How can you take a green vacation?

Paradise Image Gallery Taking a train is greener than taking a plane. It can also provide you with some awesome scenery -- here, Switzerland. See more pictures of paradise.
Dirk von Mallinckrodt/Getty Images

By 2020, the number of tourists flying to international destinations will grow to more than 1.6 billion people per year [source: United Nations World Tourism Organization]. Many of these travelers will journey to some of world's most diverse and endangered ecosystems, which presents a moral dilemma for green globetrotters. How can I take this trip without leaving a carbon footprint? How can I protect the environmental wonder I've traveled so far to behold? Upwards of 55 million Americans are interested in the concept of sustainable travel, according to a study by the Travel Industry Association [source: NY Times].

Green travelers want to do two things: protect the places they visit and reduce or compensate for the carbon emissions associated with their travel. This means preserving the wildlife, plants, culture and other natural resources in the local communities they visit [source: MSNBC]. It also means making thoughtful choices about transportation and lodging. For example, the traveler may choose to stay at a resort that practices sustainable operating techniques. Since planes and cars emit the most carbon dioxide per traveler, green vacationers may choose to travel by bus or train [source: Greenliving]. If they must fly, they may purchase a carbon offset or stay in a green hotel to compensate for the flight's carbon emissions.

Contrary to what you might think, green travel doesn't necessarily cost more. Because sustainable operating techniques often save hotels money in the long run, many hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and vacation condo buildings are beginning to convert their facilities into green lodging sites. And what saves them money, saves you money as a guest. And with gas prices as they are, you may find green travel is simply cheaper. Find out more about green transportation on the next page.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles -- Carbon-neutral Travel

Once you reach your destination, ditch carbon-emitting automobiles and rent bikes to get around.
Once you reach your destination, ditch carbon-emitting automobiles and rent bikes to get around.
John-Francis Bourke/Getty Images

The best way to travel green is to catch a bus or take a train. If you use these to methods of transportation, you'll reduce the energy and fuel needed per person to reach your destination.

But flying may be your only option for many destinations. Unfortunately, air travel is not the most carbon-friendly mode of transportation. Although a cross-country road trip might require the same amount of fuel as a flight, air travel does more damage because it releases gases into the atmosphere at a much higher altitude. One possible solution to this problem is carbon-neutral travel.

To travel in a carbon-neutral way, you first need to calculate your carbon footprint, which is the amount greenhouse gases, measured in units of carbon dioxide, produced by each person on your flight. Then you can buy offsets, donations for projects that will produce energy without burning fossil fuels or emitting greenhouse gases. This green energy will cancel out the carbon footprint created by your flight [source: NY Times].

In 2006, Expedia and Travelocity introduced programs to offer carbon offsets to customers. Expedia, through a partnership with Terrapass, offers passengers on a medium or long-haul flight a "carbon-balanced flyer" luggage tag. The charge is $5.99 for a round-trip flight of up to 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) to offset 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) of CO2 emitted per passenger during the flight. A cross-country trip of up to 6,500 miles (10,460 kilometers) costs $16.99, while an international flight of up to 13,000 miles (20,921 kilometers) costs $29.99 [source: Terrapass, NY Times]. Terrapass uses the money to sponsor projects that produce clean energy. When you purchase an offset through Terrapass, your money will go to one of three types of projects: wind farms, landfill gas capture or farm power like dairy farm methane digesters.

Even though ­offsetting is a relatively new phenomenon, it's become a popular way to justify air travel. In the U.S., everyone from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sen. Dianne Feinstein is reported to regularly purchase offsets [source: USA Today]. While the jury's still out on whether these programs will have a significant impact on climate change, carbon offsetting certainly can't hurt.

Now that you've arrived at your destination, what can you do to make your stay green?

Green Vacation Stays

Which is greener -- this secluded cabin or a green hotel?
Which is greener -- this secluded cabin or a green hotel?
Tyler Stableford/Getty Images

When you think of green lodging, a cabin in the wilderness is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But eco-friendly facilities have moved out of the woods and into some of the world's largest metropolitan areas and bustling tourist spots.

