By Kate Galbraith
So you want to see the world without messing it up? There’s no easy way to do that. Simply going on a trip makes you something of a carbon hog unless you are planning to walk, bicycle or sail to your destination. That said, there are ways to make your trip as harmonious with the earth as possible. To give you guidance, we have put together a guide to traveling while keeping your footprint light.
Where to Go
When planning a vacation, the most important decision is where you are going. The environmental purists’ answer is that it’s ideal to go nowhere. Staying local and taking walks in your neighborhood or vegging out in front of the television (the staycation) is by far the greenest option of all. “Taking a trip to a place that’s like home but warmer is now hard to justify,” Bill McKibben, a co-founder of 350.org, a nonprofit organization that campaigns for climate action, wrote in an email.
The second-best thing to staying home, a more generous definition of staycation, is venturing just a few hours away, to a park or town that you haven’t already seen many times. The quick trip can seem as if you are a world away, without the hassle of navigating a Transportation Security Administration screening or a long stint in the car.
If you can direct your adventurous spirit to your region, often you can uncover these amazing, world-class opportunities,” said Chip Giller, founder of Grist.org, an environmental news website. These and other destinations often have national or state parks aligned with the spirit of conservation and have attractions for children, too.
For those who want to experience a different country and landscape, environmentalists suggest using travel dollars to reward places or governments that prize conservation. Namibia, for example, is “really the exception on the African continent when it comes to poaching,” said vice president for travel, tourism and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The government has a strong emphasis on conservation.
For other wildlife-viewing destinations in Africa, he praised Wilderness Safaris, which just won an environmental award from the World Travel and Tourism Council. They’re a stellar example, really, of a corporation making a commitment of what I call conservation travel, including conserving resources and creating incentives for communities to value wildlife.
Another better known destination is Costa Rica. “That country’s focus on ecotourism is so deep and pure that it’s become a huge part of the economy,” said the lifestyle editor for Sierra, the Sierra Club magazine. You can see it in the landscape. It’s like this Eden of rain forest and wildlife.
If you are at a loss when coming up with a green destination, one approach is service trips, especially environmentally oriented ones. The summer after I finished high school, I spent a few weeks under the stars, wielding pulaskis and shovels and playing high-altitude Frisbee golf with a trail-building crew in the Rocky Mountains. The trip was run by the Student Conservation Association, and it was a blast.
Similarly, plenty of trips offer the option of working with scientists, a great activity for families or older children. The University of Miami, for example, runs daylong shark research trips and half-day coral restoration trips. Longer expeditions are available through Earthwatch, which allows research into archaeology, climate change and much else.
Many environmental entities offer trips, or join with groups that offer excursions. Though these may not be service oriented, the groups are certain to pay attention to the details of getting around and dining in as environmentally friendly a way as possible. Obviously conservation NGOs are doing their homework to make sure these for-profit companies are really behaving in a way that aligns with their value.
But a green vacation doesn’t have to be about the natural environment. Just strolling or biking around a new city is an easy way to have an environmentally friendly vacation. Since getting to or from a destination is generally the biggest carbon drain, consider staying awhile, and taking one longer vacation rather than several shorter ones.
How to Get There
Getting to and from your destination will almost certainly account for the biggest carbon chunk of your entire vacation, especially if you fly far away. So this is the time to take the greatest care in your decision.
Driving will usually be better than flying, particularly if there is more than one person in the car, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit organization that helped uncover the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Planes burn an enormous amount of fuel, especially during takeoff and landing.
Thus, according to the council’s analysis, which covered trips of 300 to 500 miles, an S.U.V. with two or more people is better, carbon wise, than flying. Taking a hybrid or fuel-efficient car filled with people is better still — and you should keep the speed down.
“If you increase from 65 to 75, you’re going to consume about 15 percent more energy per mile,” said founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California. Buses between cities tend to be more environmentally friendly than all.
Trains, while more efficient than planes, can be a slightly less good choice, in terms of average fuel efficiency per passenger, than cars. That may seem surprising. But consider how many people are on the train: If it’s crowded, it’s probably the greenest bet — and if the train is going anyway and the car isn’t, that’s a consideration, too. Trains tend to be fairly efficient, when load factors are high.
In addition, electric trains, such as some in Europe, tend to be more efficient than diesel-powered Amtrak, and therefore they will generally be a better choice than cars.
If you’re traveling beyond 500 miles, you will most likely fly, which is an extremely carbon-intense activity. An economy-class round-trip flight between New York and Paris, for example, can generate one or more metric tons of carbon emissions (depending on the calculator), whereas a resident of the United States generates annual carbon emissions of 17 metric tons on average.
There are still ways you can lessen your carbon footprint while in the air. It’s usually best to go nonstop, because that allows for more efficient use of the aircraft. Going coach is also greener than first class, because you are taking up less space. And it’s best to travel as light as possible, because every pound causes the aircraft to burn more fuel. (The same is true of a car, but the effect is not as pronounced.)
