How To Choose The Most Eco-Friendly Mode of Transport

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More and more these days, we see sustainability bloggers, influencers and large companies talking about offsetting carbon when flying. Although we believe this is a good practice to follow, this seems to us to be the laziest route to sustainable travel. As responsible travellers, thinking about our carbon footprint is something we do a lot of, and when we travel, we’re constantly comparing travel options. Honestly, it’s not always easy to choose the most eco-friendly mode of transport, especially taking into account price, accessibility constraints or lack of options in certain countries, and besides all this, having the best information always available to make the best choice.

This article aims to break down the most eco-friendly mode of transport available when travelling and offer some practical ways we can make everything we do that little bit more sustainable.

Why does your carbon footprint matter when travelling?

Your carbon footprint is measured in many different ways. To many people, the notion of an individual carbon footprint seems really unfair when we see multi-national corporations every day causing so much damage by means of pollution, waste, deforestation, the list goes on. While we can absolutely empathise with that, it really helps us to consider our individual carbon footprint when we’re travelling.

Travelling is something that is almost always held up as an example of something that can’t ever be sustainable – well we just don’t believe that’s true! When done in ‘the right way’, we believe that travelling can help contribute to the environment just as much as staying at home, in fact often more so if you’re contributing to sustainable initiatives, not using as much energy, and eating local, in-season food. That being said, ensuring that we mitigate our impact is absolutely key. Travelling can undoubtedly be extremely unsustainable in its most common form, so it’s our responsibility to be careful and know our own impact.

A quick note on accessibility for sustainable travellers

As we often say, ALL responsible and sustainable travel posts should come with a proviso about accessibility. Sustainable travel is not yet in a place where it is accessible for everyone. Before judging someone for sustainable choices, we must take into account factors such as health conditions, dietary requirements and allergies, abilities and access needs, size and weight, age, race/skin colour and demographic, gender and sexuality (plus many more not listed).

There are situations which are not possible for many people who have considerations for each of the above categories. In this post, where we use phrases like ‘x is better than y’, we mean purely in terms of ‘in a perfect world’ and of course, individual situations should be taken in account without judgement first.

A view out of a plane window. You can see small fluffy clouds out of the window
While flying can’t yet be fully sustainable, there are ways you can make it a bit better!

Let’s take a look at each method of transport individually.

Least to most eco-friendly mode of transport

Impact of flights and large cruise ships

Cruise ships and flights are are both inherently bad for the planet. Unfortunately, there is getting around this at present, so as sustainable travellers, the best option is to avoid them altogether, or drastically reduce the amount that you take them. Some people do choose to offset flights and cruises, and while this is better than doing nothing, it should be noted that offsetting these things doesn’t fully negate their impact most of the time.

It’s kind of the ‘prevention is better than cure’ situation. Of course, not flying altogether is just simply not possible for most travellers. For our part, we prefer to avoid cruises and only fly for long journeys. For shorter journeys (we don’t have a real limit, but let’s call it anything under about 24 hours overland), we’ll generally choose a bus or the train. Though flights are always bad for the planet, here are some ways that you can technically make them less environmentally harmful.

Ways to make flying more sustainable:

  • Fly Economy – Business/First Class are really not fuel-effective ways to fly because of the passenger to space ratio, plus things like metal cutlery in these cabins significantly add to the weight of the plane. Rejecting these cabins may encourage the airlines to make changes in future, particularly if you give feedback
  • Refuse a meal on board (instead you can choose to take your own food) – again, meal services add to the plane weight and they often have disposable containers/utensils. Airline meals are rarely finished, meaning the food waste is astronomical, and airlines cannot normally reuse any product on a half-eaten meal, even if it’s unopened. Fully unopened meals can possible be given to future customers. 
  • Travel light (with hand baggage only if you can) – weight is key for fuel efficiency and the more weight you bring, the more fuel they use
  • Choose to offset your carbon – if your booking site offers this, then great! Choose it, if not, carbon offset programmes like Switch2Zero exist. Be conscious that this does not fully negate the impact as mentioned above
  • Take a refillable carbon filter water bottle and refill your water in the airport, such as one from LifeStraw. This avoids taking the airline’s disposable water bottles and cups.
  • Don’t fly short-haul – set a limit for yourself (could be as small as over 7 hours overland, you won’t fly)

