How you can really reduce your carbon footprint when you travel

carbon footprint travel

Whether you’re feeling flight-shamed, hotel-shamed or just plain shamed for being a traveler, chances are you’re probably wondering how to reduce your carbon footprint when you travel. Even with so many travel companies claiming to be green, it’s not easy.

“The short answer is yes, it is possible to reduce your carbon footprint when you travel,” says Jennifer Coffman, the associate executive director at James Madison University’s Center for Global Engagement. “The longer answer is yes with lots of qualifiers. Travel means greenhouse gas emissions.”

Last summer, the flight-shaming movement swept Europe. Flight-shaming aims to embarrass air travelers into using more eco-friendly travel methods, such as the train. It’s long overdue — the aviation industry accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, according to the International Air Transport Association. That’s roughly 815 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. (Check out this online calculator before your next flight to see how much you’ll contribute.)

Time to start thinking about reduce your carbon footprint when you travel

With people starting to plan next summer’s vacations, maybe this is the right time to consider your carbon footprint. You’ll have to wade through a lot of promises by your travel company and make some difficult decisions about your itinerary. And, in the end, there’s only one way to eliminate your carbon footprint.

Of course, travel companies don’t want you to stop traveling. So they’re doing their best to show off their eco-credentials.

• Hilton announced last year that it would cut its environmental footprint in half and double its social impact investment by 2030.

• Lufthansa Group said it will make its fleet more fuel-efficient. By swapping out its aging four-engine planes for twin-engine Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A350-900 aircraft, the German carrier expects to reduce CO2 emissions by 1.5 million tons a year.

• Carnival — which owns Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn — has reduced its equivalent carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 28 percent from its 2005 baseline.

“Never before have travelers had so many options for reducing their carbon footprint,” says Gina Gabbard, a senior vice president at Ovation Travel Group, a travel agency based in New York. And that’s a problem. Almost everyone claims that by booking a trip with them, you’ll help the environment, and the math doesn’t add up. Traveling still leaves a carbon footprint. Are these companies just telling us what we want to hear?

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical. Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel sources surged 2.7 percent in 2018, according to the World Resources Institute. It predicts another increase in emissions in 2019. Will such programs have a significant effect on carbon emissions? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, can you reduce your carbon footprint? Yes, experts say, up to a point. Here’s how:

Research your destination

Consider how Josie Schiavone approached this year’s summer vacation. She started with “a great deal” of research. “We wanted to up-level our game from [avoiding] straws and reusing towels to visiting a carbon-neutral country with a stay at a solar-powered hotel,” says Schiavone, a travel adviser with SmartFlyer, a Virtuoso-affiliated travel agency in New York. Her family decided to visit Costa Rica, which has a well-earned reputation for eco-tourism and sustainability.

Drive instead of flying

That’s what Alex Beene does. A frequent traveler who works for the state of Tennessee in Nashville, Beene says that if he has a choice between driving and flying, “I’ll measure which one has the least damaging impact.”(He uses a fly-or-drive calculator online.) “The vast majority of the time, the method with the biggest savings, both environmentally and financially, is driving.” And if mass transit is an option, he always chooses the bus or train over driving.

Look for a green certification

“Have they taken the extra step to get a green certification of any kind?” asks Terry Lawson Dunn, founder of, a company that specializes in helping people find ecotourism providers. Certification programs include Green Globe, Green Key and LEED. “A sincerely green company is usually proud of their efforts and wants to describe what they are doing,” she adds.

Stay just a little bit longer

Lora Hein, an author from Seattle whose work centers on responsible travel, plans extended trips to minimize her carbon footprint. “I combine several shorter trips into one longer one,” she says. That strategy is particularly effective on transcontinental or transatlantic trips. Instead of staying in Europe for one week, she’ll stay for three to six weeks.

Sound easy? It’s not, says Coffman, the James Madison University researcher. She travels to East Africa every year, and she has found herself second-guessing every decision she makes. Her trips to Kenya and Tanzania last two months, so she already checks the “stay longer” box.

“I use public transportation, eat locally produced and prepared food and with minimal packaging, stay in mostly off-the-grid places mostly owned by locals, use little water, avoid single-use plastics, and plant trees,” she says.

Like she said — lots of qualifiers.

In the end, you can’t have it both ways

All this talk about reducing your carbon footprint has affected me, too. I’ve always paid attention to green certifications at hotels, although I’ve been skeptical of them. And it’s not as if information about the damaging effects of commercial aviation isn’t out there.

Still, a few years ago, I decided I would fly only when absolutely necessary. For an upcoming trip to Europe, I plan to stay longer and use a Eurail Pass instead of relying on discount airlines to get around. After all, passenger rail is about three times as efficient as a car, according to the Transportation Energy Data Book. And I stay in rental houses instead of hotels, avoiding the constant towel washing and wasteful extras, such as the tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

But in the end, there’s only one way to eliminate your travel carbon footprint: Don’t go. If you’re planning a vacation, that’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s worth thinking about. You can’t have it both ways.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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