Environmentalists differ on whether it’s worthwhile to buy carbon offsets. These are credits that go toward reducing carbon elsewhere, by capturing the potent greenhouse gas methane on a farm, for example, or by planting trees. They may be offered by airlines as you buy your ticket, at a cost of, say, $70 for a New York to Paris round trip. Many environmentalists do not use them, saying it’s better to be carbon frugal in other aspects of life. We just try to bake it into our existence; or the food we consume.
The WWF offsets employees’ trips through a Swiss company, Myclimate,though it’s worth noting that WWF specifically chooses an offset project in Nepal that the fund oversees. Myclimate has a calculator that allows individuals to tally their carbon footprint for flights, drives or even cruises, and then buy offsets to match.
One final note before you set off: It’s much more eco-friendly to take public transportation to get to the airport than using a car. And before you leave home, make sure that the heating or cooling, as well as unnecessary appliances, like the modem and the DVR, are turned off.
Where to Stay and Eat
Sierra Club trusts the green-building certification system known as LEED, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Only a handful of hotels in the United States have attained platinum status, LEED’s top measure. They tend to be on the luxury side.
Hotels that follow criteria laid out by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council are good. One example: hotels certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which are tucked away near lakes and jungles in Central and South America. If you’re going to Australia, looking for lodging certified by the group Ecotourism Australia, which uses the global council’s criteria.
An interesting and unresolved question is how home-stay options, like Airbnb or HomeAway, compare with hotels on environmental footprint. The answer, almost certainly, is: It depends. Heating and cooling will probably be your largest sources of carbon emissions at a hotel, so if you rent a large home on Airbnb and need to heat or cool every room, you will most likely be using more energy than if your family occupied one or two hotel rooms. But if you share a home with the host, you may not need any more heating or cooling than what’s already used. A study sponsored byAirbnb in 2014 argued that its hosts may be particularly likely to recycle, and some may skip offering the tiny soaps and shampoos that generate waste.
Wherever you end up staying, it’s best to minimize your use of heating and cooling. Besides maneuvering the thermostat and turning the system off when you go out, try closing the curtains during the day to reduce the heat from the sun. You can also refuse the bottled water if your hotel is in an area where the tap water is safe to drink, though be sure to allow the water to run for a little while before drinking, to flush out any lead.
Many people take a vacation by the coast. So when looking for places to eat, you’ll probably end up at a seafood restaurant. It’s vacation, but there are tools that can help you make sustainable choices. The Seafood Watch program from the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a handy guide to which fish are best to eat, and avoid.
Another tip: Rather than, say, Texas barbecue every day, eating vegetarian, at least occasionally, is another easy way to go lighter on the planet.
What to Do
The most environmentally friendly vacations, and some of the best vacations in general, are all about relaxing. The less you drive around on unfamiliar roads, the happier you, the children and the planet will be. (But if you do drive around, the best environmental choice is to rent a small, fuel-efficient car and resist the S.U.V. upgrade.)
Think beaches. If you live anywhere near a beach, that’s just like you’re never going to find a better place for a kid. Just plant them at the beach and they are happy for hours, digging holes, playing with the tides. Focus more on the experience of traveling than on acquiring trinkets or other touristy items while on the road.
Theme parks are not a particularly green travel genre. But if you go, try to find parks that are trying to reduce their environmental footprint, and try to reduce the amount of trash you generate while there.
Cycling, camping and sailing tend to be other low-carbon options that get you out into nature. Be sure to follow the “leave no trace” guidelines, and pack out what you take into the wilderness.
For some, there is the great question of cruise ships. Boats are far more fuel-efficient than most other modes of transportation. That is why cars, toys and much else arrive from overseas by immense cargo ships. (In fact, those small-scale cruises may end up being less fuel-efficient per person than a larger one.)
But you have to get to the port, which often requires a flight, and once you’re onboard, a cruise ship is always moving, and thus running its engines. Environmentalists complain that cruise ships dump sewage into the water. Air pollution is another concern. (The industry group Cruise Lines International Association says its guidelines forbid the discharge of untreated sewage.)
Look for ships powered by liquefied natural gas, which will reduce some exhaust pollutants, to start hitting the seas over the next decade. It may soon be a new and greener era for all kinds of travel. Prodded by climate and air-pollution regulations and the desire to save money, transportation is getting cleaner all the time. Each year, more fuel-sipping (or electric) cars take to the roads. Aircraft, too, are becoming more efficient, and one day, perhaps, they could run routinely on biofuels.
These improvements will mean less for the planet if more people take to the roads and skies. But it’s also true that simple things like sustainable fish, or salvaged wood in hotel buildings, are becoming trendy. At the risk of seeming tongue in cheek, the longer you can wait to travel, the greener it’s likely to become.
