A recent long-weekend vacation, taken by me and my wife, saw me driving from my home north of Washington, DC, to Atlanta, Ga, then to Nags Head, NC, and back home.  We drove for a few reasons: One, I am increasingly un-enamored with plane flight (the cost, the hassle, the security, the discomfort); Two, we weren’t sure of our return stopover; and Three, we weren’t sure of our schedule (we were afraid of being called midway through vaca by the vet, to tell us our 18-year-old cat was about to die in their boarding care, and the vaca would be cut short).

Anyway, the trip went as scheduled, everyone had a great time, and even the cat survived without an episode.  But the trip found me thinking about my transportation choice: Environmentally speaking, was it better for me to drive that trip… or, if I could’ve arranged it, should we have flown?

The answer depends on what you think is most important.  For instance, there is no question that a fully-boarded jet airliner will use less fuel per person per mile than a car will.  The difference isn’t even close.  There’s no doubt that I accelerated our race to Peak Oil that much faster.

On the other hand, jet airliners are particularly dirty forms of transportation.  According to Earthtalk, an environmental question-and-answer column that is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine:

In assessing the global warming impact of a trip from Philadelphia to Boston (about 300 miles), the environmental news website Grist.org calculates that driving would generate about 104 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2)—a leading greenhouse gas—per typical medium-sized car, regardless of the number of passengers, while flying on a commercial jet would produce some 184 kilograms of CO2 per passenger.

And since my car is of the 30MPG/hwy caliber, these figures probably mirror my CO2 output versus a jet. So, driving means I used more gas, but polluted almost a quarter less (184 times two passengers, versus 104–then multiply these figures by 3, roughly the equivalent of the miles we actually traveled compared to the 300 mile example).

But there’s more: Add to your driving the extra time spent, and the stops for food (probably of the rapidly-served and minimally-nutritious variety) and what-not, and you’re adding more to your carbon footprint (and probably your waistline).  And obviously, the longer you travel, the more the numbers swing back into the jet’s favor.  Who’s ahead now?

It’s a difficult calculation to make, clearly.  It’s further complicated by the fact that another form of transportation beats out both car and jet: Trains.  Unfortunately, the sad state of the US train infrastructure in any region other than the Northeast Corridor makes train use undesirable for many, and downright impossible for some trips (unless you like riding in crates).

Back to the car: Things that helped smooth out our trip included keeping our speed down, avoiding quick-starts and sudden acceleration (okay… I wasn’t real good there), making sure my tires were properly inflated, and using cruise-control as much as possible… all of those things will help your car run more efficiently and use less gas.  Between me, my wife, and the car, we had 3 digital map systems to keep us on the right roads and avoid wasting time driving while lost.

So, thinking past the drive, we stayed in 3 hotels over 5 days.  How efficient are hotels?  Well, modern hotels vary in efficiency, and manage it in different ways.  The first place we stayed in was a motel, with the typical loud as hell air conditioning unit with minimal manual controls (hi, lo, off) under a single-pane picture window, old plumbing and paper-thin walls… very inefficient.  The second place was the Lowes Atlanta, a modern high-rise with mirrored high-efficiency glass picture windows, a central air system with electronic controls, better plumbing, thicker walls, and the latest practice of allowing guests to selectively hold back towels and sheets for daily washing, saving on cleaning energy.  The third place was a mid-rise hotel with mirrored glass over a single-pane glass, under-window AC unit with hi-lo-off manual controls, old plumbing and paper-thin walls… about the same as the first place, which wasn’t so efficient.

You don’t often have much of a choice when staying in hotels or motels, and rarely can you get reliable information about their green aspects in advance of your stay.  If you want to be green, prepare to spend some dough, because most places that have upgraded to green specs will charge you for it.  Of course, hotels and motels are using their energy to heat/cool/supply a much larger space, which implies a greater efficiency overall; if it’s built well, you will be using less energy.  If you can, see if you can find homes or condos to rent for a stay of a week or more; they will likely be more efficient than the basic and cut-rate hotels and motels, especially if the owners actually live in the units themselves from time to time.

In terms of travel, driving at night (or between evening and morning rush hours) means less traffic, therefore smoother travel.  Your stopping choices are more limited, so do yourself a favor and bring your own food and snacks, like fruit, healthy sandwiches, fruit juices and water, in a cooler… avoid the gas station Kwik-E-Marts and fast food joints as much as you can, and you’ll arrive at your destination with more cash in your pocket and less junk in your belly.  And stopping along the way for a snooze is preferable to driving when half-asleep… get the rest you need, even if you’re just sleeping in your car (preferably while it isn’t moving).

I had plenty of time to think about all of this, considering I spent a total of 25 hours behind the wheel of my car… more than 1/6 of my 6-day vacation.  I also spent a lot in gas and food, and a bit of mental stress over subjecting my 11-year-old car to its longest single road trip ever, in high-nineties heat (ask my car if it believes in Global Warming… you will get a rev in the clear affirmative).

But even though we’d minimally planned the trip, and even though some aspects were better than others, we managed to be reasonably green and efficient doing it, without adding any negative experiences to the trip.  As with everything, it’s about balance: Find the green alternatives that work for you, and try to make them cancel out the non-green aspects, until you’re more green than non.  Then, once you’re on vacation you can think about the ways in which you are improving the planet to add to your peace of mind.