Sometimes a vacation is when all our best intentions for eco-friendly living fly out the window, and we find ourselves burning jet fuel and staying in accommodations that have a giant eco-footprint. On other vacations, we’re living close to the earth, on just granola, candles, and a favorite tin cup. Whichever way you go, we offer a few tips to help you have a great vacation and keep your impact on the planet to a minimum.
If you compare the fuel efficiency of different modes of transportation you will find the following:1
- Amtrak train travel uses 2,978 BTUs per passenger-mile
- An automobile uses on average 3,496 BTUs per passenger-mile (based on 1.6 passengers)
- Airlines use 3,959 BTUs per passenger-mile
Beginning with this energy use and factoring in such other environmental factors as air emissions, water pollution, and infrastructural impacts on land and habitat, we give the following recommendations for choosing a mode of travel:
- Take the train. A train can use up to 70% less energy and causes up to 85% less air pollution than air travel.2 Even though trains run on diesel, they are highly efficient because for much of the time the train’s wheels glide on the rail. Mass transit options such as the train or bus are better for the environment and give you the freedom to sleep, read, or do work on the way.
- Don’t fly if you can help it. One transatlantic flight for a family of four creates more CO2 than that family generates domestically in an entire year, and about twice the emissions of a car traveling 12,000 miles.3 Short flights are especially energy-guzzling because take-off and landing require so much extra energy. If you must fly, do it only for long flights and go nonstop whenever possible.4 Planes also emit lots of pollutants at high altitudes, particularly nitrogen oxides, which may triple the climate impact of plane travel.5 Flying is generally by far the least eco-friendly option.
- If you must drive a car, consider not just going fuel-efficient but renting a hybrid. You can start with listings from the Eco-Directory. For the issues associated with driving cars, and also a survey of future transportation technologies, read the Terrain article Car Wars: Renegotiating Our Relationship with the Open Road.
- Contribute to a carbon-offset program. If you have to fly, consider making your trip more "climate-neutral" by making a donation to zero- or negative-emission projects such as building renewable energy facilities that help to cancel out the carbon dioxide produced by your flight. Carbon offsets are available through organizations such as those listed in the Eco-Directory. Alternatively, you could donate an estimated amount of money to the environmental group of your choice, such as the Ecology Center.
Choosing a Destination and Staying There6
- Greener hotels: Some hotels are making a commitment to reduce their environmental impact. Since some are doing more than others, ask each hotel about its environmental practices before making a reservation.
- Linens: Laundering sheets and towels consumes large amounts of energy, water, and detergent. Specifically ask that your linens and towels be changed less frequently.
- Human-powered and public transportation: Not only are walking and bicycling good for the environment and your health — they can also help you stumble upon all sorts of hidden treasures you might not have found otherwise. Many cities have bus and rail systems that can bring you to major hotels and attractions, reducing or eliminating the need for a car. If possible, don’t rent a car, don’t rent a scooter, and don’t fly within the country. Plan your trip using buses, trains, ferries, bicycles, and your feet.
- Ecotours: The city in which you’re staying may have sightseeing tours designed to minimize your impact on indigenous populations and the local environment. Check the city’s tourism website or call its chamber of commerce for details.
- Going camping? The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’s fact sheet on the Seven Principles of Responsible Camping will tell you how to camp with the least impact. Other great links on camping — including camping with kids, camp recipes, and making your own gear — can be found at knowledgehound.com.
For more ideas, Lonely Planet has a great Guide for Responsible Travel on their website. Have a great trip!
1 Source: Department of Energy, Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/howgreen/getaway/answer.asp
4 Jets produce an average of almost .4 tons of C02 per passenger per flight.
Source: The Green Guide, http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc.mhtml?i=114&s=ecotourism
5 Little is known about the effects of atmospheric releases of NOx from planes and other sources. The pollution impact of every plane trip also includes your travel to and from the airport, all the golf carts driving around on the tarmac, and the thousands of airline employees who go to work to get you on the plane. These other "mobile sources" must be factored into the per-mile pollution burden of air travel. We weren’t able to find this calculation.
6 Adapted from the Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/greentips/304-lowimpact-travel-tips.html