Travel is cheap. Apparently.
If, like me, you grew up in a comfortably privileged middle-class background with access to cheap Ryanair flights to random European cities, you probably are used to hearing the message that travel is essential.
Without travel, we were told, we wouldn’t fully broaden our minds or ‘find ourselves.’ Classmates saved up for gap years volunteering in Thailand or weekend trips to Ibiza with The Girls. Instagrammers on sunny balconies in Milan or Bali told us anyone can travel and how transformational it is.
And if you only had about £5 in savings? Apparently all that was needed was true determination to find a way. Determination and, of course, a willingness to spend hours browsing ticket price comparison websites and take 9-hour coach journeys and decide that you coincidentally really wanted to visit that remote Swedish town that happens to be the cheapest destination.
What I’m getting at is that travel is a privilege. Regardless of how many blog posts tell us that money is no barrier, it’s not just a question of how much is in your bank account. We don’t all have the freedom to escape our jobs at short notice and ‘treat ourselves’ to a weekend away.
Well-meaning adverts telling us to dive into a new culture are not just targeted at a very specific demographic, they also perpetuate the insulting connotation that those who don’t travel widely lack experience, or some mystical grain of insight that all those backpacking teenagers have gained.
Our Western social context treats international travel not as a luxury, but as some kind of inherent right. A notion that because we can afford to go across the world for fun, that we should.
Travel has a financial cost, but also an environmental one: 95% of transport energy still comes from fossil fuels. Essential transport still contributes a hell of a lot to global greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and that’s not including holidays and other leisure trips.
Since COVID-19 became the new dictator of our daily lives, we’ve been forced to re-acquaint ourselves with the notion of travelling only when it’s essential. Spontaneous weekend breaks don’t fall under that category, and a desire to ‘find yourself’ definitely doesn’t.
I travelled home to the UK at the weekend. The Tube was silent, the Eurostar methodical about social distancing. Kings Cross station eerily quiet. The shift in the role travel is playing in our lives is visible.
As airlines struggle to recover from the economic fallout of the virus and the UK government releases bizarre adverts trying to promote domestic tourism without spreading the virus, it’s a chance to change our relationship with travel.
All this non-essential travel has a cost: a financial cost, an environmental cost, and now a deadly health cost. It’s an activity that inherently carries with it consequences on other people, and on the planet.
And in our current system, this cost isn’t reflected in how much we pay or the necessity of the trip. Before COVID, tickets to Berlin with huge carbon emissions could go for £20 but a necessary work commute to the next town could cost twice that.
The idea that travel broadens your mind isn’t groundless. Travelling is a fantastic opportunity and for some, leaving home and going abroad allows them to pursue futures that aren’t available where they currently are.
But the value that travel brings doesn’t automatically correlate with the number of cities visited, and other countries aren’t just playgrounds for the wealthy. We need to shift our sense of entitlement to easy and cheap international travel.
I’m not saying it’s compulsory to take away some deep insights from every trip you do take. But if we keep abusing our privileged ability to travel, we take away that same privilege for future generations and in our hurry to knock items off the bucket list, we will destroy the locations we’re so desperate to see.
I write about climate action and sustainability. If you want to hear more like this, you can follow me here or find me on Instagram @coffee_and_casstaways, Twitter @casstaways. For work or other enquiries, email me at email@example.com.