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

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.

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.

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?
  • 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.

Fuel Costs Aren’t Making Airlines Eco-Friendly

As discussed in an article in The Economist today, airlines should theoretically be becoming more and more “green.” Fuel costs are normally the largest single cost for airlines and rising fuel costs aren’t good for the airline or the customer. One might assume that airlines would pursue fuel efficiency with their bottom line in mind, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not with the most profitable domestic Airline (2009-2011), Allegiant Air. Allegiant was found to actually be the least fuel efficient airline for the year of 2010 in a report recently released by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
While it is certainly counter-intuitive that the most profitable airline can also be the least fuel efficient, there are other factors that play into the sometimes ambiguous cost/profit setup of airlines.

Still, The Economist asks the question that I have to echo: “If the bottom line cannot force airlines to be more fuel efficient, what can?” One of the many possible answers to that question is fleet, since almost one-third of the efficiency gap between airlines can be attributed to differences in fleet. Here’s to hoping for the employment of greener planes down the road.

[Thanks, The Economist]

Tonke Campers Are The Modern Nomad’s Motorhome

When I was 3 years old, my parents invested in a Roll-A-Long camper. It wasn’t sleek, like the Winnebagos of the day. It was more like a super-sized camper shell mounted on the forerunner of a dually truck. It was badass, and survived innumerable family vacations and sleepovers (when my brother and I were in college, we’d bring friends down to my parents ranch, and use it as a dorm of sorts).

Sadly, my parents sold the camper after I graduated. Unbeknownst to them, I’d been silently contemplating living it it, in order to save money and support my nomadic lifestyle. Not long after the sale, my dad said, “If I’d known you were going to move so often, I would have just sold it to you.” Dammit.

I’ve longed to live in an RV ever since. I still fantasize about it, and despite my love of vintage trailers, I find the immediacy of a camper more appealing. Interior design is also crucial to me (the Roll-A-Long’s was hideous, even for the early ’70s). Therefore, I was delighted to discover Tonke Campers.

Thrillist aptly describes these groovy, custom Dutch campers as “old-world Gypsy carts.” The Fieldsleeper 1 model they feature is mounted on a Mercedes Sprinter. It boasts polished wood interiors and exteriors; teak flooring; colorful retro fittings; an ample kitchen; cozy sleepers for three; and a bathroom kitted out with a shower and eco-friendly toilet. The rear doors open for an al fresco dining experience, and there’s hidden bike storage. Most ingenious, hydraulic legs make it easy to ditch the shell so you have an “around town” vehicle. Should all that not be enough, Tonke Campers founder Maarten van Soest will happily create a “motorhome” to suit your needs. That’s what I call living the dream.

Money-Saving Strategies From Other Places That Work For Airports Too

As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us enjoy the whole process of flying. Maybe it’s the thrill of the hunt when exploring a complex matrix of flights, airlines and prices. Perhaps exercising the survival skills that find power for electronic devices we bring along satisfies a primitive need. Whatever the reason, we like to fly. Some travelers like to fly so much that we spend more than we need to. A good battle plan combined with budgetary prowess learned from other activities can go a long way.

Eat before arriving
Frugal grocery store shoppers know that arriving hungry can lead to impulse buying, and most don’t even eat what they select until later. Arriving at the airport famished, maybe a bit earlier than normal to make up for sequester-induced lines, has trouble written all over it. Airport food courts are grounds for impulse buys. Forty pounds ago, I used that as an excuse to overdose on food I would have had serious guilt issues with if consumed elsewhere. A decent airport app like FlySmart can offer healthy suggestions.Bring an empty water bottle
Heading out on a hike, camping or just the drive to work, eco- and budget-friendly travelers bring a reusable water bottle. Head to the airport and many forget or don’t know that the same reusable bottle will indeed make it through the security screening process. In most cases, the $4 bottle of water at the conveniently located kiosk by the boarding gate costs more than a whole bunch of reusable water bottles. Concerned about the taste of that tap water found after screening? Go crazy and buy a self-filtering water bottle.

Let an expert help
This could be the “insert name of travel agent here” part of the story and, for many, that might be a good idea. Those comfortable with using an attorney for legal matters, an accountant for taxes or even a good mechanic for auto repairs could easily buy into that notion. For air travel, many of the sources we feature here like AirFareWatchdog, Kayak and others can go a long way to maximizing savings on airline fares – obviously a big ticket item in the whole scheme of things. Better yet, ask a local travel blogger based out of your hometown airport. Odds are they have it down to a science.

Leave time for the satellite lot
When going to a concert, major sporting event or local convention center, penny-wise drivers park remotely, realizing that convenience equals higher prices. Parking close to the terminal at almost any airport will cost dearly compared to the price of a secure, remote lot. AirportParking boasts savings of up to 70% off the price of terminal parking, and allows reservations and payment in advance. In Orlando, for example, terminal parking is $10 per day; remote parking from a number of lots is less than half the price.

The whole idea of applying money-saving strategies learned from other activities to air travel comes with a bonus too. We’re already comfortable with the process so applying does not require learning a new skill or forging a new path where no one has gone before.

Looking for some other money-saving ideas to use when at the airport? Check this video:

[Photo credit – Flickr user Grant Wickes]

Florblanca: Rock Star Luxury In Costa Rica

I was lying in a hammock with my two little boys, getting ready to sleep off lunch. We could hear the melodic, crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean on the golden beach at our backs and were enveloped in the luxurious shade provided by soaring trees on a perfectly toasty February afternoon. An invigorating breeze tempered the afternoon sun and my typical urge to habitually check my email had vanished. The world could wait.

