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Traveling Green on Earth Day and Every Day

Little things really make a difference.

That’s why on vacation, just like at home, we should all do our part to protect the environment. It’s as simple as turning off the lights and AC when you leave a hotel room or using fewer paper napkins.

“If every American used one less paper napkin a day, it would prevent the use of more than a billion pounds of napkins ending up in landfills—enough to fill the Empire State Building!” says Rachel Buchholz, managing editor of National Geographic Kids Magazine, which devoted its April issue—the month we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day—to how kids can help the planet on Earth-Friendly vacations. National Geographic has great resources for traveling green, including The Green Guide online, and the new book Green Guide for Families: The Complete Reference for Eco-Friendly Parents, which includes a section on finding eco-friendly family destinations.

Here are some ways to make traveling greener:

  • Walk instead of driving, or use public transportation. Kids up to age 12 travel for half price on Amtrak and there are other student discounts as well. National Train Day is coming up on May 8, 2010, with events across the country.
  • Re-use those hotel towels and let the staff know you don’t need the sheets changed daily. “Doing one less load of laundry a week saves as much as 2,000 gallons of water a year, so think how much water a hotel would save by doing less laundry,” Buchholz suggests.
  • Tote reusable water bottles (slap stickers on them and they become instant souvenirs) and bags.
  • Visit a farmer’s market. Eat locally grown food wherever you are going; carting food across the country, or oceans, wastes fuel. A growing number of restaurants now have their own gardens—even at hotel restaurants like Primo at the Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando.
  • Take shorter showers instead of baths. (Aim for five minutes, suggests National Geographic Kids in its 30 Ways You can Help the Earth.
  • Look for hotels that are environmentally responsible. Travelzoo reports that nine out of 10 Americans would choose to stay at an eco-friendly certified hotel, as long as it didn’t cost more. That’s the rub, of course. We think it is responsible to travel greener, but we don’t want to pay more. The good news, says Travelzoo’s senior editor, Gabe Saglie, is that now “you can travel greener on a budget. Check out Travelocity for a green hotel sale offering up to 40 percent off and Travelzoo’s Earth Day hotel deals page from LEED-certified hotels.

Do your homework before you book—get the kids involved, suggests Buchholz. Do they use compact fluorescent light bulbs, low-flow toilets, showers and faucets and paperless checkout? Are there recycling baskets in the rooms?

Known for their shells and wildlife refuges, The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in Florida highlight 36 hotels named to the Florida Green Lodging Program, while Starwood’s new Element brand, where rooms start at just $125 a night, have been built green from the ground up, featuring carpets, furniture, and floors made from recycled materials. Element encourages guests to borrow a complimentary bike and recycle in their rooms. Even the Do Not Disturb signs have been replaced with magnets. Pull up in a hybrid and you get priority parking. Look for the Element Times Square later this year. Kimpton’s new Hotel Palomar Chicago has a green roof—a first for the Kimpton brand.

You can also be green and have every amenity possible—to the tune of $4,500 a night at the Lexus hybrid living suite at the Fairmont Washington, D.C., complete with a low-emission Lexus to tool around town, an organic menu and mini bar, bamboo flooring, and low-flow toilets. You can even download a green tour of Washington, D.C.

Individual hotels are doing their part, too, like New Hampshire’s Mountain View Grand Resort, which recently installed a 121-foot wind turbine that is now generating up to half the resort’s power. Kids can check out the computer monitor in the lobby that shows how it works.

The Little St. Simons Island in Georgia is accessible only by boat and boasts a staff of seven naturalists who can teach you and your kids how to start your own composting system. The tiny Playa Viva, located 30 minutes south of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport and far from the violence that has plagued Mexico’s border towns, boasts a turtle sanctuary, coastal forest, and mangrove ecosystem. The resort is regenerating the environment and the community, running on off-grid solar energy, and working with a local salt cooperative.

Take a green tour at an Appalachian Mountain Club lodge and teach the kids about landscaping with wildlife in mind or how insulation can save energy—big time. Maine’s Inn by the Sea, a designated butterfly way station, gives kids milkweed seeds to plant at home for the survival of the endangered monarch butterfly. They can also dress like bugs and learn about ecosystems from a bug’s perspective.

This month, resorts are offering a variety of eco-programs and deals. Opt for Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel & Spa and save 15 percent with a “go green save your green” deal. The San Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort offers free eco-education activities until April 24. (Dolphin Monday, anyone?) In California, Loews Coronado Bay Resort invites families to explore a state beach with an environmental educator and then help with a beach cleanup. The Hyatt Regency Monterey lets you buy a tree sapling with proceeds to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Or book in April with Planeterra and receive a 10 percent discount on all volunteer travel.

I just wish hotels would offer these programs all summer, not just for Earth Day. It’s up to us to ask!

Don’t forget your water bottle.

How do you travel green? Share your advice by submitting a comment below!

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