Planes, Trains, or Automobiles: How to Travel More Sustainably
By Brandless

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Living in a city, you likely have plenty of eco-conscious transportation options to get you where you need to go. You can walk, bike, carpool, or hop on the bus with ease, getting to your destination with very little impact to the environment. But as soon as you think about leaving your hometown — whether it’s for business or pleasure — your carbon footprint goes way up. 

While it’s true that long-distance travel has less-than-desirable effects on the planet, you shouldn’t abandon your wanderlust entirely. By combining your travel bug instinct with educated transportation choices and habits that help you travel more sustainably, it’ll be easier for you to enjoy your vacation with a clear conscience.

A Lesson on Global Warming

With climate strikes sweeping North America, global warming and climate change have been at the center of many conversations. While it might be easy for us to think of this ecological trend as something that we need to address, we should also think of what’s caused it. Global warming is a result of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, therefore making the planet hotter. And it’s human activity over the last 150 years that’s the main cause for these greenhouse gas emissions. 

Transportation alone is responsible for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US, making it the number one culprit. That said, not all modes of transportation are created equal when it comes to their impact on the environment.

Air vs. Sea vs. Ground

When it comes to what they put into the atmosphere, trains are typically better than planes, which are often better than cruise ships, and cars fall at different points along the spectrum depending how many passengers are along for the ride. According to EcoPassenger, for every mile traveled, flying emits somewhere between 164 and 214 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per passenger. Buses contribute an average 167 grams of CO2 per passenger and trains sit at just 66 grams. 

Depending on how many people they are transporting, cars can vary significantly in their emission rates per person. With just one passenger, that person will account for 206 grams of carbon emissions per mile — that’s similar to taking a flight. But with four people in the car, each person carries a quarter of that load. 

Because of how many people they transport, cruises might seem like a safe alternative to jetting around the globe. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. The most efficient cruise ships still emit three to four more times CO2 per passenger-mile than a jet.

How to Travel More Sustainably

Unfortunately, emission-free traveling is still the stuff of science fiction. If you’re going somewhat locally, we recommend ferries and trains. For destinations that are within driving distance, try to pair up with other people going to the same place — that’ll help you take at least one car (and its emissions) off the road. 

When it comes to going abroad, flying will likely still be your go-to option given that there’s no real alternative. To help you stay environmentally conscious as you plan your travel, we have three tips and tricks for minimizing your carbon footprint. 

  • Pack less. Every ounce of weight on a flight increases the amount of fuel used, and adds more CO2 emissions. Keeping your suitcase light will help you make a positive impact on the environment.
  • Fly direct whenever possible. When flying, planes use the most fuel during take off and landing. The math checks out: the fewer connections you have, the more efficient you can be.
  • Do your research. Some airlines emit more CO2 than others, and this can make a big difference to your own carbon footprint. Take a magnifying glass to each of the available airlines so you can make the most informed decision when you book your flight. Several airlines also offer carbon offsetting programs, which ask passengers to pay extra in order to contribute to environmental initiatives.


Today’s transportation methods make it easier than ever to check off items on your bucket list and see the world — but at a cost to our planet. Visiting different cultures, learning new languages, tasting new foods, and traveling to see family abroad are all important experiences, and you shouldn’t have to give those up. So, as you go on your adventures, do your best to make mindful, sustainable travel decisions. You can start by checking out our guide to packing light for your next trip.


Photos: Madeleine Ragsdal / Unsplash,  Johannes Andersson / Unsplash, Yusuf Evli / Unsplash

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