And finally, feed back:

Most people think (because flying is so unsustainable) that feedback is pointless, but imagine if more airlines learned that we don’t want disposable utensils and instead would rather have reusable or compostable materials on board? Imagine if they knew we don’t like plastic water bottles and would rather have a filtered refill station? Or that we’d prefer more vegetarian and vegan options? Or that we want them to invest in alternative fuel strategies? Airlines are companies at the end of the day – they act based on the desires of their consumers, so the responsibility does fall partially to us to tell them what we want to convince them to change.

An off road vehicle driving down a track. It has obviously broken down as people are trying to fix it.
Cars are great, until they break down!

Car hire, taxis and motorbikes

Hiring a car is still impactful because of the passengers to petrol usage ratio, likewise motorbikes, however it is more sustainable than flying. Here are some ways you can make your car hire less impactful:

  • Hire an electric or hybrid vehicle – some depots will allow you to preselect this, otherwise you can request it by writing to them. It is unfortunately a little more expensive still at the moment but it will save you a lot of money on fuel!
  • Carpool with other travellers or pick up hitchhikers – note: only do this if you feel safe and comfortable, make sure you ask a few questions before picking up hitchhikers and avoid doing this in places where car-jackings are commonly reported
  • Try to avoid driving for shorter distances, or economise long drives with the most efficient route – you can often set a navigation system to choose the most efficient route, this may be on an ‘eco’ setting. Otherwise, it’s a good opportunity to try public transport.
  • You can also economise by turning off the air conditioning or heating, and not overpacking your car. This will avoid you needing to refuel as often
  • For shorter journeys, choose buses or metro over taxis or if you feel unsafe on public transport, try Uber green electric care
A large truck driving into the shot
The best journeys happen by bus!

Buses and coaches

Depending where you are, a bus or coach might be a good option, we have also visited places where trains are uncommon and a bus is a better means of getting around. The bus is honestly already quite a sustainable option comparatively, but here are our tips for making it more so:

  • Choose night buses if possible – statistically, the chances of traffic being bad overnight are slim, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to avoid that, thus making the journey more fuel efficient. Additionally, this removes the need for you to stay in a hotel, i.e. no bedsheets to change, no air conditioning or lights on etc.
  • Choose reputable bus companies if you can or check the bus before you board. Reputable companies use reputable buses, which means it’s probably going to be a slightly newer vehicle, likely quite fuel efficient and unlikely to break down and cause havoc (plus they normally have amenities like climate control, charging points, toilets on board etc.)
  • And if you want to go the extra mile, you can write to local councils and tourism boards and feedback! Of course, it might not be a viable solution for a country or city at that time, but in our opinion it’s always worth suggesting they look into the possibility of electric or hybrid vehicles for fuel efficiency!

Trains and trams

Widely hailed as the most sustainable of the transport options, electric trains and trams are a great option if they exist in the area you’re visiting (of course, steam trains and old locomotives… not the best option for sustainability!). We have found trains to be quite divisive! In countries where they are regularly used, they are normally brilliant, however in countries where they’re less common, they’re 1) a little trickier to come by than other modes of transport, 2) often quite expensive, 3) not usually very fast and 4) not often well-connected.

Of course in most of Europe, Asia, North Africa and parts of the US, they’re really common, so they make for a great sustainable alternative to buses and cars, and, added bonus, they’re usually very scenic. If you’re in a part of the world where train travel is more difficult, here’s what you can do:

  • Take trains where possible – I hear you, this is an obvious point. However, it’s important to know why this is good, even if taking trains is more expensive or difficult, so we don’t automatically turn to cheaper options. Buying train tickets helps support the infrastructure already in place, it shows local councils that people want these options in place, and it is usually the most sustainable and comfortable option
  • Feedback always to local councils – we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again, giving feedback helps! If people don’t know what you want, how can they make it happen for you?
  • Chat to locals! Locals often have insider knowledge we don’t have, and we’ve found can often point you in the right direction to get a train, even if you’re struggling
Emma is hiking in the mountains in Lesotho, possibly the most eco-friendly mode of transport
Walking can bring the best views

