How you get to your vacation this year could have more impact on the environment than every other transportation choice you make in 2016. A 2008 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how a family of 4 who drive to work every day in Chicago might still use up more fuel during one vacation to Disney World than they did in the rest of the year. Time for summer vacation is here, and many of us are also thinking ahead to travel plans for Fall and Winter holidays. So it’s time to take a moment and re-think our transportation and vacation choices.

Flying uses up incredible amounts of fuel. According to one calculator, roundtrip, direct flights from Seattle to Boston for my family of three this summer will release 1.74 metric tons of CO2. Taking a long-distance train for the same 18,000 passenger-miles of travel would only use 0.35 tons. I can click the “offset now” button and pay between $14.41-$35.54 to offset those greenhouse gases, but the fact remains that I will have burned up another x gallons of the world’s dwindling fuel supply. In an ideal world, we would all bike to our vacation destinations like some awesome, hardy Northwest folks I know. And we’d live next door to our families in our ancestral villages so there would be no holiday commuting. But alas, that is not the world we live in. Still, there are choices we can make to keep our travel plans as green as possible.

green vacation choices

How much fuel will your vacation use?

The Contested Greenness of Trains

In my last post about trains, I asserted that they were greener than cars or planes. Amtrak claims that they are 12% more efficient than flying within the US and 33% more efficient than driving. But is that always true?

David MacKay finds that trains have an energy cost of between 1.6-9 kWh per 100 passenger-km when full. Diesel and high-speed trains use more energy than low-speed electric ones. He calculated that various types of Hondas in 2006 used 44-116 kWh per 100 km (meaning that if you had 4 people in a car, it would use 11-29 kWh per 100 passenger-km). So if one is going to take a long drive, it’s good to try to carpool. Ryanair planes used 73 kWh per 100 passenger-km before they made environmental investments that brought them down to 37 kWh per 100 p-km. These data suggest that full trains (let’s say 9 kWh) win against even full cars (11 kWh) and the greenest planes (37 kWh).

Why are trains so much more efficient compared to planes in MacKay’s data than in Amtrak’s? Probably the U.K. and Europe have much more modern trains, more electric than diesel, and average flights which cover less distance than those in the US. I think within the U.K. and Europe it absolutely makes sense to take trains instead of planes pretty much all the time. It might be more expensive for families (or not – adults in Hungary get 33% off their own fares when traveling with a kid, who rides free ’til age 6, or 90% off with 3 of your own kids!). But it’s more scenic and fun, and it’s comfortable because sleeping car accommodations are much cheaper in Europe than in the US. Plus, trains drop you off in the center of whichever city you are visiting, while airports are always a schlep. I have traveled around all of Europe without a car using only my feet, city transit, and intercity trains. I met lots of locals and other travelers and had a great time. It was a little less fun with a 1-year-old, but dealing with tantrums on a plane was no fun either.

kid seat on a German train!

kid seat on a German train!

Now if trains are not full, they will not be as efficient per person. Fortunately, pricing provides us with good cues as to whether a train is full or not. Fares are generally cheap on empty trains and expensive on full ones. Unfortunately, some sleeper cars remain expensive up to the last minute and thus are left unsold on Amtrak. I hope this is something they can fix.

When Flying, Go Nonstop

Airplanes, too, are more efficient per person when full. In my recent experience, they usually are full, especially on those super convenient nonstop flights. If I can avoid flying, I do, because by taking up spaces on nonstop flights, I might be pushing other people to fly extra long itineraries, like from Seattle to Boston via Dallas. Unfortunately, not all flights are created equal.

UCS write that “takeoff, landing and ground operations produce a lot of carbon” (p 4). This has two implications. The first is that very short flights will use more fuel per passenger-mile than longer flights. So these are the flights we should get rid of by avoiding them and helping others avoid them, too. How many of us need to avoid the 45-minute Portland-Seattle flight before Alaska Airlines stops running it literally 26 times per day?

Second, an itinerary with one stopover uses more fuel than a direct flight, even if that stop is not terribly out of the way. Flying nonstop is usually possible for people going from one big city to another, if they plan ahead. Combining rail and air is another way to limit yourself to just one flight while shopping around for deals at nearby airports. It’s worth getting off the plane in Portland to go to a certain bookstore and donut shop, and the Amtrak ride up to Seattle is lovely.

Consider Coach Buses

As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2008 “Getting There Greener” guide concludes, trains and intercity buses are more fuel efficient for trips of 500 miles or less, but as one gets closer to 1,000+ miles, nonstop air travel starts to be comparable to or even more efficient than the old, long-distance diesel trains in the US. So the story of averages told above is not always true. I was sort of glad to read this, because to go across the country via Amtrak takes 3 nights and 3-4 days. It was fun the first time, but I’m glad I don’t have to feel guilty flying that route instead of taking the train. For cross-country trips, I’ll be trying to reduce the number of trips, making sure to fly nonstop on off-peak days, and buying great carbon offsets.

long-distance train

We admit, criss-crossing the US by rail could get boring

Bus, or “motor coach” is the most efficient of all, but unless you are on those really cushy luxury buses in Mexico, you’d really be sacrificing a lot of comfort at that 1,000+ mile level! For shorter trips, I have no problem with buses. In the late 1990s, I felt super lucky when my Taiwanese orchestra pals clued me in on the sketchy Chinese buses that would go from a random Boston street corner in Chinatown to New York’s Chinatown for only $20 – a steal at a time when Greyhound charged $50. Those Chinatown buses as well as MegaBus and BoltBus have now made Greyhound much better and more affordable than it used to be. Or you can split the difference – I used to take a bus from my vacation in Boston to NYC (4 hrs), have dinner with my college roommate in the neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen, and then catch Amtrak for a comfortable ride the rest of the way back to Philadelphia.

Avoid Vacation Traffic & Buying New Vehicles

Not all drives are created equal, either. Driving through rush hour or on holiday vacation days can mean lots of wasted fuel. Just this past 4th of July weekend, people returning from vacation on Cape Cod waited in a 20-mile traffic jam, taking 2 hours to go 30 miles. The statistics used to compare modes of transport are averages, so we have to use our judgment a bit when deciding when and how to travel. (Unfortunately, the only rail option to Cape Cod runs only once a day, 3 days a week. On Saturdays, it leaves Boston at 8am, too early to make any connections from other commuter rail lines. Ugh!)

There are also other considerations beside fuel use. Think about how old most trains are, at least in the US. We’re using old trains and old tracks to get pretty good mileage. I’ve written before about what must be mined and forged to make new, energy-efficient cars. Whereas we get about 20k passenger-miles per car in the US (annually, I guess?), this data suggest we are getting 13.5 MILLION passenger-miles per rail vehicle. So considering the energy and resources that go into making the vehicle could make a big difference.

Happy trails, and have a great summer!

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