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Sustainable Family Travel | Flying vs. Driving vs. Staying Home

Planning family travel and feeling ambivalent about the carbon footprint of your trip? Wondering if it’s better to drive, fly, or stay home? Read on while I break down more information about the carbon emissions from flying versus driving and ways to reduce your carbon footprint for family travel.

Over the next five months, we have several trips planned as a family. Between spring break, sports competitions, weddings, and summer trips, we have travel scheduled to Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Montana, London, and San Diego (twice) from our home in Philadelphia.

While I’m excited about each of these trips, it’s not lost on me that I run a blog about eco-friendly family life, own a curbside composting company, generally advocate for more sustainable living, and yet I have a carbon-emissions-intensive travel schedule booked on my calendar.

I’ve reflected on questions like:

  • Is it weird or hypocritical that an eco-friendly living blogger is sharing her experiences flying across the United States and international borders when flying has one of the largest personal carbon footprints?
  • Am I being authentic and sincere in my quest for a more Earth-conscious existence by taking all these vacations?
  • What are the alternatives? 
  • Assuming we don’t cancel the trips, is it better to fly or drive?
  • If those who read the blog also have vacation plans, would it be helpful to share ideas about sustainable family travel tips if we aren’t giving up travel entirely?

Let’s go through each of these questions individually.

Is it weird or hypocritical that an eco-friendly living blogger is sharing her experiences flying across the United States and international borders when flying has one of the largest personal carbon footprints?

In short, I don’t think so. There are no perfect environmentalists. And if there were, I certainly wouldn’t be one of them.

The debates to define a “good” or “authentic” environmentalist rage on the Internet and in real life. Some criticize environmental advocates for not leading perfectly zero-carbon, eco-conscious lives. Others recognize that there are no perfect environmentalists. While I reflect on what’s best for our family and appreciate the healthy discussion, I’m not fighting with anyone about this (especially not on the Internet). Also, I’m not pretending to be perfect (at all or ever).

I think those angry debates only serve to pit against each other people who are on the “same side” of climate action. Fighting about whether well-intentioned environmentalists are “pure enough” to offer perspectives and ideas about how to live more eco-conscious lives really only serves fossil fuel interests and other stakeholders seeking to promote climate inaction and disengagement.

That being said, this upcoming travel schedule is a lot. A variety of events came up that all fell into a handful of months. Sometimes we do our best with the circumstances that happen.

Taking all these flights also leaves me with a lot of mixed emotions. I feel guilty for traveling when I know it’s increasing my already privileged and outsized carbon footprint. I also feel excited for the trips ahead that will be full of fun and joy, connection with loved ones, immersion in nature, and quality time doing things we love.

I feel angry that we know how bad our environmental situation and so many policymakers (and their financial backers and cronies) are not doing enough to promote systematic change. In too many cases, they’re intentionally acting very much against the collective best interests of their constituents in pursuit of selfish greed, power, and ego-frenzies. Without policy change, my handful of flights this spring and summer is beyond irrelevant. And the people with the power to change policy aren’t doing their part!

All this travel makes me feel increasingly motivated to donate to organizations that are fighting for policy change. I want to vote for policymakers who facilitate real, systematic change. It drives me to be more vocal about environmental actions in my own communities and continue to do the day-to-day individual actions that are accessible to me now and make a difference in building momentum toward a better future.

In her book Under The Sky We Make, a book about how we can all live as humans in a warming world, author Kimberly Nicholas discusses the idea of an individual carbon budget. We each need to decide how to allocate our carbon footprint and burn the carbon in ways that are most meaningful to us. When we decide how to use carbon through the lens of meaning, we “spend” our carbon much more intentionally and slowly.

These trips are more meaningful to me than new clothes or fancy gadgets or other ways I might use carbon. I’ve settled on acknowledging that these travel experiences are important to me, but it increases my responsibility to be more eco-conscious in other aspects of my privileged life and seek systematic change so I can see my family (who live in faraway places) without such a large carbon cost in the future.

Am I being authentic and sincere in my quest for a more Earth-conscious existence by taking all these vacations?

We don’t change our lifestyles overnight. Further, just because I haven’t quit traveling altogether doesn’t invalidate the other eco-conscious lifestyle habits I practice or my efforts and intents to advocate and work toward a greener society. This applies to all of us. Doing some beneficial things for the environment is better than doing nothing at all, and living imperfectly doesn’t minimize the good actions we take for the planet.

Ten to twenty years ago, my sisters and I made certain choices about things like where we went to college and where we took our first jobs which resulted in living on opposite sides of the United States and also far from our hometown in Minnesota. It’s important to me that we visit family and maintain strong relationships with them. By traveling to see family and for fun sports competitions, we’re choosing experiences over stuff.

