Travel Lightly: Trimming Carbon From Your Trips

Few of us think about our carbon footprint when planning a family trip for the holidays or arranging business travel. But a bit of pre-planning can significantly reduce the impact your travel will have on the planet.

Before you schedule your travels, ask yourself three questions:

How far are you going?
For shorter trips, flying is generally not a good choice, but as distances increase, taking an economy flight can beat out driving and train, though not the bus.

What options do you have to get there?
Include buses and trains in your calculations.

How many people are traveling with you?
The fewer people traveling together the worse driving is as an option.

These three elements work together in sometimes surprising ways—for example, a family of four or more can have a smaller footprint driving a car, even an SUV, than taking a diesel engine train, but a person traveling alone would be much better off on a train than behind the wheel of a car. (Of course, the greener the car, the better. For the latest in green cars, check out NRDC's guide to electric vehicles.)

Going the Distance

Traveling distances of 300 miles or less will usually give you the most options, including bus, train, carpooling with family members, relatives or friends,

New York-to-Seattle Carbon Comparison
A couple driving a hybrid car from New York to Seattle would produce 3,203 pounds of heat-trapping pollutants. Flying an Airbus 320 would produce 3,567 pounds of heat-trapping pollutants. But if they travelled by bus, they would trim this down to 1,945 pounds of heat-trapping pollutants.

Taking the bus

Traveling by motor coach is the least polluting mode whatever the distance, but may not be practical if you need to cross the country in a short period. As the Union of Concerned Scientists website points out, “Compared with flying, traveling on a bus generates 55 to 75 percent less global warming pollution per passenger, depending on the distance traveled.”

In fact, today's transit bus is more than 90 percent cleaner than it was just a few years ago due to higher federal performance standards for all diesel buses and trucks, according to Deron Lovaas, NRDC’s Federal Transportation Policy Director. New train standards are being developed that will raise the bar for those vehicles too.

Check out bus routes and times on the Internet. Although the big travel sites don’t include bus operators, you can easily find the major lines with a quick search, including,,,, and Tickets can be half the price (or less) of the train and many lines these days provide free wifi and other amenities that make motorcoach travel much more pleasant than in previous decades.


Driving distances of less than 500 miles can be less polluting if you are able to carpool with other family members or friends who would otherwise drive on their own. For a group of four or more, it’s a less polluting option than flight generally, though still not as good per passenger as taking the bus.

Train travel

Trains also are great for the single traveler or couples and on the electric-powered East coast lines emissions of heat-trapping pollutants are low enough (at .37 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile) to be preferable for four travelers to take instead of driving an SUV, even if not as good as a bus.


All flights are not the same. To start, non-stop flights are preferable to those with multiple legs because taking off and landing consumes more fuel (and releases more pollutants) than flying at cruising altitude.

Nor are all seats the same—first and business class seats can take up to twice the space of an economy-class seat, so choosing an all-economy flight is your best bet to insure that the most people are traveling for the least fuel.

The Safest Ways to Travel
Public transportation is dramatically safer than car travel. According to the National Safety Council, riding a transit bus is 79 times safer than going by car. Traveling by train is 40 times safer.

Furthermore, the type of jet or plane you fly on can make a difference. For example, a turboprop plane is your least polluting option for short-haul flights.
Wide-bodied jets average 7 percent greater fuel efficiency than narrow-bodied models.

But the best way to pick a fuel-efficient flight is to fly on a newer jet since efficiency varies significantly by age both within and without size class. To compare particular models of jets, set Appendix B of this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Boeing’s 777 is a good example of a newer model jet that has achieved significant fuel efficiency gains and the new 787 line should be more efficient still when it enters service in 2011.

Airlines are seeking to reduce these pollutants and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about low-carbon jet fuels derived from algae, according to Cai Steger at NRDC’s Center for Market Innovations.

Gifts and Baggage

When flying, help reduce some of the weight on the plane (and thereby increase its fuel efficiency, lowering pollutant emissions) by shipping your excess baggage. For gifts, it's even better to purchase them when you arrive.

If you’re sending gifts, however, see if you can arrange for them to shipped from a local retailer close to the recipient. Some online stores maintain warehouses across the country and will ship from the facility closest to the recipient if possible. Otherwise, opt for ground shipping instead of air.


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