Before You Book: Eco-Friendly Hotel Or Just Greenwashing?

can of green paint and brush

velo_city, Flickr

We’ve all stayed at hotels that proudly boast, via little signs on the bed and/or bathroom sink, that they’re doing their part to save the environment. Don’t want towels changed in order to save water? Just hang ‘em up, and the housekeeper will know that you’re a carbon footprint-savvy traveler.

Sure. I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly,” or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.

My focus as a writer and traveler is on sustainability issues, and I’m overjoyed that an increasing number of hotels are more aware of their environmental impact. What doesn’t thrill me: the amount of greenwashing, or false eco-claims, that take place in the hospitality industry. This problem isn’t unique to hotels, but it’s prevalent.

African man holding fish

safari_partners, Flickr


We’re living in an era of climate change. Lowering our individual and collective carbon footprint should be something we do, to the best of our abilities, on a daily basis. Hotels are hip to the fact that an increasing number of travelers have an elevated eco-awareness, and they want to capitalize on that.

In the absence of a word-of-mouth or written recommendation, it can be difficult to ascertain a hotel’s eco-integrity (although certain chains are well-known for their green policies; a 2012 Reuters report cites chains like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Taj Resorts, Kimpton Hotels and Marriott).

Sites like Green Traveler Guides, however, (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) exist as unofficial industry watchdogs, reviewing properties and assessing their green policies. If you’re looking for a hotel or resort that’s genuinely green, sites like GTG feature properties that are both green and great, as well as provide tips on how to be a more eco-minded traveler. Other resources include sites like Green Lodging News.

hotel with exterior living wall

Rev_Stan, Flickr

For a quick study, here’s a checklist of what to look for when researching hotels:

  • If the only mentions refer to buzzwords like “organic,” “local,” “eco-friendly,” “eco-lodge,” or “environment,” caveat emptor. There’s no law that prohibits the use of green jargon; it’s up to you as a consumer to do your homework.
  • Is there a bona-fide recycling (bonus points for composting) program?
  • Does the property employ locals/incorporate and support local culture and community? How?
  • Is the property built and furnished with natural and/or reclaimed or renewable materials wherever possible?
  • Are there green options for guests, such as bike rentals and local culture-based activities?
  • Does the property have green certification from a legit international or domestic organization or program?
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • Does the property use alternative fuel or electric carts for guest transit on-site and off?
  • Are bathroom amenities and cleaning agents chemical-free? Bonus points your in-room goodies are locally made.
  • If there’s on-site dining, is the food seasonal and sourced locally whenever possible (which reduces fossil fuel output as well as promotes local food security)? Do family farmers, ranchers and fisherman supply ingredients? Is there a chemical-free on-site rooftop or other garden from which the restaurant sources product?
  • Does the property have a “living roof” or walls?
  • Is the property using alternative resources for operations? Examples include solar or wind power, geothermal heating and reclaimed water systems.

Solar Airplane Completes Cross-Country Flight

solar airplane
Solar Impulse |Merz| Rezo.ch

If you have been following along on the journey of Solar Impulse, the solar airplane that was set to fly across the United States, we have good news: the journey is over after a successful flight from Washington to New York on Saturday.

The two-month, ground-breaking flight started in California and took 14,000 viewers along for the ride in streaming video. The “Clean Generation” initiative flight of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg successfully landed at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport at 11:09 p.m. EDT. Flying across the United States, Solar Impulse was powered only by energy that came from 12,000 solar cells installed on its wings and horizontal stabilizer.Making aviation history, the team of Solar Impulse has come a long way but has even further to go. In 2015, they plan on flying around the world, totally on solar power of course.

The Solar Impulse team will be available to the public at JFK International Airport on Saturday July 13 from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday July 14 from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Gadling Gear Review: BirkSun Atlas Solar Powered Backpack

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

As a gear reviewer for Gadling I see a lot of different products come and go across my desk. Everything from high-tech gadgets to travel apparel and footwear are sent my way for evaluation. After awhile, much of that gear can start to look alike and while I seldom come across an item that is completely without merit, it is also rare to find an item that surprises you with how well it performs. That happens to be the case with the new BirkSun Atlas, a backpack whose main selling point is its ability to charge your small electronics via a built in solar panel. But to focus too much on that one feature alone runs the risk of dismissing everything else this high quality pack brings to the table.

When I first took the Atlas out of the box it was shipped to me in, I was immediately struck by the high quality materials that it is made from. It uses soft, yet durable, fabrics that are resistant to the wear and tear that comes along with travel. In fact, after using this bag as a daily commuter pack for several weeks, it hasn’t shown a hint of fraying, abrasions or any other typical blemishes that you would normally expect to come with regular use. Those same materials provide a level of water resistance as well, helping to protect the important items you carry inside. The entire package feels solid, well built and more than ready to hit the road.

