4 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Traveling

Public transit, renting an electric vehicle and planning more centralized trips can all shrink your vacation's emissions profile.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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Travel, by nature, takes energy. Moving our bodies around the globe requires fuel, often in the form of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Air travel generates 11% of total U.S. transportation emissions, according to a 2021 White House fact sheet. That’s a huge number, but it points to another big carbon toll: 89% of emissions happen on the ground.

Thankfully, being a more sustainable traveler doesn’t require enormous sacrifice — or expense. Reducing the impact of getting around on the ground at your destination is easy and can improve the quality of your trip.

1. Visit transit-friendly destinations

For many destinations, the airport signs that point to “ground transportation” have only a couple of options: rideshares and rental cars. Neither of these is very carbon-friendly, according to a 2022 report from the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates that cars release just under half a pound of carbon dioxide per passenger mile traveled.

On the other hand, rail transit releases less than half as much carbon per passenger mile, making it far less emission intensive.

Choosing to visit destinations with robust public train networks, such as New York City or Tokyo, can significantly improve the eco-friendly options for getting around.

Conversely, visiting destinations that all but require a rental car, such as the island of Maui in Hawaii, can balloon your carbon footprint on top of the emissions from a long flight.

This doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. Scooting around Japan by high-speed rail is a tourist attraction in its own right, as is marveling at the miraculously on-time performance of German rail. Even taking the D train to Brooklyn has its charms.

2. Rent an electric vehicle

Only a few years ago, renting an electric car was something only the rich or very eco-conscious would have considered. Now, the logic has changed as these vehicles go mainstream and charging stations pop up everywhere from grocery stores to hotel parking lots.

Rental car company Hertz made a splash by placing an order for 100,000 Tesla vehicles in 2021. Teslas made up 10% of Hertz’s fleet by the end of 2022, according to regulatory filings.

When we checked on Hertz, you could rent a Tesla Model 3 for $78 per day plus taxes out of Los Angeles — a reasonable rate, especially given the high costs of rental cars these days. Avis, Sixt and Enterprise also have electric vehicles in their fleet in select locations.

Alternative car rental platforms such as Turo offer Teslas and other EVs, making them a good choice in locations where traditional car rental companies have only gasoline-powered options.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Renting an EV is a great way to test the pros and cons before purchasing one yourself.

3. Stay put

This option for reducing ground transportation emissions is so simple that it’s easy to overlook. Rather than trying to see every national park in California (there are nine, after all), consider sticking to one and taking it slow.

Not only is this a great way to avoid guzzling gas, it’s also rewarding in its own right. “Slow travel” promotes connecting with local culture and people rather than checking every item off the bucket list. It also means spending less of that precious vacation time in the car.

Beyond the metaphysical and environmental benefits of taking it slow, this approach can also reduce the cost of a trip. Rather than spending money on gas, take a local class or tour, or save it for the next trip.

4. Travel in groups

A single-occupancy car emits almost half a pound of carbon dioxide per passenger mile. That number scales with the number of passengers, meaning the more passengers, the fewer (relative) emissions.

This is good news for environmentally conscious families, who tend to fill cars and vans more than couples and solo travelers. And it’s a good reason to carpool for driving-intensive trips, such as those for weddings.

Again, this is an option to reduce emissions that doesn’t cost anything. In fact, it saves money.

The bottom line

Travel is literally world-expanding, but it comes with built-in environmental costs.

And while it can seem like there’s no alternative to renting a car or hiring an Uber (and sometimes there isn’t), there are ways to reduce the footprint of ground transportation without sacrificing the quality of your trip.

Consider destinations that offer public transportation where renting a car isn’t necessary. If that isn’t an option, you can always rent an EV or fill your rental car with more passengers to reduce the impact. And you can even consider slowing down and embracing “slow travel” as a personal and environmental win-win.

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