Experiences to visit family and pursue other adventures come with carbon footprints (and sometimes with the purchase of things). But just because we aren’t perfect environmentalists, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not giving up on doing better and sharing about how others can do better because I can’t be perfect, especially in a society driven heavily by consumption and powered extensively by fossil fuels.

I’m not giving up on seeing my family because we live far away. I’m not giving up on composting or reducing consumption or prioritizing secondhand or supporting local businesses because I’ve “failed” by taking a few flights this year. And I’m not giving up on voting for and advocating for systematic change so that I can hopefully see a future where our personal lives aren’t dependent on consumption and fossil fuels.

What are the alternatives?

If I strive to reduce my carbon footprint, what are my best options with respect to our summer travel schedule? Of course, I can cancel my travel plans and stay home. I would still have a carbon footprint at home, but it would likely be smaller than that of a flight or a road trip. But I think there are many valuable benefits to seeing family and exploring new places that are worth the travel in moderation.

Most of our travel is within the contiguous United States, so we could technically drive to our destinations. We plan to drive to Boston and Pittsburgh in an electric car. Driving to San Diego and Montana, however (with each drive requiring several thousand miles on the road), would add many days to the trips and carbon footprints of extra hotels or other lodgings during our travel. I’m not sure that’s a whole lot better.

Air travel is our only realistic option to get to London over the Atlantic Ocean. We don’t have any realistic transportation alternatives for this trip.

Assuming we don’t cancel the trips, is it better to fly or drive?

“Conventional eco-wisdom” led me to assume that our flights would have far greater carbon footprints than driving the same distance.  Curious about the comparison, I dug into the data and was rather surprised by my findings. It turns out that flying isn’t actually as bad as I thought relative to driving.

Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute published working papers in 2014 and 2015 showing that driving is about twice as energy-intensive as flying. Sightline Institute, a non-partisan (but clearly progressive, in my opinion) think tank in the United States published a report in 2008 agreeing that taking a flight has a lower carbon footprint than driving the same number of miles in a car by yourself. If you share that drive with others, however, the average carbon footprint per person drops below that of flying pretty quickly.

Calculating Average Carbon Emissions Per Mile Flying Vs. Driving

These studies were pretty old, so I used more current 2019 data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) to estimate my own carbon footprint per mile flying versus driving.

The EPA states that a passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile. In their report from 2020, the ICCT says flying emits an average of 90 grams of CO2 per revenue passenger kilometer (RPK), or 145 grams of CO2 per revenue passenger mile (RPM). An RPK (or RPM) is the measurement used in the airline industry to define a kilometer or mile, respectively, by a paying passenger. In other words, flying actually has a lower carbon footprint than driving the same distance by yourself.

In my case, I will be traveling with one to three of my family members on each of our trips, so we need to compare the static emissions per mile of a single vehicle to the variable emissions per person of flying. If four of us plan to travel together, then we have to compare the 404 grams of CO2 per mile from a car to 580 (or 145 x 4) grams of CO2 per mile per group of four people flying.

While the average flying emissions are higher for the four of us together, the total doesn’t account for emissions from lodging during the multiple-day road trip. And the difference isn’t nearly as large as conventional eco-wisdom might lead one to believe.

Differences in Energy Efficiency of Planes and Cars

Furthermore, there are significant variances in energy efficiency depending on the type of plane or car that we use.

On our latest trip to San Diego, we flew on an Airbus A321neo, a newer and more fuel-efficient aircraft. According to the aforementioned ICCT report, newer aircraft emit between 30-50% less CO2 per RPK/RPM than some of the older legacy aircraft. The calculation I did above used average RPK/RPM, so it doesn’t account for the increased efficiency of our specific aircraft on this trip.

Emissions vary greatly for vehicles as well. Smaller sedans are much more efficient than SUVs (which are often the vehicle of choice for long road trips). Thus, the average vehicle emissions measurement of 404 grams of CO2 per mile would likely be higher when driving an SUV or other large (presumably less efficient) vehicle. Unless we planned to drive our smaller sedan cross-country, a flight for four of us on a newer aircraft may have fewer carbon emissions than a road trip in an SUV to the same destination.

Length of Trip & Seat Choice Impact Flying vs. Driving Calculation

Lastly, the carbon footprint of a flight versus a drive is dependent on how far one travels and what type of ticket one purchases for the flight. Planes use disproportionately more fuel during takeoff and landing than during the long-haul flying portion of the trip. Thus, short trips have a greater RPK/RPM than longer trips and make driving a more efficient option, particularly for shorter journeys.

