Smarter Living: Travel & Recreation


Photo: Lulemon Athletica/Flickr

Planning a vacation can be a delicate subject if you’re trying to keep your carbon footprint small. You may have ideas for a destination with environmentally sensitive lodging and organic dining—but what about the travel required to get there and to get around? Some will say that the only truly green holiday is a “staycation” and that you should enjoy your own town. But it’s understandable that this won’t always satisfy. Fortunately, there are green ways to get where you're going and to get around, too.

Maybe you’ve already decided to skip the airplane. How about ditching your car, too? Motor vehicles are the largest source of urban air pollution, generating more than two-thirds of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, when a driver is traveling solo or with just one passenger, a car can create an even bigger per-person carbon footprint than a direct flight, especially for trips of more than 500 miles.


Two people taking a bus, on the other hand, are responsible for 50 percent less global-warming pollutants than if they’d taken a hybrid car. Trains are a near second, and bicycles produce no emissions. Furthermore, public transportation is dramatically safer than car travel. According to the National Safety Council, riding a transit bus is 79 times safer than going by car. Traveling by train is 40 times safer.

Look into traveling regionally. The shorter the distance, the smaller the impact on the planet. Chances are, there are plenty of unexplored spots within a bus ride of your home. Regional bus lines stop in most midsize cities across the country, so leaving behind your car should hardly limit your choices—and many bus carriers these days come with new luxuries like wireless Internet (try that on the airplane or while driving). Visit, and to get started planning your trip.


Trains are another—possibly more elegant—option for getting just about anywhere in the United States on less fuel. The Northeast is a spiderweb of commuter and regional train lines—try Amtrak first, since its Northeast trains run on electricity, an even cleaner option. If you can get to a train station (and most Northeast cities have one near downtown), you can wind up in almost any city in the region you want to visit. Once you get there, Boston, New York and Philadelphia were made for walking and have superb public transit systems to boot.

To explore bucolic New England or coastal Pacific towns, just throw your bike on board the train (call 800-872-7245 to find out which Amtrak trains allow bikes) and pedal off to your B&B or campsite once you get to your station. In the South, Amtrak can carry you to some of the region's most historic, bustling, walkable cities, like Savannah and New Orleans.

Those who are set on the all-American cross-country road trip will find that a surprising number of destinations are reachable by rail—including many national parks. See for package trips to see the country, and take the tracks to hard-to-reach places—including trips that leave from many Midwestern cities like Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis. You can reach places like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Zion National Park and Bar Harbor, Maine—and see everything along the way. 

Bicycling, Shuttles, Canoing and more...

Some vacation destinations are better enjoyed without a car—and some don't even allow cars. Napa Valley, famous for its wine, is best explored sans automobile, with trolley rides to and from town and bicycle trails that run alongside vineyards. Your car really won’t fit in in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, and a free National Park Service shuttle runs to nearby Jamestown and Yorktown. And in the national parks, the way to get deep into nature is on two feet or two wheels.

In Minnesota, take a shuttle to one of the 10,000 lakes for a canoe trip. From Seattle, take the ferry (and your bike) up through the San Juan Islands into Canada. In Los Angeles County, take the bus out to Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach, and from New York, take your surfboard to Montauk via the Long Island Rail Road.

The only thing missing from your car-free trip is the carbon emissions. For more on the most environmentally friendly ways to travel, see Getting There Greener from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the first comprehensive analysis of the carbon footprint of travel.

last revised 8/22/2011

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