One of the great benefits of traveling is showing your kids the world, but travel can have a huge impact on the planet. How can you take care of the environment while globetrotting? Here are three top tips (skip the flight, pack light, and travel right) and why they matter.
1. Skip the flight.
Oof, this one is tough. Not only do I love being able to see the world, my family really just loves flying, too. Shout out to my favorite family-friendly airline, Southwest, for making low fares the norm and making air travel more accessible. Buuuuuuuut… now that more people are flying more often, that’s a lot of pollution, specifically the greenhouse gases that are warming up the planet. Massive increases in worldwide shipping don’t help either. According to NASA, “Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived ‘forcing’ of climate change.” And The New York Times says “take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.” Yikes.
Flying is kind of like smoking. We know how bad it is for our collective, global lungs… but it’s hard to quit. Activists like Greta Thunberg are encouraging people to give up flying (she recently traveled from the UK to New York City by sailboat). The shaming of air travelers is starting to gain some traction: says Vox, some airports in Thunberg’s native Sweden are reporting a “Greta effect” of reduced travelers. The impact of air travel is all the more devastating when you realize it’s a small, elite portion of humans contributing so heavily to a global crisis.
What to do?
If you must fly...
Fly direct. WIRED points out that direct flights are less harmful since the most fuel is burned at takeoff (a great excuse to skip that winter connection in Chicago).
Skip the short hops. Short flights cause more damage for the distance (same reason, takeoff is the big burn), so try to only fly when you need to cover a lot of ground and seek out trains or buses instead for regional travel.
Drive a low or zero emissions vehicle. Several rental car companies are offering electric or hybrid cars. And Lyft’s Green Mode lets you request an eco-friendly ride.
Take the train. Trains are a wonderful option. They are more eco-friendly and give you and the fam time to chat, play games, and make multiple trips to the dining car. Stretch your legs anytime, not just when the seatbelt sign is off.
Opt for the bus. A bus is better than a car - it’s the ultimate carpool. In many parts of the world, double-decker buses are the norm, and you can reserve specific seats for city-to-city journeys. We always try to get the front top seats - it’s like your own personal IMAX. In London, the double-decker buses are like a super-cheap tourist ride!
Bike, hike, paddle, or sail. Plan an active vacation that’s healthy for the planet, and you! Rail-to-Trail bike paths are popping up everywhere, using old railways which are flat and don’t have cars whizzing by you. Inn-to-inn hiking or organized tours offer a shuttle back to your start. And check out nearby lakes, rivers, or coastlines to hop aboard a canoe, kayak, raft, or sailboat (skip the big cruises, those are even worse than flying). You’ll have an incredibly memorable vacation… and burn more calories than gasoline.
2. Travel right.
Pass on plastic. When you are on the go, it’s easy to fall into single-use plastics. That fork or water bottle might get used for 30 seconds and pollutes the earth forever. Bring your own reusable utensils and stainless straw, and always bring your own reusable water bottle. If you are worried about local water, go to the supermarket and get a massive jug for refills, instead of using a bunch of small bottles.
Make the environment part of the trip Stay at hotels, eco-lodges, or in homes that put the environment first. Camp or stay at a lodge in a national or state park; there are often great programs about protecting nature. My kids love becoming Junior Rangers at every National Park we visit. And at a recent trip to the New England Aquarium, they played a game that showed them their climate footprint.
Find out about local volunteer opportunities with conservation or clean-up groups. Organizations like My Greener Trip promote beach clean-up as part of your travel. My family follows the advice of a Park Ranger who told us that he thinks of an octopus and picks up eight pieces of trash every time he visits a beach. Kids love to know they are helping the planet; give them a chance to be involved. Last year, our family volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. It was the highlight of the trip and also made our kids aware of how much humans are impacting the natural habitats of animals.
3. Pack light.
Traveling light can not only help the planet, it can make travel easier and more fun.
Think small. Bring items that compress or fold small so you can spend more time zooming and less time schlepping or checking bags. Obviously our favorite travel-friendly item is Pico, WAYB’s ultralight, folding car seat for safer plane and car trips. When you travel light and small, you not only reduce your travel weight, you make it easier to get around by alternate transportation instead of having to fly for short hops. Lots of hotels or local companies will supply strollers, cribs, or other family essentials so you don’t have to bring it all. Our favorite small and light item is a Kindle. We load up free books courtesy of our local library (check out the super easy app Libby), and skip lugging a bunch of books.
Shop local. Instead of bringing a zillion snack pouches, hit the local market for a taste of how families eat. Bring only a few shirts knowing you’ll want to get a souvenir or some traditional garb to remember the trip by (look for handmade or fair trade items, not stuff shipped in from overseas). Travel can have a more positive impact when you invest in the local economy, so get out of the chain hotels and support local restaurants and shops.
Do more with less. Pack multi-function items, like a travel coffee mug that you can also use as your water bottle, or a jacket that folds into a travel pillow. I have a sarong I bought 15 years ago and it’s always with me as a scarf, blanket, or beach towel. Instead of bringing tons of outfits, pack a small bottle of eco-friendly soap like Dr. Bronner’s and just do a little sink wash as you go. (If you’re feeling fancy, get your laundry done locally. It helps the local economy too!) When you are gearing up for the trip, check with friends or on Craigslist, eBay, or a local used outdoor gear store before you buy new gear that will sit in your garage the rest of the year.
My family is trying to travel greener, but we are far from perfect. This year we are living on a sailboat, which forces us to pack light and manage our resources carefully. It also means we get to see a lot of the world without flying. But we will have some flights this year, and in our flurry to get ready for the trip, we ordered a ton of items online, creating a huge shipping footprint and a lot of packaging waste. How does your family travel greener? Post on social media and tag @hellowayb to show us your top tips.
About the author: Amanda Reid is the former Head of Brand and Social Impact at WAYB, and is currently living on a sailboat with her family. She spends her time writing, steering, boatschooling, and planning the next adventure, big or small.