Reducing Your Carbon Footprint on Family Vacations: How Trains, Buses, and Green Cars Make a Huge Difference

take the train to help reduce your carbon footprint on your next family vacation!

Family travel is all about trying new things, having fun, learning, and ideally some relaxation together. But it’s become clear that emissions from transportation are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to travel. Knowing this can put a damper on the fun and relaxation. There are choices we can make though to reduce our carbon footprint while traveling and also help to push for industry-wide change.

Here are some suggestions on how to plan the getting-there and getting-around parts of your trip with the environment in mind so you can enjoy this amazing planet with your kids and make sure it stays beautiful for them.

Fly With A Smaller Footprint

Flying is inevitably going to be a part of your travel. However, the sad reality is that air travel contributes hundreds of millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, but there are ways you can reduce your carbon footprint even through air travel. Here are some ways to lower your impact:

  • Book single long-haul flights rather than an itinerary with multiple stops because most emissions occur during takeoff and landing. This can also be better with kids since it gets the traveling part of your trip done as quickly as possible.
  • Select airlines that are responding proactively to the climate crisis. Air France and JetBlue, for example, are committed to offsetting their domestic flights in 2020, while KLM and British Airways are investing in alternative fuels including partnering to build bio-fuel plants.
  • Fly economy and/or with a low-cost airline because it’s actually more eco-friendly. They make the best use of space on the aircraft and create less waste since not all passengers buy all the refreshments and meals.
  • Pack lightly and check fewer bags. Heavy bags require more fuel and thus contribute to the larger impact. Bonus packing tip: bring reusable toiletry containers, water bottles, and tote bags to limit the waste from single-use products.

Ride The Rails… Or Bus

little girl gazing out train window

Short-haul flights are the least environmentally efficient option, so if you only have a short way to go, think about
replacing short-haul flights with train journeys. Trains cause about 50% fewer carbon emissions than a flight for shorter distances. Plus, it’s fun! What toddler doesn’t love the “choo choo”?  You can roam to your heart’s content down the luxuriously wide aisles, and if you get lucky, your train will have a viewing car making the journey as exciting as the destination.

Night trains are also more efficient (both in time and energy). Rail lines are responding to increased consumer demand for alternatives to flying. For example, the Vienna-Brussels night train has been reinstituted, with more routes in the works.

If trains aren’t available, or they’re cost-prohibitive, opt for the bus. The EPA actually says that for short-haul trips, buses outpace trains in regards to efficiency. While it might not have the amenities of a train, it’s a great option, especially in the U.S. where train routes aren’t as plentiful in some regions.

Green Car Options

Contrary to what we’ve all been led to believe regarding plane travel, car trips are actually the least environmentally efficient form of travel (at 239 passenger miles per gallon vs. 40 for a plane trip). When you think about it, it makes sense. You’re shuttling a mere fraction of the passengers. That being said, you can still drive! Especially in the U.S. where trains and buses are less plentiful, having a car gives you more opportunities to get out into off-the-beaten-path destinations. But you can do it in a more conscious way.

SUV’s are usually not a good option for any distance of travel because of their gas-guzzling nature. So use your car with the lowest gas mileage for those long trips. If you need to rent a car, rent electric or hybrid vehicles. Hertz has a Green Traveler Collection with hybrid cars, and Green Motion car rental is a worldwide company with a fleet of hybrid and electric vehicles and is dedicated to environmentally friendly business practices right down to collecting and sorting customers trash for recycling. For short rides, look into local ride-sharing options. Lyft, in particular, is now committed to full carbon neutrality and Marcel Service VTC has a 100% electric/hybrid car fleet and carbon offsets. Bonus Discount: Bébé Voyage readers can use promo code PEMARE85C to get 5 euros off their first trip with Marcel Service VTC!

Reevaluate The Cruise

While cruises are amazing for families (we know, the kids’ clubs and a plethora of activities appealing to everyone in the family are hard to resist), the sad reality is that they are terrible for the environment. These veritable cities on water create an environmental problem causing significant harm to ocean ecosystems and wildlife. In fact, Carnival Cruises had to pay $20 million in penalties for dumping plastic in the Bahamas.

While we caution against cruises, there are increasingly more environmentally friendly options. Just make sure to do your research beforehand. Friends of the Earth provides a handy Cruise Ship Report Card where you can start. There are a few cruise lines that have a specific commitment to sustainability such as Holland America and Norway’s Brim Explorer which is the first hybrid-electric cruise ship in the world. The movement in the industry is promising and hopefully, with consumers making their voices heard, change can happen more quickly.

Getting Around

While getting to and from your destination is a big chunk of your environmental impact, you don’t want to forget about the transport around town. Walking, biking and public transportation are the best around-town options. But using small local transport businesses like taxis or tuk-tuks aren’t a bad option and they help support the local economy. Check out the driving section above for more tips about environmentally-friendly car rental options.

Offset Your Carbon Footprint

Regardless of your mode of transportation, carbon offsetting is a great way to reduce or mitigate the harmful effects of carbon emissions by funding or participating in actions that improve the environment. Many major airlines have their own carbon offsetting initiative or partner with outside organizations to guide consumers on how to calculate their carbon footprint for their flights and participate in carbon offsetting. When researching flights, check out if carbon offsetting through the airline is an option. If not, find organizations with offsetting programs. Here are just a few to get you started:

  • Gold Standard keeps it simple and gives average monthly estimates of carbon footprints based on your country of residence and allows you to choose from a wide range of projects to fund.
  • Climate Care allows you to calculate your carbon footprint and the money you donate goes to one of their projects.
  • NOW Sustainability Tool has an emissions calculator and gives you the choice of which specific project to fund.
  • Sustainable Travel International wants people to continue to travel, but to do it in the best way possible, so they work with organizations and communities around the world to do better. Their carbon offsetting program helps fund a variety of third-party projects.

Learn More About Traveling Sustainably

If you want to dive deeper into how you and your family can reduce your impact through travel, check out Sustainable Travel International and their Travel Better program. They provide a free online course in partnership with G Adventures to help you dive more deeply into doing the best you can.

Spread the Word!

Finally, we want to emphasize that while making changes to your family’s travel habits is important, the impact will be a mere drop in the bucket without widespread change. For that, we encourage you to share your travel changes with your community to encourage them to do so, share your thoughts with companies and businesses who can do better, and advocate for progressive climate change policies at the local and state level (regional/local policies can actually do a lot to sway industries to be better).

In the meantime, stay tuned for more in our green travel series including how to lower your impact through choices about where to stay and what to do on your trips.


Coauthored with Adrienne Shepard. Adrienne is a teacher, mother, environmental enthusiast, and traveler based in South Lake Tahoe, California. She loves being surrounded by nature and tries to get outside every day, rain or shine, adhering to the Norwegian saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Read more about sustainable family travel with our article, “6 Green Tips To Be Eco-Friendly On Your Next Family Trip”.

Photo credits: Elizabeth Doerr and Liz McEachern Hall.


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