Traveling is about wanting to experience the world, so it makes sense that travelers often feel an urge to protect the planet they're so intent on seeing. Here are tips for being more environmentally conscious while traveling.
Proper preparation can be the key to reducing your carbon footprint while you travel. Try to choose destinations closer to home to minimize the amount of emissions required for your transit. When researching lodging, look for environmentally responsible properties that are either LEED-certified or offer some other heavyweight eco-cred. You can also look for modest accommodations with fewer upkeep needs; a less-is-more attitude is vital to saving the environment. Be wary, too, of greenwashing -- a marketing ploy companies use to appeal to the eco-minded with poorly substantiated pitches about how their property, service, or product is good to the earth when it really isn't. How to avoid being taken? Have a healthy dose of skepticism about "green" messages. Look for certification, ask questions, and do your own research.
Working on your itinerary? Check travel books and maps out from the library and bring them along so that you won't need to amass throwaway pamphlets and flyers along the way.
When packing, go as light as possible. Heavier bags mean more fuel burned -- regardless of whether you're taking a plane, a train, a car, or a boat -- while transporting those suitcases to your destination.
Getting There and Back
Transportation may be necessary, but waste doesn't need to be a part of getting there. Consider public transit for manageable distances; many domestic vacationers overlook readily available rail and bus options. These may take a bit more time to research but their advantages over driving a personal vehicle are great. The person who would've driven can relax by looking out the window or read a book, no one has to deal with the frustrations of traffic, and public-transit prices are often competitive with fuel costs.
If taking a bus or train isn't an option, try to fill the car with others traveling in the same direction. Choose the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible and make sure it's tuned up. Maximize fuel efficiency and the car's life by driving the speed limit and refraining from accelerating or braking too quickly.
For places that are farther away, choosing commercial air travel can be a no-brainer -- but do recognize that the airlines are some of the worst polluters. To compensate for your share of carbon emissions, you can offset your travel at websites like Carbonfund.org (www.carbonfund.org) and Begreennow.com (www.begreennow.com), or by opting in for the offset programs that some travel providers offer.
While You're There
Obviously, you'll want to explore any new place you're in. But when in touring mode, follow a few guidelines to help preserve the place to which you've traveled: Walk, bike, or take public transit as opposed to driving. When handling brochures and maps, read and remember the ideas but leave the paper copies at their source (this is where your library books will come in handy). While shopping, choose souvenirs that are truly local, not ones just designed to appear that way; many of these items were produced under dubious labor standards and traveled long distances to be sold to tourists. When ordering in restaurants, consider how far food has traveled to reach your plate and opt for dishes made with seasonal, local, organic, and mostly vegetarian ingredients. Research whether the local water is safe to drink -- bottled water is often unnecessary in regions or resorts that have taken great measures to purify their tap water.
Respect the natural landscape by staying on designated roads and trails to prevent erosion, and by refraining from littering and disturbing animal and plant life, regardless of how tempting it may seem to feed critters or pick a flower.
If kids are along for the ride, plan activities to increase their appreciation and understanding of nature. If we educate the younger generation, and if we become role models for better stewardship, we can ensure for all travelers that there will always be a world worth exploring.
Avital Binshtock is the lifestyle editor of Sierra magazine and the editor of the Sierra Club's Green Life blog (www.sierraclub.org/greenlife).