Keep Your Summer Travel Green and Cheap

Whatever your mode of transport, you can save money and shrink the costs.

July 2, 2012

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters has found that determining the most ecofriendly mode of transportation isn’t as simple as it seems. There are lots of factors involved in dictating the environmental footprint of your chosen transportation method, the authors say, from the energy involved in maintaining an airport to the greenhouse gases seeping from an SUV’s tailpipe, and boiling it down to tailpipe emissions is a gross oversimplification.

However, few of us have the time, or wherewithal, to become transportation engineers and figure out whether it’s better to travel by bus at 9 a.m. or by plane at 4 p.m., or whether it’s more polluting to deliver gasoline to a bus station or jet fuel to an airport. So pick your favorite travel method, and follow our tips on how to make it greener.


When it comes to fuel consumption, airplanes are the worst, but according to the study, they require a lot less energy to manufacture than trains. And because they’re such a widely used form of transportation, airlines (at least some of them) are investing in biofuels to replace their potently greenhouse-gas–emitting jet fuels.

To green your air travel:

• Find a flying recycler
A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2006 found that most airports and airlines throw away enough aluminum cans to build 58 new 747s, and they throw out an equivalent amount of paper and plastic. Try to find an airline that at least recycles what little bit of food packaging they dole out these days. A few that do are Virgin, Horizon, and Southwest. When it comes to other green practices, Continental and Jet Blue have younger and more fuel-efficient fleets—but they don’t recycle. If you can’t recycle onboard, hold on to your aluminum cans and recycle them when you land.

• Fly nonstop and during the day
Shorter flights don’t reach the same high altitudes as higher flights, and research has shown that the contrails they produce can have a more detrimental impact when it comes to global warming. Likewise, contrails emitted by airplanes at night have a greater warming effect on the planet than contrails emitted during the day, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Nature.

To save some money:

• Know when to book
Airlines update their seat selections three times a day: 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 8 p.m. Book as close to those times as possible to get the best deals.

Trains can be a great green travel alternative for short, heavily traveled routes, such as from New York to Boston or San Francisco to Portland. Furthermore, train stations are usually located in a city’s downtown area, rather than miles out of town like airports, making the area’s touristy hotspots within easy walking distance.

To green your train travel:

• Make the trip your trip
Until we get high-speed rapid transit in this country, train travel often takes too long to be a practical way to get to a vacation spot. But you can turn the train trip itself into your vacation, avoiding excess carbon emissions as well as the need to sit behind a steering wheel. Amtrak takes some pretty scenic routes across the country, and offers escorted train tours through places like the Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park. Take a look at

To save some money:

• Plan ahead
Train tickets are cheaper the farther in advance you book.

One thing the study did find was that cars, from the first scrap of metal to their final transport to the auto graveyard, had the largest overall environmental impact across their lifecycle.

To green your car travel:

• Carpool
The more people you have in your car the better your ecoprofile: Every passenger that travels with you instead of driving represents fewer carbon emissions and pollutants in the atmosphere. Rather than take separate cars to the beach so you have multiple cars when you get there, pile everyone into one car and then rent bikes or scooters to get around town.

• Go against the grain
Most people don’t need to be told not to drive in heavy traffic, but aside from saving you from road rage and a few gray hairs, traveling in off-peak hours means less idling in traffic, which wastes gas and is more polluting.

• Rent green
If you have an older polluting car, consider renting a hybrid or more fuel-efficient auto for your trip. Practically all rental agencies offer the Toyota Prius now, and usually they’re just a few extra dollars per day.

To save some money:

• The best thing you can do if you’re driving to your destination is to learn how to drive more fuel-efficiently. It’s better for the environment, and will save you money on gas.

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