view from a boat a flying alternative
Sustainability | Italy | travel

Toronto to Rome: how to do a transatlantic crossing without flying

As the global movement for climate change gains traction, many people, including me, wonder what we can do to help. While there are many ways we can all become more responsible travellers, flying seems to be the most talked-about topic. So, with all the flight shaming going on, can we give up flying by finding flying alternatives? How do we do a transatlantic crossing without flying?

Naturally curious, I wanted to see how traveling without a plane can be done. I decided to plan out a route from Toronto, Canada to Rome, Italy. Since I live in Toronto, that was a natural starting point. As we travel to Italy quite a bit, Rome is a frequent destination we fly into. It made a logical end point. So, how to get to Rome from Toronto without a plane?

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Note: For the purpose of calculating the journey itself, I’m not including the transport from home, lodging, food and journey to the final destination in Rome from the bus station.

Flying alternatives option 1 – transatlantic cruise

So, what do you do when you want to cross the ocean without a plane? Your next option is to do it as they used to in the past – get on a boat. Toronto’s inland location makes it challenging to find a direct route to Europe. After further research, I couldn’t find any cruises that sailed directly from Canada (even the eastern coast) straight to Europe. Next best option? New York City.

flying alternative a journey across the ocean
transatlantic cruise fee summary
Transatlantic crossing cruise info

Transatlantic crossing cruise – Toronto to New York City

New York City is accessible from Toronto without flying. Our choices are driving, taking a bus or the train. It seemed easier and more environmentally-friendly not to drive, so that option is out. Besides, where would we leave the car?

I decided on the bus as it was cheaper and quicker than the train. During the time this trip would take place, a service disruption would force us to take a train/bus combo anyway. The bus option allows us to leave in the evening of Oct. 17 and arrive mid-day on Oct. 18. This gives us a few hours before the cruise departs at 5 p.m. No additional cost for the hotel.

bus schedule from Toronto to New York

Transatlantic crossing cruise – a journey across the ocean

While cruising is a very popular activity, the choices for transcontinental travel are limited. I settled on the Cunard transatlantic cruise from New York City, USA, to Hamburg, Germany. There is a stop in Southampton, UK, and we could have stopped our journey there. However, it seemed better to take the cruise all the way to Hamburg, which puts us closer to Rome. More on-the-ground options within Europe.

This part of our flying alternatives journey takes nine days, Oct 18 – Oct 27. I opted for the basic inside cabin and no transfers between ports and airports ($104 per transfer). The cruise fee includes food and onboard entertainment. Alternative dining is available at extra cost if we want to spend additional money.

Transatlantic crossing cruise – Hamburg to Rome

I couldn’t get details of when the ship actually arrived in Hamburg, so I decided to assume we would stay there overnight and leave the next day. If we chose to travel by train, our journey from Hamburg to Rome clocks in at 15 hours. It involves a combination of trains, including four stops/transfers in Switzerland plus one stop in Milan before finally arriving in Rome.

Another option is the bus. The shortest option on Oct. 28 is just over 26 hours and involves one-stop in Bologna. Despite the longer duration, I’m inclined to go with the bus as it’s more of a direct route. Also, simpler.

Nevertheless, this would put us in Rome on Oct. 29, almost two weeks after we left our home.

DestinationMode of transportTravel timeTravel cost $CAD

 

(2 adults, tax inc)

Carbon footprint
Toronto – New York City

 

Oct. 17 – Oct. 18

Bus12h 15 min$137.400.02

 

Tonnes CO2e

NYC port – Hamburg

 

Oct. 18 – Oct. 27

Cruise ship9 days$2,629.804.61 Tonnes CO2e
Hamburg – Rome

 

Oct. 28 – Oct. 29

Bus26h 10 min$182.460.32 Tonnes CO2e
Total 13 days$2,949.664.95 Tonnes CO2e
Transatlantic crossing option 1 numbers

Transatlantic crossing cruise: the pros

The fact that you can get to Rome from Toronto without a plane is great news. Also, the fact that the transatlantic cruise would take nine days is a huge improvement from the days when it took weeks or months to cross the Atlantic. The ship is also a lot more comfortable than those ships of the past.

The journey by ship doesn’t seem too bad. There are entertainment and food, so you definitely don’t have to worry about that part. You can bet that the food is definitely better than what you get on the plane. There is also no need to worry about legroom or crying babies.

I was actually surprised that the cost wasn’t higher. While almost $3,000 is no chump change, it’s a lot less than I expected for all the transportation.

