Hsinya and I are flying to Taiwan this December on Eva Airlines. As a result, I have been thinking about eco-friendly travel a lot recently. Even though flying is mass transit, airplanes get only mediocre mileage. On average, planes get the same passenger fuel efficiency as cars (1). However, the simple fact that planes travel much further than cars means planes waste a lot more gasoline. Planes also fly at high altitudes, so their effect on climate change may be greater. We’ll be flying overseas from Los Angeles to Taipei, which is a distance of 6800 miles one-way. For two people, the total round-trip distance is 27,000 passenger miles. Given that airplanes average around 50 passenger miles per gallon, our trip will waste a total of 500 gallons of gasoline. Burning 3000 lbs. of gasoline each year to carry two people across the Pacific Ocean and back is definitely not sustainable.
As of today, sustainable travel doesn’t exist. Solar-powered airplanes look promising, but these inventions aren’t ready for mainstream use yet. So until green travel becomes mainstream, the next best thing is minimizing our impact.
The most effective tactic is to not travel at all. Today, with modern technology, it is often possible to work long distances without traveling by using the internet. Video conferencing tools let you conduct virtual business meetings and collaborate online, saving you money and time while using less fuel.
If you do decide to travel anyway, travel slowly. The Slow Travel movement is dedicated to helping people better enjoy tourism by traveling at a more leisurely pace. Most tourists try to blitz through a laundry list of famous attractions in a few days. Slow Travel activists argue that you’ll better savor the experience by traveling slowly and living like the locals. Coincidentally, slower travel tends to be more fuel-efficient. By traveling less frequently, but for longer durations, you save a lot of gasoline. For example, when we travel to Taiwan this year, we’re going to stay for 3 months. This helps us save money, gas, and time by not flying twice this year.
Choosing slower modes of transportation helps as well. Slower vehicles tend to be more fuel efficient: trains and buses get better mileage than planes or cars. It takes longer, but you can bring a laptop or a book along the ride. Unlike airplanes, which give me nausea, trains are the most comfortable way to travel. Many experienced, round-the-world travelers prefer trains because they are roomier, have no luggage limits, and have wi-fi internet. Train travel can be cheaper than airfare, so give it a check out. I personally would love to travel cross-continent by rail someday to enjoy the scenic landscape.
For overseas travel, however, I couldn’t find any real substitute for the airplane. Some environmentalists have suggested traveling across the ocean by boat. A pass on a cargo is expensive, costing $1200+ for a one-way trip across the Pacific Ocean (I only paid $1000 for a round-trip plane ticket). Cargo freighter travel is a hassle, and I don’t know if it’s much more green than flying. So unless you’re looking for a unique travel experience, I would probably just take the plane and travel less often. You’ll get there much faster in half the price.
I hope you will consider alternative travel before you book your next flight. As for me, I’ve decided to only take vacations close to my local neighborhood (staycations). Besides that, I commit to replacing all domestic flights with travel by bus or train. For family visits overseas, I’ll stay for several months and reduce the frequency of visits. If we all join together, these small changes can make a big difference.
Does slow travel work for you?
- We calculate efficiency based on passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). To obtain pmpg, take the miles traveled per gallon and multiply it by the number of passengers. For example, if a car gets 25mpg, but it carries two passengers, the car gets 50 passenger miles per gallon.