Greening Your Family Travels - My Family Travels

Needless to say, we love traveling, but we also love the Earth, and present this guide to cutting down on the carbon emissions produced in your travels… and other tips to living green.

I haven’t traveled extensively, but enough to feel the burning guilt that followed reading a report on green traveling by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). As an aspiring travel writer just starting out at Family Travel Forum, however, learning experiences abound, and I’m more than happy to take my own rewritten advice and pass it on to fellow travelers as well.

According to the USC’s report on green travel, the U.S. transportation sector alone is responsible for some 40% of fossil-fuel-related CO2 emissions in the United States. If you’ve seen Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” you’ll be more than aware that CO2 is the primary heat-trapping gas responsible for global warming. Oh, and for those who don’t believe in global warming, just replace the term with “unnecessary overconsumption” or otherwise enjoy your golden age of 60 while it lasts.

While there should be no shaking of the finger, or cane, on who should be blamed for high carbon emissions, travelers should be mindful of how their trips affect the environment. We’ll start by shaking our finger at the road trippers.

On The Road: Lessen the Impact by Car's Speed

We all loved the crazy situations the Griswold family got themselves into on their family road trip, but did Chevy Chase ever consider just how much driving to Walley World would affect the environment? Given it was the 80s, probably not, but roughly 25 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere for every gallon of gasoline burned—including the emis­sions from extracting, refining, and transporting the fuel. That can add up to a lot if you figure in the amount of family road trips, particularly in the summertime.

Americans also tend to travel during the weekends, choosing to depart on Saturdays and Sundays for trips of fewer than 500 miles, while choosing Friday to depart for trips of 500 to 1,000 miles. While we all can’t have the pleasure of taking off during the work week, weekend trips tend to be the worse time if you’re trying to cut down on carbon emissions.

Traffic ensures that even more fuel will be used, adding a little more pollution to the environment and subtracting a lot more of that cash from your bank account. In fact, traveling at an average of 5 mph in traffic can more than quadruple your CO2 emissions compared with smooth travel at 45–55 mph. The UCS claims that carbon emissions from congestion start to grow when speeds drop under 30 mph, and rise precipitously in traffic moving from 0–20 mph. Ways to lower your carbon footprint and save some moolah: win-win for everyone:

  1. Plan an extended stay so you can travel on less congested days
  2. Use a GPS to find the best possible route
  3. Use up those vacation days from work (studies have found that many Americans end up not using these at the end of the year!)

Of course, by no means am I suggesting that you drive at breakneck speeds scaring the willies out of poor grandma in the backseat. Speed limits are made for a reason: both for your safety and even fuel efficiency.

According the UCS, the rule of thumb is that each five miles per hour you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.25 to $0.30 per gallon for gas (when gasoline is $3.50–$4.00 per gallon). If Dad has a lead foot, have Mom take the wheel and let grandma live her remaining years in peace.

On The Road: Lessen the Impact with Group Size, Maintenance

If Chevy had anything right, it was traveling with a large group. Single riders driving a typical car leave a large per-passenger footprint, while two people don’t do much better according the UCS. If you don’t have kids or they’ve opted out of your great idea to travel over 11 hours to the Grand Canyon, consider taking grandchildren along, or even taking a less-fun flight to your destination. (Hold off on that, though, until you’ve read the part about plane travel.)

With a full car, however, remember that how you pack is an important factor in speed and thus, fuel consumption. Adding 100 pounds can lower a vehicle’s fuel economy by as much as 2%, so tell Aunt Bertha and her massive luggage case to take a hike. Before setting out, make sure your vehicle checks out maintenance-wise; a tire low on air, an oil trap that needs changed, a dirty air filter or a leaky gas tank can seriously slow you down and create a large carbon footprint. The UCS reports that a well-maintained vehi­cle is 4% more fuel efficient, on average, than a vehicle with problems. Oh, and that air filter replacement will save up to 10% on carbon emissions!

SUVs are great for families and offer plenty of room for luggage, but even driving an SUV that accommodates up to six people can often be comparable to using two typical cars. The average car emits approximately 25% less CO2 than the average SUV, so if your family can fit, or at least rough it for a few hours, leave the TrailBlazer at home. If you don’t own one, consider renting a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle for longer trips. On average, you’ll actually save by doing so, given the price of gas today and the great choices out there for conventional and hybrid rental vehicles.  

