What does Slow Travel mean?

Slow Travel is a way of slowing down your vacation by staying in vacation rentals, spending one week in a place and seeing what is near you. This gives you the time in one place to experience it in more depth. I started using the term “slow travel” in 2000, when I created the www.slowtrav.com website. It took me 16 pages on the website to explain my ideas about the subject (What is Slow Travel?). For me, and for the members of the SlowTravel community, no matter how clumsy the definition, this is what slow travel means. I trademarked the term “Slow Travel” in the US in 2005; European Trademark is pending. (Trademark now owned by Internet Brands, the new owner of slowtrav.com.)

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'”
Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty, “Through the Looking-Glass“, by Lewis Carroll, 1871

Carving on a wall in Pitigliano, southern Tuscany
Take the time on your vacation to explore all the streets in the village and find interesting old carvings.

Slow Travel does NOT mean taking trains

About six months ago, a new definition of slow travel popped up – slow travel meaning taking the train instead of flying. This should be called “green travel” – not slow travel. The first time I heard this different meaning was in an AlterNet article quoting from the Sierra Club magazine interview with Mark Ellingham, founder of the popular Rough Guide travel guides. Mark Ellingham did not use the term “slow travel” but Jay Walljasper used it when he talked about Ellingham’s views.

“Ellingham advocates a Slow Travel movement, along the lines of the Slow Food movement, in which people savour their vacation experiences. ‘Travelling slower gives you a sense of place,’ he told Sierra magazine. ‘Trains give you the chance to talk to people, to see a landscape unfold.'”
AlterNet, “Air Travel is Killing the Planet“, by Jay Walljasper, October 17, 2006

This article was quoted in an article on WorldHum, “Can Slow Travel Save the Planet?“, October 19, 2006

Since then the term “slow travel” has been used in several articles in the British press to mean travel by train. Just this week an article in the Guardian combined this new meaning with my original meaning.

“Further evidence of the slow travel movement gaining momentum is the popularity of the US site slowtrav.com. It’s not just how we get there that’s important, they say, but how we behave when we’re there.”
Guardian, “Best of the net – Quick guide to slow travel“, by Sean Dobson, February 10, 2007

Green Travel (Low Carbon Travel) means not flying

In January Ed Gillespie, creative director and co-founder of Futerra, based in London, England, announced his round the world trip starting March 1 2007, where he will travel the world and not use planes. His website is Low Carbon Travel, but he refers to his journey as Slow Travel. From his blog description: “Around the world in 80 ways; A low carbon, slow travel circumnavigation of the globe without bunny hopping around the planet in an aluminium sausage! (i.e. no flying)”

Gillespie’s company Futerra does sustainability communications, working with companies to promote sustainable development. They work with the UK government to help communicate information about climate change.

Recently, The Observer, a popular British Sunday paper, wrote about Gillespie and his planned trip.

“For the most part, slow travel involves swapping fast but polluting planes for trains, buses, cargo ships, bicycles – anything but flying. It has deliberate echoes of the slow food movement, the antidote to fast food. Although it does have an environmental impact, followers of slow travel say it is also about ‘luxuriating’ in the experience of the journey.”
The Observer, “Evangelists of ‘slow travel’ hurry to spread their gospel“, by Juliette Jowit, Sunday January 28, 2007

Now it seems like there is a different meaning for the term slow travel and it means, simply, “don’t fly”.

But, what is Slow Travel?

I took the term “slow” from the Slow Food movement. They look for good quality food and meaningful dining experiences. We look for good quality and meaningful travel experiences. “Slow” does not mean that the travel happens slowly, or the food is prepared slowly, but instead infers an attitude toward living where you value quality experiences, savor the things that happen to you, take the time to really enjoy what life offers. It might be a meal lovingly prepared with local, organic ingredients or a two week vacation where you stay in a cottage in an Italian village and really experience the local way of living. Time to stop and smell the roses.

