Travelling light

Options for treading lightly as you draw up plans for your summer vacation.

Credit: iStock / BeholdingEye

You’re gnawing on a rubbery, over-priced sandwich at 31,000 feet – marvelling that your quick-hop flight from London to Paris cost only a few dollars more than lunch – when a wave of regret hits you like a burst of unexpected turbulence. It’s not that your meal tastes like an old beach sandal, or that the legroom on this cattle-class plane seems designed for a height-challenged five-year-old. What really raises your hackles is the creeping suspicion that your trip is an environmental disaster.

Welcome to the world of green guilt and the uncomfortable suggestion that, with global warming on the agenda like never before, the golden age of cheap vacations has a price far beyond the bargain-basement deal you picked up on Travelocity. Carbon emissions from passenger jets, currently less than five per cent of all man-made CO2 totals, are rising and could more than quadruple in the next two decades. But that’s not the only enviro-problem with travel.

That comfy SUV you often rent on your holidays is the height of gas-guzzling irresponsibility. Using all the towels in your hotel room for an after-bath cocoon is a slap in the face to Mother Earth. And ordering exquisite restaurant meals sourced from half a world away can provoke severe scowls from passing greenies munching on locally grown mung beans. Or maybe they’re just jealous.

Fortunately, for those of us who want to add a level of environmental responsibility to our vacations without sucking out all the fun, there are more choices available in the marketplace than ever before. But while travelling by rickety tandem or washing a single pair of hemp socks on the road might suit some, it’s clear that not all green travel choices are created equal. Grabbing the headlines in recent months, carbon offsetting seems to be the answer to all our hand-wringing eco-woes. Popular with those well-known green campaigners the Rolling Stones and Leonardo DiCaprio, offsetting enables travellers to calculate the amount of CO2 produced by their flights, then “neutralize” this with a contribution to worthy causes. Dozens of online businesses provide offsetting services and – somewhat bizarrely – travellers can shop around for the cheapest deal.

According to international offsetting company Climate Friendly, a return flight from Vancouver to London produces 4.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger and can be offset for around $100. The money is used to build and maintain wind farms in Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, Vancouver-based Uniglobe Travel’s Green My Flight program offsets the same trip for around half the price. The proceeds go to green projects in this country, including landfill gas recovery and renewable energy schemes.

The downside, of course, is that carbon offsetting is a license for travellers to continue polluting. It doesn’t directly address the problem of rising aviation emissions – the projects funded by these companies don’t create a quid-pro-quo reduction in CO2 – and instead it brushes under the carpet the least environmentally responsible aspect of many vacations.

While better than doing nothing, offsetting is not nearly as effective as changing the way we vacation. For some, this means a return to the rails. While train travel is a luxury for many in North America – the expensive cross-continent treks offered by VIA Rail and Amtrak have priced many travellers out of the market – Europe is entering a rail-based renaissance, one that leaves a decidedly smaller carbon footprint than air travel.

With the November 2007 opening of a new Eurostar terminal in London, direct train treks from the U.K. capital to central Paris will be cut to just over two hours. The CO2 produced by this return trip is around 11 kilograms per passenger – compared to around 122 kilograms for flying – and while it’s usually cheaper to take the plane, smart travellers balance this against the convenience of journeying directly between the two city centres. It’s also more comfortable to sit back and watch the countryside slip by – once the 20-minute jaunt through the chunnel is complete – rather than try to fold your legs into a cheap airline seat.

While ever-faster high-speed train routes like this are increasingly linking cities in Europe and Asia – and regional railway passes are adding greater convenience for overseas travellers – the re-emergence of railways as a “new” green travel option is part of a growing “slow travel” movement inching its way around the world.

A backlash to the increasingly brutish, no-frills approach of the airline industry, the slow-travel alternative attempts to restore enjoyment to the journey part of a vacation by swapping the discomforts of airports and airplanes for the novel adventure of travelling by ships, buses and railways, all of which have less impact on the environment than flying. Slow-travel fans also aim to spend more time in their chosen destinations, with the intention of properly savouring the places they’re visiting.

Since not everyone has the available time for a slow trip, though, cars will likely remain part of the holiday plans for many vacationers. But even here, travellers can alter the way they usually operate.

Hertz recently launched a green collection of eco-friendly rental cars, with low-emission vehicles from Toyota, Renault and Skoda on offer. In addition, natty electric micro-cars can be rented by travellers to London, while hybrid taxis can be hailed on the streets of many European and North American cities – including Vancouver, which has one of the largest Toyota Prius cab fleets on the continent.

Once they’ve decided how to travel, green-minded vacationers also have some key decisions to make when it comes to choosing where to go. Pitching a tent in your back garden might be one footprint-reducing option, but for those who can’t shake the lure of international travel, it’s worth exploring ways to reduce your impact on the areas you’re planning to visit.

While decades of package treks to over-touristed destinations like Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China have caused untold damage to these fragile sites, some travellers are looking for vacations that have a more positive effect on the areas they’re visiting.

Established organizations, including Ethical Volunteering and People and Places, can help arrange short- or long-term volunteer work stays in countries around the world. Focusing on environmental and developmental projects, these can include helping to dig wells in Africa or building schools in South America.

If that all sounds a bit too worthy, large conservation charities in Europe and North America – including the separate National Trust organizations in both the U.S. and U.K. – offer volunteer work for travellers interested in helping to clean up historic buildings or ancient countryside sites. These are an ideal option for those who want to add a few days’ worth of useful work to their otherwise lazy vacations.

If this doesn’t appeal to your better nature and you’ve still booked yourself into a spa resort that blithely doubles as an environmental disaster area, you can score a few eco-points by following the well-worn path of re-using your hotel towels, switching off all non-essential room lights and unplugging TVs and appliances that are on standby. If you add minimal air-con use and taking showers instead of baths, you might be spared when the green gods hold their final day of reckoning.

How and where travellers choose to open their wallets can also be an important part of an eco-friendly vacation. While some find it hard not to buy souvenirs – who can resist that fridge magnet replica of the Statue of Liberty wearing a cowboy hat? – it’s best to focus on those that are locally made rather than shipped thousands of miles from a factory halfway around the world.

This “travel miles” approach can also apply to vacation dining: there’s not much point in paying to offset the carbon emissions from a flight to Milan if you then skip into a restaurant and order the Chilean sea bass, a species threatened in the wild by over-fishing. The chances are it will have flown much farther than you to make your dinner date.

Before setting off on vacation, savvy travellers can do some online digging to discover if there’s a local food push in the area. Like Victoria’s Island Chefs’ Collaborative, many regions are rediscovering locally produced ingredients, encouraging their restaurants to showcase food that has travelled only a few miles to reach your table. Alternatively, you could simply assuage your guilt by buying online carbon credits to offset that epic sea bass flight.