You want to be green. You recycle. You turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth. But you’re not going to forgo a flight to a tropical paradise and top-notch accommodations, even though planes emit greenhouse gases and routine hotel practices, like washing the linens each day, hurt the environment. After all, you love to travel — and well.
There’s still hope. To help you sleep easier on those high-thread-count sheets, here are 10 small ways to travel a little more responsibly.
1. Offset Your Flight
Flying (especially on short flights) is among the least sustainable ways to travel, according to groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Some airlines allow you to try to compensate for the carbon footprint you create when flying, however, by buying what are known as carbon offsets, or various ways to reduce greenhouse gases. Passengers on airlines like Delta and United can calculate their carbon footprint on the airline websites, which equate the size of a trip’s carbon footprint with a dollar figure. They can then donate their money or miles to a carbon reduction project such as forest conservation or renewable energy. Airlines are not the only ones offering offsets, though. Amtrak, for instance, has a rail calculator and allows you to offset your train trip through Carbonfund.org.
Some environmental organizations have said that offset programs are problematic. And a number of them have suggested that the carbon calculators on airline sites are not precise enough because they do not take into consideration factors like whether you’re flying first class (which results in a larger carbon footprint because you’re taking up space that could otherwise have been used to transport more people). Still, contributing to such programs is better than flying and doing nothing. For a more precise calculator, check out carbonfootprint.com.
2. Tour Cities on Foot
If you can’t walk, bike. If you can’t bike, take a subway, bus or train. If you rent a car, request a hybrid. If you hire a driver, try to car pool. Services such as Lyft and Uber offer car-pooling, though the notion that they are environmentally friendly is being studied; researchers at NRDC Urban Solutions and the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, are analyzing whether such services are good for the environment or if they are merely congesting roads, competing with public transportation and encouraging people to be driven instead of walking. Bottom line: If you have the option, walk.
3. Have a Green Hotel Stay
The greenest vacation is one in which you don’t travel far, impossible for those who wish to see the world. Airbnb has argued that home sharing is a greener option than hotels, though its study published in 2014 — which said that using Airbnb results in a significant reduction in energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste, and relied mainly on guest and host survey responses from February to April of that year — was not scientific. But if home sharing isn’t for you, you can still make any hotel stay greener by reusing your sheets and towels (many hotels give guests the option to not change their linens each day), taking short showers, turning off the air-conditioner (or using a fan instead), turning down the thermostat and using less electricity by forgoing the hair dryer and switching off the lights when you’re not in the room. You can also choose to stay in hotels that have sustainable practices like harvesting rainwater and not heating or air-conditioning rooms or spaces that are unoccupied. To find them, check out a site like the Green Hotels Association. Expedia.com also has some tips for green travel. Not sure your desired hotel is green? The Nature Conservancy has 10 questions you can ask to find out.
4. Take a Reusable Water Bottle
Millions of barrels of oil are needed to produce the plastic water bottles consumed by Americans alone, according to the Pacific Institute, a sustainable water think tank. In 2007 the group said that the amount of oil used in the production of plastic water bottles was enough energy to fuel more than a million cars and light trucks for a year. You can do your part to curb emissions by always traveling with a reusable bottle. And coffee and tea drinkers can help when it comes to saving paper by carrying reusable travel mugs instead of to-go cups.
5. Pack Light
The heavier your luggage, the more fuel is needed. Even something as small as a cellphone multiplied across the number of passengers affects the weight of a plane. Besides, it’s easier and more fun to travel when you’re not loaded down with bags.
6. Opt for E-Tickets Instead of Paper
By now we know not to print documents when we don’t have to, and recycle whatever paper we do use. Paper production and pulpwood harvesting contribute to climate change and “threaten some of the last remaining natural forests and the people and wildlife that depend on them, E-tickets, meanwhile, have come a long way from their wonky early days. Having your smartphone scanned at airports and train stations is often seamless.
7. Go Local
Eat locally sourced food and buy locally made souvenirs — and carry them back to your hotel in a reusable bag instead of plastic. In addition to supporting local economies, shopping locally generally means there’s less packaging. And items don’t need to be flown or shipped in, cutting down on waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As the Michigan State University Extension has pointed out, buying locally grown food can help maintain farmland and green space. To cut emissions even more significantly, reduce or eliminate red meat; its production is carbon-intensive.
8. Put Your Laptop to Sleep
Allow your computer and other devices to sleep when you’re not using them. It’s an energy saver that’s good for their battery life and for the earth, too.
9. Choose Tours That Don’t Harm the Environment
Many environmentally minded groups including the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the WWF offer eco-trips and outings that strive not to harm natural resources, wildlife or people. Backroads and REI Adventures also offer tours that aim to be environmentally low-impact.
10. Spread the Word
Pass your green travel habits on to others. You’ll multiply their effect — something you’ll need to do given all the trips you hope to take.