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  • Writer's pictureEveline Vouillemin

To Travel To: The AI tool for long distance flight free travel

Updated: Jun 6

We speak to Ian Moss from 196 Destinations and To Travel To about the flight free movement and how AI can support flight free travel.

View of trees from a train window.

Ian Moss is the founder of 196 Destinations, a travel blog dedicated to sharing stories of overland travel across Europe to encourage others to consider flight free travel for the planet and for the experience.

He is currently working on developing an AI-powered tool called To Travel To which is a train ticket purchasing service designed to make long distance train journeys easier to plan and a more enjoyable travel experience.

We spoke to Ian about the flight-free travel movement, his goals for To Travel To, and the power of telling stories to share the joy of flight free travel…

When did you first become conscious of the flight free travel movement?

I am originally from Manchester but I now live between Berlin and Malaga and there was a four or five year gap where I was just back and forth between them and began having the thought that this is too much flying.

Before these moves, it was something in the peripheral vision and after the move, I decided I want to do this journey without flying but I don't know how and it was only later that I took the time to delve into how to do it. I have been flight free now since 2020. 

What inspired you to start the travel blog 196 Destinations and promote European travel by train by telling travel stories?

I think hearing stories that share the joy of overland travel, of overseas travel, will hopefully be something that inspires people to try that journey. I think one of the simplest things that we as individuals could do when on a train journey, is to take a picture out of the window and put it on Instagram with #trainwindow. We could create a whole community of people sharing the joy of train travel and competing with those wingtip moments that we see on Instagram for flights.

I’ve also been inspired by people like Anna Hughes from Flight Free UK and Once Upon A Train who share amazing individual stories and pledges. Our hope with creating a travel blog was that it would help people at least know someone who's travelled by train, because most people haven't. Most people know someone who's been on an EasyJet weekend, but they don't know many people who, as an adult, took an Interrail journey. There's still that perception of it being something for students and backpackers.

Can you speak about the AI-powered train ticket purchasing service, To Travel To, that you are in the process of developing?

So, we are developing a conversational interface to help people plan and book their journeys.  At the end of summer 2023, we realised that we could utilise ChatGPT and get people having conversations with the computer like it was a travel agent.

A lot of people know where they want to go more or less but they don't know what the stages will be when it's a long distance journey. So that's why it's useful to have this conversational interface to help provide information on multi-stage journeys and have somewhere that you can store tickets from multiple operators to make the journey easier. 

A lot of people will quibble on the price and that is a fair observation in a lot of cases, but if the whole process becomes more stream-lined and intuitive, maybe they will give long distance flight-free travel more consideration. 

Are you collaborating with anyone on this project?

We've teamed up with a Swedish API provider and they give us that ability to book tickets and provide information on the train schedules and all of the information that you'd hope to get from other platforms that are available. You can integrate with more inventory systems as you go and it's getting pretty close to the proof of concept. 

What barriers do you hope this tool can help to overcome when it comes to long distance train travel?

With this AI tool, we're looking at solving the information challenges that can occur when you're taking a journey that has multiple stages and can feel quite overwhelming which could be a barrier for many.

People might still object on price but if we can solve the information problem then that's going to move things forward. So we're not quite there yet but it's getting close and I’ve invested a lot in trying to make it as simple as possible.

We know there can be a lot of knee jerk reactions on price, but as product makers, we also know that a percentage of people will still carry forward their intention to travel in alternative ways so hopefully this tool can support them.

Selfie of Ian Moss in front of view of train tracks
Ian Moss, Founder of 196 Destinations and creator of To Travel To

How can individuals get involved and support your AI tool?

There is a really positive effect from interactive groups such as Facebook groups. We have our own Facebook group and we encourage people to get involved in that little community and ask questions, share their trip journeys and to answer each other's questions. 

We find that a lot of people just want a little bit of reassurance and observations from the wider community can be really useful when you are planning a journey. That human reassurance will back up our AI tool. So we're trying to use a community field and grow that, as well as bring in experts as ambassadors to supplement the AI interface.

Do you think sharing the joy and fun of flight-free travel is an effective way to get people to change their behaviour?

In Sweden, they have a hashtag ‘flyskam' which means flight shame. I don’t think shaming other people will work. In fact, it probably turns them the other way and reinforces it. You can make it something that is positive and share why you chose not to fly and speak about what you loved about your journey.  

There are amazing communities out there, such as the Facebook groups I mentioned, where you can get advice on journeys that you are thinking of taking and hear about other people’s experiences. Finding communities like that can support people to make a change. 

We also need to demonstrate that you're not just sitting on a train for the entire journey time and share the happy aspects of the slow travel movement. You might have a night in Paris on the way and enjoy a crêpe under the Eiffel Tower or spend an afternoon in Berlin at the pub catching up with friends before you catch your next train. I think more people will be on the train if they know that it's easy to do these little things on route. 

Also, when you're on the train, give people something to look out for on their journey. There's fantastic mountain routes between Munich and Italy, through Innsbruck and that area. Also, did you know that if you go into Barcelona, shortly before you cross the border, there's massive lagoons and flamingos in those lagoons? I often find myself telling people to look out for the flamingos, and people start to feel there are things on the way that are worth looking out for.

Do you feel hopeful that there is a movement growing towards moving away from flying?

I wouldn't necessarily call it moving away from flying. So the rebound after COVID has shown that both trains and flights have rebounded. However, there's definitely demand for more train services.

We've seen exciting launches such as ÖBB's new night jet service, which looks absolutely spectacular, but the problem is now the price has gone up quite dramatically for those new services. We hoped it would be less than a hotel price but it's actually more. The challenge with night trains is they're only getting used once a day but maybe in time there'll be more of these high tech new train services that actually are price competitive as well.

However, with the rolling stock on high speed trains, which get used multiple times a day, we have seen positive changes. In 2018, the Barcelona to Madrid route was the  number one flight route in the whole of the EU. Obviously COVID temporarily stopped this, but then with the opening of the railway line post-COVID, it's now not even in the top 10 flights so that's quite a dramatic reduction.

So, we can see snippets of hope and the new rolling stock, which is starting to be launched, will hopefully meet the demand for low-carbon transport across Europe and we will start to see a positive impact from that.

What has been your most memorable train travel experience and why?

Probably, the first time crossing the Italian border from Austria. It was just so dramatic.  After you've already gone through the Austrian mountains, it climbs and climbs to the border. We'd gone from a sunny day to a cloudy day and then as we got to the border, there were clouds rolling across the train line and it was super dramatic. Then when you descend into Italy it's just beautiful mountain scenery.

What are your plans with To Travel To over the next few months?

We haven't got a specific launch date on the horizon. We're currently getting people to sign up to a wait list and then walking them through the tool so we can understand what they really want it to do and what the tool helped them with. Later in the year, we will hopefully be able to raise more funds to be able to launch the tool fully.

By Eveline Vouillemin

For flight-free inspiration head to 196 Destinations and for journey planning support head to To Travel To.


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