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There’s no way around it: Travel has a big environmental impact. If commercial aviation were its own country, it would rank sixth in terms of total carbon dioxide emissions (between Japan and Germany), according to a 2019 fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
The onus of reducing the carbon impact of travel rests on many shoulders, from corporations to countries. But the fact remains that the decisions of individual travelers matter as well. So what can environmentally conscious travelers do to reduce their impact?
Flying less frequently or less far is one option, but not an attractive or feasible one for many travelers. And buying carbon offsets or other price-intensive measures can help (in theory), but not everyone can afford them.
Thankfully there are many low-cost or free ways to reduce the environmental impact of travel. In fact, some of them can even save you money.
1. Skip premium cabins
Yes, flying at the front of the plane is the dream. And using points and miles makes this dream a possibility for many. But it’s expensive — both in terms of cost and carbon impact.
An analysis by the World Bank's Environment and Energy Team, Development Research Group estimates that first-class fares can cause up to nine times more emissions than economy fares because of the space they require on aircraft.
So, taking a single flight in first class could be the equivalent of nine flights of the same distance in economy.
This one’s a win-win for budget- and eco-conscious travelers. Avoiding the markup on premium seats can reduce both the cost and carbon impact of air travel. Your knees might not thank you for cramming into an economy seat, but the climate might.
2. Use Google Flights' new carbon feature
Google’s flight search tool is an excellent choice for travel experts and newbies alike. And it has recently added a carbon emissions feature that makes it invaluable for environmentally minded travelers.
The best part of this feature is that you don’t have to do anything to use it: It’s baked into the flight search results automatically. Google shows the estimated carbon dioxide emissions for each flight and highlights the option with the lowest emissions.
This acts as a behavioral nudge that lets you choose the most environmentally conscious option with all other variables being the same. In the example pictured, the Qatar Airways flight costs a bit more and has slightly lower emissions than the Singapore Airlines flight.
However, in many cases, the lowest-cost flight is also the least carbon intensive. This makes it easy to make a small difference on the impact of your flight without spending much (or any) more.
3. Don’t accept a rental car upgrade
Have you ever booked the cheapest (and smallest) rental car available, only to receive a much bigger vehicle at the counter? This can feel like a small victory — akin to being upgraded on a flight — but it comes with a carbon cost. In addition to being cheaper, economy cars are also generally more fuel efficient. So getting upgraded to a sport utility vehicle isn’t always a good thing.
Just ask the rental car agent if any smaller cars are available. You might get some arched eyebrows in response, but there’s no issue with taking the “downgrade.” Sometimes there are no small cars available, which is the reason for the upgrade, but it’s worth asking.
This carbon-conscious trick is not only free — it can save you gas money.
4. Turn down the hotel AC and heat when you leave
All in all, hotel rooms are pretty efficient. They’re much smaller and easier to heat, cool and light than a typical home. And they’re generally built with energy conservation in mind (since hotel companies foot the bill).
Yet, for the most part, hotel rooms are under constant climate control, even when unoccupied. This means you’re always stepping into a perfectly room-temperature environment when returning, but it’s also a waste of energy.
This one’s easy: Simply turn down your heat or air conditioning when leaving the hotel room for the day. The minor inconvenience of a chilly or warm room is easily offset by the energy savings.
You might even take your eco-consciousness a step further and consider booking hotels that are committed to protecting the environment.
The bottom line
Being an environmentally responsible traveler is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to travel less, or buy a bunch of carbon offsets, in order to make a difference. Small behavioral nudges such as turning down the AC or rental car upgrade can make a meaningful difference.
In fact, you can have it both ways — saving money and reducing your carbon footprint at the same time.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card