Transatlantic crossing cruise: the cons

There is a lot of scrutiny over cruising. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware of how damaging the cruising industry can be. Based on that, the transatlantic cruise doesn’t seem like an environmental option since it’s as polluting, if not more, than flying.

I get motion sickness, so sea travel is not my friend. I’ve done a cruise once, a long time ago, and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. That cruise stopped in numerous ports over the one-week journey, allowing us to leave the ship frequently. A week across the Atlantic is definitely more challenging as the water is choppier, and you can’t get off the boat. I can imagine being sick the whole time.

best cruise line cruising
Transatlantic crossing by a cruise ship is not better than flying

While you’re not likely to encounter turbulence, I’m sure there are rough currents in the ocean. The elements can be unpredictable, and being in the middle of the ocean during inclement weather is just terrifying. Plus, there are pirates. Probably not as likely to pray on this route, but it’s a reality that can’t be discounted.

Finally, there is the time itself. Two weeks to get to a destination is not a realistic option for regular people. In Canada, the average vacation is two weeks. If it takes you two weeks to get somewhere and two weeks to come back, you’d need way more than a month’s worth of holidays to make this journey. 

Flying alternatives option 2 – transatlantic crossing on a freighter

I must honestly say that before doing this research, I had no idea that freighter cruising was a thing. If you’re wondering what exactly is a freighter cruise, it’s exactly what it sounds. Although the “cruise” part may not be what normally comes to mind. You are travelling on a freighter barge. Yes, the same one that transports large shipping containers.

The good news is that you’re not actually sleeping in a shipping container. You get a simple cabin and meals with the crew.  No shows, no-frills and lots of time to ponder, read and relax.  This is either your idea of heaven or hell. There is no in-between.

Transatlantic crossing on a freighter – what you need to know

These types of voyages take on as little as two passengers and as many as 12. As the lower age allowance is around 14, you’re not likely to be surrounded by kids. The downside is that if you want to take your kids with you (providing they meet the minimum age requirement), they will likely be bored out of their minds.  As space is limited, your family might be the only passengers travelling on the barge. Your kids will be the only kids.

Upper age limits range from 65 for some ships to 79 for others. There are strict requirements for passengers over 65 that require them to provide a medical certificate before sailing. As the voyage itself is lengthy and medical assistance limited, if you have any medical conditions or are fully-abled, this is not the option for you.

Some ships don’t have elevators, so you have to move around the ship with no issues. People with mobility challenges or health restrictions won’t be able to choose this option. Don’t expect room service, fine dining, shopping or Internet access. This is not that type of a cruise.

freighter cruise itinerary
Transatlantic crossing route by freighter

The logistics of transatlantic crossing on a freighter

If the idea of being on a boat for an extended period of time is your kind of thing, freighter cruising might be the thing for you. You can book one way or return trips between continents and based on availability.

Freighter cruises have to be booked way in advance, as in months, not days. The sites for freighter cruises are limited, but I found the Maris one to be the most informative and current. The others I found had info older than six years, which didn’t seem relevant. Based on this, it seems that you can’t just book it yourself online. Maris has an online form where you can fill out the initial request. There is also a phone number if you want to go that route.

To reserve your spot, you have to provide a 25% deposit, while the balance of the fee plus management fees have to be paid 70 days before departure. As apparently, they don’t take credit cards, you’ll have to pay by cheque or a bank transfer. Once everything is paid, you’ll get information on the cruise’s details and location in port.

You’ll also be required to provide a medical statement (signed by you and your doctor), possible vaccinations and visas, depending on the ports you’ll be visiting.

Transatlantic crossing in a freighter: the pros

If you’re looking for an adventure and something that’s not a typical run-of-the-mill vacation, this transatlantic crossing option is it. This is also perfect for those seeking relaxation, quiet and a lot of “me” time. You can also learn first-hand about the transport industry and life on the sea.

Honestly, can’t think of any other pros as to why this would be a great option. If you do, let me know.

Transatlantic crossing in a freighter: the cons

Let’s talk about all the reasons why this is not the best option to cross the Atlantic. As resources are minimal, the amount of digging for up to date information and the booking process can actually be off-putting. Especially to the occasional traveller, not versed in complex travel planning.

timetable for bus from Toronto to New Orleans
Planning a transatlantic crossing can be challenging

Unlike the transatlantic cruise, this voyage is not a straight route. The Maris transatlantic cruise from North America to Europe leaves approximately every six weeks from New Orleans. That means a bus or train from Toronto to New Orleans. The cruise is set to reach Le Havre (France) on day 16, Antwerp (Belgium) on day 17, Rotterdam (Holland) on day 19 or Bremerhaven (Germany) on day 22. This means a few options to get to Rome once we reach Europe.

