10 travel resolutions for 2010

As 2009 draws to a close and we look back on the last 365 days of travel, it’s time to make some resolutions for the coming year. Here are ten travel resolutions that will help you be a happier, more fulfilled traveler in 2010.

Pack lighter
Nearly every domestic carrier now charges for the first checked bag. The fees are increasing as airlines are relying on the fees to supplement revenue and they show no signs of stopping. If you haven’t yet mastered the art of packing for a domestic trip with just a carry-on, now is the time to do so. Limit yourself to one pair of shoes in your bag, bring clothes that mix and match, plan to wash and re-wear your clothes if they get dirty, and wear your bulkiest items on the plane. Resist the urge to pack for every contingency, learn the 3-1-1 rules, and know that any minor inconvenience you suffer from packing light may be worth the money saved. Plus, there’s no waiting around for your luggage to be unloaded and no danger of it getting lost en route.

Remember to unplug

Many people are afraid to truly take a vacation from work. They worry about how it will affect their career or stress about the amount of work they’ll come back to. If they do manage to make it out of the office, they often spend their whole trip checking email and fielding work calls and texts. Step away from the Blackberry! Sign out of Twitter, shut down Facebook, and put your “out of office” notification on your email. You’ve worked hard for this vacation so unplug and actually enjoy it.Explore your own backyard
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest you plan a “staycation” this year. But I will point out that exploring a new place doesn’t have to mean jetting off to a destination halfway around the world. If finances are tight but you still want to take use some vacation time and broaden your horizons, spend your days discovering a place you haven’t been within the US, within your own state, or even within a few hours drive of your own home. In between trips, find ways to do some virtual traveling by learning about your dream destinations or celebrating other cultures.

Slow down
There’s so much to see in this great big world, and so little time to see it in, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to squeeze in as much as possible on each trip. But when you do that, you’re just ticking things off a list and experiencing nothing. Slow down and take your time exploring a few places rather than trying to skim the surface of many. You many not be able to say you’ve seen every country in the world, but you can say you’ve understood a few.

Think outside the box for destinations
Resolve to shake up your travel m.o. in 2010 If you always opt for a European getaway, head to Asia this year. If most of your trips are to big cities where you can wine, dine, shop and visit museums, try a trip to a quiet beach or a countryside setting instead. Consider what you want to get out of a trip and look for other destinations that fit the bill. Dive enthusiasts who’ve explored most of the Caribbean’s depths can try the waters of the Mediterranean. Traveling foodies who’ve eaten their way around Europe can sample the tastes of India or learn the traditions of Mexican cooking. Reconsider places you might have dismissed before, especially those that are emerging as new destinations so that you can beat the crowds.

Try an alternative form of lodging
Who says you always have to stay in a hotel? This year, try a different kind of lodging. Sleep in a bed and breakfast, rent an apartment, CouchSurf or sign up for a home-swap. You may find that it’s not for you, or you may find your new favorite way to stay. As a bonus, alternative forms of lodging are often cheaper than traditional hotels.

Travel green
Help protect the places you love so that future generations can enjoy them. Resolve to cut back on your carbon footprint and do what you can to travel green. Try to stay in eco-friendly accommodations, take public transportation when you can, reduce your energy use at home, and invest in carbon offsets to help mitigate the damage caused by air travel.

Try one new thing on every trip
Travel is about experiencing new things, so why bother going to a new destination if you are just going to do the same activities, eat the same food, and explore the same interests? This year, challenge yourself to try at least one new thing on every trip. Sample a food you’ve never eaten, sip a local drink, learn a native skill, and engage in an activity you’ve never done before. It’s easy to fall into the routine of seeking out the same experiences in different places so challenge yourself to try something new.

Get out of your comfort zone
We travel to discover, not only new people and places, but also new things about ourselves. Push yourself out of your comfort zone in 2010. Try not only new things that you’re eager to experience, but also new things that scare you just a little. Eat that slimy, still-squirming mystery dish in China or face your fear of heights climbing the Sydney Bridge. You’ll learn a little about the world around you, and maybe even more about yourself.

Remember that travel is a state of mind
It’s easy to approach exotic cultures with respect and curiosity. It’s a lot harder to look at different cultures in our country and accept that just because they do things differently, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Bring the acceptance you learn on the road home with you. Don’t lose your sense of wonder and curiosity once you are back on familiar ground. Remember that travel is a state of mind and you may be just as surprised to discover the world around you as you are destinations farther away.

