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Can’t imagine travel without flying? Holly Tuppen saw the world without boarding a single plane

Photography By Stefan Gunnarsson

In 2008, Holly Tuppen and her now-husband laid out a familiar plan: to go travelling and see the world. Like so many people in their mid-twenties, their motivation was simple – “to have a proper big adventure”.

They didn’t do this on a whim, spending nearly three years saving for their grand venture. But when they started actually planning their trip, things took an even more ambitious turn. They decided to circumnavigate the globe without flying. 

As Tuppen explains, the decision wasn’t initially driven by environmental reasons. “We literally just bought a giant map and started marking out places around the world we wanted to see or things we wanted to do,” Tuppen says. “We started drawing lines between [destinations] and trying to work out what we could do overland or over the ocean. 

“Then we realised maybe we don’t need to fly at all.”


They didn’t let this epiphany pass – the pair committed wholly to travelling the world without boarding a plane. This was, after all, the epitome of the big adventure they were chasing. 

The trip began on a tandem bike in the middle of London’s Hyde Park. For the first leg, they cycled from England down to the Pyrenees in Spain, then walked the Camino de Santiago across the north of the country. When it came time to start crossing oceans, they used Crewseekers to find sailboats looking for crew members.

“In our case, a sailing boat wanted to pick people up in Portugal to then sail down to Morocco and then to the Canary Islands and across to the Caribbean,” Tuppen says. “Being becalmed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for five days was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, the ultimate slow travel.”

This was just the beginning of what would be a 20-month trip without boarding a single plane. As they discovered, with the right mix of tenacity and perseverance, an alternative route will always appear. They hitchhiked around China’s Taklamakan Desert, rode through the Rockies on their tandem bike, crossed from Beijing to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway and travelled as guests on a container ship from Vancouver to Pusan in South Korea.

HOLLY TUPPEN

Things weren’t always planned, nor did they always go to plan. And naturally, choosing not to fly came with inevitable difficulties, particularly in countries where an onward ticket is a requirement of entry. But Tuppen doesn’t look back in frustration. “Having that challenge pushed us to do more interesting things and go to places you would normally skip if you were flying,” she says. “You miss out on those slightly rough around the edges places, or places that tourists don’t go to or you don’t read about anywhere. Those places were part of the appeal.”

When we think about not flying, what often comes to mind is what we miss: convenience, time and comfort. But Tuppen’s experience provides a powerful counter-argument for what we stand to gain by slowing down and embracing alternative modes of transport. Environmental and cultural benefits aside, she says one of the positives that has stayed with her the longest is the uniqueness of the interactions she had along the way. 

“When you’re travelling slowly, everyone welcomes you in. Maybe because you’re on something weird like a tandem bike, or because you arrive in a town where they’ve never seen tourists before. They’re so intrigued,” she says. “And because you meet people with no expectations – they don’t know you; you don’t know them – people are so open about their lives and you have these amazingly powerful interactions where you get right down to the big issues.”

The experience was life-changing for Tuppen, prompting her to reconsider her own values and how she wanted to live the rest of her life. It also kickstarted a decade-long career in sustainable travel. “When I got back from the trip, I got in touch with loads of travel companies and editors to talk about the journey and the benefits of not flying and using different modes of transport,” Tuppen says. She’s since written extensively for the Guardian, Condé Nast Traveller and the Telegraph and collaborated with “green-minded” organisations in the tourism and hospitality industry, helping to create sustainability missions and action plans. 

Tuppen is currently the communications manager for a collection of nature-based lodges called The Long Run and recently joined Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency, an organisation helping tourism businesses develop carbon plans. This year, she also published her debut book: Sustainable Travel: the Essential Guide to Positive-Impact Adventures.

Sustainable Travel is a collection of what I’ve learned over the last ten years of working in the industry and travelling,” Tuppen says. “I wanted to write a book with everything I think people need to know to make informed decisions about where they travel to and how they travel.” 

HOLLY TUPPEN

As a champion of regenerative travel, Tuppen welcomes the tourism industry’s appraisal, and the resurgence of the slow travel movement. But she doesn’t want travellers to just rethink their next holiday – she wants us to reconsider our broader relationship with travel.

“I think our expectations of travel have been slightly distorted; they’ve become about the ‘bucket list’ and just ticking off experiences,” she says. “Whereas actually, the really inspiring part of travel that we remember is usually more nuanced than that.”

By interrogating our motives when travelling, Tuppen hopes to see more individuals gravitate towards travel that is considerate of local communities and the environment. It might require a different mindset, but she is adamant it won’t affect the quality of our experiences. “The perceived sacrifice is only because we’ve slightly lost our way with what we want…but I hope that we can take a step back from the perception that travel is all about ticking off as many places as possible and take the time to really think about what we want to get out of those experiences.” 

It’s clearly a topic she’s spent a lot of time thinking about in the years since her trip. Writing for the Telegraph in 2019, Tuppen said: “Slow travel is a way to rediscover why we explore. You need to be imaginative and looking beyond the brochure. Just like slow food celebrates the buying and preparing of food as much as the meal itself, slow travel celebrates the journey as much as the destination. It’s about lesser-known paths, unexpected destinations, and recognising that time is the greatest luxury of all.” With a nod to her 2008 journey, she added: “Staying on the ground makes it easier to commit to all of the above.”

Holly Tuppen’s top resources for flight-free travel

CREWSEEKERS

Described as “the Tinder of ocean crossings”, Crewseekers connects travellers with boat owners and yacht crewing positions available worldwide, from daysailing to ocean crossings. You don’t have to be an experienced sailor to use the service either – there are short courses available to prepare you before hopping onboard. 

WARM SHOWERS 

Warm Showers is a couch-surfing website for touring cyclists and those that wish to support them. The platform connects bike travellers with hosts in 161 countries, providing a shower and bed while on the road.

OUTDOORSY

If an extensive road trip is on your agenda, Outdoorsy can help you find a reliable RV, campervan or travel trailer to rent. As a peer-to-peer marketplace, it’s also a great tool for RV owners who have a vehicle that’s not currently in use. Think of it like Airbnb for campervan owners. Tuppen also recommends New Zealand rental service Britz, which has a fleet of electric campervans for hire.

WANDERMAP and WAYMARKED TRAILS

Who says you need anything other than a good pair of boots to see the world? If you want to complete part of your trip on foot, Wandermap and Waymarked Trails are great resources for finding long-distance hikes around the world, using a combination of official and user-generated routes.

THE MAN IN SEAT 61

Fair warning, this website looks stuck in the early 90s, but Tuppen assures us Mark Smith, aka The Man in Seat 61, is nothing short of a rail travel guru. With the aim to inspire people to do something more rewarding with their travelling opportunities, Smith has created a resource full of detailed itineraries and train trip notes. 

Hear Holly Tuppen speak about how destinations can move towards a more regenerative future at the Regenerative Travel Summit, which runs from 20 to 22 September. 

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