Speaking of the interior of the pack, it is absolutely cavernous. BirkSun has designed this bag to allow you to carry all of your important equipment with you wherever you go. It includes a large laptop sleeve capable of safely holding up to a 17-inch notebook, while still giving you plenty of room in the main pocket for an iPad or other tablet, not to mention any other miscellaneous items that you want to bring along such as a camera, book, snacks and so on. A smaller secondary pocket houses the Atlas’ battery pack (more on that later) and some organizational sub-pockets that come in handy for keeping track of smaller items like pens and business cards. An elastic water bottle holder along one side is a welcome touch too.Taking a few cues from messenger bags, the Atlas features a large flap that seals the interior with both heavy-duty Velcro and a pair of very solid plastic clasps. The back panel is thickly padded and works in conjunction with a pair of thin shoulder straps to make this a very comfortable bag to wear, even when it is loaded down with gear. A strategically placed handle on the top of the Atlas makes it easy to grab and go when you’re in a hurry as well.

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

All of these nice little touches add up to a very impressive pack in its own right and that is before we even get to the Atlas’ ability to keep your gadgets charged while on the road. As mentioned, this pack has a solar panel embedded into the flap that efficiently collects power from the sun and stores it in an included battery pack. The battery sits nestled in its own pocket and features a proprietary cable that can be fitted with a variety of plugs to cover nearly every type of smartphone or other small gadget. BirkSun includes both micro- and mini-USB adapters as well as plugs for Apple’s 30-pin and Lightning ports. Those four options will cover just about anything you could ask for including Android phones, iPhones, iPods and a variety of other small gadgets.

Using my iPhone 4S as a test, I was able to get two full charges out of the battery before depleting it fully. As is typical with a solar charger, the length of time that it takes to recharge the battery pack depends on the amount of direct sunlight the solar panel is exposed to. When placed directly into the bright sun, it takes just a couple of hours to restore the battery, but on cloudier days it will be much slower. If you need to juice it up quickly it can be recharged via USB on a laptop or wall outlet, which takes no time at all. This is useful when you’re heading out the door and you want to make sure you’re at full power before you ever leave home. No matter how you charge it, however, you can set out secure in the knowledge that if your smartphone battery begins to dwindle, you’ll always have a charger close at hand ready to help restore it to full power.

BirkSun is a relatively new company but their first foray into the backpack arena shows that they have a keen eye for detail. For instance, the pocket that holds the battery has a small window on the outside of the pack that allows the user to quickly check the level of the charge it holds without ever having to remove it from the bag. I thought that was a nice touch and although it seems simple, it isn’t the kind of thing that the competition would necessarily think to incorporate into their packs too. They’ve even included a nice little carrying pouch to store the various adapters for the charging system, helping to keep them organized and preventing them from getting lost. I also appreciated the strategically placed zipper on the side of the pack that grants access to your smartphone without having to open up the entire bag.

As you can probably tell, I am highly impressed with the BirkSun Atlas. It serves as a great pack for travel or for daily commutes to the office, carrying everything you would need without a hitch. The built-in solar charger and battery pack would make it easy to dismiss this pack as just a gimmick but quite frankly that would be selling it short. This is a product that does an excellent job of doing its primary job, which is to carry all of our gear comfortably and securely. It just so happens to have a nice portable charging station built into it as well. The combination of all of those things make it easy to recommend and with a price tag of $160 it is more than competitively priced. This is a great piece of gear that will keep you – and your smartphone – happy for a long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: Two Versatile Mobile Chargers

Waka Waka Power Mobile Charger
Off-Grid Solutions

There is no denying that smartphones have changed the way we work, play and stay connected with one another. Our phones provide us with directions to the nearest restaurant, tell us what time our movie begins and will even help us alert our friends when we’re running a little late. They give us weather reports, stock tips and warn us about traffic delays, all while taking great photos and sharing them across a variety of social networks. We truly live in an age of wonders during which we hold a powerful piece of technology right in the palm of our hand. That is, until the battery dies.

If there is one thing that my iPhone can’t do that my old “dumb phone” could, it is go for days without needing a recharge. You remember those days right? Back when you charged your phone once a week rather than every night. Now days, I’m lucky if my battery can get me through a single day, let alone a full week. Thankfully there are a slew of options for helping us keep our favorite devices from becoming a useless hunk of glass and plastic, including some interesting new mobile chargers that can help keep your phone up and running for hours longer than it could on its own. Here are two such options that travelers will find as worthy additions to their carry-on bags.