I looked up into the trees directly above us and realized we weren’t alone: there were two families of howler monkeys looking down at us, one posse in each tree. They were just as curious about us as we were them. How can I describe the joy of escaping Chicago in the middle of a typically dismal, grey winter and finding refuge in an intimate, lush, tropical, ocean-side resort where the wild animals outnumber the people?

It wasn’t just the visual appeal of the place and the warm breeze that had me in a delightful reverie; it was all the music to our ears – the birds chirping, the waves rolling in and the monkeys emitting their surprisingly guttural, deep howls. Before we’d even officially checked into Florablanca, a small, 11 villa eco-resort in Santa Theresa, on Costa Rica’s glorious Nicoya Peninsula, I was already dreading leaving the place.

I’ve always been a budget conscious traveler. In my 20s, I traveled everywhere and always looked for the cheapest place in town to stay. I still believe that the best things in life, at home or on the road, are free. But now that I’m 40 (d’oh!) and with two kids (ages 3 and 5), I’ve gotten a lot softer and the type of I spent-less-than-you-did travel doesn’t hold much appeal to me any more.

These days, we tend to stay at mid-range accommodation options and, in most places, that means we rarely spend much more than about $100 per night, and often times much less. Occasionally, we’ll splash out on a nicer place, if we’re celebrating a special occasion, but only once in a blue moon will we stay at a truly world-class, luxury resort.

This year, I decided to treat my wife to a few nights at one truly glorious beach resort in Costa Rica and I chose Florblanca, because I read all the rave reviews of the place on Trip Advisor and I wanted to be near Santa Teresa. The town has emerged as a favorite for surfers over the last decade but it’s still pretty low-ley and completely free of big, tacky developments, thanks to its slightly hard to get to location.

A young lady in braces named Cindy came by our hammock to tell us our room was ready and it took a bit of coaxing to extract myself from our low-slung refuge. She led us through the grounds, which feel like a virgin tropical forest, and into villa number 5, which would be our home for what would be a glorious but fleeting 48 hours.

I’ve never seen a place quite like our villa before. Our bedroom had an intoxicating citrus aroma and a lovely four-poster bed with a ceiling fan inside it while the boys had a room of their own with two twin beds. Unlike many hotels, we had all kinds of light near the bed, which is important to me. The bedrooms were enclosed, but the living room and bathrooms were open air, giving one the feeling of being outside even while sitting inside. I was stoked to see that we had our own hammock on our terrace, where we could sway and listen to the monkeys in the shade.

The master bathroom had an open-air shower, tub and toilet protected by a half wall and huge trees but there is still a very liberating feeling about taking a shower or bath outside. I never sleep through the night anywhere, and on our first night at Florblanca, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to use the outdoor/indoor toilet and heard the unmistakable howl of the monkeys. In Chicago during the winter, when I have to use the bathroom during the night, the bathroom feels ice-cold coming from my warm blankets, but here I was coming from an air-conditioned bedroom into a warm, open-air bathroom. Simply awesome.

I learned that Florblanca is owned by Rusty and Susan Carter, an American couple from North Carolina who came to the place on a holiday in 2006, fell in love with it, and decided to buy it. The place is environmentally friendly and they give back to the local community. It was easy to see how they were seduced by the place. The seemingly endless stretch of beach that’s just steps away from the villas is heavenly and all of the trees and wildlife really do make the place feel like something pretty damn close to paradise.

The staff is an interesting mix of Americans who moved to the area to surf and locals. My 3-year-old son James fell in love with Cindy, who took the initiative to find him some beach toys, and every time she was out of his eyesight, he’d ask us, “Where did Cindy go?”

On our last day at Florblanca, I lounged in our hammock and fantasized about moving into villa numero cinco. I knew that eventually I was going to have to go back out into the real world, but I procrastinated until the last possible moment before grudgingly handing back the keys.

I don’t think I fully appreciated Florblanca until we arrived at our next hotel – a dark, nondescript motel-like place near Rincon de la Vieja that was depressingly like the kind of humdrum places we usually stay in. After checking in, I had an urge to call my new friends at Florblanca and tell them to come rescue us from the mediocrity we were mired in. If you want to treat yourself in Costa Rica, definitely check out and into Florblanca, but be forewarned – you’ll have a hard time going back to ordinary hotels when you leave.

IF YOU GO: We took a taxi from Manuel Antonio N.P. to Puntarenas ($125), then a one-hour car ferry and an hour long taxi to Florblanaca ($75). But you can get there much faster if you fly from San Jose into Tambor on Nature Air or another carrier.

Florblanca is by far the nicest place to stay in town but Santa Teresa has places for people with every budget. You can even sleep in a yurt on the beach if you like to rough it. We didn’t rent a car until we were about to leave town because car rentals in the area are pricey. (We ended up paying $280 for a two-day auto transmission SUV when we left town.) Taxis are also relatively pricey, but if you stay at Florblanca, you probably won’t want to leave that often – the food is excellent and you have a great pool and the beach right there.

Nonetheless, Budget and Alamo have locations in town and there’s also a local company called Toyota Rental Car. Great daytrips in the area include Montezuma, the Curu Wildlife Refuge and the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve among others.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]