Choosing the right company for your carbon offsets

According to Carbonfund, with the amount of flying I do annually, I “produce” about 21,000 pounds of CO2 per year. If I want to make up for the environmental damage I’ve done, I can pay $125 to offset my carbon contribution.

But what does that really mean? How can paying $125 make the air cleaner or the ozone layer stronger? Where does that $125 go? Am I just paying to make myself feel better?

Well, as I’m learning, it all depends on which company you choose. Some seem to be more transparent than others about where your money goes, and some seem to offer more assurance in the way of third-party auditing. Two that I have found that seem to be among the most reputable are Carbonfund.org and TerraPass. Both take the money you pay for your carbon offsets and invest it into projects that help reduce pollution, produce clean air and alternative sources of energy, and reduce the effects of carbon-producing technology.

Carbonfund, the company your money will go to if you choose to buy offsets for your next Virgin America flight, contributes to three major undertakings: renewable energy and methane projects, energy efficiency and carbon credits, and reforestation and avoided deforestation projects. According to their website, each project is audited and certified by a third party. The money they receive goes to projects that help offset the damage being done not just from planes, but from all the other carbon-producing technology we use on a daily basis – trains, buses, cars, and home appliances.

With Carbonfund, you can pay for all your environmental sins at once, or calculate more precisely based on a single flight. They also seem to offer very affordable options. If 20 or so flights per year and 12 months of living in a small apartment and riding the city buses and trains only costs me $125, I’m betting a single flight can’t be over $20.

Some of the projects to which Carbonfund contributes include those that: reduce the emissions produced by large transport trucks while they idle at rest stops, protect tropical rainforest land, restore hardwood forests, generate clean electricity from farm waste, and destroy methane produced by landfills.

TerraPass, the offset option offered by Expedia, funds some similar projects. Their big three are wind energy, farm power, and landfill gas capture. Like Carbonfund, their programs are audited and verified by a third party. When you register your flight, your life, your wedding (yes, weddings leave a very large carbon footprint) or your business, you’ll get a total price and also see where that money will be spent and how it will help offset the emissions you have produced. TerraPass seems to be a bit more expensive for me though. It cost more like $150 to combat my yearly output and a single flight (Chicago to CapeTown) was nearly $50. I did, however, really like that they had a comprehensive report published on their website, which listed how much carbon each project reduced over the course of a year.

I also appreciated that both websites make it a point to say that purchasing carbon offsets doesn’t give you a free pass to live a wasteful live. Both promote that, in addition to buying carbon offsets, you should also strive to reduce your carbon footprint by using less electricity, taking public transportation, flying direct when possible, and using alternative sources of energy when you can.

Whether you go with one of these two companies or another, be sure that it is independently audited and verified and that it offers information on where and how your money will be spent. While you can’t chose a specific project, you can often choose what type of project your money funds. Choosing a company that is audited by a third party helps you be sure that your money is going where you think it is, and ensures that companies aren’t selling the same offset credits more than once.

In an age where we seem to be nickle-and-dimed to death by the airlines, it’s difficult to think of voluntarily coughing up another $10-$50 per flight. But this money isn’t going to the airlines. It’s not lining the pockets of some corporate honchos. When invested correctly, it seems it really can make a difference in the fight against climate change.

Five tips for green travel

1. Green your flight
Offset the carbon footprint created by your share of air travel, buy some carbon credits. Several websites can yelp you calculate your carbon footprint (such as TerraPass.com and ClimateCare.org), allowing you to take action. The offsets you buy will ensure that energy from renewable sources will be sent to the grid.

2. Book an environmentally friendly tour
Intrepid Travel has introduced “carbon offset” trips, designed to be eco-friendly without, frankly, sucking. This year, 38 of Intrepid’s 400+ excursions will be eco-friendly … close to 10 percent.

3. Give back a little
RockResorts has “Give and Getaway” vacations, where you can pitch in on volunteer projects – like trail restoration with the National Forest Foundation – in trade for discounted lodging rates.

4. Watch what you drive
If possible, carpool to and from the airport. Too often, we all fight for airport parking (and emit a bit of extra carbon) for no good reason. When you get to your destination, consider renting a hybrid.