– Slow Travel does not mean doing a longer trip. You can do slow travel on a one week trip, a two week trip or a longer trip.

– Slow Travel does not mean an expensive trip. Staying in vacation rentals is just as expensive or inexpensive as staying in hotels/B&Bs. Vacation rentals range from luxurious villas for over $200 per person per night to inexpensive cottages on an estate for under $50 per person per night.

– Slow Travel is about independence, freedom from having to “see it all”. It is about settling into a place for a week or more and seeing it in depth.

Hot springs in San Casciano dei Bagni, southern Tuscany
Take the time on your vacation to find the local natural hot springs and bath in the water.


If you do a two week trip to Europe, spending 2 nights in 7 places, what are you going to remember? The packing and unpacking, the days spent moving between places.

If you spend one week in one location, the other week in a second location, what are you going to remember? The owner of the local café who remembers your order from the day before. The weekly market where you buy vegetables directly from the farmers. The local cheese shop where you buy a different type of cheese every day. The afternoon you spent on a hillside enjoying the view.

Even if you plan to do only one trip to Europe in your life, I still recommend that you do Slow Travel. Pick two of your favorite places and spend one week in each. Spend a week in Paris and scratch below the surface. Spend a week in the Tuscany countryside and do your grocery shopping alongside the people who live there.

In Praise of Slowness

Over the years the meaning of “slow” has evolved. Slow Food was first, then came Slow Cities and then Slow Travel. Then slow was used to describe a way of life, as discussed in Carl Honoré’s book “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed”, 2004. Honoré talks about slowing down your life in the areas of food, medicine, sex, work, leisure time, and raising children. He talks about taking a “type A” life and turning it into a slower, more relaxed, but still productive, life. My only complaint about this book is that he dismisses the “hippie” and Macrobiotic movements that came out of the 1960s and 70s. I think that these were the slow movements of their time. Many of the ways of living that the current slow movement promotes have been practiced for the last forty years by people whose lives were changed by the hippie movement. It wasn’t all about free love back then, it was also about finding work that you love, eating well, living responsibly. The Macrobiotic community promoted eating locally grown, in season, organic food. (Must confess, I am an old hippy and I follow Macrobiotics.)

Still, I like Honoré’s book for its basic ideas and because of the exposure that my Slow Travel website has gained because of it. He did not address the idea of slow travel in the book, but in the past two years many journalists have read his book, started an article about the slow movement, googled “slow travel”, found my website and then included us in the article. Thank you Carl! See all the press Slow Travel has been getting; many of the articles discuss the Slow movement and how Slow Travel fits into it.

The Slow Movement website also describe the various aspects of a slow life, in less depth than Honoré’s book. Their definition of slow travel is taken from my definition. They write about slow travel, slow cities, slow food, slow schools, slow living, and slow money.

Slow Food

slowfood.jpg

The Slow Food movement began in Italy in 1989 “to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” (from their website). It is a non-profit organization with chapters around the world. I belong to the US Slow Food group ($60 yearly membership). Read more about their philosophy on their website.

Slow Cities

cittaslow.jpg

The Slow Cities movement (called Città Slow – Città is “cities” in Italian) began in Italy in 1999, as an offshoot of the Slow Food movement. It started with four towns in Italy – Greve in Chianti, Orvieto, Bra and Positano – but is spreading throughout Italy and the world.

As the CittaSlow UK branch says on their website: “Cittaslow is a way of thinking. It is about caring for your town and the people who live and work in it or visit it. It is about protecting the environment, about promoting local goods and produce, and about avoiding the ‘sameness’ that afflicts too many towns in the modern world.”

Why has this new use of Slow Travel started?

The term “slow travel” is being used by people who do not realize there is already a working definition. They see Slow Food as an environmental movement, and apply it to travel by recommending trains instead of planes, because train travel has lower environmental impact than plane travel.

