One writer shares how having aviophobia, an intense fear of flying, has changed her travel experience.
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Nylah Burton on a ferry in Elliot Bay in Seattle
Credit: Nylah Burton

For my first-ever travel writing assignment, I journeyed across the country — but I never once boarded a plane. What would have taken most people 10 hours took me 160. I traveled from my hometown of D.C. to Seattle and back on an Amtrak train. I'd been riding trains and writing professionally for years, but this was a journey of firsts: my first time traveling post-vaccine, my first time on the road for work, and my first time deciding I'd never fly again. 

I wish I could say I decided not to fly because of climate concerns. The aviation industry accounts for 2.1% of global emissions, and for individuals, opting to take a train instead of a domestic flight reduces emissions by 84%. So, that would be understandable to most people, even if they could never do the same. Perhaps I'd be seen as admirable, instead of the disbelieving looks I get now.  

Great Plains viewed from train window
Credit: Nylah Burton

But the reason I don't fly is because I'm scared of fear itself. Many people with aviophobia are not scared of crashes, but rather the way a panic attack takes hold of you on a plane and it seems like nothing you do can make your heart stop pounding. The closest way I can describe it is a form of depersonalization, like I'm leaving some essential part of me on land when we ascend and a piece of myself in the air when we land. During the few times I've flown consistently, I suddenly realize that I've lost so much of myself while experiencing such intense back-to-back fear.

Nylah Burton on a bike on the beach on Mackinac Island
Credit: Sami Muhammad

Deciding to stop flying was one of the most honest and freeing moments of my life. I finally felt in control. Now, I love to travel and write about it. Plus, it has opened up so many other opportunities.

I fell in love while on assignment. After moving to Chicago — a decision I mostly made because Union Station is where you can make the most transfers, my version of Midway — I decided to research wineries in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan. Travel writing is easiest when you explore your own stomping grounds. I could have just taken a train straight there, but the man I was seeing, who is now my partner, suggested that we road trip around Lake Michigan. And after a week of vacationing and 1,240 miles driven, I learned that the Midwest is one of the most romantic places in the country

Lake Michigan is so vast that people say it could be an ocean. But it's too still; there are no waves on the horizon, no smell of salt in the air. As we drove along the shoreline, we talked for hours, each of us realizing that the time spent on the road was bringing us closer.

Nylah Burton in winter at Rocky Mountain National Park
Credit: Nylah Burton

During stops, we camped in Sturgeon Bay, and he taught me how to build a fire. We skipped rocks on the beaches and took a ferry across Death's Door. We stared at each other's reflection through the crystal clear, mirror-like waters of Kitch-iti-kipi. Even at dusk, we could see fish swimming and entangling themselves together in the freshwater spring below us. We stayed on the car-free (horses and bikes only) Mackinac Island, spending the night at the Grand Hotel in a room with a view that made it feel like we were sleeping and waking up in the middle of Lake Huron. By the end of the trip, our lives and futures had merged somehow.

Traveling without flying helped me appreciate the destinations more because of all the effort it took to get there.

After traveling eight hours from Chicago to Minneapolis while on assignment, I wanted to experience the city. Who knew when I'd be back? I rode bikes along the Mississippi River, learned about Ojibwe culture, and visited what felt like every Somali restaurant in the city in search of camel meat.

Taking the train is, admittedly, not for the faint of heart. Riding coach means putting up with cramped seats, public bathrooms, and cold sandwiches — sometimes for up to three days. Even the private rooms in sleeper cars are rather compact. 

But there are moments of genuine connection — like the girl I shared earbuds with as we watched a movie together. Sometimes, you get to snatch hours of almost transcendent solitude, like two weeks ago, when I sat in my roomette and wrote for hours. After taking a specific route multiple times, one day you wake up and realize your body remembers the miles because you instantly know what state or town you're in without looking at a map, or out the window, or even at the clock. 

The very thing that makes me avoid flying is also what makes me love taking trains, road trips, and boats. Planes make me feel disconnected — not just from land, but also from myself and who I am. Giving up four hours of depersonalization for 160 hours of feeling like myself is worth it, to me. 

Views of pine trees of Glacier National Park from train
Credit: Nylah Burton

But I've romanticized things a bit — because the truth is this lifestyle is difficult, frustrating, and isolating. As a travel writer, I can't take as many out-of-state assignments and barely any international ones. The price of travel skyrockets. Trains and boats leave much more infrequently than planes, making spontaneous trips nearly impossible. I had to undergo intensive flight phobia therapy just to visit my partner's family in Pakistan. And I'll probably never go to Antarctica, which I find deeply upsetting since it's the place I want to visit most in the world.

Deciding not to fly has freed me from putting off trips, thinking that one day I'd be able to get on a plane. But it has also closed doors that I used to stick my foot in, holding it ajar optimistically. However, in many ways, those doors are still open. Figuring how to pass through them is its own fulfilling challenge. I have a transatlantic crossing with Cunard planned for the spring. I interviewed a college professor who traveled from Germany to Japan in 10 days via trains, buses, and cargo ships. I heard of someone who traveled from France to Pakistan by train and bus. And Antarctica is possible — it's just hard to get there when you're not flying at all. 

Sometimes, I resent my aviophobia. I'll probably never go on trips as frequently as popular influencers, who according to their Instagram feeds, seem to be in a different country every week. But no journey — not even an hour and half trip to Milwaukee — will ever be something I take for granted because I'm always cognizant of the time and money that got me there. 

I don't mean to suggest that everyone who flies doesn't value travel, or that I don't have privilege. To travel without flying, you have to have a flexible job, and preferably one that pays you to do this. You need disposable income — even when some expenses are covered or discounted (Amtrak hosted me on my trip to Seattle), you still have to spend your own money.

But I also think that people with privilege often take travel for granted. Travel is a transformative, special experience, so shouldn't it be something we do more intentionally, treating it as something more sacred and important?

Not flying isn't completely my choice, it's true, but I think if my phobia could be eliminated tomorrow, I'd feel a loss. Inevitably, I'd fly to more places, which would allow me to see my loved ones more frequently and go overseas with relative ease, but I'd lose this sense of adventure and anticipation. I'd stay in a place for two days instead of two weeks or a month. I wouldn't have uninterrupted writing time, or meet as many people, and I wouldn't do things like roam across the Great Plains on a rumbling train. If I had been a flier, I probably wouldn't have moved to Chicago and met my partner, nor would I have taken that road trip across Lake Michigan with him and fallen in love. 

One day, I hope I'll be able to get on plane and not be immobilized by my fear of terror. But I also hope that, if that ever happens, I'll still write about other ways of seeing the world and seek out great adventures like sailing across the ocean or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. I may have placed a restriction on myself, but limitations can sometimes present an open door, behind which lies possibilities you never thought were possible.