So you want to see the world without messing it up? There’s no easy way to do that. Simply embarking on a trip makes you something of a carbon hog, unless you’re 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 bypassed the thicket of greenwashing prevalent in travel marketing and instead asked representatives of several leading environmental groups how they approach travel. As it turns out, there are plenty of options for the eco-minded. Here are steps to plan your trip with the environment in mind.
When planning a vacation, the most important decision is where you’re 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’re a world away, without the hassle of navigating a Transportation Security Administration screening or a long stint in the car.
For New Yorkers, Long Island's splendid beaches, robust vineyards and picturesque lighthouses are a huge contrast to the dense city. "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 James Sano, vice president for travel, tourism and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. The government has a strong emphasis on conservation, he said, a sentiment embraced by tour operators and conservancies.
For other wildlife-viewing destinations in Africa, he praised Wilderness Safaris, which just won an environmental award from the World Travel and Tourism Council (Sano was a judge). “They’re a stellar example, really, of a corporation making a commitment of what I call conservation travel,” he said, including conserving resources and creating incentives for communities to value wildlife.
Another 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 Avital Andrews, 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’re 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. The Sierra Club, too, offers work trips in its home state, California, and around the nation.
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. Although 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,” said Sano of the WWF. Examples include Natural Habitat Adventures, which is a partner of the WWF, and offers trips around the world; the Alabama-based International Expeditions, which is working with the Nature Conservancy for its natural history tours; and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.
But a green vacation doesn’t have to be about the natural environment. Just strolling or biking around a new city — Boston, say, or Paris — 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 SUV with two or more people is better, carbonwise, 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 Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Buses between cities tend to be more environmentally friendly than all but the most fuel-efficient full cars, the analysis by the clean transportation council found.
Trains, while more efficient than planes, can be a slightly less good choice, in terms of average fuel efficiency per passenger, than cars, the council says. 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 as in the Northeast corridor,” Sperling wrote in an email.
In addition, electric trains, such as some in Europe, tend to be more efficient than diesel-powered Amtrak, said Daniel Rutherford, program director for marine and aviation at the clean transportation council, and therefore they will generally be a better choice than cars. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is also electrified.
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 1 metric ton or more 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," said Giller of Grist.org.
The WWF offsets employees’ trips through a Swiss company, Myclimate, although 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. You may consider, Sano of the WWF suggests, choosing an offset project in the country you are visiting, if possible.
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
Figuring out where to stay and where to dine can be baffling. A blizzard of organizations provide green stamps of approval to hotels, making it hard to sort greenwashing from reality.
Avital Andrews, of the 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. They include: Bardessono in the Napa Valley of California, with its reused stone, salvaged cypresses and organic linens; the Proximity hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina; Hotel Skyler in Syracuse, New York; the Crash Pad, a cheaper venue in Chattanooga, Tennessee; a Marriott in the College Park, Maryland, area; and the W Hotel in San Francisco.
Sano of the WWF suggests hotels that follow criteria laid out by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. 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, Sano suggests 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 by Airbnb 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, although 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, in different states. 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 SUV 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,” said Giller of Grist. “Just plant them at the beach and they are happy for hours, digging holes, playing with the tides.” He also suggests focusing 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, said Avital Andrews of the Sierra Club. But if you go, she said, 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. When I was growing up, my family took weeklong backcountry trips to the Sierra Nevada of California. For a child, there was nothing better.
These days, with small children and grandparents whose tent-camping days are over, we love spending time at Rock Creek Lodge, a group of remote, rustic cabins high in the Sierra. It’s a long drive from Northern California, where some of us are based. But once there, the children are endlessly entertained by things like playing baseball with pine cones and sticks, paddling around in cold mountain waters or hiking from one beautiful lake to another. 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.) Friends of the Earth rates cruise lines annually; the next “report card” is due this year, perhaps in May. In the latest rankings, which are based on several criteria such as air pollution and sewage treatment, Disney Cruise Line comes out best, although none performed especially well.
The cruise industry has questioned the report’s methodology and conclusions, particularly on sewage, and says ships continue to improve their environmental performance. For example, 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.