Eco-friendly Vacation

"Ecofriendly family vacation" may sound like an oxymoron, what with the gas your thirsty car will devour, but it doesn't have to be. Follow these steps to streamline waste and tread lightly, even on a long jaunt.

Save Before Leaving the House

  • Turn off the air-conditioning, or at least set the thermostat to between 85 and 90. Every degree you raise it saves 2 percent to 3 percent on the cooling portion of your electricity bill.

  • If you have a gas water heater, flip the switch to "pilot" or "vacation." If it's electric, shut it off at the circuit breaker. Why heat water you aren't using?

  • Unplug everything (microwave, TV, computer) except the lights you put on timers to deter burglars. According to Thomas Kostigen, coauthor of "The Green Book," if every U.S. household used a timer for 12 hours per day instead of letting their lights burn 24/7 while on vacation, we could save $187 million in energy costs.

Join the Better World Club
It's like AAA for the environmentalist (with roadside assistance and towing) and makes greening your trip a little easier. For example, you get free maps for any route, with a twist: You can choose among the most energy-efficient or scenic byways. You're also eligible for gas rebates and deals on hotels and ecofriendly car rentals, and you can buy carbon offsets to compensate for the amount of CO2 you spew on just this trip -- an option not available through many other popular offsetting services, which calculate total emissions by the year. Join at betterworldclub.com.

Get Your Car in Tip-Top Shape
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a poorly tuned car uses more gas than a properly tuned one.

  • Keep tires inflated, which can increase efficiency by 3 percent.

  • Replace the air filter for another 10 percent boost.

  • Even motor oil makes a difference. One labeled "Energy Conserving" by the American Petroleum Institute can increase fuel economy by 3 percent or more. Total increase in fuel economy: 10 to 20 percent.

Or Rent a Hybrid
Save money on gas, and do better by the environment. Use your Better World Club member discount on the rental, but also do a little homework on fuel economy for highway versus city driving (a great resource is fueleconomy.gov). Hybrids do better in the city than on the highway. Because of this, take the roads less traveled. You'll maximize value -- and chances to marvel at the scenery.

So what would the savings be on, say, a trip that's 450 miles each way? The Toyota Prius gets 45 miles per gallon on the highway; an SUV gets about 20 mpg. With gas prices hovering around the $4-a-gallon mark, driving a Prius will run you about $78 in gas for that trip -- nearly $100 less than driving an SUV, not to mention the wear-and-tear savings on your own car (about $400 round-trip). Talk about green.

Pack Lightly
Every 100 pounds extra you have on the road diminishes fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent. A heavy load makes the engine work harder to get you from point A to point B.

Slow Down
One second of speeding can produce the same amount of CO2 emissions as a half hour of normal driving, according to greenercars.org. It's not good for your wallet, either. If you go 70 mph instead of 60 mph, it's as if you're paying 40 cents more per gallon of gas.

Stay at a Green Hotel
Ecofriendly establishments offer water- and electricity-saving measures, such as serving local foods in the restaurant (less energy wasted on shipping), recycling paper products, using CFL lightbulbs and Energy Star appliances, skipping in-room bottled water, and letting guests opt out of daily linen laundering (would you do that at home?). Some, like the Ambrose Hotel in Santa Monica, California, even compost and use low-VOC paints. For a list of others, visit greenhotels.com. Even if your hotel isn't officially green, make your stay more efficient by turning off lights when you're not using them, switching off the AC when you leave, taking shorter showers, and bringing your own toiletries.

Make Pit Stops in College Towns
Universities tend to attract healthy eateries, local farmers' markets, and natural grocery stores, so they make for ideal breaks -- and you'll be supporting the communities you pass through. While you're at it, bring reusable food-storage containers, cups, and utensils for less packaging and less waste. Also check a state-by-state listing of healthy, organic eats at vegetarianusa.com.

Park in the Shade
Your vehicle won't get as hot, so "you'll use less air-conditioning to cool off the car when you return to it," says the NRDC's Luke Tonachel. That, of course, will save you fuel.

Take Fewer Left Turns
UPS has used this quirky, fuel-conserving trick for decades. Stopping to turn left takes longer -- and wastes more gas -- than turning right (which you can often do at a red light). UPS estimates that in 2007, it saved more than 3 million gallons of fuel and reduced its trucks' CO2 emissions by the equivalent of taking 5,300 cars off the road, just by route planning with right turns in mind. Even a small change in driving habits can help the earth in a big way.

By Natalie Ermann Russell, a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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