Santa Barbara's air pollution district has a little challenge for you: Leave the car at home.
The district, in cooperation with the city's tourism office, is trying to make it easier to travel green. Hop on an Amtrak train and you could qualify for cheap hotel rates. And, once you're in town, there are ferries, a 25-cent electric shuttle and bike rentals.
"On a vacation, if you drive somewhere, you're not just going to be driving there, you're going to be driving all around when you get there," said Mary Byrd, manager of the Santa Barbara Car Free program. "You can get here without a car and you'll be fine."
Wherever you're going, taking mass transit, such as a bus or a train, is the best transportation choice if you want to minimize harm to the environment (and it's almost always cheaper than driving or flying). If flying is a necessity, take a direct flight -- preferably within the U.S. The closer you stay to home, the fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) you generate in transit.
Santa Barbara isn't the only place in California that's easy to explore with local transit, hotel shuttles, by bike and on foot -- think San Francisco, San Diego and Berkeley, for starters. If you've arrived by train or bus, experts say you shouldn't feel bad about catching the occasional taxi.
Sure, that locomotive produces carbon emissions and so does the bus chugging down the freeway. But as Byrd pointed out, when considering transportation choices, ask yourself: "Is my trip going to increase their emissions?" If the train was scheduled to run anyway, it beats taking your car.
If you're going to drive
Of course, there are many destinations that almost require a car to get to. In that case, the Sierra Club has this tip: Slow down.
Reducing your speed can dramatically reduce fuel consumption: According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, slowing to 60 mph from 70 mph improves fuel efficiency by 17.2%. Easing off the gas pedal and doing 55 mph instead of 75 mph improves fuel efficiency by 30.6%. It might take a little longer to get places, but it'll be easier on the wallet and the environment.
If you have a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle, consider renting a more fuel-efficient car. Some green travel experts recommend Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which boasts the largest fuel-efficient car fleet with more than 440,000 vehicles that average 28 mpg and more than 237,000 cars that average 32 mph. Enterprise also owns car rental firms National and Alamo, and many other companies are now offering Priuses and other hybrid vehicles.
If you're going to fly
Of course, it might not be realistic to spend hours driving to a destination, particularly when flying might be faster and cheaper.
If that's the case, don't worry. You can still make choices that will lessen your carbon footprint, said Brian Mullis of Sustainable Travel International.
"Look at your routing," Mullis said. "How many connections do you have? Are you flying straight there? You can limit impact by flying direct."
Taking off and landing require the most fuel and result in the most carbon emissions.
Packing lighter can also help make an airplane more fuel efficient, said Erik Blachford, chief executive of TerraPass Inc., a leading retailer of carbon offsets, which allow individuals and business to contribute money to projects that will make up for their carbon emissions.
Reducing your suitcase weight on a cross-country flight by 15 pounds could save you from paying an airline baggage fee. Doing so also saves fuel -- conserving enough energy to power one lightbulb for a year.
On its website, TerraPass has an air carbon calculator that takes into account differences among airlines and the size and age of the planes used for specific routes. Smaller and newer planes tend to be more fuel efficient, Blachford said, which is why a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Alaska Airlines generates 300 pounds of carbon emissions per person compared with 406 pounds on Southwest Airlines and 359 pounds on Virgin America.
Carbon offset sellers use the proceeds for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The offsets vary in price by company but can be purchased for a few dollars. At TerraPass, offsetting an in-state flight costs as little as $5.95. But buying offsets isn't a quick fix for protecting the environment, Mullis said.
"Carbon offsetting doesn't require any change in the behavior," he noted. They should be used, he suggested, after efforts are made to reduce carbon emissions directly.
If you decide to purchase carbon offsets, green travel experts advise being careful about where you buy them. Among the most recommended firms are TerraPass, NativeEnergy and CarbonFund.org -- which are affiliated with larger companies such as airlines and travel websites that have vetted their projects.
Blachford said firms should be transparent about their portfolio of carbon offset projects and allow for third-party verification.
Every effort counts