Waka Waka Power ($79)
With the advent of low cost and more efficient solar panels, charging our devices from the sun has truly become a viable option. The Waka Waka Power takes that concept and wraps it in a nice looking, lightweight package that is easy to carry with you just about anywhere. The charger is a little over 4.5 inches in length and weighs in at a svelte 7 ounces. That makes it easy to store in a glove compartment, purse or your carry-on, ensuring that you’ll have power whenever and wherever you need it.This mobile charger features an internal 2200-mAh battery that can be charged via the small built-in solar panel, or by plugging the Waka Waka directly into a USB port on a computer. Charging times vary greatly no matter which of those methods you choose, as the amount of direct sunlight or the level of current running to the USB port determine how long it will take to fill the power cell. Four blue lights across the top indicate the battery’s status, while an accompanying red light blinks at varying speeds to indicate how quickly the device is charging. This comes in particularly handy when the Waka Waka is collecting energy via its solar panel, making it easy to find the most direct sunlight possible.

The Waka Waka’s built-in USB port provides enough juice to charge even the most power hungry smartphones such as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4. It can even charge an iPad, although the Waka Waka’s relatively small battery capacity doesn’t have the same level of impact on the battery life of a tablet. While testing the device, I was able to charge my iPhone 4S a couple of times before the Waka Waka itself needed to power up.

Off-Grid Solutions, the company that designed the Waka Waka, certainly had travelers in mind when they build the charger. Not only is its sleek design perfect for taking with you on the road, but it also comes with a built-in flashlight that is very handy at times as well. The light has four brightness settings and a flashing “SOS” mode, and is good for at least 20 hours on a full charge. And when the battery starts to run low, simply stick the Waka Waka back into the sunlight to start charging once again.

Demonstrating their commitment to encouraging the use of clean solar energy, Off-Grid Solutions has even vowed to give away a Waka Waka charger for every one that is purchased. So when you buy the device, the company behind it will ship another one to a developing nation to be given out to someone who doesn’t have easy access to other forms of power. That is a great program indeed and quite a gesture on the part of the company.

New Trent Travelpak Plus ($54.95)

New Trent Travelpak Plus Mobile Charger
New Trent

If you’re looking for a more traditional mobile charging option, the Travelpak Plus from New Trent brings a lot of great featuress to the table. For example, it is available in two versions, one with a 4000-mAh battery and the other with a 7000-mAh battery. That means even the lower capacity model has nearly twice the available power of the Waka Waka. I tested the 7000-mAh model and found that it provided ample power to recharge my iPhone more than three times without needing a recharge itself.

While the Travelpak Plus doesn’t have a solar panel, it does come with a built-in AC adapter. The back of the device has a power-plug that flips out when needed, allowing you to plug it in to a wall outlet whenever you need to charge the battery. It also comes with two USB ports, giving you the ability to charge two devices at the same time. When plugged into the wall, the Travelpak plus instantly becomes a powerful AC adapter for any device that charges via USB and when you take it on the road, it can greatly extend the life of all of your gadgets, including an iPad or other tablet.

New Trent included an ambient light on the Travelpak Plus as well and while it isn’t nearly as useful as the one that is included on the Waka Waka, it does serve as a decent nightlight when plugged into a wall outlet. That actually comes in handy when traveling, helping you to find your way in a strange room in the middle of the night.

This mobile charger is durable and well put together, and while it weighs a bit more than the Waka Waka, it isn’t incredibly heavy. It is substantial enough that when you slip it into a travel bag you’ll know that it is there, but not enough to really make it a bother. Besides, having a powerful source of energy with you at all times more than makes up for a little extra weight.

The 4000-mAh version of the Travelpak Plus costs $44.95, while the higher capacity model is just $10 more. With such a slight difference in price, I think it makes more sense to shell out the extra cash for the 7000-mAh version. You may not need that much power all that often but it’ll be nice to know it is there when you need it. A traveling companion will appreciate the extra USB port when their gadgets start to run low on power too.

Whether you go with the Waka Waka or the Travelpak Plus, you’ll be happy to have the extra power when you need it. Both of these options are great choices and each brings their own unique options to the table. The solar panel of the Waka Waka is great for charging anywhere and the extra capacity and duel USB ports on the Travelpak are excellent as well. Either way, you can’t lose.

Gadling Gear Review: Goal Zero Sherpa 50 Solar Charging Kit

Goal Zero Sherpa 50 solar charing kitLet’s face it; in the modern era of travel most of us rarely hit the road without a slew of gadgets in tow. Smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and a host of other devices have all made travel simpler and more enjoyable than ever before. But keeping the batteries on all of those items fully charged can be a real challenge, especially when traveling through remote locations. Fortunately, there have been some excellent advances in solar charging, which have made gathering energy from the sun a more viable way to power our devices while on the go. The most impressive of those options that I’ve seen so far is the new Sherpa 50 charging kit from Goal Zero, a system that is so powerful that it can even charge your laptop.

