When deciding whether to fly or dive somewhere for vacation, many people think about which will be cheaper or which will be faster, but those aren't the only questions to think about. Travelers should also think about which vehicle will be friendlier to the environment. Any kind of travel adds pollutants into the atmosphere, but there are steps everyone can take to minimize that impact.

How significant is travel's carbon footprint?

The average American's carbon footprint is almost 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the United Nations, with about a quarter of that stemming from transportation. One cross-county flight alone can generate two-thirds of a ton of carbon dioxide emissions. If you're serious about reducing your impact on the environment, limiting and reducing your travel carbon footprint is imperative.

Fly or drive?

There's no universal answer as to whether flying or driving is the better choice, but let's take a look at some example trips.

  • Charlotte, N.C., to Phoenix: It's a 2,000+ mile trip that takes about three days to drive or 4.5 hours to fly. The carbon dioxide impact is about 8,000 pounds to fly and about 4,700 to drive. It may be taxing to drive that far, but flying produces much more pollution in this case.
  • Chicago to Denver: The trip is 1,000 miles and takes about a day and half to drive or 2.5 hours to fly. The flight adds about 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere whereas the drive adds about 2,300. The medium-length flight is much less polluting in this case.
  • Washington, D.C., to Boston: This trip is about 450 miles, taking about 7.5 hours to drive or 1.5 hours to fly. The carbon footprint of flying is about 860 pounds, whereas the footprint of driving is just over 1,000. This example demonstrates that when traveling a shorter distance both conveyances are about the same.

Plus, there are other options to get you from A to B. Taking the train or the bus is a much better option environmentally speaking, provided either opportunity is available. A 450-mile trip on a coach bus produces about 61 pounds of carbon dioxide and a train produces about 85 pounds.

Tips for reducing your travel carbon footprint

No matter which way you ultimately decide to travel, there are plenty of simple steps you can take to reduce your trip's impact.

  • Travel light. The more weight a vehicle is carrying, the more fuel is required to haul it. This is true whether you're in your own car or on a plane (maybe the only practical reason some airlines charge you for bags!). Taking fewer or lighter bags also makes it easier for you to carry them around unless you're planning on doing some curls with your carry-on.
  • Travel close to home. Consider a destination that's a shorter distance for you to travel and no matter what you'll have a lower carbon footprint.
  • Find hotels close to public transportation. Sometimes you land at the airport and still find yourself hours from your destination. Either taking public transportation or finding places to stay closer to the airport will cut down on your carbon footprint significantly. Also, making sure your hotel has easy access to public transportation eliminates the need to figure out how to get around during your stay.
  • Use electronic tickets and maps to save paper. With so much available electronically, try to avoid printing out tickets, boarding passes, confirmation information and maps. Every little bit helps when it comes to reducing your footprint.
  • Fly direct. When booking a flight, look for one that goes directly to your destination rather than connecting through one or two cities. Takeoff and landing require a tremendous amount of fuel, plus you won't have to sit around on any layovers!
  • Get your car tuned up. Keeping your car well maintained makes a huge difference on your gas mileage averages. Before you pull out of the driveway on your next big trip, check to see that the tires are properly inflated, take unnecessary weight out of the trunk and always be sure to drive the speed limit to maximize your fuel efficiency.

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