Eco-Friendly Traveling Provides Uncommon Pleasures
Most of us who care already know that traveling and environmentalism are best kept on different conscious levels. If the draw of foreign cultures is strong enough to get you on an airplane across the ocean, then you might be interested in ways to travel without a heavy environmental impact. Aside from the “offset carbon emissions” check box that airlines now provide at a small charge, you can take a more active approach to eco-traveling.
Contrary to what you might expect, traveling can be an ideal way to live in harmony with your environment. The goal of traveling, after all, is to experience a new culture. You can achieve this by traveling light, both physically and mentally. While drifting from city to city, or country to country, it is easier to see if you are not preoccupied with luggage, cameras, or a voracious appetite. Being open minded is a key to “sustainable” traveling. What follows is advice based on my observations from traveling in Europe during a year of study at University of Lille III, in France.
The key necessities are lodging, eating, and transportation. For lodging, the greenest is usually the cheapest. If the weather permits, consider planning your trip around camping locations. If you’ve done this before, you don’t need my help finding campsites. Check with tourist centers to find out where to camp inside or outside of a city. This way you eliminate the need for hotels, and have a better chance of meeting interesting people.
Another option for free lodging is an organization called CouchSurfing. Since few things are as beneficial to humans and the environment as sharing, the website allows members to get in touch and arrange stays with natives who live wherever they want to travel. For the spunky or the young, it’s one of the best ways to have an inside peek at the culture you’re visiting. If the idea of spending the night at a stranger’s house is too intimidating for you, then you might skip the next paragraph.
Youth hostels are about as cheap as you can get without being free. Of course, you have to be young enough, and it would help to bring ear plugs. Sharing a room with three to seven other strangers can be difficult, but you never know, maybe your bunkmates will get lost in the Venetian canals, and you’ll have the whole room to yourself for only 20 euros. If not, you might make a few friends, and you can share your advice and experiences while getting some good advice from fellow travelers.
I have avoided mentioning hotels until now. Clearly hotels are the obvious and most popular choice, but they are not the most efficient. And besides, some of the ugliest sights of tourism are hotels lining the Mediterranean Sea. For many people, however, it is the only option. In that case, my advice is to find someplace quaint. Avoid fake siding, and look for the place that’s hard to find. A guidebook like Let’s Go will help you find an affordable and cozy place run by a “mom-and-pop” business.
Since eating is one of the main cultural points of traveling, I advise you to follow your gut. If you want to save money, you can munch on snacks from small grocery stores, which you’ll find downtown in any city. Great staples include peanuts, apples, cheese, and bread. These foods will stay fresh and can be eaten on any old park bench. Eventually, however, you’ll want to eat something more substantial, and you’ll have a bit of extra cash in your pocket because you didn’t buy the 16-euro gelato that everyone else is walking around with.
The best places to eat are usually the most difficult to find. By spending time searching for your own spot, you’ll get away from the tourist attitude, and hopefully find a nook or cranny you can call your own for an hour or two. If you’re a vegetarian and are worried about not having many options in Europe, I say, have no fear. From kebab stands to gourmet restaurants, there is always at least one vegetarian option around.
My dad and I found a restaurant that served Swiss raclette just by walking around what seemed like the same cobblestone square for half an hour. Think of it like you’re hunting for your food. A guidebook can be helpful, too, but try to keep your eyes on the sights while you walk. Sometimes you can eat with your eyes.
As for the last subject, transportation is probably the most expensive category. If you want to be green, you should take the train or a bus. The data on CO2 emissions vary, and some show that taking a car pollutes the same, or even less. Planes emit between 50 to 300 percent more pollutants than transportation that rolls, so keep that in mind. Although trains and buses are slower, and often more expensive than planes, I find them to be more comfortable. These are low-stress modes of transportation, where you can see the countryside, sleep, or talk with your neighbor, who happens to be a gorgeous French high school teacher.
Unlike in the States, you can get nearly anywhere without a car. Once you arrive at the station, you’ll be able to use public transportation to reach your destination. Metro and bus systems are convenient and affordable. They are also a great place to check fashion trends. You’ll see some interesting people on public transportation, and hopefully won’t be too preoccupied with the headache you got on the plane ride.
Don’t forget about bike rentals, either. From Amsterdam to Paris, you can give your feet a break and pedal to your destination. Whether you want to find a place in the country, or risk your neck in the busy streets, bicycles have always been a speedy and energy efficient way to get around. Fees range from .5 to 6 euro per hour, with deals depending on how long you’re away from the station.
Green traveling is about taking it slow and easy. Take your time to realize where you are, what’s different, and what you can share with the people back home. And when you get back, you might just plant a tree to offset some of that carbon you generated in your travels.
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