At the heart of this kit is Goal Zero’s excellent Nomad 13 solar panel, so named for its ability to generate up to 13 watts of power, and the Sherpa 50 Recharger pack. The two work in tandem to provide an excellent on-the-go charging system for just about any device you could possibly carry with you on your travels. Both are durable, compact and lightweight, so they won’t take up too much room in your pack either. Together they tip the scales at just 2.7 pounds, which isn’t much when you consider how useful this kit can be.

The Nomad 13 solar panel folds open to collect as much of the sun’s rays as possible and can either directly charge a device from its built-in USB port or store energy in the Sherpa 50′s internal battery, which is capable of holding up to 50 watt hours. Charging times depend greatly on the amount of available sunlight but one of the strengths of the panel is that it is capable of drawing power even on overcast days. In bright sunlight the Nomad 13 can fully charge the Sherpa 50 in as little as five hours, but in the real world, however, it only operates that quickly under the most optimal of conditions. It is more realistic to expect a seven to eight hour charge time under normal circumstances, and on cloudy days it could take as much as 12 hours or more. The Sherpa 50 can also be charged in as little as three hours via a wall outlet, which is convenient for having it ready to go before you ever leave home.Once its internal battery is charged, the Sherpa 50 becomes a portable generator that provides plenty of power for all of your gadgets. It features multiple built-in ports for plugging in all manner of devices, including both a USB port and two 12V ports similar to what you find in a car. Goal Zero also offers an AC inverter for the Sherpa 50 that actually adds a standard wall outlet to the mix. The inverter was included in the test unit I was provided, although it is an additional $50 add-on if you purchase the Sherpa 50 as an individual component and not as part of a kit. It is well worth the extra cost, however, as it greatly extends the usefulness of the battery pack. With the inverter included with the Sherpa 50 you can quite literally charge or operate just about anything powered by electricity.

A fully charged Sherpa 50 is capable of recharging most smartphones seven to eight times and a tablet such as an iPad twice. It will even fully recharge a laptop via the AC inverter or a special 12V adapter one time before needing to be topped off by the sun once again. When plugged into the inverter, my MacBook Air charged quickly and efficiently and the Sherpa 50 still had a little juice left in the tank when it was done. I found that to be pretty impressive, as it meant I could still power up a couple of other devices before needing to recharge the Sherpa itself.

Goal Zero Sherpa 50 battery packGoal Zero has created an efficient, easy to use solar charging kit that a lot of people are going to really like. Backpackers, campers, mountaineers, sailors and other outdoor adventurers will definitely want to add the Sherpa 50 kit to their mandatory gear list before heading out to explore the world. The system is perfect for keeping satellite phones, GPS devices, rechargeable headlamps, camera equipment and other items running even when you are hundreds of miles from the closest power source. And if you want to shed a little weight, both the Nomad 13 and the Sherpa 50 are perfectly capable of providing useful services on their own, although the battery pack could become dead weight without a way to keep it charged.

As much as I like this kit there are a few improvements I wouldn’t mind seeing being made to future iterations. For instance, I was annoyed that the Sherpa 50 only had one USB port built in, as there are a lot of items that I carry with me that charge via USB and it would have been nice to charge two of them at a time. I got around this limitation by adding a USB 12V adapter to the mix, but that was just another small item that I needed to keep track of while on the road. Additionally, the USB port that is built into the Nomad 13 solar panel only puts out 1 amp of power, which is fine for many devices but isn’t enough for an iPad or even an iPhone 5. It would be nice if you could simply plug those devices directly into the solar panel itself, but they just won’t charge directly, even if the Nomad is in bright sunlight. The problem isn’t with the panel but the low powered USB port, so hopefully future models will be able to correct this issue.

The other element of the kit that I would like to see improved is more design related. While its weight is only 2.7 pounds, that can still be a significant amount to add to your pack when you’re wanting to travel light. Hopefully future versions of the Sherpa 50 kit can find ways to reduce the weight further, while still managing to keep performance high. This is less of a criticism than it is wishful thinking though, as it wasn’t all that long ago that we would have thought it impossible to have this kind of solar charging option in such a compact package.

As someone who has really come to appreciate having good travel gadgets with rechargeable batteries, I find the Sherpa 50 to be an amazing product. It works well, is simple to set up and it delivers on Goal Zero’s promise of free energy from the sun. I liked this kit so much, in fact, that when I had to return the review unit after I was finished testing it I immediately went shopping for one for myself. I don’t want to get caught without one the next time I head out on a big adventure, as I think it is going to make life much easier.

[Photo Credits: Goal Zero]