Unless your ideal vacation is hiking across the country, finding refuge under trees and foraging for berries and mushrooms, you’re going to spend some environmental karma wherever you travel.
Just a few years ago, enterprising companies jumped on the new green-consciousness movement and offered “carbon offsets” to those feeling guilty for hopping on a plane for fun. The traveler would pay a fee in exchange for planting trees or other sustainability activities. Those ideas have fallen out of favor, perhaps because everyone, including hotels and airlines, became more environmentally aware; perhaps it was also that the market was rife with fraud. Or maybe we’re just exhausted. Is there anything we can really do to help the earth?
Yes there is. Everything we do in our waking hours has a positive, negative or neutral impact on the environment. Just getting up and taking a shower, for example, uses various resources. Did you collect rainwater or did it come from a city reservoir? Was the energy used to heat the water solar, gas or electric? And if was electric, did the power come from coal or renewable resources? Then there’s the soap and shampoo—how environmentally impactful are the ingredients, the packaging, and how much greenhouse gas did it take to manufacture it and transport it your home?
I know, it’s a lot to think about. Fortunately there are so many ways to green up your vacation without having to go through a special tour company or forego luxury and comfort. You can be greener no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Consider your location: There are wondrous places all over the world, and some are more environmentally fragile than others. Look for places that have made a commitment to the environment and are looking for support for their ecology and economy. Some places are so ecologically fragile that visitors have nearly destroyed them—skip the Galapagos, Antarctica and Mount Everest, and go for other off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Getting there: While there’s no escaping the massive fuel spent by a jet plane, Ryanair, Cathay Pacific and Easy Jet are three top-rated green airlines, mostly because the flights are dense, minimizing the greenhouse gas (GHG) per passenger. Domestically Virgin America/Alaska Airlines received accolades for sustainability measures, including fuel use and alternative fuel exploration, recycling of materials, sustainably sourced food and green building. Trains and busses are more efficient; cruises are the worst offenders when it comes to spending GHGs. If you want to be exacting about it, here’s a great calculator that helps you figure out your travel footprint.
Lodging: Fortunately more hotels than ever have baked sustainable practices into their operations, and some buildings are LEED certified. But you know what? You can optimize your stay and make it even greener. Instead of using the toiletries provided in little plastic bottles, which generally are not reused and end up in the waste stream, bring your own. Reuse the towels. Opt for rooms with a mini-fridge and microwave so you can eat leftovers. Mother Nature Network has a list of the greenest hotels in the U.S.; Afar magazine named the top hospitality chains, with Kimpton Hotels at No. 1.
Also give a thought to where your hotel is located; if you choose accommodations with good walkability, it will be easier to explore your neighborhood. Take public transportation and bike when you can—just like the locals.
Eating and drinking: Generally the greenest way to eat is to eat local and pay attention to your ingredients. Avoid chain and fast-food restaurants, which source most of their ingredients from far away and truck them in. Consider becoming a vegetarian or pescatarian, as meat is one of the least sustainable choices you can make, even if it’s grass-fed or organic. (And if you eat fish, make sure it’s on the approved list per the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. There’s an app!) Bring a travel cup for water and coffee; you’d be amazed at how much plastic you rack up (and how much you spend) when you buy water bottles. Of course, if you’re in a country where tap water is questionable, bottled or filtered is the way to go. Also consider bringing your own stainless steel straw and chopsticks to further cut down waste.
Shopping: Bring a reusable bag from home or pick one up as a souvenir. Look carefully to see that what you’re bringing back as a keepsake from your destination is actually made there and is not from somewhere far away. Not only are you getting something authentic, but you’re also supporting local businesses and artists.