6 ideas for a smaller travel footprint

FR WEB Cayenne Room - Sustainable Travel

By Alan Miles

It’s hard to do much traveling without having a negative effect on the environment. After all, moving so many people and so much stuff around on the planet’s surface is a big part of our environmental problems to begin with.

But there are some ways to keep our traveling footprint under control. If we’re working on living more sustainably in our everyday activities, why not make it a part of special activities, like travel, as well?

My wife, Karen, and I aren’t exactly world travelers, but we enjoy the occasional getaway, and we have enough family and friends spread around the country to warrant trips away from home. In the course of our travels, we’ve come up with a few ideas about traveling sustainably — tips that, happily for our limited-budget lifestyle, coincide well with traveling inexpensively.

Embrace public transportation. When we took our five-year-old grandson to Chicago for a birthday present, we took Amtrak to Union Station, and walked to and from a downtown hotel. From there, we walked to the Field Museum to see Sue (the famous T. rex), Buckingham Fountain, Memorial Park and other downtown attractions. When Karen and I went to Washington, D.C., to visit our daughter, we stayed at a hotel right across the street from a Metro station. We got everywhere we wanted to go without contributing to automobile emissions or D.C. traffic congestion. When we visit New York, we stay with Karen’s relatives on Long Island and take the trains into and around the city.


It was no trouble getting five-year-old Trice to ride the train. In fact, the trains became a source of entertainment for him during our trip to Chicago this summer.

When we fly, we always use electronic ticketing for airplane flights, which avoids paper waste as well as being convenient. Enduring layovers is usually unavoidable when flying economically out of rural Iowa, but, if you can, flying direct is more sustainable since airplane emissions are greatest during takeoff and landing.

Book green. When we book a hotel, proximity to public transportation is usually our first priority — so green lodging isn’t always our paramount consideration. We do read hotel descriptions with an eye to sustainability claims and Green Lodging Certifications. I have yet to find a reliable way to check on the sustainability ratings of hotels in specific locations, but it’s certain that the more of us who seek hotels and motels that respect the environment, the faster their number will grow.

And there are options besides hotels for booking green. Try a bed and breakfast — the buying local approach to lodging — and other alternative lodging possibilities from cabins and camping to home swaps and couch-surfing.

Make yourself at home. During hotel stays, we don’t let the fact that we’re not paying water and electric bills result in long, hot showers or air conditioners left on while we’re out. We take the same energy-saving measures we would at home. Many hotels ask if you’d like to reuse your towels or not have your sheets changed daily. If they don’t, we let them know we don’t need the daily attention.

Act like a local. We like to think of our travel destination as our local community while we’re there — eating in local establishments rather than in chain restaurants, purchasing local foods when possible, and supporting local craftspeople and artists. We check out local food markets and co-ops, and go to events that support local causes.

Stay home. This doesn’t sound like much of a travel tip, but one way we minimize our vacation impact is to stay close to home. We got into exploring things to do within short traveling distances when our kids were young and we were a traveling party of six. We sought out historic landmarks, kept an eye out for kid-friendly museum exhibits and theater productions, and explored different parks. Even with the kids grown, we often spend vacation time going to local places and events, like a daytrip to a nearby city to visit the art museum and a restaurant we haven’t been to before. A little Internet research of our local area usually provides more goings-on that we would like to do than we can find time for.

Go the extra mile. Something I heard about recently and began looking into is offsetting the environmental effects of family travel miles. Basically, it means taking responsibility for our personal travel the way Frontier Co-op does for its shipping — with carbon offset credits.

Travel adds substantially to global warming via carbon dioxide emissions. Whether traveling by car, bus or plane, we contribute carbon dioxide (also referred to as greenhouse gas or GHG) to the atmosphere. Offsets are available to compensate for the CO2 we create when we travel. (Credits can be used to offset carbon emissions from events, homes and businesses as well as travel.)

The CO2 emissions of a trip can be offset by purchasing credits supporting climate-friendly projects — like renewable energy, energy efficiency and restoration programs — that save the same amount of CO2 used. For example, the average car emits 91 pounds of CO2 per 100 miles, so for your 1,500-mile trip, you could contribute enough to a program to offset the 1,365 pounds of CO2 you put in the atmosphere. There are many places to purchase carbon offsets. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Green Power Network provides a list of them titled GHG Offset Marketers.

Some of these tips save money and some add to the fun of travel, but even those that take a little extra cash or effort provide the satisfaction of doing things the right way — and that’s a good feeling whether you’re sitting at home or off to see the world.

What do you do to make your travel more sustainable? 

Alan MilesAbout the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball (Go Hawks!). Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 35 years, his four kids and four grandkids.

1 thought on “6 ideas for a smaller travel footprint

  1. Thanks for the post! I have a job that requires a lot of plane travel, often inter-continental flights, and it’s pretty guilt-inducing. I do my best to offset it a little bit with my personal habits – car pooling and buying local especially. Not much point to remember your trip via a souvenir that’s made in China, unless that’s where you’re visiting!

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