The Environmental Cost of Vacation Travel

As you’re adding up the costs of vacation (hotel, food, transportation, and souvenirs), have you ever considered the environmental cost of your vacation?

Planes a popular way of travel for vacation

For many, summer vacation is right around the corner. Millions of Americans will be planning a summer getaway to another town, state, or country and with that, pollution from motor vehicles will be reaching peak levels. We break down how each method of transportation costs the environment when it comes to vacation travel.


Airplane at airport taking travelers on vacation

Flying is extremely popular for travelers with measures constantly being taken to make it more affordable and accessible.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that at the time of the centennial for commercial aviation (January 1, 2014), the number of airline passengers was expected to reach the 3.3 billion mark for the first time ever. Passenger demand is continually growing each year, as the IATA reported that 2015 saw a very strong performance in the airline industry:

Global passenger traffic results for 2015 showing demand rose 6.5% for the full year compared to 2014[…]Last year’s very strong performance, against a weaker economic backdrop, confirms the strong demand for aviation connectivity. But even as the appetite for air travel increased, consumers benefitted from lower fares compared to 2014.

With that being said, flying is still the most expensive form of traveling compared to trains, cars, buses, and ships. Other than the billions of dollars it costs passengers to fly each year, what is the environmental cost?

According to the New York Times, a round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco creates about 2 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person on that flight. For a little perspective: the average American creates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide an entire year. Airplanes release an incredible amount of toxic chemicals into the air as a result of burning jet fuel that contributes to a whole slew of problems, from climate pollution to asthma, disease, and cancer. Flying Clean, an organization campaigning to cut airplane pollution, explains the harmful affect airplanes have on the environment:

Airplanes achieve such extraordinary levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions by burning large quantities of toxic jet fuel. This fuel produces, in addition to carbon dioxide, NOx, sulphates, and particulate matter, all of which amplify the impact of aviation on global warming. Airplanes emit all of these pollutants directly into the atmosphere, compounding the pollutants’ warming impact.

The combined effect of all of these pollutants multiplies the global warming impact of aviation, making aviation currently responsible for an estimated 5% of global climate pollution.

The burning of incredible quantities of toxic fuel has impacts that extend beyond the climate. As soon as airplanes leave the gate, they begin to produce phenomenal amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and cancer-causing toxics such as benzene and formaldehyde.

This pollution travels miles downwind, contributing to asthma, lung and heart disease, and a large number of cancers.

Despite the unfortunate negative side effects of airplane travel on the environment, people are still relying on airplane travel as a primary way of staying connected with each other. As airlines continue to report record profits (U.S. airlines reported a profit of $25.6 billion in 2015, a 241% increase from 2014), traveling via airplane seems like it will continue to be the most popular option for travelers this summer.


Commuter trains can serve people on vacation

For those living in busy metropolitan areas, trains are a valuable system of public transportation. Many American cities have effective commuter train systems including the BART in San Francisco and the ‘L’ in Chicago. For longer distances, Amtrak offers passengers a way to travel across the country with added accommodations like sleeper cars and onboard dining.

While diesel-fueled trains are more environmentally friendly than coal-burning ones, electric trains are the most environmentally friendly type of train to travel by. Electric trains, emitting between 20% and 35% less carbon per passenger than a diesel train, are not only environmentally smart, but have very low operating costs too.

Compared to airplane travel, traveling by train cuts the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in half, especially when you look at the fact that trains can oftentimes carry many more passengers than almost any other type of transportation.

Electric trains are no longer used for freight transportation, but they remain popular for passenger trains. In 2013, Amtrak replaced its long-operating trains in the Northeast Corridor and Pennsylvania with 70 high-efficiency electric trains. For a more in-depth study on electric train lines in the United States, you can visit


Car trips are a popular way to vacation

Like any fuel-burning vehicle, cars emit a variety of harmful air pollutants. Despite all the forms of public transportation cities and communities have, Americans still rely heavily on car travel. The U.S. has 30 percent of the world’s automobiles and contributes to half of the world’s emissions from cars, which is why high traffic cities like L.A. experience so much smog.

