The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Flying 2019 – Let’s get to the Achilles Verses of Tourism
view from the airplane at bogota a big city in colombia

The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Flying 2019 – Let’s get to the Achilles Verses of Tourism

This post is also available in: Deutsch

In times of Instagram and YouTube we get almost daily pictures of beautiful exotic destinations. We love to travel. To help you reach your destination as sustainably as possible, the following article will give you my ultimate tips and resources for sustainable flying. You will learn why flying is a serious problem for our planet, when we better not fly, and what we all can do when a plane needs to be boarded. Let’s go.

Is flying really so harmful to the environment?

Yes, unfortunately flying is very harmful to the environment and the climate. This is because the kerosene that an aircraft needs to fly emits an incredible amount of CO2 when it burns. To be exact, in 2016 it was 201 grams per passenger kilometre (Pkm). The aircrafts were about 82% fully occupied. But this number does not tell us anything now. Let’s compare it with other means of transport: With an average of 1.5 people travelling in a car, the car needs 139 g/Pkm, that’s about 30% less. It would even be much more efficient if we weren’t travelling alone so often. The railways, on the other hand, only need 36 g/km for long-distance traffic. Here, only half-full trains are expected. And the long-distance bus, which is about 60% full, is even a bit better at 32 g/Pkm. Even if each individual seat would always be occupied, the aircraft consumes more than three times the amount of emissions of other means of transport. So it makes sense for all of us to always take the means of transport that consumes the least CO2 emissions.

The Airplane uses by far the most emissions per Passengerkilomter

The basic problem here is that CO2 warms our climate. Yes, well, who has anything against warmer summers, some will argue now. The problem here, however, is that from about 2 degrees of global warming on, tipping points are reached on the earth, which completely unbalance our earth system and will cause great damage to humans and animals.

One major change that appears to be partially underway is the cooling and sinking of the Gulf Stream. This ensures that it is currently relatively mild in northwestern Europe. Without the Gulf Stream it would become colder in Europe despite climate change and the sea level on the US Atlantic coast would rise. But people in many other parts of the world are also threatened by melting ice due to rising sea levels.

Another problem is that the more ice melts, the faster the earth’s temperature rises, as the ice currently has a cooling effect on the earth. The current ice reflects the sun’s rays and returns them to space in large parts. However, the underlying subsurface, which becomes free when the ice has melted, is dark. It retains the warmth of the sun’s rays instead of redirecting them back into space and thus heats up. This, in turn, warms the earth faster, which will melt the remaining ice in a much shorter time. It is thus a self-reinforcing vicious circle. Here is a short article if you want to know more about the tipping points, the so-called Achilles verses of our earth system. But I will also write a detailed article about it.

Of course we all don’t want huge environmental catastrophes with many strokes of fate. Therefore internationally it was specified that we all contribute by environment-friendly behaviour and better technology to the circumstance that the earth warms up only around maximally 2 degrees.

If we really mean it seriously with the maximum warming of 2 degrees, then each of us needs to consume no more than 2 tons CO2 per year. However, we have already more than doubled our annual consumption with a flight from Europe to Mexico.

yearly CO2 Emissions in tons per year when flying from Europe to Mexico
If we fly from Germany to Mexico we use 3x our climate friendly annual CO2 budget and about the same that we use with our normal living from Januar until September.

But only the kerosene gets calculated. The arrival and departure to and from the airport, the consumption of resources for the aircraft fleet and the operation at the airport would actually have to be added proportionately. In addition, CO2 emissions in the air cause much greater damage than on the ground, which is why climate damage should actually be multiplied by 3. Air travel always accounts for the majority of CO2 emissions when travelling, even if you stay at a 4-star hotel for 14 days and enjoy a good buffet. The longer the flight, the higher the proportion of emissions that the journey brings with it.

Chart comparing different holiday destinations and the CO2 emissionens from means of transport, local acitivites, accomodation and food.
The flight always emits by far the most CO2 emissions.

So how do we get the Earth to just warm up two degrees?

So if you really want to make your contribution to climate protection, you can do it most effectively if you fly as rarely as possible.

Did you know that only about 20% of the world’s population today board a plane in their lifetime? Even if we only used one flight for 1 to 2 hours per year, we are far more climate-damaging than our neighbours. Because, even if it sounds unbelievable at first, the majority of Germans or Americans didn’t enter a plane last year. Thus we airplane users belong to a small, but very climate-damaging minority, which contributes to destroying the climate and often also their habitat for all people on earth. ☹ I myself am very crazy about travel and discovery, but I don’t want to contribute to the fact that my children or the children of my neighbours can no longer discover the beauty of our earth.  For some years now I have not been flying within Europe or within the holiday countries I travel to. No matter how big they are. If you also don’t start to get on a plane thoughtlessly anymore, you too will become part of a big community on our earth. I have even found some advantages that make it easy for me not to fly anymore. I would advise you to just get on a bus or train and see if you enjoy travelling a lot more with it.

4 concrete advantages for bus, train and Co.

1. Become a landscape explorer and socialiser, see how landscapes change and discover the incredible friendliness of locals.

