Ho Ho How Much?! Climate-friendly train travel over THREE TIMES the cost of a polluting flight this Christmas

A comparison of ticket prices at Christmas on UK and European routes reveals that flying is consistently cheaper than taking the train in 80% of cases, despite being much more polluting.


Travelling by train at Christmas costs more than three times as much as flying on average, according to a new analysis from Greenpeace. Researchers compared train and plane ticket prices on 22 popular routes in the UK and Europe and found that polluting flights were consistently cheaper on four-out-of-five (82%) of them.

This week is one of the busiest times to travel in the UK, as millions of Brits head home for Christmas or out of the country on festive breaks. Despite the fact that flying is five times more polluting than taking the train on average, airlines continue to post artificially low prices that don’t factor in the pollution they cause.

Paul Morozzo, transport campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “Unless you own a herd of reindeer and a magical sleigh, the cheapest mode of transport this Christmas is likely to be a polluting flight. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A lack of investment in railways and ticketing, and a failure to properly tax carbon emissions, have created a nightmare before Christmas where consumers are effectively being rewarded for polluting.”

Researchers found that taking the train on seven of the most popular UK routes was almost twice (1.7x) the average cost of flying. But the average price of a train ticket soared to 4.2 times that of a flight for 15 popular destinations in Europe, including Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, as well as the Christmas market cities of Prague, Budapest, Copenhagen and Cologne. 

Gaping price gaps

  • London to Barcelona: The average cost of a train ticket was 8.7 times that of a flight. Shifting the 3.36 million annual flights to rail would save approximately 461,000 tons of harmful greenhouse gasses – equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars in Glasgow.
  • London to Prague: At 8 times the average price of a flight, rail operators can’t compete with low-cost airlines. A train journey to the Czech capital on 21 December costs €307.60 (£267.80) – almost 18 times as much as the polluting Ryanair flight (€17.57/£15.30).
  • Bristol to Newcastle: While taking the train was consistently more expensive on more than half (4 out of 7) of the UK routes, the biggest difference was between these two cities where a rail journey cost almost three times (2.8x) the price of an equivalent flight.

As well as the price gap, the research showed that booking a flight was often simpler and more flexible than buying train tickets – particularly on trips outside the UK. While there are direct flights to all 15 popular in Europe, only three of them have a direct rail link (Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris). Most rail journeys also require travellers to buy at least two separate tickets from different train companies – or three if not starting from London.

Uneven tax and regulations

Morozzo added: “For the sake of the climate we need to get people out of planes and into trains. We need to level the playing field by bringing in a frequent flyer levy and by ending the unfair subsidies and tax exemptions enjoyed by the aviation sector. This needs to happen in parallel with an increase in capacity on our rail network to facilitate more demand.”

Airlines can keep their prices artificially low because they pay no kerosene tax or VAT, and have even received a recent reduction in Air Passenger Duty in the UK. By contrast, train operators have to pay energy taxes, VAT and high rail tolls in most European countries – although no VAT in the UK. Some airlines also save on staffing costs by employing the legal minimum of employees on low pay and poor conditions. 

Greenpeace is calling on the UK government to increase the costs of flying regularly through a frequent flyer levy. It should also phase out the tax exemption on kerosene, as well as subsidies and indirect support for airlines and airports such as new infrastructure. At the same time we should be introducing climate tickets that reduce the cost of train travel and boost convenience and interconnectivity. Finally, for climate reasons, we need to ban all short-haul flights where there is a suitable train alternative.


Notes to editors:

The full analysis is available here. To see the dataset, contact Kai Tabacek: kai.tabacek@greenpeace.org / 07970 030 019

Greenpeace UK analysed 22 routes including seven UK domestic routes and 15 linking the UK and continental Europe. All journeys were less than 1,500km by air to qualify as short-haul flights. Prices were compared on three travel dates: 21, 23 and 28 December 2023 and the research was conducted between 13 and 27 November 2023.

International Routes Train x times as much as flight Domestic Routes Train x times as much as flight
London Barcelona 8.7 Bristol Newcastle 2.8
London Prague 8.0 London Edinburgh 2.3
Manchester Brussels 4.9 Bristol Edinburgh 2.1
London Budapest 4.8 London Glasgow 1.8
London Zagreb 4.5 London Aberdeen 1.3
London Bratislava 4.5 London Newcastle 1.0
London Vienna 3.9 London Manchester 0.53
London Zurich 3.8
London Berlin 3.7
London Ljubljana 3.6
London Copenhagen 3.5
London Cologne 3.1
London Paris 2.4
London Amsterdam 2.4
London Brussels 1.2

The overall climate impact of flying can be over 80 times worse than taking a train if we include the non-CO2 impacts of air travel (such as NOx and water vapours). Planes emit on average 4.84 times more greenhouse gas emissions than trains according to data from the European Environment Agency, which is a conservative low estimate. Figures vary by country, railway company, route and type of train, and national data is available for most countries.

Greenpeace did a similar analysis of 112 routes across Europe in summer 2023. Read the full report here.

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