Taking Our Time Off

Andrew Sims has a no-fly rule. As an international development expert and policy director for London's New Economics Foundation, he spends his days thinking globally. But when he travels on holiday, it's always closer to home; several years ago he decided never again to take a vacation by air. "The decision was partly driven by a concern for the environment," says Sims, "but it's also driven by a desire not to overlook what's on your doorstep, and to travel in a more leisurely way." Now, instead of hopping a cheap flight to Spain or the Côte d'Azur, Sims and his family board a sleeper train from London to the west coast of Scotland. They spend unstructured days amid the lochs and islands, hiking, cooking or just dreaming. The journey itself— made partly on a single track, which curves so that the back of the train is visible from the front—is a key part of the trip. No matter that it takes three times longer than flying; for Sims and his family, enjoying breakfast in bed while chugging past some of the world's most beautiful scenery is the end, not the means to get there.

Sims is at the vanguard of a popular new way to travel: in the slow lane. As work life becomes increasingly hectic, holidays are occupying a more important place in our lives; when we take a break, we want to truly step off the treadmill—even as (or maybe because) we cling to our BlackBerrys. Just as the slow-food movement encouraged diners to savor meals and the way they are produced, the trend toward slow travel promotes a more thoughtful style of vacationing. It refers not only to leisurely and environmentally friendly modes of transport—train, boat, bike or foot—but also to the nature of the trips: smaller in scope and more off-the-beaten-path—a custom-crafted trek through niche sites rather than a top-10 group tour. It generally entails quieter, more intimate accommodations—homey boutique hotels or upscale apartment swaps—and often requires taking more (gasp!) vacation days. With time shares and second-home ownership on the rise, many travelers are taking off for longer periods of time, enabled by the technology that allows them to connect to the office even as they paddle around the Arctic.

More and more, people are living for vacation. They are using up every single allotted day off, and bargaining with their employers for more time to savor their travels. Gone are the days when holidays were a discreet, predictable part of the year; today they are more typically considered an essential, non-negotiable part of life. We transition seamlessly from the drudgery of work and responsibilities of family to the pleasures of time off—and back again. Today's trips are more-organic narratives, and the traveler is the storyteller. "The whole idea of 'If it's Tuesday, it must be Belize' is completely over," says Navin Sawhney, senior VP of the Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck World Discovery. "Today's tourists view travel as a form of self-expression. They don't want to come back with an object, or even a picture. They want to come back with a story."

The trend toward leisurely, in-depth holidays, like so many others, stems from the baby boomers. They've worked hard—their white-collar toil has largely driven the past few years of global productivity growth—and now they have the money and the time to enjoy themselves. Travelers since they were teens, they've already seen the great museums of Europe, and probably the key monuments of Asia and the plains of Africa. Rather than zip through 20 countries in 20 days, they are more interested in hanging out in a remote corner of one, interacting with locals and sampling new customs. Quality and depth of experience matter far more than crossing hot spots off a checklist. This is reflected in the travel industry's new marketing campaigns, notes Alex Kyriakidis, managing partner of Deloitte's global tourism practice. "Greece invites people to 'Explore your senses'," he says. "Intercontinental [Hotels] asks, 'Are you living an Intercontinental life?'"

How does the spin translate into reality? Holidaymakers are getting plenty of time and space to tailor their days and delve deep into a topic rather than skim the surface. Today's tourists want to interact with locals and experts (sommeliers, artists, marine biologists) who can take them inside a particular world. The successful U.K.-based company Andante Travels, which specializes in ancient-world tours led by archeologists, focuses less on the big monuments than on unexpected treasures. Travelers might explore the rich prehistoric art of Leinster, England, or the secrets of Roman Germany. Often, they work on a guide's own dig. "The trips unfold as a kind of narrative each day," says owner Annabel Lawson, herself an archeologist. "It makes them much more interesting."

Not to mention leisurely. When you aren't competing with 50,000 other people for, say, a glimpse of Michelangelo's "David," you're much more likely to relax and settle into your holiday. Companies like Andante are adding no-fly vacations to their lineup. Lawson was shocked when a new train journey to a Roman military-history site in Cologne sold out in a few days. "I mean, it's not Pompeii," she says, laughing. "I thought we'd get a few history buffs, but what really sold the trip was the idea of a train journey."