5. Stick with your new green habits
When you get home from your trip, give back to a destination by donating to an organization such as Travelers’ Philanthropy … and try to turn a small experience into a lifelong habit.

Can you buy your way out of hell with carbon offset fees?

Carbon offset fees work like penance in the Roman Catholic Church. They won’t exactly prevent you from committing certain sins, such as traveling by plane, but they might make you feel less guilty about committing them. At least that’s how they work on me.

Confessions of a selfish traveler

Last year, I spent roughly 190 hours flying and by doing so I generated 46,69 metric tonnes of CO2. Probably enough to get me a first class ticket to Hell courtesy of Greenpeace. Other than traveling by air extensively, I try to be good to the environment. I recycle, live in a small apartment, use public transportation and energy-efficient light bulbs.

According to the Stern report, the aviation industry accounts for only 1,6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation accounts for 24% of global carbon emissions, deforestation accounts for 18% and road transport accounts for 10%. And that’s forgetting bovine flatulence.

Still, I can’t help but feel guilty about my contribution to it. Every time I fly now, I try to add the “carbon emission offset” fee whenever the airlines offer it. I figured it was about time to find out where my money is actually going.

US airlines: the good, the bad and the non-green

A couple months ago, I read a shocking statistic on e-photoframes: of the 374 global airlines, only 24 of them offer passengers the ability to purchase carbon offsets and “clean up” the CO2 emissions from their flights. That is not the most shocking part. The most shocking is that only 1 percent of all US airlines sell CO2 offsets. The US has 175 airlines with listed websites but only two of them–Delta and Continental–currently offer voluntary carbon offsets to their passengers. Although a few other airlines came out with “green plans,” only Delta and Continental offer carbon offsets so far.

What does Delta offer?

When you book on delta.com, you can make a contribution to The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program to plant trees to offset the carbon emissions that result from your flight. You can calculate your carbon footprint online using a their calculator. According to about.com, “in just one year, Delta and its customers have raised enough funds to plant 102,065 trees that over their lifetime are expected to trap 64,000 tons of carbon dioxide–that’s enough to offset the carbon footprint of more than 2,900 Americans for one year.”

On average, a contribution of $5.50 would offset 0.28 short-tons of carbon dioxide, one person’s estimated carbon emissions associated with a 1,320-mile roundtrip flight. A contribution of $11.00 is estimated to offset 0.88 short tons, an individual’s estimated carbon emissions from an average 4,500-mile roundtrip flight.

Where will your money go, you ask? Every penny of your donation goes directly to The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program to help protect and restore our most vulnerable wildlife habitat. For every $5.50 contributed, the Fund pledges to plant one tree in a protected park or national wildlife refuge.

What does Continental offer?

Continental works with Sustainable Travel International to help invest passengers’ carbon offsets in high-impact projects designed to reduce greenhouse gases, such as reforestation or renewable energy. These projects, which also benefit local communities, are located all over the world. Customers have the option of selecting which kind of program they would like their carbon offsets to benefit.

Other than that, it works similar to Delta. Participation in carbon offsetting is voluntary. The carbon calculator determines the average amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted for each type of aircraft in Continental Airlines’ fleet and passengers can choose if they want to donate the recommended amount or a different amount.

What about other US airlines?

Many airlines are planning to introduce carbon offsets for passengers in the near future. Northwest’s Carbon Emissions Calculator will estimate the amount of CO2 emissions generated by your flight and provide a suggested voluntary carbon offset contribution to The Nature Conservancy® to remove or sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. Midwest Airlines is also planning a carbon offset program.

American Airlines is certainly not sticking its neck out when it comes to carbon offsets (other than canceling 3,000 flights here and there). They approached it completely differently. From March 24, 2008 through July 31, 2008, their BeGreen program awards up to 10 miles per dollar spent on any Gift of Green products and 5 miles per dollar spent on BeGreen Express Carbon Offset Products including: BeGreen Driver, BeGreen Flyer, or BeGreen Home. I virtually never fly American and this makes me think that I don’t have a reason to change my mind.

Is it worth it?

I want to say, for the extra $5 or so, you almost can’t go wrong. At the same time, it seems silly that something as minor as paying an extra $5 could actually save the planet from scorching and save us from hell.