What makes a hotel or resort green? For starters, some green hotels use composting to get rid of waste and are outfitted with gray water recycling systems, which purify and reuse laundry, bathing and dishwashing water. Many hotels also no longer automatically deliver newspapers to each guestroom in order to reduce paper waste and allow guests to reuse linens and towels instead of laundering them each day. Additionally, carbon-friendly hotels are equipped with solar or hydro renewable energy systems. Green resorts also support service projects and education to encourage sustainable energy practices in their communities.

The best thing about carbon-friendly lodging is that you don't have to sacrifice style and sophistication. Forget those plastic blue and green recycle bins. Many green hotels are fitted with sleek and stylish wooden recycle receptacles. And, there's certainly no scarcity of green hotels out there. Environmentally Friendly Hotels lists almost 3,000 hotels throughout the world that meet strict green standards.

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In the end, greener hotels are more profitable for hotel owners. Some of them report saving up to 30 percent on heating and cooling thanks to geothermal systems, which leverage energy stored beneath the surface of the Earth instead of fossil fuel [source: NY Times]. As a result, hotels can pass the savings along to customers, offering reasonably priced, chic and green vacation spots for the carbon-friendly traveler.

When choosing a resort, look for Green Key or Blue Flag signs. That means the resort has met the criteria to qualify as a green lodging site. The Foundation for Environmental Education endorses these campaigns and ensures the sites maintain sustainable practices. Green Key sites, for example, are investigated to make sure they use environmentally-friendly technical, managerial and communication processes. On the average, Green Key sites use 20 percent less electricity, 25 percent less energy for heating and 27 percent less water per guest than other lodging options [source: Green Key]. The American Hotel and Lodging Association also maintains lists of hotels that have been commended for their carbon-friendly practices.

But your carbon consciousness doesn't have to end with your lodging choice. There are many small things you can do on your trip to make it green:

  • Before you leave your home, set your thermostat to a higher level to save energy while you're way.
  • Bring your own drink bottle.
  • Bring your own shampoo and soap so that you don't waste those small plastic hotel toiletry bottles. And remember to keep your showers short.
  • Instead of buying kitschy t-shirts, buy sustainable souvenirs that benefit the community you're visiting. Since a green lifestyle not only benefits the environment but also the culture of a community, support local artisans and farmers on your trip.
  • Reuse sheets and towels so that staff doesn't change them each day. This will save both water and energy.
  • Once you've arrived at your destination, bike or walk instead of driving. You're likely to see the best sites in a more up close and personal way.
  • Need to rent a­ car? Choose a hybrid.
  • Invest in solar chargers for portable appliances.
  • Bring your eco-friendly travel habits home with you. You'll save money and help prevent climate change.

For more information on green topics, travel destinations and outdoor activities, visit the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • American Lodging and Hotel Association. "Environmental Initiatives."http://www.ahla.com/green.aspx
  • Conlin, Jennifer. "An Eco-Trend Movies Out of the Wilderness." New York Times. March 16, 2008.http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/travel/16green.html?scp=2&sq=green%20lodging&st=cse
  • Geoghegan, Tom. "How to Live a Carbon Neutral Lifestyle." BBC. June 7, 2005.http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4614713.stm
  • Glatz, Carol. "Vatican Urges Tourist to Have Eco-Friendly Vacations." CNS. June 24, 2008.http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0803335.htm
  • Gregory, Shirley Siluk. "The Eco-Friendly Vacation." Greenliving: Suite 101. April 12, 2007.http://greenliving.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_ecofriendly_vacation
  • Higgins, Michelle. "Carbon Neutral: Raising the Ante of Eco-Tourism." New York Times. Dec. 10, 2006.http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/travel/10carbon.html?scp=1&sq=carbon%20neutral%20travel&st=cse
  • Schlichter, Sarah. "Green Travel Tips." MSNBC. April 12, 2007.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18079740/
  • Schwelzer, Peter. "Offset Away Our Guilt." USA Today. Sept. 25, 2007.http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/09/offset-away-our.html
  • Tsui, Bonnie." Travelling the World to Help Save It." New York Times. Dec. 17, 2006.http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/travel/17journeys.html?scp=1&sq=eco-tourism&st=cse
  • United World Tourism Organization.http://unwto.org/facts/menu.html
  • Wilson, Michael. "What I Did on My Summer Staycation." New York Times. August 28, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/29/nyregion/29stay.html?scp=1&sq=staycation&st=cse

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