In the last few years, inexpensive flights within Europe have become common. You can fly from England to southern France for under $50 return. Sometimes you can find flights that are free; all you pay are the airport fees. This has changed travel within Europe. Now someone from London can go to most places in Europe for the weekend.

I think of that old Chinese proverb: “Everything changes to its opposite”. Europe prides itself on its public train system. You can live in Europe without having a car and using trains to get about. We spent six months traveling in Europe, from Italy to Scandinavia, all by train and loved it. On a recent trip to England and France, I wanted to take a cheap flight on EasyJet from Bristol to Nice, then take the EuroStar train back from Avignon to London. But, when I tried to book the train two weeks before the travel date, the price was four times that of an EasyJet flight. I booked the return on EasyJet.

Will Europe’s excellent train system degrade now that many people are flying to save time and money? I hope not. This is why the Green Travel movement has arisen in England. They make a very good point comparing the environmental damage caused by air travel to the more eco-friendly train travel, but I think some people take it too far by avoiding planes at all times.

Mark Ellingham from Rough Guides created Climate Care, a British non-profit group, with a website where you can calculate the CO-2 emissions created by your flight and offset them by funding sustainable energy projects. For example, according to ClimateCare two people flying from Houston to London, Gatwick need to donate $60 to offset the emissions from their flight. This is a great way for you to realize the environmental impact of your air travel, but seems like more of a “feel good” project, that allows me to live the way I want to live, but feel good about myself because I send 60 bucks to an environmental non-profit.

Low Carbon Travel has been in the news in England lately.

“‘So let me get this straight, you’re not getting on a plane at all?’ This is the typical response to my forthcoming trip, a slow travel, low-carbon global circumnavigation, writes Ed Gillespie.”
Guardian blog entry, “I’ll take the slow road“, by Ed Gillespie

In the blog, Ed Gillespie discusses his upcoming trip and his type of travel and recommends the Man in Seat 61 website, for information about train travel.

“Air travel may be increasing yet a small, but growing number of people are turning their backs on flying in favour of land travel, in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. Two share their stories of so-called ‘slow travel’ holidays.”
BBC News Magazine, “Gone to Ground“, by Tom Geoghegan, January 23, 2007

This article compares air travel with train travel looking at one traveler going from England to Australia by train and boat (for a cost of $4,000 compared to $900 to fly, and 51 days compared to 25 hours travel time) and a family traveling from England to Tuscany by train (for a cost of $1400 compared to $590 to fly, and 2.3 days compared to 2 hours travel time).

These articles are about environmentally conscious travel, but this only relates to how you get to a place, not what you do when you are there. For me traveling is not just how I get to a place, but is the whole travel experience from when I leave my home to when I return.

Why does slow travel NOT mean train travel?

Let’s look at the Slow Food movement. They promote small farm/artisans, organic and locally grown, but they still eat dairy products and meat. They are not promoting vegetarianism. I am a vegetarian. I have much more radical views about food and food production than those promoted by the Slow Food movement.

The movement to promote taking trains instead of flying compared to the Slow Travel movement is, in my mind, equivalent to the vegetarian movement compared to the Slow Food movement. Train travel does not mean Slow Travel, but train travel fits very well into the Slow Travel movement. It is one part of it.

I don’t think we will solve our current global warming crisis by taking trains instead of flying. I think that is a simplistic answer. We need to look at our whole way of living and make changes in every part. Think about how you live, think about how you travel. A Slow Travel trip is a more meaningful, life changing trip. We don’t stop our lives because we feel guilty about global warming.

What is this article about?

Slow Travel means what it has meant since 2000, when the Slow Travel site was started. Slow down your vacation by staying in one place for one week during your vacation. During that time, don’t rush about seeing someone else’s “must sees” – do what YOU want to do. See what is near you. Don’t spend the whole week racing around the countryside in your car. Stop, by the side of the road, in a village, in a café, and smell those roses! That is why Slow Travelers love to travel – we can’t get enough of those roses.

Published by

Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.