I hate to be a nag, especially on vacation.
The kids hate when I nag them about getting up early or posing for next year's holiday card. But now I've got new motivation to nag, one that even my environmentally conscious gang won't complain about—traveling greener.
"If we turn out the lights when we leave home, why not in a hotel room?" asks Herve Houdre, the general manager of the historic Willard Intercontinental Washington in Washington, D.C., and an emerging leader in hotel environmental initiatives. In fact, Houdre says, his hotel donates energy savings to local community projects. Guests applaud their efforts, he adds. "We've never had any negative feedback." (Download the Willard's Pocket Guide to Going Green on the hotel website.)
The same rationale applies for turning down the air conditioning (or heat) and hanging up towels when staying at a hotel. No one needs fresh towels or sheets every day. Think how much water and energy that could save!
In fact, travelers say they want to travel greener, even if it costs them more. Seventy-eight percent of those recently polled by Travelocity said they would spend extra for an eco-friendly destination. At the same time, according to a new survey by TripAdvisor (a sister site of SmarterTravel.com), travelers vow to travel greener in the coming year—doing more outdoors, and planning more visits to national parks. One-third of those polled by TripAdvisor report they are now more environmentally conscious of their travel decisions.
But that resolve seems to crumble the minute we're in a hotel. "A lot of people just don't think about it. They think the energy is free," says Rosamond Kinzler, senior director of the American Natural History Museum's Center for Science Literacy and Technology, which engages kids in science. Check out the museum's new stellar climate change exhibit that shows kids how they can reduce their carbon footprint on vacation and at home, and explains how little changes can translate into big energy-saving initiatives.
Certainly it makes sense to tote a reusable water bottle rather than buying plastic ones every few hours. Not only are they cheaper and better for the environment, but they also make instant souvenirs, once the kids slap stickers all over them from the places they've visited. We could also carry tote bags or backpacks for souvenirs, rather than take new bags everywhere. We don't need to drive everywhere, either. Clearly, you get a better sense of a place on foot, on a bicycle, or via public transportation. Even packing lighter makes a difference, we learn from the museum exhibit. The heavier the load, the more fuel it takes to get it there.
Even the way we eat on vacation can make a difference, suggests Richard Edwards, co-founder of Greenspot.travel, which is dedicated to helping travelers vacation greener. Local foods and products, he explains, don't have to be transported to that region. At the same time, you can introduce your kids to local flavors and culture. Check out a farmers' market, like San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where the kids can talk to California growers and sample their goods.
Take advantage of hotel programs that give back to the community or environment. You can plant a tree at Lapa Rios Lodge in Costa Rica, for example, or participate on a trail restoration project in Colorado while staying at a RockResort. Help clean up a Washington, D.C., park with Willard Intercontinental staffers. "It really makes you feel good," says Herve Houdre, who also invites guests to take the hotel's complimentary hybrid shuttle rather than a taxi.
Take a tour at the Keystone Science School in Colorado or stay at a hotel in Florida's Gulf Islands, certified green by the Florida Department of Environmental Transportation, which protects Florida's natural resources.
Take a "green" walk with the in-house naturalist at Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont, where everything from furniture to vases has been built with organic materials. Take the kids to see "Exploring Trees Inside and Out" at the Orlando Science Center (and also all across the country as a traveling exhibit). The exhibit is sponsored by Doubletree Hotels, which has organized the planting of more than 250,000 trees across North America and initiated other environmental awareness programs for children.
It always pays to ask hotels exactly what they're doing to be green, says Melissa Teates, research director for the American Society of Travel Agents, which has developed a green program to better educate travel agents. (Visit TravelSense to find a travel agent who is a green specialist.) Ask if your hotel uses green cleaning products, she suggests. When you arrive, stage a scavenger hunt with your eco-savvy kids. Where are the recycling bins? Are there reusable coffee mugs in the rooms, rather than paper cups? Does the hotel use energy-efficient light bulbs? We recently stayed at an entirely green hotel in Truckee, California. The 42-room Cedar House Sport Hotel was built green, from its water conservation system to a green roof. You can't help but feel good when you walk into the place.
Global warming, of course, is one of the most complex issues facing our planet today. There is no one solution, the American Museum of Natural History exhibit stresses. But we can all help by using energy more efficiently, wherever we are.
"It's kids who are the drivers of change," observes Rosamond Kinzler. "We want them to see what they can do and how their choices can make a difference."
Read Eileen's blog and more Taking the Kids at TakingTheKids.com.