Planning a Green Vacation

If you’re looking for a vacation that will inspire jealousy and earn eco-cred, perhaps I can help. There’s a wide variety of sustainable tourism options, and you don’t have to damage the world’s beauty to see it in person. Below are a few useful tools and inspirational ideas for planning your next green vacation.

1) Choose green transportation

If you’re like me, a vacation is all about the destination. We choose to take a trip because of the places we want to see and the things we want to do. Transport is often the last thing we think about, but that’s backwards.

In many cases how we get where we’re going is just as important as what we do when we arrive. Airlines, cars, trains, and ships create a lot of pollution. According to this Carbon calculator, a flight across country produces about 10% as much carbon as everything that the average American does in a year.

You can exercise control by choosing a low impact method of travel. It’s easier (and less expensive) to avoid putting carbon in the atmosphere than it is to remove carbon dioxide from the air. For example, if you can replace a jet trip with a train ride, that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 85-96% and can save 20-50% of the cost to travel too! Trains are one of the most efficient means of travel, and they offer quite an amazing experience if you can spare several days to travel. If not, prop planes produce slightly less carbon per mile than jets, and cars produce slightly less than either type of air travel.

When you take a car trip, put some thought into choosing the right car for your needs. Driving a hybrid instead of an SUV can cut your carbon footprint in half, but using a less efficient vehicle (such as a minivan) can also be your best option if it allows you to take one car instead of two. No matter which type of car you take, here are a few things you can do to get the best possible mileage:

  • Accelerate gradually.
  • Let your car brake itself.
  • Drive at the speed limit on highways and freeways.
  • Use cruise control.
  • Use the air conditioner and heater less.
  • Accelerate before hills.
  • Clean out your car.
  • Check your tire pressure.
  • Change your air filter.
  • Get a hybrid car.
  • Green travel isn’t always an option, which is why Carbon Offsets exist. These offsets are a way to undo the damage caused by long-distance travel. With the help of companies that sell carbon offsets, you can balance any harm you do by supporting environmental efforts. Expedia and Travelocity even offer the option to buy carbon offsets at the same time that you book your trip. These C02 offsets are used to fund green initiatives that reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Typical projects include building solar panels, planting trees, and retiring inefficient industrial equipment.

    There are many competing companies that supply carbon offsets, and you can choose the type of development you’d like to fund by finding a supplier that shares your goals. The Tufts Climate Initiative has some in-depth information about how different carbon offset companies invest their money, and their free report includes a comparison of effectiveness and cost.

    2) Find eco-friendly lodging

    A hotel is more than just the place you sleep at night. The accommodations you choose have a major impact on the location where you’re staying. When you take a shower, turn on a light switch, or use any of the hotel’s facilities, the hotel’s environmental policies will affect the sustainability of your vacation.

    Photo courtesy of D.James at Flickr.com.

    There are almost as many different environmental policies as there are different hotels and resorts. Several hotels define their brand based on sustainability, but many others engage in practices with far reaching consequences. Some of the harms that resorts can cause include water pollution, wasted electricity, and loss of native habitat. When golf courses replace mangrove forests, or rooms are chilled to 50 degrees in the tropics, that puts a huge strain on the ecosystem surrounding the hotel. Does it have an eco friendly mattress? Do you want to visit just another slice of suburban America, or are would you rather experience all the charms of your destination?

    One way to choose your hotel is to ask if they take part in the Green Hotel Initiative. This industry program offers best-practices standards and accountability. Also, let hotels know that environmental concerns affect how you spend your money. You can print this guest request card and encourage wherever you stay to adopt more sustainable policies.

    3) Select a green destination

    Your eco-tourism options will vary from city-to-city and country-to-country. National Geographic Traveller’s Center for Sustainable Destinations offers the best review of eco-hotspots that I’ve ever seen, but it has an overwhelming amount of information. If you already have a particular type of trip in mind, you might also find these niche guides useful: ISLAND Magazine publishes a dream list of destinations with their Golden Eagle Awards.

    Photo courtesy of sfclay at Flickr.com.

    Okay, so now that I’ve outlined some things to bear in mind, I’d like to brag a bit about my upcoming vacation. After a long and intensive search, I found a trip that fits my dreams without compromising my ethics or breaking the bank. Even before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, I wanted to take an island hopping cruise.Unfortunately, the average cruise is about as sustainable to operate as a waterpark in the desert. Cruise ships burn thousands of gallons of diesel. For example, the Queen Mary 2 is less fuel efficient than a fleet of Hummers.

  • Fuel Consumption: 18.05 tons per hour, or 433 tons per day. This is equal to six of the ship’s swimming pools.
  • The ship’s fuel oil tank capacity of 4,381.4 tonnes is sufficient for 10 days’ sailing at 32.5 knots, equalling 7,800 miles.
  • One gallon of fuel will move the ship 49.5 feet; with the previous steam turbine engines, one gallon of fuel moved the ship 36 feet.
  • While researching mega-cruise ships, I learned that there are certain things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint. You can start by choosing an itinerary with as few stops as possible. That helps because starting and stopping are very energy intensive events. If you’ve ever pushed a heavy object (such as a desk or stalled car), think back to how difficult it was to get it moving from a standstill. Once something is moving, inertia works in your favor to keep it moving. Since cruise ships operate on water, they have to use almost as much energy to stop as they do to start moving. The really big ships can take 5 to 10 miles to slow down!

    The high price of fuel is causing many cruiselines to try innovative new technologies. Fuel saving steps include many proactive ideas such as adding motion sensitive lights, running engines at slower speeds, and plugging into shore power. Some ships are even supplementing their engines with sailing kites.

    Photo courtesy of Willie Waw at Flickr.com.

    In my opinion, all of these ideas are positive developments, but they’re like painting the elephant in the room to match the wallpaper. For a cruise experience that’s carbon neutral (or as close as possible) I had my heart set on a sailing yacht. After researching the different options out there, I booked a week long cruise on the Arabella – the smallest ship with scheduled cruises in the Caribbean.

    The Arabella is a world apart from the usual cruise experience. Unlike the floating palaces operated by Royal Caribbean or Carnival, the Arabella is tiny. With berths for a maximum of 49 people, I expect to meet everyone on board. All of the cabins are on a single deck and there’s a small hot tub instead of 3 or 4 Olympic sized pools. I don’t think I’ll miss the casino, on-board climbing wall, or disco lounge. But, thoughts of sunshine and ocean spray get me through the day!

    Photo courtesy of Gregg M at Flickr.com.

    So, how green is my vacation? I paid a little bit extra to take a more direct flight through Fort Lauderdale (instead of Chicago!) and chose a prop plane for the second half of the trip instead of a small jet. Then, I offset my carbon by investing in a company that builds wind turbines in China. I’m staying on board the ship, which complies with US laws against dumping but I’ll also bring along a GHI guest card and report back in February about how my green dream vacation goes. Is there anything else I can do?

    If you’ve recently taken a green vacation, we’d love to hear about it! Please share some details in the comments section below.