested working together for a week in Lisbon, I immediately knew I could plan a trip that fully exploited the strengths of overlanding.
In Paris, Tim and I did some hiking in Rudenoise and Chantilly; in Bayonne I got to hang out with friends in Basque country, hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenées and visiting the pretty towns of Sare and Saint Jean-de-Luz; in Madrid I met up with a new friend who’ll be cycling with us on Thighs of Steel this summer; and in Barcelona I got to sleep off a cold I picked up in the Saharan dust storm that hit Lisbon on Tuesday.
As I write these words, our train is passing over a narrow spit of land that bisects a vast lagoon on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. It would have been easy to have added yet more adventures to my journey — the Algarve and Andalucía, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Montpellier and Nîmes.
The lesson is that, if we plan itineraries that take advantage of overlanding’s great strength, then the travel triangle magically starts to work in our favour.
Round 1: Cost
Yes, the face value of point-to-point train tickets are often more expensive than the plane equivalents, but this all changes when we start to add stops.
My overland journey from Bournemouth to Lisbon and back cost me £366.
(Incidentally, the London-Bournemouth leg is both the shortest and, horrifyingly, very nearly the most expensive of the entire journey.)
I booked only three weeks before I left and, while it’s reasonable to say that I didn’t get the best prices, it’s also true that I probably couldn’t do it very much cheaper. The Man In Seat 61 suggests around £300.
(Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to add the cost of overnight stays to the overall cost of overland travel because that’s all part of the holiday. For full disclosure, however: I stayed with friends in Paris and Bayonne and spent £60 on two nights in Madrid and Barcelona.)
Looking at flights, I can see that Bournemouth to Lisbon and back costs around £220-240. So flying direct would have saved me about £120 — but only if I’d been happy to miss out on seeing my friends.
(Note: If you book further in advance, and want to spend the night near Stansted Airport, you can get cheaper flight-based journeys at around £170-200 return from Bournemouth. But I want to compare apples with apples. Thanks to JCK for this research!)
If we only include my longer stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, then travelling by plane would have cost another £140. If I were to add Madrid and Barcelona as well, then flying would be sheer craziness.
Take home message: overlanding with stops is cheaper than flying with stops.
Trains 1 Planes 0
Round 2: Time
With cost out of the equation, the decisive factor in choosing between overlanding and flying will, for most people, be time.
I’m not talking about the time taken for each leg of the journey — the longest of my overland journeys was eight hours, which is less than I would have needed to get from Bournemouth to Lisbon by plane.
I’m talking about the total amount of time the traveller has for the whole trip — and how they want or need to spend that time.
If you have two weeks’ holiday and you want to visit friends in Paris and Bayonne or stop by Barcelona and Madrid on your way to Lisbon, then travelling overland is the best way for you to travel. End of.
If you only have a week’s holiday, then Lisbon is off the cards for overlanders unless you’re prepared for the hectic itinerary that opened this piece. Sorry.
The same is true if, for some reason, you need to be in Lisbon for as much of the whole two weeks as possible.
For example: flying to Lisbon would occupy about 6 percent of a two week stay. Even at its fastest, overlanding gobbles up 18 percent, with a more relaxed itinerary swallowing 22 percent of your total time away.
On this occasion, for me, the time allowed for the whole trip was flexible — a few days either side would have made no difference.
But overlanding did help me change the way I spent my holiday, not only by allowing those stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, but also in moments like this, where I have the time and comfort to do some writing.
(In fact, if you are lucky enough to be able to do actual work on the long train journeys, then you might even be able to earn back the cost of overlanding — good for you!)
Trains 2 Planes 0
Round 3: Comfort
This is where things become a little more personal, as we all define ‘comfort’ in different ways:
- How anxious does this mode of transport make you feel — both before you leave and during the journey?
- How many bags do you need to take?
- How much space do you need?
- How much information do you need to feel reassured?
- How comfortable are you operating in foreign languages and in unfamiliar cities?
- Militarised airport security, train ticket barriers or coach driver whimsy?
- Drinks trolley, buffet car or service station?
- How do you feel when you arrive?
For me, trains win on every count, every time. Coaches are a bit more problematic: less information, less space, less smooth — but I’d still choose them over the airport security and border checks that make me feel like a pre-criminal.
Trains 3 Planes 0
Think of the children!
Many people choose to go Flight Free because of the massive 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions when travelling overland compared to flying.
According to recent research by The Jump, individual citizens have primary influence over 25-27 percent of the total emissions savings needed to stop ecological breakdown. That’s pretty cool. It means that we can all take direct action today.
(Note: this 25-27 percent figure is an average and lower income groups are responsible for far fewer emissions. The more you earn, the greater your obligation to change.)
Of this 25-27 percent, reducing our use of aeroplanes to one short haul flight every three years would deliver a 2 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
That’s a bloody good reason to stop flying. But it’s not my reason.
I have never chosen overlanding because of its lower impact on the environment and I’ve taken too many flights in my lifetime to waste my time preaching to anyone else.
I choose overlanding because, for me, it’s the most comfortable, most connected and most creative way to travel.
Now that’s what I call a travel triangle.