Premium seating also accounts for 2.6 to 4.3 times more CO2 per RPK/RPM than economy seating because seats take up more space and account for a larger allocation of the floor space.

Flying May Be Better Than Driving

After considering all the elements above like the type of plane or car, fuel efficiency, length of the trip, and what type of ticket you purchase, comparing flying to driving is more nuanced than you might expect. This article from Treehugger about flying vs. driving confirmed my calculations that the comparison between flying and driving isn’t so clear-cut. Before deciding if you will fly or drive on your next trip, consider the factors above to determine which is the more eco-friendly travel option.

In summary, direct long-haul flights in economy seats are more fuel-efficient compared to short flights, travel plans with stops, or premium seating options. Especially for long flights in the cheap seats, you might be better off flying than driving in your effort to limit carbon emissions.

If those who read the blog also have vacation plans, would it be helpful to share ideas about ways to make travel more sustainable if we aren’t giving up travel entirely?

For each of these trips, we are choosing not to stay home. I recognize the lowest carbon option is to stay home. Reducing consumption (of things and experiences) is almost always better than buying something that’s “sustainable” with respect to carbon footprints and resource extraction.

Ways To Reduce Carbon Footprint From Family Travel From Transportation

We’ve decided for our upcoming trips that the benefits of the trips outweigh the costs for us. But the privilege of traveling comes with the burden of responsibility to more actively invest in and work toward greener transportation individually and on a systematic level. There are many ways to enjoy your vacation while reducing your carbon footprint. Here are several ways to reduce your carbon footprint from transportation while traveling.

Invest in Decarbonizations Efforts to Offset Travel’s Carbon Emissions

While we continue to reduce travel and work to decarbonize transportation (things that won’t happen overnight), we can financially contribute to projects actively working to decarbonize our planet in two different ways: purchase carbon offsets or make direct contributions to entities working on decarbonization projects, initiatives, and policy.

Should I Purchase Carbon Offsets?

Through a variety of carbon offset companies, you can purchase carbon offsets for your trips. Carbon offsets are financial contributions that fund projects reducing carbon in our atmosphere. Examples include forest preservation and tree planting (to increase carbon absorbed by trees), direct carbon capture technology,  and more.

You can offset air travel, car mileage, and various types of activities. Treehugger and EcoWatch both rated several carbon offset programs and agreed that Sustainable Travel International was the best option for purchasing air travel carbon offsets.

Carbon offset programs, however, have received a fair bit of criticism. Some are outright scams that never fund the promised projects. Others fund projects that would have happened anyway, so they are not supporting any additional carbon capture. To be valuable, the funds used to purchase carbon offsets must be invested in projects that aren’t already happening anyway (i.e. our carbon offset purchases pay for additional carbon to be removed from the air).

Further, we run the risk of carbon offsets becoming a moral license to travel extensively without pause or guilt. Carbon offsets won’t save the planet if we continue to extract fossil fuels and consume them at unsustainable rates. And many provide capital to projects that produce far less carbon capture than promised.

NPR, Yale Climate Connections, Greenpeace, and several other environmental organizations have criticized carbon capture schemes for being ineffective and a moral license for maintaining the status quo, at best. Some carbon offset programs have third-party verifications to ensure their legitimacy, which is helpful. But it’s still hard to know that the cash paid to carbon offset programs is actually working. While purchasing carbon offsets through a verified program is better than nothing, it might not be the best use of that money.

Divert Carbon Offset Purchases To Advocacy Organizations

If you’d like more certainty that your funds are being used to promote systematic environmental change and long-term decarbonization efforts, consider donating to an organization like Project Drawdown or another charity that focuses on environmental advocacy. You may even consider making a contribution to a politician working for enhanced environmental policies.

For our recent trip to San Diego, I thought about purchasing carbon offset for the travel for my two boys and me. I used Sustainable Travel International to calculate that it would cost us less than $40 to offset the cross-country travel for all three of us. While $40 is not nominal, it’s a minimal portion of the overall cost of the trip.

Cost to Offset Carbon Footprint for Travel from PHL to SAN airport – Economy Seats

I ultimately decided to make a donation to Project Drawdown for the amount of the carbon offset value in lieu of the offset purchase. I like the broad nature of decarbonization work that Project Drawdown is doing and felt more comfortable allocating my contribution toward offsetting my flight to that organization than relatively less known carbon offset projects like tree planting or carbon capture.

If You Can Afford To Travel, You Can Afford Carbon Offset Donations

Purchasing carbon offsets for travel or donating corresponding amounts to decarbonization advocacy entities might not always be accessible for everyone. But for the majority of us who are traveling for pleasure, if we can afford the vacation, we can afford the corresponding decarbonization investment.

