Green Travel Series | Eco-Air Choices

Prioritizing Sustainable Options When Traveling

Thinking Green on the Road and Abroad

You are someone who prioritizes sustainability. Or maybe you don’t label yourself that way or even think of it like that. You definitely wouldn’t call yourself a “tree-hugger” or part of the Environmental Liberation Front. That’s a green extreme. It’s a spectrum. You. You do believe in recycling. You try to purchase organic produce. When you can. You attempt to minimize your use of plastic. You use washable napkins at home. Carry your own water bottle. Did you remember your reusable grocery bags? Most of the time. Maybe you’ve seen those Instagram pics of cute beeswax sandwich wrappers and you’re tempted to make your own. (Just me?) You may or may not have even tried composting. With varying levels of success. (I will never, not ever, be comfortable with worms under my sink.)

But while you may do your part at home in your corner of the world, do you keep up those green choices when traveling? I live in Copenhagen. It was the 2014 European Green Capital award winner. We moved here because of my husband’s job in wind energy, just one of the ways that Denmark promotes sustainable priorities. In a place like Copenhagen, it’s easy to be green. They’ve practically terraformed it for you. Even if you are a visitor. Rent a bike. Use the efficient public transportation. Eat organic. Shop local. Buy hip upcycled Danish design goods or edgy posters printed in soy ink. You know what I’m talking about. But what about other places? Do you try? Does it matter?

The impact of travel and tourism on local environments is big. Really big. Can it also be sustainable? The United Nations World Tourism Organization thinks so. The UN General Assembly voted 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.”

– Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” United Nations Sustainable Development Knowlege Platform¹

Travel. Enjoy. Respect.

Distilling it down, the UN believes we all should be able to travel, enjoy and respect. In fact, they think that doing so can also support sustainable development around the world. Let’s prioritize. I’m in. Are you? I think we can be determined in our choices. We can clearly show what we believe is important by where we put our travel monies and how we approach our exploring. From the very start of planning to the actual getting there and then the inevitable enjoying of your adventure. At every step, we have choices. Can we make those choices more sustainable? I think so.


Can you be sustainable when planning trip logistics?

Let’s start at the start. Yes. Yes is the answer. And it doesn’t necessarily have to cost more. Making the sustainable choice is not a privilege of the upper class or conversely, only in the realm of the tree hugger. (I’m from Oregon. We hug trees there.) Educating yourself on options is key. There are many parts of the planning process. But once a destination is determined, most people begin with the “how to get there” question. Does it require air travel? It does? Can we do it sustainably? Let’s explore.


While current estimates put air travel contributions at only 2% of the world’s carbon footprint¹, for travelers (even green-minded ones), this could be your biggest carbon sin. Depending on how often and how far you fly and from where. That 2% statistic averages flights all over the world. Some places emit more than others. More flights, more emissions. Statistics rise around places like London, New York and are rising each year with more flights. As air travel is often cheaper than other greener modes of transport, like the train – the usage continues to climb. And with it, the carbon impact.

Even if you don’t own a car, only buy organic and NEVER, not ever use bottled water, the impact of your long distance flight is NOT awesome for the environment. Planes emit carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere. That does not rock. But Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice and bigotry. How am I gonna expand my mind and broaden my horizons if I don’t meet the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea? (Or wherever your brain and humanity need expanding.) There are ways to mitigate the impact of your travel needs. I write a travel blog. I have the same needs.

Start by making educated choices. Being conscious about your consumption is key. Here are some options:

  1. Limit your total number of flights per year. Gah! No way you say. Can’t stay grounded? Keep reading.
  2. Limit long-haul air travel. While shorter distance flights do produce greater emissions per mile covered, long-haul flights do it for longer.² It’s simple math.
  3. Choose airlines that have established sustainability practices. From onboard recycling systems to fuel efficient priorities, some companies are just greener than others. (See below for best of industry choices.)
  4. Choose non-stop flights. This limits the surge of emissions created at take-off and landing.²
  5. Use the no-frills airlines. Packing passengers in like sardines economizes fuel. Remember that when the old guy in front of you leans his seat back right into your lap aboard RyanAir.
  6. Go for the cheap seats. Business class and first class seats take up more space. Read: less efficient. About 4x less efficient. Comfort DOES not equal sustainability in this case. Sorry.
  7. Limit your luggage. The heavier the plane, the less fuel efficient. Are you sensing a theme?
  8. Purchase carbon offsets. Seek out not-for-profit organizations and read the fine print. Make sure your convenience activism is actually helping.
  9. Take the train. For shorter distances, it does lower your travel footprint.