Of course then there are the most sustainable options of all:

Walking, cycling and scooting

If you can and you feel safe, walking is always the best option! We can appreciate, this is definitely difficult in some places, especially if you’re in a remote location or a busy city that’s difficult to get around by foot. So here are our tips for staying safe and low-impact:

  • Book somewhere central and close to amenities – you can always check this in advance with your accommodation
  • Hire a bike or scooter to go a longer distance – personally I can’t ride a bike, so a scooter is a better option for me! Many cities or towns will have options for bike hire and they’re a great way to go slightly further afield without needing a vehicle!
  • Take a walking tour to orient yourself in a new city – we love booking walking tours with GuruWalk everywhere we go
  • Download the map of an area on Google Maps before arriving, so you don’t get lost and end up walking for ages!
  • Find out when sunset is so you can get back before dark – never walk alone at night in an unknown area. If you feel an area might be safe after dark, test it with a short walk (without valuables) and look out for areas with lots of women and children around, as these are usually the safest places
  • Try not to have your phone or wallet in your hand in areas you’re not sure about. If you need to check your phone map, stop in a safe place, take your phone out, check it and stow it away securely.

A note on boats

Boats, it turns out, are a tricky one when it comes to sustainable travel. Large passenger ferries, according to most sources, are almost as bad as flights when it comes to carbon and cruise emissions, speedboats similar emissions to petrol cars, BUT electric and sailing boats tend to be very green. Essentially it seems like a case of choosing your options wisely, and doing prior research.

A small boat on the river in Madagascar
Colourful boats in Madagascar

Other ways to be a more sustainable traveller on the go

Here are some further things to consider to reduce your environmental impact when travelling:

1. If you can, travel more slowly

Travelling slowly doesn’t mean taking weeks and weeks to travel, nor does it necessarily mean staying in one place for ages. The idea of slow travel is to stop rushing around and trying to cram absolutely everything into one small period of time when travelling. The benefits are: fewer travel days (therefore less fuel) or less travel between major sights, fewer flights, more input to local economies (if you stay longer, you spend more and pay more to local businesses) and less of a drain on local people (i.e. fewer people rushing through not aware of cultural norms).

For example, if you are travelling for only a week, make a small list, sacrifice some of the big things and try to visit areas that are close together, and plan to go back another time. An attitude that we have heard often (and it is a valid point) is that slow travel is a privilege of those who have money to travel often and we hear that.

From a personal standpoint, we actually sacrifice a lot when travelling to be able to slow down and honestly, this is a choice we make for the environment, not through privilege of being able to travel all the time. We know we will miss things now when we travel and we have made our peace with that, because we would rather travel in a less damaging way.

2. Pack light

We mentioned this above, but it has more benefits than just saving fuel on an aeroplane. If you have a smaller suitcase you’ll generally have: less clothes to wash (yes, you can re-wear clothes when travelling!) and less space for souvenirs (of course buy local handcrafted products if you have space and inclination but it should stop you buying more things for the sake of it). Additionally, you take up less space on buses which in many countries does mean more space for extra people!

3. Find out the public transport situation ahead of time so you’re prepared

For example, if you’re travelling to a city, find out if there’s a workable metro system, or anything special you need to know (such as for London, you need a contactless card or Oyster for the tube – something that would catch a lot of travellers out if not prepared). That way you waste less time trying to figure it out when you’re there and it’s less likely you’ll just give up and grab a cab!

The full breakdown (final thoughts)

So I guess this all means that in order of preference (regarding the environment), public transport options are:

  1. Walking, cycling or scooting
  2. Trains or trams
  3. Buses or coaches
  4. Self-drive
  5. Flying as a last resort

We hope that’s helpful and as usual, if you enjoyed this post or found something useful from it, here are some ways you can support our work!

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    Post written by Emma


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