On a side note, companies asking employees to travel for business can certainly afford to offset travel miles. If they can’t afford it, the meetings should take place via video chat, particularly given the wealth of technology infrastructure we now have to support these types of meetings.

Choose direct flights when possible

As I mentioned above, airplanes use a lot of fuel during the takeoff and landing portions of the flight, especially at busy airports. Planes use excess fuel to heat and cool the plane during boarding while taxiing long distances from runways to gates, and especially while waiting on the runway to take off.

Taking direct flights reduces the fuel wasted during these transition times for a particular trip.
Where you can, choose direct flights to reach your destination. It not only reduces carbon emissions but also limits the possibility of missed connections and is often an easier experience all around.

Choose economy seats when flying

Because they take up more floor space and a larger portion of the plane, premium seats like first-class and business class have a much higher carbon allocation than economy seats. If you’re looking to reduce the carbon emissions associated with your flying, choose economy seats. While the seats may be a bit tighter, you’ll also save yourself lots of money.

I compared the carbon footprint of my three seats on a round trip from Philadelphia to San Diego and back in economy seats versus premium seats. The carbon offset required for the premium seats ($157) was more than three times the offset required for the economy seats ($39).

Cost to Offset Carbon Footprint for Travel from PHL to SAN airport – Premium Seats

Take road trips for shorter distances

Particularly for shorter travel, choose cars or trains as your mode of transportation. Short flights are bogged down by comparatively large fuel usage for boarding, take-off, and landing relative to longer flights. Furthermore, shorter trips are more accessible via cars and trains, and increasingly easier to do with electric vehicles as battery lives improve and we add more charging stations in our communities.

While I didn’t find scientific evidence for this, anecdotally shorter flights also seem to get tied up waiting on runways for their turn to take off, especially in congested flying spaces like the northeastern United States. These waiting periods are another source of wasted fuel and efficiency, increasing the carbon footprint of flying.

Carpool and travel in larger groups when driving

Carpooling and traveling in groups is an easy way to significantly reduce the average carbon emissions per traveler. This is just simple math allocating emissions from one vehicle to multiple passengers instead of one passenger, or alternatively driving one car instead of multiple cars for multiple people.

Use carbon-free transportation when you arrive

Once you’ve reached your destination, try using carbon-free transportation modes like walking and biking.  Many cities have bike rental systems which are pretty neat. On a recent trip to San Diego, we used electric scooters to move around downtown.

Not only are walking, biking, and scootering better for the planet, but they are also better for our health because they require movement. They’re also a more intimate way to experience a new place. From the comfort of a car, we miss so much of what is going on around us. When we walk or bike, we travel more slowly, connect with our surroundings, and better experience the culture of the place we came to visit.

Try staycations

Lastly, vacations don’t have to be grand and require far-away travel. Try staycations and eliminate the carbon emissions from traveling to and from your destination altogether. There are so many amazing experiences to have near home to learn about history, culture, nature, and spend quality time with family and friends. Don’t discount the local activities that we often forget to appreciate. Be a tourist in your own town.

How Do You Travel With Family To Limit Your Carbon Footprint?

There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints. Travel has a heavy carbon footprint. To the extent we can reduce it, reducing travel helps the planet for sure. But we aren’t all in a position to give up travel entirely. Making lifestyle changes takes time and is different for everyone. We will all prioritize taking different eco-conscious steps first and others later.

On a grander scale, decarbonizing our society and fixing our planet require complex and nuanced solutions. If solving the climate crisis had obvious and easy answers, we’d have executed them by now.

Even though we can’t all reduce our carbon footprint to zero today, let’s just keep talking about and making progress on all the small and big solutions to which we can each contribute. None of us are perfect, and each of us has an opportunity to contribute to solutions that align with our identities, interests, abilities, and accessibility.

I’d love to know how you reduce your carbon footprint from traveling with your family? Share the ideas in the comments so we can all try them out and learn from each other.

If You Like Flying vs Driving Carbon Footprint, You Might Also Like

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How To Make Air Travel with Young Children Easier

About The Author

Jen Panaro

Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.

You can find more of her work at WasteWell, a company that provides composting resources and local curbside compost collection services, and Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.

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2 Comments

  1. Enjoy your trips and the love they bring you. We do what we can. You do a lot!

    I haven’t gotten back to normal where travel is concerned. Consequently I have a four year old grandson I haven’t seen in almost four years.
    Enjoy the fact that you are blessed and have a rich life.
    Very interesting blog!

    1. Thanks so much! You’re so kind. And it definitely is true that we need to keep it all in perspective.

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