Overseas over seas: how hard is it to travel internationally from Australia without flying? | Tourism (Australia)

When Sacha Shaw decided to move from Melbourne to Canada, he was determined to travel

When Sacha Shaw decided to move from Melbourne to Canada, he was determined to travel without flying.

But the environmental researcher and freelance journalist hadn’t even left Australian shores when he realised it was going to be harder than he first thought.

Shaw travelled to Mount Isa by bus and train in January before hitchhiking through the Northern Territory to Darwin.

There he contacted various freight ship companies sailing to Indonesia but says he was “pretty much laughed out of the Port of Darwin”.

Eventually he put up what he calls his “lost dog poster” around Darwin port that simply said: “Are you heading north and looking for crew?”

It took a month for someone to call, saying they were sailing to Timor-Leste and then on to Indonesia.

The voyage was anything but plain sailing, he says, and included engine failure, a storm that tore the ship’s sails and a medical emergency on board, meaning they had to be pulled into the Port of Dili by a port authority ship.

Since then, his journey has become smoother, and he’s now made his way to Dubai via Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, China, Tibet, Nepal, northern India, Pakistan and Iran. The travel has been a combination of ferries, passenger ships, trains, buses, motorbikes and hitchhiking.

Sacha on boat travelling down brown river
Calmer waters: Sacha Shaw travelling from Thailand to Laos by boat. Photograph: Sacha Shaw

“There are so, so many ways to travel without flying. It’s only crossing international waters that it becomes a problem,” he says.

Many Australians are increasingly worried about their flygskam (flight shame), but the sad reality is other options for international travel here can be limited.

Tony Wheeler, founder and former head of Lonely Planet, told Guardian Australia he is “much less convinced” when he hears anything about flightless travel from someone who lives in Europe.

“Going flightless is no trouble at all for the Greta Thunbergs of this world living in Stockholm. They’d find it a very different story if they lived in Sydney or Tokyo.”

So how realistic is it to go OS from Oz without jumping on a plane?

Cruise ships

There are, of course, plenty of cruise ships departing Australian shores but their environmental record is hardly something to celebrate.

The International Council on Clean Transportation found in 2022 that travelling by cruise ship almost always creates more carbon emissions than flying and staying in a hotel. The research suggests the world’s largest cruise ships emit about 250 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre, compared with 80g on lower emission longer flights, although the analysis didn’t take into account other gases such as methane.

The environmental thinktank Energy Monitor calculated that an average seven-day cruise over a distance of 1,096 kms each way would, on average, generate three times the emissions of flying.

Swipe right for a sail boat

Whether you’re an established sea dog or first-time sailor, there are a number of websites including Find a Crew or Crew Bay that match up yachts and sailboats with potential crew worldwide, including from Australia.

Make sure you take safety precautions, as some women have reported unwanted sexual advances, and even assault, while out at sea.

Suggestions from former victims include asking captains for a copy of their passport, video chatting before jumping on board and noting the contact details for local police in the areas you’re travelling to.

Cargo ships

Globally, there are websites such as Cargo Ship Travel and Maris Freighter Cruises which offer limited passenger berths on cargo ships. But don’t expect them to be cheaper than flying, and their schedule is irregular at best.

Time-wise your journey length will depend on how frequently the ship is scheduled to stop, but as an idea one company offers trips from China to Los Angeles that take 15 days to cross the Pacific.

Chris Zeiher, senior director at Lonely Planet, says since Covid it has become almost impossible to secure berths on container ships from Australia.

“Once cargo ship cruising was a solid no-fly option for Aussies, but post-pandemic there are almost no options available locally,” he says.

A spokesperson from the Maritime Union of Australia said although cargo ships would take passengers in the past, the practice has mostly ceased because these ships are generally crewed by foreign companies and workers who rarely have systems in place to take passengers.

Other options

If it’s too hard to go completely flight-free, it can be a lot easier once you get to Indonesia.

While flying from Melbourne to Jakarta might still emit about one tonne of CO2, that’s still significantly less than the 3.3 tonnes produced by flying all the way to London.

Reclining on bed in carriage
Travelling via train from Xining in China to Lhasa, Tibet, a journey of about 22 hours. Photograph: Sacha Shaw

Of course, you’ll need to set aside longer for the journey. Shaw has spent six months going from Indonesia to Dubai and says he has had spectacular experiences. “After I left the sailing boat, I just used local ferries, and it was a fantastic way to travel, faster than you’d expect, though it can take a while.

“The longest boat trip I took was around 50 hours with around 2,000 other people – I was one of two foreigners and had a great time.”

The other option, of course, is to try to make peace with exploring closer to home.

Peter Miller, a Melbourne film-maker and member of Flight Free Australia, says when he and his wife made the decision to stop flying they knew it would mean never leaving Australia again.

“It was a hard decision because we have family overseas,” he says. “It took us some deliberation, but ultimately we understood that we couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to contribute to the problem in such a major way – especially merely for personal enjoyment.

“So we revised our life goals, pulled in our horizons a bit and have put our dollars into our own Australian tourist industry. It’s been a pretty positive experience for the most part.”