June 19, 2013

Greening Our Vacation

It's easy for the Man of Steel: Whenever he's tired of saving the world and needs to retreat to his Fortress of Solitude over on the North Pole, he simply takes off and flies there, on his own power. The rest of us are not superheroes, and for us travel to remote places means we need to board a bird of steel (or, more accurately, some aluminium alloy).

Poster by Hamlet Au Yeung for Do The Green Thing

You can't deny that airplane travel is fast, but it also has a huge carbon footprint. It is true that any given scheduled flight / train / bus will depart whether or not you bought a seat on it. This argument certainly holds for travel on Amtrak trains, which tend to have a low occupation (outside of big travel holidays like Thanksgiving). So the marginal carbon emissions - the emissions due to the extra person travelling on that half-empty train - is quite small.

But airlines have removed from their schedules those flights that tend to be half full, and consolidated them with other flights, so most airplanes are filled near capacity these days. This means that on the aggregate, the more of us are looking to fly a segment (say Boston to San Diego), the more flights the airline will schedule on that segment.

Since a large part of airplanes' carbon footprint is in getting the plane off the ground, it's not surprising that short-haul flights have larger per-mile carbon emissions than long-haul ones. So travel by air should really be reserved for long-distance destinations.

For intermediate distances (say, a few hundred miles), there are many options with lower carbon emissions, including trains, buses and your own trusty car. When I did the estimates I found that a passenger car or a minivan can have surprisingly low carbon emissions per passenger-mile, as long as all the seats in the car are occupied.

So if it's only you and your favourite friend travelling, you may want to look into non-automotive options. For less than 400 miles the train is faster, door-to-door, than a plane, with a lot less hassle. But if your family of five is taking two friends along on a camping trip, a seven-seat minivan will do very well, carbon-wise. And it's still less expensive that the train. On the other hand, an ocean cruise is both expensive and high-carbon.

A bike is not included in the graphic above, because it has zero emissions (other than your laboured breathing as you negotiate a hill, building muscle and stamina). A bike-camping holiday is not for everyone, but you don't have to go around lugging tent, sleeping bag and camping stove, attached to your bike in creative ways: you could bike from inn to inn and have all the comfort you want in the evenings. From the savings on gas you can upgrade your accomodations. You could arrange similarly for walking holidays.

Photo Aikon. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever option you choose, travel light: lugging huge heavy suitcases is bad for your back, and bad for your trip's carbon emissions. When we had our first baby, we travelled with two suitcases: our suitcase and the baby's suitcase. Now my children pack their own: a carry-on serves each for more than a month. After all, you don't need much clothing in the summer. We always plan to stay where we can do laundry.

Of course, if you vacation close to where you live, you save on time, expense and carbon emissions on travel. You can be out of your daily routine just by going an hour away.

And on that count, nothing beats a staycation. Once you've unseated the notion that "vacation" necessarily means "away", you open the door to the greenest and most comfortable vacation option.

On winter breaks when many families go south looking for warmth, we enjoy staying at home, hanging out with each other, playing games and making day trips, seeing friends and generally relaxing. Apart from the occasion that ViolaPlayer built an igloo in the yard and actually slept in it, we sleep in our own beds and have all our creature comforts.

Big bonus: greening our vacation would help preserve the arctic sea ice on which Superman's Fortress of Solitude was built. With all those floods and wildfires around there's plenty of hard work for him, and he deserves a break in a quiet place once in a while.


Shared at Living Green Tuesdays; Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways; Small Footprint Fridays.



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3. Green Is Frugal! Reducing Car Use and Meat Consumption
4. Confession time: My Big Fat Dutch Wedding
5. Why I Love High-Speed Trains



  1. Very interesting comparison graphic. We do staycations primarily for a variety of reasons but it always nice to think about all the green benefits. :)

    1. We love staycations, they are so relaxing. I'd love to try a biking tour one day - when the children are old enough to keep up with me, and before I'm too old to keep up with them!

  2. Awesome post. I have two other modes to add. Two of my favorite vacations were very low carbon. One was a sailing trip around long island sound in NY and CT. 5 of us chartered a sailboat for 5 days, and had a blast. We cooked and slept on the boat for the most part.
    Can't wait to do this again with my kids.

    My other trip was a canoe/camping trip on the Loire River. I lived in Europe at the time, so no air travel involved. We drove to the start, but then spent a week in a canoe, carrying our stuff, stopping at supermarkets along the way to restock groceries. At the end, I rode the train back to the car, to come get the canoe. It was a very, very enjoyable trip!

    1. Great suggestions, thank you! Travel by water takes a huge amount of energy - except when you're going with the flow, as in your river trip, or if you're helped by wind, as in your sailing trip (it just shows how much energy is available in wind!). And both are zero carbon, and so peaceful.

  3. should have mentioned I was visiting from small footprint friday!

  4. This is a really great post! It's a great way to challenge yourself - try to take a green vacation. It's not as easy as it sounds! Thanks for the tips!


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