Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
Like any married couple, my husband and I occasionally fantasize about what we’ll do with our life in our retirement years. We’ve had the typical RV fantasy as we do love to travel, but we worry about the gas consumption and resulting emissions that would come of that route. We could tour around in our Prius and stay at budget hotels (and probably break even monetarily), but we’re concerned with their poor laundering, heating/cooling and other consumption choices. Of course we love foreign travel, but the emissions from airplanes are hard to justify, even with purchasing carbon offsets. Any ideas for environmental friendly travel in our golden years?
A. Dearest Kristina,
I fantasize about sitting still in a comfy chair and occasionally jumping in to nearby water. Then napping. Totally low carbon. Also perhaps boring after a few days, and thus not suitable for the long years of retirement. I hope you get to retire soon, in full health, at a young age, and since we can’t know what the future will bring in terms of U.S. high-speed electric trains and transoceanic solar hydrofoils, today’s answer will assume said near-term retirement.
Lo and behold, my adored Union of Concerned Scientists has addressed this issue in a lovely way with their “Getting There Greener: The Guide to Your Lower-Carbon Vacation.” Included in this fabulously simple and easy to understand guide is a ranking of better to worse travel choices, based on number of people travelling and distanced travelled. My UCS (mwah!) suggests that two people travelling economy class on an airplane can be climate-preferable to two people driving. It does depend on the distance, so don’t just read that sentence and go book a flight. Download the guide. Pass it around at work.
The marvelous guide also underlines the environmental superiority of the long-haul bus, followed closely by the train. The bus is germane to your retirement plans, as you live in the United States, and it’s not probable that you would move to Europe for retirement and take lots of trains. As you plan your travel, remember the possibility of the bus.
Forget worrying about the hotels and their facilities. They have an economy of scale similar to a small apartment building and may be more environmentally efficient, on a per-person basis, than your house. And some hotels are making greener choices — research that ahead of time, if you can, and feel free to discuss it with Ye Olde Innkeeper if you land in a place that’s not aware of the beauty of reusing towels.
Many people enjoy group tours, which should be fuel-efficient by definition, or bicycle tours that take you from spot to spot. You may have fun, as I did, searching “low carbon travel” on the internets. Much of what I turned up was European, but that’s charming enough, and there were many tips on getting around without an airplane, where one might best do so, and how much fun one might have. Here is an entire site about linking mass transit options in several U.S. cities.
Whatever you end up doing, I stand by my time-tested vacation advice: It’s not necessary to constantly move about when you go to “see” a place. If you decide that your dream trip involves flying, then fly — you can see by the comments on my last column that flying for fun is not something people are going to give up easily. But after you get to the location, find creative, culturally appropriate ways to get around that are low-carbon. And stay in place a little once you get there, in a comfy chair. It’ll probably be fun.
Get Grist in your inbox