Traveling with a Clear(er) Conscience

| May 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

Ever wondered how to indulge your love of travel and feel good about it?  How to be sure you’re not stomping around the globe with an enormous carbon footprint?  I think about this often, and it’s a tough nut to crack.  Frankly, it would take a lot of compact fluorescent lightbulbs and cooking in the solar oven to make up for the 2700 pounds of carbon dioxide I contribute to the atmosphere when I fly across the country to see my family.  The Hedonist Husband and I both like to travel a bit and explore new places, so we’re working on strategies to not wear out our welcome on the planet while we do so. The simplest ones:


When I know a trip is coming up, I keep up with sites like,, and (and others). In those sites I can painlessly take in things like ET’s annual free Ethical Destinations Report, which describes which destinations are really making an effort to “do travel right” (sustainably, ethically) and calculators to figure out the impact my planes, trains and automobiles are having as I wander. I don’t mind the brainwork it takes to educate myself a little bit before striking out — I’ll make it up to myself when I get to my destination.


I once had a co-worker who scrutinized his family’s water use to the drop at home, but when he’d travel he’d take showers that lasted an hour, demand fresh towels frequently, and run the air conditioner all night with the windows open. His excuse? “Well, I’m paying for it, might as well get my money’s worth.”   Really?   Do you pee on the sidewalks while you’re at it, since they’re not yours to worry about cleaning?  Perhaps because of my memory of this jackhole, I make an effort to be even more efficient when I’m staying in a hotel than I am at home, if only because I know that hotels can potentially be huge, toxic, water-sucking, CO2-belching nightmares even under the best circumstances.

I don’t change up the sheets and disinfect the bathroom every day at home, and so I don’t need someone coming to do that for me when I’m away from home.  Use the “do not disturb” sign to let housekeeping know that, believe it or not, you don’t need them to wash and bleach your towels daily.  Find out where to recycle wherever you are, and bring your own water bottle to refill rather than creating a dozen more pieces of plastic trash in your host city/country’s landscape.

These things don’t detract at all from the hedonistic pleasure of waking up on vacation – they’re simple acts that help me stay true to my own values as much as possible even when I’m away from home.

Be a Traveler, not a Tourist:

I am blatantly borrowing this from the great site (visit it!), because it’s the antidote to something that’s bothered me all my life.  When I was on my way home from traveling in Fiji at the tender age of 26, I heard the big-haired woman in the security line ahead of me blather on for what seemed like hours about the white-glove service in her hotel, the fake polynesian dance show in the lobby, the bus tours, and then she proclaimed, “The Fijian people  are some of the nicest people in the world!”   And you would know that….how, precisely?

Traveling is an opportunity not just to take another picture for your Flickr album or get bragging rights in your bridge group, but to meet real human beings and learn from them. I’ve met some of the most extraordinary people just by taking the bus/train/subway instead of a pricey tour, striking up conversations in teahouses, and attending local cultural and sporting events (like an amazing rugby match in aforementioned Fiji, after which I was invited to join the teams & fans for way too many beers.)  These experiences are the things that make travel memorable, not the mass-produced trinket you got when your cruise ship docked for an hour.

One of my favorite how-to writings on this topic is’s “Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador.”

Carbon Offsets:

Although some haters still grumble about the efficacy of this practice, I still believe in the concept of offsetting the environmental cost of travel through organizations like TerraPass, which allows you to calculate and offset the CO2 footprint of your travels with a donation, which is then used to fund environmentally healing projects and programs like landfill gas capture and clean energy. I like TerraPass not just because it’s been around so long, but also because it is fully tracked and verified by third-party services so you can be sure your money’s going where you think it is.

Keep it Local:

There are a zillion tools on the web to help you enjoy the hell out of your vacation but still tread lightly on the planet. maps sustainable resources in hundreds of cities worldwide. With , or many other review sites, you can find well-rated local hotels, restaurants, and activities that actually keep your money in the community, rather than most of it ending up in some multinational company’s Swiss bank account. I make liberal use of and to find good, no-omnivore’s-dilemma food where I’m going.  I could go on and bore you to death with this, but better yet, Google green travel guides for a wealth of resources to help you plan your trip thoughtfully. I’m going to bet you come back feeling like a million bucks.

I like to travel and will probably do fewer, but richer-in-experience trips for the remainder of my life.  Since EVERYTHING outside of staying in one’s armchair is going to have an impact in terms of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, I do what I can to more than make up for the impact I have.  According to TerraPass, I can offset my 2700 miles to the East Coast and back with $17.85 in carbon offsets.   Seems cheap at twice the price.  I’m off to pay my dues.


Category: Sustainable, Travel, Trends, Useful Stuff

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