Indeed, the rails may be the slow traveler's best friend. Mark Smith's Web site, seat61.com—long an established favorite of train junkies—is drawing all manner of holidaymakers eager to know the best train fare from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, or what kind of food to expect on the 11-day Trans-Siberian Express trip. Last month the site attracted 350,000 visitors—up more than 50 percent over the same period last year, and more than twice the 2005 figure. He's tapped into what more and more travelers are starting to see: that trains provide a comfortable, relaxing and environmentally safe alternative to air travel and all its hassles, from queues and security checks to luggage limits and weather delays. "The journey should be as important as the destination," says Smith, a civil servant at Britain's Ministry of Transport. "When I travel I want to be treated like a human being."

It helps that train travel is not so very slow these days. The leisurely charms of the railway—no queues, comfortable seats and the freedom to stroll the aisles—are now on offer at ever-greater speeds as a lattice of new lines extends across Europe. In June, French state operator SNCF will launch a new link between Paris and Strasbourg 450 kilometers to the east, with trains capable of traveling 320kph, slashing the journey time from four hours to two hours and twenty minutes. Travelers can also enjoy new amenities, relaxing in seats designed by Christian Lacroix while their kids amuse themselves in the "family area," a carriage with game boards on the tables and special tip-up seats to allow extra room for toddlers. Meanwhile, another new high-speed track, between Amsterdam and the Belgian border, opens this summer. And later this year, the first trains will leave a spiffy new rail terminal in London en route to Paris and Brussels; thanks to some new stretches of track, journey times will fall by as much as 30 minutes.

Savvy rail companies are already exploiting their return to favor. SNCF is developing a network of designated tourist lines—slated to rise from eight in 2004 to 40 this year—with added features. Passengers on one route though central France are joined not only by a tour guide but also by farmers offering samples of local produce. "There is a real urge for a gentler mode of transport, for going somewhere without the car," says Eric Succab, of SNCF. "It's a developing trend and we are trying to respond." And why shouldn't the journey become the holiday? The private company that took over much of Canada's failing long-distance network in the '90s has seen traffic soar as sightseers return to the railways. "People want to get back to the way things were, before there were cell phones and computers," says Graham Gilley of Rocky Mountaineer Vacations.

Of course, the anti jet set isn't dependent on trains alone. Niche operators offering slow holidays from walking tours to barge cruises report ever-brisker business. "Traveling 10 miles a day down a French canal with the odd pause for wine-tasting is a much better way of seeing the country than hurtling down the highway," says Derek Moore of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. For some, the opportunity for exercising while touring only heightens the appeal of going slow. Susan Achmatowicz, an American banker, quit the fast-lane life in the '90s to establish her own bicycle touring company in Britain's national parks: just pick up a bike from the railway station and pedal off into, say, the New Forest for three days. "The trend is all about doing things at a pace people can enjoy," says Achmatowicz. "But they also want the healthy lifestyle." Over the last few years, she's seen her own business grow at a healthy rate of around 15 percent.

The idea of getting there being half the fun is behind the recent boom in chartered-boat trips, which allow travelers to pull in and out of ports as the mood strikes. Geoffrey Kent, head of the luxe travel company Abercrombie & Kent, recently planned a six-week private Arctic diving trip aboard a small cruise ship for a well-known CEO client. "This is someone who's done everything," says Kent. "He's got his own Gulfstream V. What he wanted was to really get away for a slow, extended vacation with his family and friends."

Conventional cruise operators are also enjoying resurgence; global bookings rose 7 percent last year. But demand is also climbing steadily for the no-frills but high-priced alternative: taking a berth aboard an oceangoing cargo ship. Ranko Zunic, of the Montreal-based agents Maris Freighter Cruises, says he has little trouble these days filling space on round-the-world trips, with retirees happy to pay $14,000 to escape the everyday world. "You get some people who have tried ordinary cruises and are tired of all the entertainment," says Zunic. "On a freighter they feel more comfortable because they are in charge of their own time. All that's scheduled are the meals."