From time to time the route without flying takes a little longer than with, but I have already passed amazing landscapes. Only recently I took the bus from Milan to Frankfurt and in Switzerland one great waterfall followed another, all visible from the road. And that’s really the great thing about slow travelling: You can see how the landscape in between looks and changes. I also travelled in Mexico, India, China or Tibet only by bus or train and it brought me closer to the country in a much more authentic way. I had great contact with locals and other travellers, who often accompanied me on my journey afterwards. (Photo train China playing cards).

If you want to see distant exotic countries, then travel within the country by bus or train and discover the country and its inhabitants.

Have you ever thought about taking a bicycle trip? I will start my next adventure in 1 week and discover Europe by bike for the next 6 months. I am already very excited about the many landscapes I will discover and I will also tell you in detail about the adventures I will encounter on the way.

Instead of long-haul flights you can also take the Cargo Ship at any time. I personally haven’t tried this yet. But I will probably test it next year for my trip from Europe to Canada and then report back to you.

2. Travelling by long-distance bus, train or carpooling is cheaper

Often travelling by long-distance bus, train or carpool is much cheaper than flying. In Europe there is a super developed long-distance bus network. On the website Busradar you can view all connections with prices for Europe. In addition, train routes and carpooling opportunities are compared. I use this page for every trip before booking! I can also warmly recommend the buses in Latin America, India or Mexico. They are often very cheap and many of them luxuriously equipped. The buses usually have televisions, often also in the seats, there is a lot of legroom and WLAN. Also in the USA there is a bus company called Greyhound, which takes you cheaply across the country. I already drove with it from the west coast to the east coast.

Have you ever heard of the term externalized or external costs? This describes the phenomenon that costs often do not have to be paid by the person using the service or product. This is extreme when flying. This means that flying is often significantly more expensive than the actual ticket price. Why is that? On the one hand, air traffic is subsidised. This means, for example, that you don’t have to pay taxes for flying from Germany to France. However, if you travel the route by train, you have to pay the full VAT. Furthermore, there is no tax on aircraft kerosene and in addition, there are even direct payments from governments to aircraft companies. This means that airlines can often offer super low prices. But it means that today’s taxpayers pay part of our travel expenses when we use the plane. In addition, there is air and noise pollution from aircraft. Airlines should also be bearing their share of the consequences of climate change, such as crop failures or soil and water pollution.

What it will cost in the future to eliminate these damages in the environment or society, which will definitely be incurred, is calculated regularly. According to Dutch environmental researchers at the Centre for Energy Conservation and Environmental Technology in Delft, the general public currently pays around € 10 per ticket on a short trip within a small country such as Germany. On long-haul flights, the cost of condensation trails can even increase to around € 215 per ticket. These costs will be paid in particular by future taxpayers such as our children. This shows that flying isn’t as cheap as it looks and that you shouldn’t be tempted by supposed bargains. Because we travel on the back of the general public, which has to compensate for our damages.

3. Bus, train or car are actually faster

However, flying saves a lot of time, you will certainly object now, but that is often wrong.

Many times you are not really faster, because you need to take into account the journey to and from the airport and the waiting time at the airport. For some international routes in Europe like Paris – London, Brussels – Lyon or Berlin – Prague this was calculated once and the train was actually almost always faster.

European routes where the train is faster than the airplane
Here you see some example routes where the train is faster than the airplane

There is a very simple rule that you can remember if you don’t want to sacrifice the comfort of saving time but still care about nature.

Don’t fly under 1000 km or 600 miles.

With the help of this website you can easily check what 1000 km or 600 miles mean for your location.

Within this distance you are not really faster with the plane, you would only damage the environment.

4.      Longer journeys relax you

Travelling, especially on short holidays, brings not only joy but also stress. The stress and the fear of missing the plane or the bus or having forgotten a few important things on departure. Then of course you want to see and experience a lot on the spot. All this leads to the fact that we often come back from our holiday more stressed than we were before the holiday. According to the latest studies, it takes about 8 days until our body can let go of the stress and get used to the new place. It has also been found out that our body needs about one day per time zone that is flown over in order to adjust to the new time.

If you want to do something good for yourself as well as the environment, then you shouldn’t book an indoor skiing trip in Dubai or a weekend shopping trip from Europe to America or vice versa.

There is also a small rule of thumb that you can remember here to give yourself and the environment some rest: According to WWF you should be at least 8 days on site if you have travelled a distance of 700 km / 400 Mi and at least 15 days from a distance of 2000 km / 1200 Mi.

Most sustainable alternatives to flying

If you want to travel on the ground there are many possibilities. You can walk, use your bike, car, train, bus or motorhome. I’ll briefly explain which of them is the best alternative.

Of course, travelling on foot or by bike is the most climate-friendly way, because instead of emitting CO2, we only use muscle power. But sometimes the journey would simply take too long. Travelling by train or coach is also highly recommended. These are the means of transport that cause the least damage to the climate.