The fees for the freighter cruise vary between €110-€130 per person, per day. Administrative fees are in US$ and they also very. This makes this a pretty expensive trip in Canadian dollars.

To illustrate this option, the fees below are converted to CAD$ based on today’s exchange. As the cruise dates are not available, I used available departure dates for the trains/buses to get prices.

DestinationMode of transportTravel timeTravel cost $CAD

 

(2 adults, tax inc)

Carbon footprint
Toronto – New OrleansBus2 days

 

(1 day 12 hrs)

$229.340.14 Tonnes CO2e
New Orleans port – Le Havre

 

Oct. 18 – Oct. 27

Cruise ship16 days$6,088.108.19 Tonnes CO2e
Le Havre – Rome

 

Oct. 28 – Oct. 29

Bus1 day 15min$242.740.23 Tonnes CO2e
Total 19 days$6,560.188.56 Tonnes CO2e
Costs for transatlantic crossing option 2

Flying alternatives option 3 – Alaska to Russia

Someone suggested on Twitter that travelling to Europe from North America was possible by crossing from Alaska. Clearly, they didn’t know where in North America I live. Although I enjoy a challenge, it became clear that this was not a feasible option.

To get to Alaska, we would have to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver. That journey is about four days. Once in Vancouver, we would have to get to Prince Rupert (about a day’s journey from Vancouver) to sail to Alaska. That is another couple of days on a ferry. To get from Toronto to Alaska, it would take about a week (give or take) without even leaving North America.

Once in Alaska, it appears that crossing to Russia isn’t as simple and easy as it might seem. It’s pretty challenging to find accurate and relevant information on the process. However, the bigger challenge arises once you (hypothetically) arrive in Russia. The towns on that side are so remote that it’s not possible to get across the country without flying at least some of the way.

For these reasons, this doesn’t seem to be a viable option of getting from Toronto to Rome. At least not without taking months to get there and spending a fortune.

Key takeaways from planning flying alternatives for a transatlantic crossing

I was actually surprised that there were options of getting to Rome from Toronto without flying. While two of these were workable, they are not very practical for the average traveller with a limited budget and time.

Both options for a transatlantic crossing were more expensive than flying and took a lot longer to get to Rome. Because of the logistics, it was more challenging to plan a return trip.  I ended up planning it one way to illustrate the point. When you look at the cost, it’s way more affordable to fly than it is to take all the different modes of transportation.

carbon footprint calculator

Carbon footprint calculations for a transatlantic crossing

We are told that planes are the biggest carbon contributors, which is why we should avoid them. That might seem simple unless you have done a transatlantic crossing. It turns out, calculating carbon footprint is complicated. There are many different carbon footprint calculators online. However, they are not consistent. Many of them want you to sign up by email or through social even to do the test.

Another challenge is the actual carbon footprint calculation methods. They are not all created equal. Many calculators have different options for your daily activities, food and transportation habits over time.  That is great if you want to track your daily impact, but not so great when you just want to know your travel footprint.

Travel is mostly limited to car, plane or bus. The options for transatlantic crossing other than ferries and cruises are almost non-existent. It’s not even possible to estimate a barge cruise, so I had to improvise. The numbers I have come up with are approximate and not completely accurate.

Without a clear comparison of every available mode of transportation in the same calculator, it isn’t easy to understand your actual carbon footprint. I can guarantee that most people would give up in the first hour because I know I found it challenging to complete.

After completing all the calculations, it seems that flying from Toronto to Rome actually produces fewer carbon emissions than either option.

Challenges with flying alternatives

The problem with avoiding flying is that you limit who can travel. Especially when you want to attempt a transatlantic crossing. In the past, only people who had the means were able to travel. As travel became more affordable, it opened up the world for everyone. This means no matter who you are, your chances of seeing the world are far greater today than they were 50 years ago.

Reducing plane travel is a lot easier in Europe than it is in North America and other continents. There isn’t as much reliable infrastructure easily available for people as what you find in Europe. As a continent, Europe is a lot smaller, more populated and has older infrastructure, making it’s easier for people to get around.

Large distances also make travel without a plane challenging. Never mind doing a transatlantic crossing. In Canada, like many other places, there are communities only accessible by plane. We have trains and buses, but you can’t get everywhere by ground travel alone. It’s also costly for Canadians to travel in Canada.  We might live in the second-largest country in the world, but our small population means that there are many remote places with limited or non-existent transportation options.

Is flight shaming the answer?

Flight shaming is reaching new heights. The movement, stated in Sweden, is gaining momentum and making everyone feel guilty about flying. What are we to do especially when transatlantic crossing is at stake.