An efficiency focus reveals opportunities to reduce impact in ways other than cutting flights. ” – Brighter Planet 2011 report on Air Travel Carbon and Energy Efficiency

Some airlines are better at it than others. If you are looking to travel sustainably, but not eliminate air flights altogether – take a look at these top eco flyers when booking.

Brighter Planet did an assessment of the industry in 2011 and ranked the top air travel companies based on their overall carbon efficiency per mile. They took into consideration the following five factors: fuel use efficiency, passenger load, seat density, freight sharing and total flight distance.

Airline Transport World Magazine awards annually an Eco-Airline of the Year. They base it on an airline’s commitment to managing carbon offsets, increasing fuel efficiencies and contributing to sustainable local economies.

Another great website to follow eco-airline policy development and evolution is Enviro.Aero.

Here are some of the world’s best eco-airlines:
Air Canada

Not a top choice according to the 2011 Brighter Planet report on airline carbon efficiencies, Air Canada is taking progressive actions to rectify that. They have a two-fold approach that strives to contribute less: emissions, noise and waste; and works towards more collaboration. The airline recently announced they will participate in alternative biofuel research.

Air Canada to operate biofuel flights in support of environmental research on contrails and emissions.” – April 27th, 2017 via www.Enviro.Aero

Air New Zealand

Winner of the Air Transport World’s Eco-Airline of the Year for 2016, Air New Zealand is committed to efforts that will cut and offset carbon. They are also requiring all suppliers to adhere to an environmental code of conduct so as to focus on sustainability across all levels.


Dedicated to practices that limit air travel impacts to the beautiful Northwest United States and beyond, Alaska airlines continues to win the most fuel-efficient airline in the US year after year. This according to the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT). Alaska pushes their green agenda to composting flight waste and using biofuels.


Living in Copenhagen. I will admit that Norwegian is my favorite, so when I discovered that they are also Europe’s most fuel-efficient carrier on trans-Atlantic flights you can imagine my joy. Especially because they are beginning direct routes from Copenhagen to the west coast of the United States. Norwegian also has one of the youngest fleets in the industry, with planes averaging 3.6 years old, which helps their efficiency and lowers overall emissions. And how cool is this;

[Norwegian uses] “green” approaches, or Continuous Descent Approaches (CDAs), designed to reduce overall emissions during the final stages of the flight.” – Norwegian Airlines website

Singapore Airlines

First operator in the world to offer “Green Package” flights on long-hauls between Singapore and San Francisco. They will do so by using biofuels, more efficient airplanes and operational improvements.³

Gold stars (in no specific order) also go to the following airlines for progressive practices and prioritizing sustainable options:  Virgin AtlanticJet Blue, Cathay Pacific, RyanAir, Frontier, and EasyJet.

Selecting flights based on efficiency adds a new, complementary tool to the sustainability toolkit, empowering travelers to more aggressively manage their impact. ” – Brighter Planet

But with few industry standards in place, the most eco-efficient airline can sometimes feel like an arbitrary award. What exactly does it measure and how is it reported? Here’s to hoping that programs like CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) put out by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will achieve the aggressive goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020 on.

Want to get involved?

What do you think? Stop flying? Or start making smart choices? Green Travel is a topic I feel passionate about. And this is just the first in a series here on the blog. Tell me what you think. Stay tuned. Up next. Eco-lodging. Does where you stay make an impact? And can your choices help your travel footprint? Again. The answer is Yes.

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