There is one interesting catch when looking at the environmental impact of cars versus airplanes, however. Referencing a study appearing in Environmental Science and Technology, Mother Nature Network points out passenger capacity should be taken into consideration:

Driving a car solo has the same basic climate impact as taking an 80-percent-full plane flight a similar distance, the study said. If the plane is full, it beats the car. Add two other people and it’s like you’re traveling on a (half full) bus or train. If your car is a diesel (or a hybrid), the two additional passengers have you looking better than an average train or bus passenger


Assuming that your travel is fully booked, the diesel bus comes out on top, followed by the high-speed train, the car with three people in it, then the medium aircraft.

Fortunately, electric and more environmentally friendly cars are being put on the market each year. As long as gas prices stay low, carpooling looks like it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to travel in terms of your wallet and the environment.


Traveling by electric is a greener way to vacation

Taking a bus across the country, state, or throughout your city has its benefits, as once again in terms of capacity, coach bus travel is indeed one of the most environmentally friendly methods of transportation you can take. Green Hotels & Responsible Tourism Initiative’s “The Responsible Traveler Guide” points out the following positive points about bus travel:

Research has shown that one full coach has five times less carbon dioxide emissions, per passenger per kilometer, than a jet aircraft on the same route. For every full coach, there are 16 fewer cars on the road. This makes bus/coach transport a very environmentally efficient mode of transport.

Even though buses are a considered an environmentally efficient way to travel, exhaust from diesel buses is still harmful. Nationwide, efforts are being taken to improve the efficiency of buses. Here in Chicago even, the Chicago Transit Authority is working on retrofitting the buses to utilize modern pollution controls like particulate filters, which can eliminate up to 90 percent of harmful pollutants like diesel soot from a tailpipe.

Buses that run on electric lines, like those you see in San Francisco, are a great alternative to exhaust-producing buses. Not only are they quieter than diesel buses, they are more energy efficient and pollute much less.

Bus tickets can often be a budget-friendly option for travel, but are not as popular as car, train, and plane travel for families and large sized groups traveling together.

Cruise Ships

Cruise ships are not a green way to vacation

One of the most popular vacations taken each year, cruise ships are a method of transportation and entertainment. Operated as the vacation, cruise ships run for much longer periods of time than planes, trains, buses, or cars. Because these massive floating vacation centers support such a wide array of amenities, including lodging, dining, and entertainment, the amount of fuel needed to operate these ships is astronomical when compared to the other travel options listed in this article.

Even though these massive cruise ships have certain emissions tests to pass and regulations to uphold, it still doesn’t prevent the cruise ships from producing a substantial amount of pollution, as some marine pollution analysts in Germany and Brussels have pointed out:

A large ship would probably burn at least 150 tonnes of fuel a day, and emit more sulphur than several million cars, more NO2 gas than all the traffic passing through a medium-sized town and more particulate emissions than thousands of London buses.


These ships burn as much fuel as whole towns. They use a lot more power than container ships and even when they burn low sulphur fuel, it’s 100 times worse than road diesel.


Cruise companies create a picture of being a bright, clean and environmentally friendly tourism sector. But the opposite is true. One cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as five million cars going the same distance because these ships use heavy fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Despite vacationers using their time aboard cruise ships as their vacation rather than just a means of transportation, cruise ships should be the last choice for travel if your goal is to help reduce pollution.

Journey vs. Destination

Often times the best part of a vacation is the journey. Young kids still get excited for their first airplane ride and memories are made on the yearly road trip. Whether it’s simply getting from Point A to Point B or to see the countryside, there are many travel options for your next vacation. No matter the case, it doesn’t hurt to be informed on the environmental impact of your travel plans.