Lastly, arguably one of the biggest no-no’s – or in this case not, as I won’t listen to any arguments on the matter – driving a Hummer neither makes you cool nor one of Mother Nature’s best friends. In fact, she dislikes you. She dislikes you very much.

Go Greyhound… or Else: Travel by Motor Coach

“No phone, no lights, no motor coach, not a single luxury!” Sure, I might’ve changed the lyrics to make this work, but Gilligan would most likely have appreciated any mode of transportation, be it a motor car or a motor coach, to get him off that cursed island.

Those very concerned scientists at UCS claim that a couple traveling by motor coach can cut their carbon emission nearly in half compared with driving a hybrid car, and by 55% to 75% traveling by air, depending on distance. Sure, you may be subjected to riding with the dawdling members of the Red Hat Society and enduring the deafening volume of overhead TVs, but if you do your homework, you can easily find a tour bus offering wireless Internet connection and other great amenities. And those plushy seats aren’t bad either. Cheaper, less comfy motor coaches can sometimes be grueling even with reading material and an mp3 player, but just think of how good you feel cutting down on those emissions.

Travel by motor coach – having a carbon footprint of a mere 0.17 pound for every mile traveled – takes the cake every time, whether it’s based on one, two or even a family of four travelers. The more buses fill up, the more per-passenger emissions will drop.

Some websites you can check out for traveling by motor coach include,,, and

All Aboard! Travel by Train

Compared to the 1.08 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile in a typical automobile, passenger trains in Amtrak's well-developed Northeast Corridor, which run on electricity, average only 0.37 pound of CO2 per passenger-mile. Other trains which run on diesel average approximately 0.45 pound, still considerably less than vehicle emissions.

What’s even better is that most train stations are located in city centers, making it unnecessary to take a taxi or rental car to get around, while saving money and cutting down on carbon footprints. For railways farther out from city centers or from your departure point, consider options like Amtrak’s ThruWay bus service instead of driving and having to possibly pay for parking or abandoning your vehicle at the station. Amtrak train stations are located in 46 cities in the United States and throughout Canada and connect to popular vacation destinations and large cities.   

While traveling by train in America certainly does not bring to mind the grand Orient Express chugging along the rails — and has even declined in ridership from 1.3 billion in the 1920s to a meager 26 million in 2007 — the UCS recognizes motor coaches and trains among the lowest-emission options, especially on shorter (less than 500-mile) trips, so all aboard!

Up, Up and Away: Travel by Air

I admit, I saved travel by plane for last, but not because it’s the worst way to travel. In fact, traveling in the air can sometimes be more eco-friendly than traveling on the ground. The UCS reports that air travel in the United States has doubled over the past two decades, and expects that the number of passengers carried by U.S. commercial airlines will likely reach 1 billion by 2015. To get an idea of how big of a carbon footprint air travel can leave, wide-body jets can emit 100 pounds of CO2 for every mile they travel and a single cross-country flight can create 150 tons of global warming pollution.

If you happen to be a solo traveler, long distances in the car might not be the wisest choice for green traveling. Flying direct in coach for trips over 500 miles is usually your best bet. Also, avoid first class, the logic here being that these seats take twice as much space as those in economy seating. As a first-class traveler on domestic flights, lectures the UCS, you are responsible for twice as much carbon as someone flying coach, putting you on Mother Nature’s naughty list. This also, in a small way, sends a message to the airline, calling for more all-economy seating for more space-efficient flights. Notice I said direct, too. Direct, nonstop flights on shorter trips cut down on carbon emissions, as takeoffs, landings and ground operations can produce a heck of a lot of carbon.

While it may not always be an option, such as in the case of New Yorkers and their choice of three heavily used airports, less-congested airports mean fewer delays at the gate and the runway, and thus less fuel consumption and thus less carbon pollution.

For complete details on the UCS report for green traveling, plus a handy chart to decide how to travel for your next vacation, visit the UCS website.

Remember, everything you do affects the environment, and however small your own contribution is, it all adds up. Whether it’s avoiding solo driving, switching out inefficient SUVs for Minis, or never (ever!) flying first-class, you can be a happy green traveler, help out our Mother Earth, and make Al Gore sleep a little easier at night.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.