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Obviously I’m a big fan of travel, but to be more specific, most of my favorite travels have been in natural settings. I tend to favor national parks over big cities and incredible vistas over shopping malls. In order to keep these wonderful destinations beautiful for future visitors, I try to include green travel efforts to do my part to protect the earth.
Since today is Earth Day, it’s a fitting time to evaluate your environmental impact. Flying creates a huge carbon footprint, as do many other aspects of travel. Since I’m not willing to give up traveling altogether, here are a few ways to green your travels.
Green Travel: 5 Easy Changes That Add Up to Real Impacts
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Awareness is definitely the first step to making a change. Check out how many tons of carbon your next flight will create. I’m not about to give up flying for the purpose of getting to where I actually want to go, but being aware of my impact can help me choose ways to minimize this impact, either by making low-impact travel choices or donating to renewable energy projects in order to offset my carbon footprint
Give Up Bottled Water
The amount of plastic needed for disposable water bottles is absolutely insane, and frankly, unnecessary. I promise you, the water in NYC is safe to drink, so next time bring your own empty water bottle from home and refill it as necessary instead of buying several bottles each day.
In places where the water isn’t safe to drink, bring your own water purification system. Something like the SteriPEN is lightweight, compact, effective, easy to use, and convenient. Next time you’re brushing your teeth at the hotel and realize you don’t have a bottle of water to rinse with, you’ll be glad you don’t have to run outside in your pajamas to buy a bottle of water!
Take Public Transportation Once You Arrive
Riding a public bus or subway is better for the environment than driving yourself or taking a taxi (especially in small groups of 1 or 2). The math gets even better in areas that offer clean transport, and more and more cities are offering options like hybrid buses, biodiesel buses, or even trains with hydrogen powered fuel cells.
Walking and biking are excellent options as well for short trips. Other perks to public transportation in major cities include saving headaches since you won’t have to search for (expensive) parking or deal with congestion. If you absolutely need private transportation, look for options like pedi-cabs.
In a lot of areas (especially in the United States, it seems), public transportation isn’t widely available, so renting a car might be your only option. Smooth driving (reducing the amount of sharp braking and accelerating) can save up to 30% on fuel consumption when you’re in town, and when you’re on the highway, stick to the speed limit. Cars use 25% less fuel at 55mph than at 70mph, so you’ll lower your fuel usage which in turn helps the earth – and your wallet!
Make a Donation
Unfortunately, visiting cultural sites and natural landmarks can often threaten their existence. Low-impact travel, such as “leave no trace” hiking rather than littering along the trail, can make a big difference with little effort on your part. You can step it up a notch by also making a small donation to these sites. Donations through the World Monument Fund help with projects like cleaning up vandalism or buying land to protect sites from modern development. If you don’t find a project you’d like to donate to, you can also make a donation to offset your carbon imprint
Green Travel: 5 Big Changes for Huge Impacts
Drive Instead of Fly (Or Take the Train!)
Obviously to get to a lot of places, air travel is the only realistic option, but when that’s not the case, consider overland travel instead. In addition to producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, airplanes emit that CO2 directly into the upper atmosphere where it causes significant damage. Driving (especially in groups of 2 or more) can cut down on the amount of carbon emissions, and taking buses or trains helps out even more. Taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel from London to Paris, as an example, cuts your impact by roughly 90% compared to flying! Wondering what the best option is for you? Check out the carbon calculator.
I’m a realist, and know that not flying probably isn’t going to be a great option for people who read this blog! So instead of giving up those long-haul flights to international destinations, consider combining your trips. Once you’re in Europe, it’s really easy to spend a week in one country and then move onto the next instead of spending a week in London and then flying back three months later for a week in Italy. You’ll hugely reduce your greenhouse emissions, and you’ll enjoy other perks like already being adjusted to the time zone and saving money (or miles) by only purchasing one long-haul flight. Take advantage of stopovers, too, if you’re looking for radically different experiences: I’m taking a few days in Europe before continuing on to Africa, for example.
Choose Closer Locations
It’s such an obvious option that often gets overlooked. Closer locations make it easier to drive or take the train, but even if you fly, you’ll have a smaller carbon footprint by flying cross-country rather than all the way to the other side of the world. There are lots of interesting places to visit right in your own backyard, so next time you are thinking about jetting off to Chicago for the weekend, consider driving an hour away to a cool state park or local attraction instead.
Choose an Eco-Friendly Hotel
It seems like most hotels these days offer towel reuse programs, but some hotels go above and beyond to promote green travel. It takes a bit of effort to find a hotel with eco-friendly policies, but when you do, you can rest assured that you’re helping to cut down on pollution by staying at lodging that incorporates things like efficient plumbing, flourescent lightbulbs, in-room recycling, organic materials, or even solar power. I love that Marriott is working towards having more of their properties become LEED-certified and hope that other chains follow this example.
Look into Voluntourism
Combining travel with volunteer work is probably a big change to your current travel habits, but it can make a big difference. I often read about opportunities to help with local schools, human rights issues, or other programs and agree these are all hugely worthwhile causes, but in honor of Earth Day, don’t forget about options to take care of our planet as well. There are programs worldwide helping out in permaculture (sustainable agriculture practices), solar energy, and general conservation. If you’re willing to volunteer your time, you can apply for a $5,000 grant to cover your travel costs, but if you have less time to spare, you can find projects that only take a few hours of your time by doing some internet searches and/or asking around on forums.
I’ll be honest and admit that I won’t be making all of these changes on every single trip I take, but baby steps seem really possible to me. If I can make a conscious effort to incorporate half of these options into every trip, then I’ll be making a difference. I hope that someday these all become second-nature to me, where it’s easy to travel responsibly and reduce my carbon footprint while still enjoying one of my favorite hobbies.