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Traveling from Berlin to Helsinki — without using a plane

Benjamin Bathke
April 4, 2024

Flying is a major CO2 emitter when traveling. But how feasible are alternative modes of transportation? DW reporter Benjamin Bathke traveled 36 hours to find out.

Benjamin Bathke stands next to a train in Berlin.
The journey started with a six-hour train ride from Berlin to Warsaw on a sunny winter morningImage: DW/B. Bathke

Ernest Hemingway has famously been credited with saying: "It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end." But then again, Hemingway didn't quite have the kind of modern, jet-setting lifestyle that many people have become used to.

Air travel is more popular than ever, and is projected to almost double from 3.7 billion global air passengers in 2016 to 7.2 billion in 2035. But it's also killing the environment: aviation accounts for around 2% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. 

So instead of having yet another hypothetical discussion about how we all ought to fly less, I walked the talk to see for myself how rail, long-distance buses and ferries stack up against a flight — in terms of time, price, convenience and, of course, carbon footprint.

With a half dozen tickets in my pocket I embarked on an epic journey from Berlin to Helsinki, Finland, via Poland, the Baltics and Nordic waters.

Second thoughts on Platform 9

Waiting for my 9:37 a.m. train from Berlin to Warsaw, I chatted with a businessman on his way to the airport to fly to Stockholm. At this point, I hadn't left Berlin yet, but already I was having second thoughts. By the time he was due to arrive at his destination in less than two hours, I would hardly have left German territory.

I reminded myself that I would get to enjoy the beautiful landscapes while air travelers are crammed into a tube that shoots across the sky. As the train pulled its wagons across Poland's plains, I sat down in the restaurant for a refreshment and struck up a conversation with a Polish man in his 40s.

Michal Michalewicz told me he flies from Warsaw to another EU country for business once a month for an average of four days. He only considers the train if the price for a return flight exceeds €250 ($268).

For Michalewicz, to fly or not to fly is not a matter of sustainability, but of convenience.

I asked him if he'd be willing to make any sacrifices for the environment. "I believe that the climate is changing," he replied, "but I don't believe people can change it by themselves." Many Poles share Michalewicz' denial of human-made climate change

Michał Michalewicz on a train.
Passenger Michal Michalewicz said he only takes the train if flights to Warsaw are expensiveImage: DW/B. Bathke

Serendipity of slow travel

Before we said goodbye in Warsaw, Michalewicz told me about a place I should visit during my layover in the Polish capital. The "Invisible Exhibition" ("Niewidzialna Wystawa") — an immersive experience where a blind guide takes you through a series of pitch-black rooms.

I checked it out, and as I dove into this world, time seemed to stop. I relaxed into my own slowness.

This was a form of slow travel, a movement that emphasizes the importance of creating connections to local people, cultures and experiences instead of rushing through as many sights as possible.

Having extra time on my trip allowed for spontaneous decisions, which could lead to wonderful opportunities. 

From Warsaw to Riga, via Vilnius

Once the bus left the highway, the ride to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius became bumpy. I was beginning to get uncomfortable. With my seat hardly reclining, real rest was hard to come by.

I reminded myself that the whole point of this journey was to give up the privilege of aviation that I had become so used to. No one said that trying to reverse climate change was going to be easy.

When we reached Vilnius, I got off at the wrong bus stop and missed my bus connection to Riga.

I was learning that generous layovers are an important thing to consider when traveling overland. 

Fewer connections in smaller cities

I also learned about the difficulties of people who live in small countries like Lithuania, or those who don't live near a major airport: flight connections tend to be more expensive and less frequent.

The port of Tallinn with a large ship in the foreground.
In Tallinn, the author took a ferry to get to Finland's capital, HelsinkiImage: picture-alliance/prisma

A direct flight from Vilnius to Warsaw takes an hour and uses less fuel than a multi-stop flight, but is around five times more expensive than a flight via Riga, Latvia, for example.

During my bus journey from Riga, to Tallinn, Estonia, I researched transportation options in the Baltic countries. There are few rail links connecting cities and even fewer connecting each country.

But in 2026, the Rail Baltica electric railway project, currently under construction, is expected to significantly shorten the travel time from Berlin to the Baltic states via Warsaw with high-speed overnight trains.

In Tallinn, I boarded the liquefied natural gas powered Megastar ferry for a comfy, two-hour voyage to Finland's capital, Helsinki. Plans are also in the works for a rail tunnel going from Tallinn to Helsinki.

Can trains and buses really compete with planes?

After a 30-minute walk, I arrived at my Helsinki hotel — 36 hours after I had left my apartment in Berlin. I felt tired, but also happy I had followed through with my idea.

Reaching my final destination took me almost 10 times as long as taking a one-way flight.

What would actually need to happen to make trains and buses not only more sustainable but a competitive alternative to medium-distance flights?

The large Megastar ferry in Helsinki, Finland.
A LNG-powered Megastar ferry in Helsinki, Finland – the seventh and final country of the tripImage: DW/B. Bathke

Booking overland travel itineraries would have to be as easy as booking a multi-stop flight. To make things more sustainable, air passengers could be charged a carbon offsetting fee. Alternatives to flying could be subsidized to incentivize passengers and transport operators. 

When it comes to making travel more time efficient, implementing a comprehensive high-speed train network across Europe with standardized fares would help. 

Until then, I think we all need to go the proverbial extra mile to chose the least-damaging mode of transportation. I invested a great deal of extra time and planning into this undertaking. 

Αlong the way, I met people with different views, and learned how to make slow travel work for me. Try achieving all that on a flight.

Author's note: Expenses for this trip were covered by the European Commission.