To be sure, slower doesn't necessarily mean cheaper. A sluggish top-of-the-range cruise on a luxury barge through the canals of the Netherlands will cost more than £1,600 a week. The bill for a five-day stroll through the Tuscan landscape (with luggage sent on ahead, of course) could be at least £500—before the cost of the trip to Italy. And the fare for a one-way overnight trip from Paris to Barcelona on the Elipsos service—billed as a "train hotel"—can run £250, or the price of a night in a very nice Hyatt.

But for slow travelers, the benefits make up for the cost. "One of the huge advantages of slow travel is that you actually feel you are traveling," says Dan Kieran, the British writer and champion of slow travel who gave up flying 15 years ago. "You find yourself getting into conversation with people. I went out to Poland last year and found myself giving English lessons to a woman and her 8-year-old daughter."

For devotees, the biggest advantage of leisurely tourism is that slow means green. "Among my friends I find that more and more are limiting themselves to perhaps one flight a year," says Kieran. Europeans in particular are buying into low-carbon holidays; Inntravel, a U.K.-based firm specializing in skiing and cycling holidays, says train journeys are up 50 percent over last year. Canny train operators have quickly figured out how to flaunt their environmental credentials. In France, train travelers who purchase tickets at voyages-sncf.com can now measure their virtue on an "Eco-Gauge." (For the record, a high-speed-train ride between Paris and Marseille will emit 10kg of carbon per passenger, compared with 187kg if traveled by plane and 313kg by car.) "Slow travel is like buying organic food," says John Kester of the World Tourist Organization in Madrid. "You might do it for ideological reasons—or because it tastes better."

But the popularity of fast trains and slow boats doesn't mean air travel is over. In fact, global airline traffic continues to rise steadily at 5 percent a year—a rate that can be attributed in part to the growing numbers of newly affluent fliers flooding the jetways. What's changed is the increased use of charter planes for longer holidays—Abercrombie & Kent now offers a month long tour of Easter Island by private jet—and for travel to villas and second homes. The number of second-home-owning Americans has risen 900 percent over the last two decades. In Europe, cheap air travel has made second-home ownership a positively middle-class phenomenon; 30 percent of Europe's concrete now flows to Spain, a second-home mecca. Residential tourism is by proxy more leisurely—the typical American second-home owner spends 39 nights per year in their vacation place. At more upscale time shares, like the Ritz-Carlton Club, three to six weeks is the minimum buy-in. "There is a growing segment of the population that can spend multiple weeks on holiday, in more and more upscale vacations," notes Paul Chiu, head of Accenture's transportation and travel-service practice.

Indeed, what slow travelers most crave is time. Pauline Kenny, founder of slowtrav.com, which promotes holidays such as Italian-villa stays, says that parking yourself in one place forces you to move at a different speed. "We call it 'concentric circle' travel—you travel in an area that's close to you," she says. "You don't have to spend your vacation following someone else's list, doing a two-hour drive to visit a 'must-see.' There are tons of wonderful villages that no one has ever heard of."

They're also a lot more likely to put you in the holiday mood than a 10-day, 10-city tour of the Continent, or a packaged sun-and-sand vacation. Still, it's important to note that slower holidays are primarily a Western phenomenon. While many Americans and Europeans can afford to take their time and plot their own paths, developing-world tourists are still trying to log enough hours and wages to afford the traditional one-week packaged tour. But there are signs that more-leisurely travel is catching on even in emerging markets. Urban Chinese are taking weekend trips to country farms to de-stress. Budget hotel chains catering to the growing number of domestic travelers in India and China are increasingly offering chill-out amenities like spas.

How these new travelers—whose numbers are only slated to grow—will eventually spend their time and money is anyone's guess. What's clear is that traditional holidays will continue to evolve, becoming more personalized and in-depth. Among travelers, the sense of urgency—Climb Kilimanjaro before it melts away! See the Sistine Chapel before you die!—so prevalent in the workday world is fading. Despite all the fretting about climate change, the world is not going to disappear any time soon; in fact, environmental activism seems to be gaining traction. And if you missed the "Mona Lisa"? Oh well. There's always next time.

With Jesse Ellison in New York and Tracy McNicoll in Paris