Travel can expand our minds, promote intercultural understanding, and provide really great content for Instagram. Unfortunately, travel can also do a number on Mother Earth. So we’ve put together a guide to minimizing the environmental impact of our travel — even without cancelling our plans.

“Going” (Literally) Green — The Need-to-Know

Green travel is a broad term with two main branches: It refers first and foremost to responsible travel practices that pay attention to environmental, social, and economic sustainability. It can also refer to eco-tourism, which involves responsible travel specifically to natural areas. And while we love our readers in the Galapagos and the Arabian Desert, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the first definition.

Why should we bother greening our travel practices? For starters, the U.S. transportation sector is responsible for about 40 percent of the nation’s fossil-fuel related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — one of the main gases responsible for climate change. Reducing our collective transportation footprint (aka environmental impact) could significantly lower the amount of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere. But is it possible to add worries about “traveling green” to the stresses of travel and still maintain sanity? Luckily, yes. Not only is it possible (and pretty easy) to keep the environment in mind while traveling, but in a lot of cases green travel practices can save us some, uh, green.

Before You Go: Packing and Leaving Home

Greener travel starts before we actually start traveling. Follow these packing and home preparation tips to prepare for environmentally friendly travel and minimize a home’s footprint while you’re away.

  • Pack light. The more weight trains, planes, and automobiles have to carry, the more fuel they use, and the more greenhouse gases (the kind that cause the planet’s temperature to rise) are emitted into the atmosphere.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle and shopping bag. Toss the bag in the suitcase and keep the water bottle handy for water fountain fill-ups — using both items will help cut down on wasteful packaging during travel.
  • Recycle before you go. If you purchased new products before the trip (an iPhone charger, a new tube of toothpaste), recycle the cardboard wrappers before leaving home. It’ll circumvent the “I can’t find a recycling station anywhere” panic that can happen away from home (just me?).
  • Turn off — and unplug! — lights and electronics. Unless the roommate is staying put for the holidays, nobody’s going to use that couch-side lamp while you’re gone. Turning off electronics saves on the electricity bill and cuts down on energy usage. To make an even bigger dent, unplug all electronics, since they can “leach” power even when they’re not turned on.
  • Turn down the thermostat. Same reasoning as above: An empty room doesn’t need to be heated, and keeping it warm unnecessarily uses up energy. If you have your own water heater, go ahead and turn that down, too.
  • Suspend newspaper delivery. A quick call to the newspaper company can save trees (and the paper kid’s tired little legs) for the time that you’re away.

Getting There: Choosing How to Travel

Airplanes have been pretty vilified by the green community (it does take a lot of fuel to keep those things up in the air), but the greenest method of transportation might actually depend on how far we have to go. The basic breakdown, in terms of pounds of CO2 emitted per mile, goes something like this: Buses, trains, hybrid cars, and coach seats on narrow jets weigh in with the smallest carbon footprints at less than ½ pound of CO2 per mile. The “medium carbon footprint” category goes to regular cars and coach or regional jets. The worst carbon offenders are SUVs and first-class jets, which produce more than one pound of CO2 per mile. What does this mean in practical terms? Read on.

  • Buses tend to be the best option all around. Yeah, bus rides can be long, and the person next to you might have BO. But that’s a risk on any form of public transportation, and the environmental benefits of motor coaches are impressive: A couple taking the bus will automatically cut their carbon emissions nearly in half — even when compared to a hybrid!And compared to flying, that same bus-ridin’ couple will cut their emissions anywhere from 55 to 75 percent (whoa). Just make sure the bus is full or close to it; otherwise, the benefits aren’t so clear-cut.
  • For shorter trips: Take the train or bus instead of flying. Doing so emits three to seven times less gas than air travel.
  • For couples and solo travelers: A nonstop coach flight almost always beats car travel, especially for trips longer than 500 miles (but a full bus or train is still the best option).
  • If renting a car: Choose the smallest vehicle possible and rent a hybrid if one’s available.
  • If traveling by air: Use the most direct route possible; take offs and landings use the most fuel. Fly coach instead of first-class (less leg room = more people on the plane, which means more bang for fuel’s buck). Also try to choose an energy-efficient plane. This one can be tough, because the information isn’t always available. But some airlines, like Southwest, have started retrofitting their planes to make them more energy efficient, and new plane models (like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner) are being designed to burn up to 20 percent less fuel. If you’ve got the time and inclination, call up the airline and ask them about their environmental practices.
  • Offset your travel. To make up for the carbon dioxide released during transportation, why not plant a few trees? Trees convert CO2 for oxygen, which is good for us (apparently we need oxygen to survive?) and good for the planet, because CO2 “consumed” by trees isn’t released into the atmosphere. Luckily, a host of programs exist to do the planting for you. It’s worth noting, however, that carbon offsetting has gotten some flak: Critics worry that offset plans give people a “free pass” to use the same amount of resources (since they can “make up for it”) instead of taking direct action to reduce their environmental footprint.

During Your Stay: Keeping it Green

Whether you’re staying in a hotel or crashing with family, there are steps you can take to minimize environmental impact in transit.

  • Choosing a (green) hotel: There are some accrediting bodies for green hotels (though they have their critics) and also a host of resources for the would-be green traveler. Regardless of whether a hotel has a green sticker in the lobby window, it’s possible to get a sense of the company’s environmental ethics by visiting their website or calling them up to ask a few questions: Is the hotel locally owned and operated and/or staffed by local employees? What kind of recycling programs are in place? How does the hotel work to reduce its energy consumption?
  • At the hotel. Follow some simple practices to minimize energy use: Keep showers short, and shut off the water while brushing your teeth. Turn off the TV, lights, and heat or air-conditioning whenever you leave the room. If staying for multiple nights, reuse sheets & towels instead of having them washed and changed every day.
  • Or just scrap the hotel. Instead, stay with family, friends, or friends you’ve never met.
  • Getting around: Use public transportation, bike, or walk whenever possible. If driving, follow tips for green driving: Avoid fast starts and stops, avoid idling, keep the tires properly inflated, combine trips, keep cargo light, and stick to the speed limit.
  • Shopping: Purchase meals, foods, and other products from local vendors (and use that reusable bag to carry your loot!).
  • Eating: The basic principles of eating green apply pretty much anywhere. Challenge yourself to include one local or organic ingredient in every dish on the family table (just make sure to suggest it in a friendly way to the chefs).
Originally posted November 2012. Reposted November 2013.

How do you travel green? Did we leave anything out? Share in comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.