While I think it’s important to recognize the damage flying is inflicting, blaming each other for flying isn’t the answer.  Let’s not forget that people used to travel on trains that were powered by a coal engine.  We didn’t stop taking trains. Instead, we improved them and developed cleaner alternatives. The same can be done with planes.

Instead of pointing fingers at ourselves, we should pressure airlines to become more environmentally friendly. Reduce the use of single-use plastic, use biodegradable alternatives and implement cleaner fuels are just some ways airlines can become leaders in changing the industry.

looking outside plane window
Flight shaming is not the answer

Final thoughts on transatlantic crossing without a plane

After doing the comparison, I am not convinced that either option is better for doing a transatlantic crossing. Based on the calculations, the carbon footprint is lower for flying than it is for taking a transatlantic cruise. It’s also cheaper to fly and takes a lot less time to get there.

This again makes me think that the problem isn’t with us flying. We should be looking at the airlines, holding them  accountable and taking a lead in making flying more sustainable.

 Mode of transportTravel timeTravel cost $CAD

 

(2 adults, tax inc)

Carbon footprint
Option 1Bus/ship/bus13 days$2,949.664.95 Tonnes CO2e
Option 2Bus/ship/bus19 days$6,560.188.56 Tonnes CO2e
FlyingPlane8 h 40 min$2,250.002.59 Tonnes CO2e

Source: Carbon calculator,  google flights

So, would you take option 1 or option 2 over flying? Are you surprised by any of these numbers? Let me know. 

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    thewonderer86
    8 Oct 2019
    2:52am

    Really interesting. What a lot of research! I’ve looked at freighter cruising before, but the cost is prohibitive – much, much more than a flight. We try to cut air travel as much as we can, taking trains in Europe, but I think for most people – with limited time and money, there is no real option to flying. I think airlines do need to do more, but I also think we all need to take responsibility for own actions.

      kasiawrites
      8 Oct 2019
      10:52am

      I have never heard of freighter cruises before and that totally surprised me. I don’t think I would last on a boat for that long especially across the Atlantic. But yes, I agree that for some there is no other option than to fly. We all can do our part including making choices on a daily basis. We do as much as we can in our daily lives and I hope the conversation gets a lot of people thinking about their choices.

    foodzesty
    8 Oct 2019
    9:43am

    Ummm, Ok well after reading this post I have to admit it sounds like a wonderful trip to do during the Summer. But October is definitely challenging….Please keep up posted and have a great trip and SAFE TRIP!!. Hugs

      kasiawrites
      8 Oct 2019
      10:47am

      Thank Sophie! I’m not actually doing the trip. I would never last on a boat that long nor do I have that kind of money and time to spend!

        foodzesty
        8 Oct 2019
        11:53am

        Ohh ok I misunderstood..I thought you were arriving in Hamburg in October… sooo sorry 🙂

          kasiawrites
          8 Oct 2019
          11:57am

          No worries. This was a real life cruise that I used for research. Although I would love to visit Hamburg!

    veggievagabonds3001
    9 Oct 2019
    4:57am

    Hey, what an interesting article and such a complicated topic. Interested to know how you worked out the CO2e for the freighter as I’m surprised it would be that high. Another option worth exploring is boat hitching or working on yachts. Again, this is isn’t a quick fix but it’s a cool way of travelling around.

    Personally, I think the biggest step is cutting down on flying and reconsidering our styles of travelling. Yes, if you want to get from the UK to Australia for a 2 week holiday then flying is the most ‘sustainable’ way, but I think important people re-evaluate whether a long-haul flight for a short holiday is worth it, considering today’s environmental issues.

    Obviously people want to travel, and there are many huge benefits to international travel, but I think the most sustainable action would be to try to embrace places closer to home rather than the other side of the world. This doesn’t mean never visiting far away places, just doing it less frequently and doing it at a point where you could do so the most ethically e.g. tying it in with other countries, exploring overland options, travelling slowly.

    Awesome article, interested to know your thoughts 🙂

      kasiawrites
      9 Oct 2019
      9:14pm

      The challenge with the carbon footprint calculator was that it’s not easy to use and not all modes of transport are there. For the freighter I used the equivalent of a medium sized cruise ship, however, I think the fuel the tankers actually produce even more CO2e so that estimate is probably on the conservative side. I agree that there are lots of places to visit near home, but we shouldn’t be restricted by distance. That’s why I think we should put more emphasis on making flying more sustainable. Just like we did with trains. Also adding more on the ground infrastructure would make it easier to get to places without flying.