Deliberately leisurely journeys are the ultimate antidote to the frantic rush of modern life. Now a new generation of immersive experiences is changing the way we travel.
By Leanne Clancey
For some, just seeing the words “slow” and “travel” in the same sentence might induce a mild shudder, conjuring visions of crowded trains or a renunciation of modern comforts. So mired have we become in the culture of travel hacks and bucket lists, choreographing holiday schedules down to the very last Instagrammable minute, that the idea of doing it all at a pace that would allow for breathing space seems almost decadent.
But with all that has changed in the world over the past few years, newfound priorities have shifted the ways that many people choose to travel. A discernible move away from the frantic energy that fuelled pre-pandemic vacation trends has led to a proliferation of niche operators specialising in a slower style of travel, ranging from unhurried river cruises and luxe sleeper train journeys to exclusive homestays and hands-on paddock-to-plate experiences. By embracing the old-world glamour of train travel, for example, or appreciating longer and more immersive stays in single destinations, a growing number of travellers are trading a box-ticking mentality for a deeper sense of connection to new places and people.
So, what exactly is slow travel? Rather than a strict prescription, this type of travel is a mindset that can be categorised into two key notions: the first being flight-free travel—swapping carbon-heavy plane journeys for modes of transport that are not just gentler on the environment (think trains and vessels) but also pleasure-filled experiences in themselves. The second concept is about how we relate to the places we visit and the attitude we bring. Rather than skimming through a well-worn hitlist of over-touristed sights, slow holidays encourage taking the time to connect with locals and understand a destination’s culture, food and lifestyle in ways that go beyond a transactional tourist-host dynamic.
London-based Imogen Lepere, author of two books on ethical travel and a reporter of slow travel experiences for publications including The Financial Times and Conde Nast Traveller, says a conscious travel mindset offers numerous benefits. “For me, slow travel provides a far deeper understanding of a host culture than just seeing the sights,” Lepere explains. “Slow travel facilitates meaningful interactions with locals, which I think should always feel like an exchange rather than one-way traffic.”
She adds that when you travel with a slow mindset, the exchange becomes less self-regarding and more reciprocal. “Travelling slowly provides many more opportunities to give back than other forms of travel, which ultimately makes the experience far more meaningful,” she suggests. “Sure, you are there to immerse yourself in a new culture, but you can also bring ideas from your own through music, food, conversation… This can be really expansive for locals, particularly if you’re visiting a remote region where few people have had the opportunity to travel overseas.”
Cat Jones, founder of bespoke tour operator Byway, agrees: “Travelling by train, boat and bike, we slow down to appreciate lesser-known locations, bypass touristy hotspots and feel like we’re discovering the world on our terms.” Specialising in flight-free holiday packages away from the usual tourism trails, Byway has gained traction since launching in 2020 by showcasing the joy of slow travel while taking the hassle out of no-fly travel logistics.
Jones believes the pandemic years helped people understand the impact of supporting local and that has extended to travel preferences in support of local economies rather than contributing further to the issues that come with heavy visitation.
The argument for flight-free travel can be compelling when you crunch the carbon offset numbers. “You could get the train from London to Edinburgh and back five times and your carbon footprint would still be lower than if you flew there,” Jones points out. “Giving up meat for a year saves 2.7 tonnes of carbon while giving up one return flight from London to Bangkok saves 3.3 tonnes.”
In a 2022 user survey by US-based travel agency network Virtuoso, 74 per cent of respondents stated they were willing to pay more to travel sustainably if they know where the money is going and agreed that travelling sustainably enhances their holiday experience.
This extended to seeking out companies and experiences that focus on “preserving natural and cultural heritage”, in alignment with the slow travel ethos.
Jones adds that, beyond the social and environmental benefits, flight-free travel is often “more interesting and less stressful”. Rather than getting from A to B as quickly and simply as possible, flight-free travel encourages you to customise a multi-stop adventure, gliding through places that planes cannot access and serving up vistas you would normally miss, with more legroom to boot. Additionally, check-in and security processes tend to be quicker at train stations and boat terminals than at airports.
Train travel, in particular, has experienced exceptional growth in the past few years. “We are past the era of fast, frequent travel and guilt-free consumption,” explains Gary Franklin, from luxury hospitality operator Belmond, which owns the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. “Today’s discerning travellers are looking for meaningful, slower-paced, sustainable and immersive experiences and train travel is arguably the most romantic and charming way to reach [your chosen] destination.”
Bookings on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (whose dining experience comes via French chef Jean Imbert of Plaza Athénée fame) and Royal Scotsman luxury trains are up 20 per cent and 35 percent respectively on pre-pandemic figures, says Franklin. Meanwhile, Belmond’s British Pullman—which features the 1950s-era Cygnus carriage delightfully redesigned by filmmaker Wes Anderson—has grown its clientele by a whopping 40 per cent.
In Europe, the iconic Orient Express (unrelated to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express), which debuted in 1883 for journeys from Paris to Istanbul, is set to launch a new service taking in 14 Italian regions next year. The joint venture by France’s state rail company SNCF, hospitality group Accor and Italian property investment company Arsenale focuses on exploring lesser-known parts of the country. Featuring mid-century-inspired interiors by Milan-based design firm Dimorestudio (whose client list includes Dior, Fendi and Hermes), the La Dolce Vita service will also offer international journeys from Rome to Istanbul, Paris and Split—with bespoke excursions such as truffle hunting in Piedmont available along the way.
According to social media giant Pinterest, the search terms “train trip aesthetic” and “train quotes travel” rose by 205 and 285 per cent respectively in the past year. “Train bragging” has also become part of the platform’s lexicon thanks to users flaunting images of their exotic rail adventures.
Around the world it appears a rail renaissance is taking shape, with new tech-enabled trains promising experiences that range from super-comfortable to ultra-luxurious. This includes sleeper trains, which are increasingly billed as a climate-friendly alternative to short-haul flights for both business and leisure travellers. Later this year Austrian national rail operator OBB will roll out 33 next-gen NightJet sleeper trains to elevate comfort for those connecting to the European railway hub of Zurich Hauptbahnhof. Recent upgrades have also raised standards and shortened travel times between Oslo and Stockholm, with five services now running each day.
On the water, meanwhile, Orient Express will launch its first cruise in 2026 having commissioned a 220m sailing yacht from Chantiers de L’Atlantique with capacity for up to 120 passengers. The wind and LNG-powered vessel is set to join a new strand of hotel-yacht hybrids taking to the seas over the next couple of years, with luxury resort groups such as Four Seasons and Aman also investing in floating sanctuaries that deliver high-end hospitality with a greater degree of structure than a private charter.
In this exciting new era of travel, the nostalgic gilded-age charm of trains and boats is being reimagined with a modern, green, tech-forward edge—offering travellers the best of both worlds.