Also a fully occupied car, the use of Carpooling or hitchhiking are still good possibilities of locomotion. Because if you use the car, it should be used as efficiently as possible. If you want to travel in a climate-friendly way, it is important that you only use the car when you can really fill it to full capacity. When using your own car and you still have space left, it’s worth setting up your trip with carpooling websites such as BlaBlaCar (Europe’s largest carpooling site). So you can even earn some extra money and your trip is less damaging to the climate. Alternatively, it’s always worth taking a hitchhiker with you. You will often hear exciting stories.

chart showing different means of transport you can use to your holiday destination and their sustainabilty ranking
It’s always best when you try taking a train or coach as much as possible

Two quick tips for a sustainable holiday with a motorhome

So if you want to use your motorhome, here are a few easy tips to make your holiday more climate-friendly. For example, try renting a motorhome instead of buying it. Because the rental motorhome is used more often than your own. It is important to always include the emissions from the production of the motorhome. In Brazil, for example, enormous amounts of rainforest are cleared for the production of steel or aluminium that is needed to make a motorhome. With a rented motorhome, the environmental pollution and climate damage caused by the production of the motorhome can be distributed over many more trips, making each individual trip less damaging to the climate. Then it is also important that you fully occupy the motorhome. If you have a really large motorhome and you only have few people on board the emissions per km and per person can be quite high. It can be almost as high as using an airplane.

Flying – 3 tips on how to fly as sustainably as possible

If you can’t or don’t want to stop flying, then I have three tips for you on how to make flying as sustainable as possible.

1. Use direct flights

Did you know that most CO2 is consumed during take-off and landing? So make sure you have as few stopovers as possible if you want to fly somewhere.

2. Use the cleanest airlines

It hasn’t been clear to me for a long time, but it actually makes a difference which airline you fly with. Airlines differ, for example, in the age of the aircraft they use. The smaller and younger the fleet, the less fuel they consume on average. Unfortunately, the more space each passenger has and the larger the business class and 1st class, the more climate-damaging is the flight, because far fewer people can be transported. Some airlines also pay attention to the use of environmentally friendly materials and recycling on board.

In order to find out which airlines are among the most sustainable, you don’t have to google it or read endless company reports. The organization Atmosfair has ranked all airlines on their climate efficiency. Their ranking gives you an overview that is easy to follow

In this index, the largest 190 airlines are divided into 7 categories (A-G) according to their climate efficiency (CO2 emissions per person). The calculation includes the aircraft type, engines, aerodynamic wingtips (winglets), seating and cargo space as well as their load factors.

Here I show you the top 5 airlines by distance and the five largest airlines per efficiency class. You can also download and save it.

Chart showing the most climate efficiency airlines in 2018
Try to use airlines that have a high climate efficiency class (green or yellow ones)

Compensate for the climatic damage caused by your flight.

What you should always do if you can’t avoid flying: compensate for the environmental or climate damage caused by your flight. What does that mean in concrete terms? Your flight caused a certain amount of CO2. The idea now is to save exactly this amount of CO2 emissions by climate protection projects in another place on earth. Usually, renewable energies such as small hydroelectric power plants, biogas plants or solar and wind power plants are expanded, mostly in developing countries. As a result, fewer fossil fuels are used in these countries and CO2 is saved there. In principle, it does not matter where in the world CO2 emissions are saved.

How to compensate for a flight?

There are various providers where you can offset your flight. You go to their website and enter your departure and destination airports there. This calculates the kilometres and the CO2 emissions incurred. Here is an example from the site To fly from Frankfurt to Mexico and back climate-neutrally, you would have to pay 84 €. From this money a project will be realized in a developing country, which exactly saves your emissions in the future.

Example for CO2 compensation of a flight from Germany to Mexico at Atmosfair
Example page for compensation of a flight from Germany to Mexico at atmosfair

The provider I can recommend without restrictions is also Atmosfair. It indicates as one of few the true emissions. There are also many providers (in particular aircraft providers) who cheat on emissions and report much less emissions than actually occurred. Atmosfair received also from the renowned German magazine “Stiftung Warentest”, the best grade. At Atmosfair, the compensation is of the highest quality and they are very transparent in their presentation of where the money goes. All climate protection projects must meet the Gold Standard.

What is the Gold Standard for flight compensation?

This is a seal of quality for climate protection projects in developing countries. Only climate-friendly projects in developing countries are permitted. An environmentally friendly technology transfer must also take place. There is an independent test procedure, which examines successes such as better environmental conditions or more jobs. The local population must also be involved in the overall project planning. It must also be proven that the project could not have taken place without your money and that the amount of CO2 emissions is actually saved.

These compensation payments can even be deducted from the tax in Germany. Unfortunately, I do not know what it looks like in other countries.

Nevertheless, it is always better to save CO2 emissions completely instead of offsetting them. The order for effective climate protection is: 1. avoid flights, 2. reduce flights, 3. compensate flights. Because every flight damages the environment. No matter whether it is saved elsewhere or not.


I hope I was able to give you an overview of how you can fly and travel more sustainably in the future and thus be less harmful to the climate. I have put all my tips into a checklist here. You can also download it so that you always have it ready when you need it. If you have questions or need more information on a certain topic drop me a comment.

Checklist with tips for sustainable flying


Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend