How to Take a Green Vacation | Reduce Your Carbon Imprint While Traveling

Be a savvy eco-tourist when you take your green household on the road for a green vacation.

The weather is warm, the kids are out of school, and you’re ready to take your green household on the road for a well-earned vacation. But please don’t take a vacation from living green. Wherever you go, be a well-mannered tourist by limiting the carbon you put into the atmosphere, the waste you generate, and the resources you consume.


Getting to and from your vacation destination is a large part of your vacation’s environmental impact. In terms of lowest carbon emissions, travel by train or bus is first choice, then a full car. If you are traveling by yourself, air travel may have lower emissions. When flying, try to book direct flights whenever possible to avoid the extra fuel used when taking off and landing. Once you have reached your destination, walk, bicycle, or use public transportation to get around.

Buying carbon offsets is a popular method of trying to reduce the net impact of travel. When you buy carbon offsets, the idea is that the organization then uses your money for projects that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. This is a fairly new business field without much regulation or oversight, so do some research before choosing a company to buy offsets from. See this article at for a list of the pros and cons of carbon offsets.


It’s easy to generate a lot of waste when you are traveling. Here are some ideas to limit waste.

• Avoid eating in restaurants where disposable plates, napkins, and cutlery are used.

• Remember that not every location has recycling available, so avoid buying things that come with a lot of packaging.

• Bring a reusable water bottle and refill it. If the local water is not safe for drinking, consider bringing a small, portable water purification kit, rather than buying bottled water.

• Pack a few reusable shopping bags and some cloth napkins.

Practice Energy Conservation

Remember that natural resources may be limited where you are visiting and practice energy and water conservation just like you do at home. Take short showers. Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth. Turn off the lights and the air conditioning when you leave the room. Have your towels changed less frequently to save energy and water in washing them. Staying in a place where you can do your own laundry and shop for and prepare your own food will give you more opportunities to practice conservation. Make sure the souvenirs you buy are not made from endangered local resources.

Low-impact Vacations

Consider these ideas for different kinds of vacations that can be lower impact.

Local Vacations. Since transportation is a significant part of a vacation’s environmental impact, the greenest vacation is to go nowhere. It may not sound very exciting at first, but think about how little time you actually have to explore everything your community has to offer when you are busy working. Make all home improvement projects off limits, turn off your phone, stop your mail, and spend your time enjoying the place you live. Visit local parks and tourist attractions, attend local music performances, theater, and festivals, eat at locally owned restaurants, even buy yourself some souvenirs from locally owned shops. Challenge yourself to see if you can get to all of these places on foot, on a bike, or by public transportation. Or challenge yourself to see how green you can be in one week when you’re not busy with all the other obligations in your life.

Interested in voluntourism? Look for volunteer activities in your own town. A local vacation will increase your sense of connection to and appreciation for your own community. Not to mention the money saved on hotels and transportation.

The One-tank Vacation. For an expanded version of this, try the one-tank vacation. A one-tank vacation simply means that your range of travel is limited to how far you can go on one tank of gas (and don’t forget to practice fuel-efficient driving!). As the editor of The Iowa Source’s regional calendar of events, I  know firsthand that Iowa has a lot to offer. In the summer months the calendar is always full of music, art, and cultural festivals. Plus there are science, art, history, and cultural museums open all year. Or if you like camping, Iowa has some beautiful state parks. Choose a town or region that appeals to you and then spend a week exploring it. This is actually a version of what is called slow travel.

Slow travel. Rather then rushing from one tourist attraction to the next in gas-guzzling rental cars, slow travel is accomplished by staying in rental accommodations for at least a week and taking the time to explore the surrounding area and its culture in depth. The website offers advice (albeit Euro-centric) on this mode of travel. However, slow travel (which I call being local wherever you go) can be done anywhere. Staying in an apartment or house gives you more opportunities to put your tourist dollars into the local economy and  to live green while on vacation.

Here’s how to vacation locally when you are far from home. Don’t dress like a tourist. Buy locally made souvenirs instead of those made in China (unless you’re actually in China). Buy your food in local markets. Be choosy about the tourist destinations you visit. Ride a bike or take local public transportation. Learn the local language and interact with the people who live there. Don’t just study up on the tourist attractions—be sensitive to the local political, economic, and environmental issues. Do a little research on these subjects before you go.

Voluntourism. For those who want make the location they visit a better place, there is voluntourism. Volunteers work on projects to help the local community or environment. Just make sure that the project is designed to make a real difference, not just make you feel better. The site has a guide to help you find the right volunteer program for you.

Eco-Travel. If you think that traveling to distant lands to view endangered ecosystems and species can do more harm than good—you are right. Transportation to these places contributes to global warming and too many visitors can harm both the animals and their delicate habitats. Do your research and make sure that you will not be harming the environmental treasures you want to visit. A well-managed tourist program can preserve these places to the benefit of future generations. Tourism is a big industry and governments want your tourist dollars. If they believe that preserving the environmental resources of their countries is the way to bring tourists in, then preservation will become a priority. 

Green Lodging. If all of this sounds like too much work and you really just want to relax by the pool, make sure that you find a hotel or resort that is committed to doing business in a sustainable way that benefits the local economy and environment. Many resorts and hotels are trying to attract eco-conscious travelers by going green. Visit to find out how to tell which hotels are really green and which are just practicing greenwashing. 

Hopefully, you will find these green vacation tips helpful during your summer travel. Whatever kind of vacation you choose, make it green. Happy traveling, and have a wonderful summer! 



• More articles on the environment and ecoculture.

Articles on travel in Iowa and beyond from the Iowa Source archives.