Simple Ways to Travel Greener

by Jacob Bielanski Oct 12, 2007
volunteer in Ecuador

Yanapuma Foundation volunteer in Ecuador

Green travel is a juxtaposition of concepts. By its very nature, “travel” is less efficient than “staying put.” But for the habitually wanderlust-afflicted or for those who must travel for business, the following ten items are simple, real things that you can do to minimize your carbon footprint while on the road.

Stay on the ground

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that the nitrogen, sulfide, and carbon dioxide emissions occurring at 30,000 feet are 2 to 4 times more damaging than their “equivalent” ground emissions. With airline traffic expected to grow significantly in the coming years, these aircraft emissions are expected to take an incredible toll on the ozone layer.

What does this mean? Trains will always achieve more distance per passenger, per gallon of fuel than flights and their emissions nitrogen sulfides into the air. Unfortunately, there’s no 2:00 train from Boston to Paris, but you can plan your trip intelligently. The flight from Amsterdam to Prague may prove to be marginally faster, but taking the train will leave a lighter carbon footprint. If time is of the essence, plan your ground trips for overnight–you’ll save money on lodging while maintaining valuable time for your destination. Most importantly your traversals will utilize fewer fossil fuels.

Travel in a group

When trains are out of the question, pack ’em in as tight as you can, whenever you can. Fuel efficiency is often measured in the amount of fuel required per passenger, per kilometer. Airlines may be more harmful, but they get as much density out of their flights as possible. Vehicles carrying a single passenger, however, often receive lower per passenger, per kilometer ratings than full cars. Whether in a taxi or a minibus, traveling as a group will always prove more efficient than flying solo.

The same argument can be made for the hot water in showers. Couples are a natural green factor, but singles can probably turn this into a compelling pick up line in hostels. When traveling in groups, put as many per room as you can tolerate. Fewer lights and hot water means less energy consumption.


The plastic bottle is one of the greatest inventions of all time. Unfortunately, the low cost of its production has cheapened its value in day to day life. When purchasing water, hang on to the bottle and refill it. With a biodegrading time of approximately 1 million years, even 4 refills per bottle will significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Refill gallon bottles to store in your trunk (either for radiator or waiting for the rescue crew). Doing these things will have a twofold effect on the environment; you’ll add fewer plastic bottles to landfills and—in a small way—reduce the demand for new bottles to be produced.

Be cognizant of any material that can be reused on your travels or purchase long-lasting equivalents. I’m a complete coffee addict (10 cups a day, at least) and have invested in a very rugged Nissan stainless travel mug. Whenever I stop at a gas station, I save money by refilling it and I save a styrofoam cup. Some lunch meats come in very functional Tupperware dishes. In the end, everything has a carbon price—particularly “disposable” items.

Travel light

The mantra of all seasoned travelers also has an impact on your carbon footprint. Some go as far as to say, “Pack everything you think you need. Then remove half of it.” While the physics and mathematics behind the direct energy-to-distance ratios can vary according to a myriad of variables, one thing remains clear; the more you weigh, the more space you take up, and the more fossil fuels are needed to get you there, period. This may not make as great of an impact for a family making a 200 mile trip to Disney world, but the difference can add up for someone circling the globe–and your back will thank you.


The Hooch at Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica

Patronize Eco-Tourist locations

When planning to stay somewhere, do some research on potential eco-friendly options. While the definition of ecological and social conscience varies from region to region, organizations exist that provide some standards. Check with for a concise list of ecotourism businesses that adhere to The International Ecotourism Society’s (TIES) guidelines. These guidelines enforce a baseline of social and ecological awareness.

For a good example check out Rancho Mastatal in Coasta Rica.

Buy local

Unless you’re traveling to the Antarctic or the Sahara, every region in the world will have home-brewed or locally-grown specialties. Research your destination’s agricultural strengths. Use this information to plan your diet around what is already there, and not around excessive amounts of foreign produce. While processing and shipping creates jobs and stimulates the some economies (it may not be the local one), it also generates unnecessary quantities of carbon dioxide. Besides, a trip to a local vendor will often pay off in flavor as well as earth-friendliness.

Use Rechargeable batteries

This is one of the easier ones to follow. If you own an iPod, cell phone, laptop or iPhone, then you are already participating in this step. Many of these devices utilize lithium ion batteries, one of the most “green” due to lack of heavy metals and long (approximately 2 years) lifecycle. For many electronics, particularly cameras, double- or triple-A batteries are still the standard. New Nickel Metal Hydride batteries (NiMH) will give you over 500 recharge cycles before they give out, and utilize fewer groundwater-polluting heavy metals than its predecessor, the Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cad). The only downside is staying in one place long enough to recharge them.

Carbon Neutrality

This is an ideological, but increasingly popular way to travel green. The concept is this: you give money to an organization whose goal is to fight global warming. This amount is said to offset the amount of ozone-destruction your journey has caused. Independent Traveler maintains an excellent list of carbon offsetting organizations.

Use Non-Toxic Products

Many products you use for your travels have a biodegradable version. When camping, consider purchasing rapid-dissolve toilet paper. Delicious Organics sells earth friendly detergents and bath soaps that are non-toxic and often sold in a concentrated form to reduce packaging.


Editor’s note:

In addition to the ways listed above, we encourage volunteering abroad as a greener alternative to regular travel.

For a fantastic list of volunteer opportunities and organizations working to protect the environment check matador’s organizations section.


A regular contributor to Matador, Jacob Bielanksi is currently working on a project uncovering how the US government obtains data on travelers.

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