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The Most Popular Types of Vacations, Ranked from Most to Least Eco-Friendly

We ranked the most popular types of vacations in terms of sustainability so you can plan a trip that benefits you and the planet.

Written by
Brightly Staff
Published
January 27, 2022

Who doesn't love a getaway? Whether you prefer soaking up the sun on the beach or hitting the slopes, everyone needs a break from the daily grind to have some fun. While many travel plans have been canceled or postponed at least once since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, research shows Americans are still optimistic about traveling in 2022.

According to MMGY Travel Intelligence's recent survey, 87% of baby boomers say they're vaccinated and plan to spend at least $4,000 in traveling expenses within the next year. That’s the highest of any generation with a case of wanderlust. Right behind them are millennials, who as a whole, seek to take the most trips in 2022—an average of 4.4 trips this year.

All of this is to say that Americans aren’t letting anything rain on their travel-hungry parade. But beyond the impact that travel plans have on the global health crisis, travel also has a significant impact on the environment. From increased carbon emissions to waste, our travel habits have the power to affect climate change—especially when we're not mindful.

With many individuals planning vacations in the upcoming year, our team of experts ranked the most popular types of vacations in terms of how eco-friendly they are.

Our Methodology

The Brightly team compared five different types of vacations to see how they ranked from a sustainability perspective. We looked at waste, energy, carbon emissions, and community impact to rank each one.

Vacations Types We Ranked:

  • Beach Vacations
  • Camping Trips
  • Cruises
  • Ski Trips
  • Staycations

Each type of vacation received a rating out of 20 points based on the ranking factors. Each category is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the least eco-friendly and 5 being the most eco-friendly.

1. Staycations

Total Score: 18/20

  • Waste: 4/5
  • Energy: 4/5
  • Carbon Emissions: 5/5
  • Community Impact: 5/5

The best thing you can do for the environment is stay home. That’s why it's no surprise that staycations rank as one of the most sustainable vacations you can take.

A staycation is what you make it. For some people, a staycation stays true to the word: You take time off from work and stay home. That’s about as eco-friendly as it gets! There's no transportation is necessary. Even if you do go out and about, staying local still has less of an impact than long-distance travel. Plus, you can leave the car at home and walk or take public transit to reduce your carbon footprint.

In terms of waste, staycations can be easier to manage. At home, you have the option of doing your own recycling or composting. When you make meals, you can save the leftovers in your fridge and eat them later to reduce food waste. Staying local also means you're familiar with local waste regulations. And because you’re not going far, you’re more likely to create less waste than you would if you traveled long distances for a longer period of time.

A staycation is also more likely than other vacations to require less energy usage. However, if you choose to stay in a local hotel, your energy usage will increase. In order to keep guests as comfortable as possible, the average hotel spends $2,196 per room per year in energy costs. When you're looking for a hotel, opt for local options or chains that prioritize the planet. Google can help with that, as you can now search for "Eco-Certified" hotels.

Lastly, let's consider the community impact. This is where that “shop small” mentality comes into play. Choose a locally-owned hotel, bed and breakfast, or an Airbnb over a chain hotel whenever possible. Walk to a local coffee shop with your reusable mug and order your favorite drink. Treat yourself to a nice dinner at a local restaurant you've been wanting to try.

In general, put your dollars back into your community to have the greatest positive impact.

2. Camping Trips

Total Score: 17/20

  • Waste: 4/5
  • Energy: 5/5
  • Carbon Emissions: 4/5
  • Community Impact: 4/5

Camping trips are one of the most eco-friendly vacation options. Because your camping trip is what you make of it, you have the power to control how much waste you're producing and how much energy you use.

The most common way to get to your campsite is by car. While driving does emit significant carbon emissions, our past research found it's not the worst mode of transportation—especially if you carpool with your friends and family to the campsite. If you’re camping locally, you can make your trip even more eco-friendly by walking or biking to the site.

Planning your camping trip is in your hands; therefore, you can choose to avoid single-use plastics for food and water. Instead, you can use a reusable water bottle, insulated tumbler, cloth napkins, washable cutlery, silicone sandwich bags, and reusable ice packs for the cooler.

When packing food, you can decrease your carbon footprint by preparing it first at home. Bring it with you in a reusable container, and only pack what you know you'll need to cut down on food waste.

And when you need to use the restroom? Use the campsite’s bathroom facilities, if available. This is better for the environment because it doesn’t impact the local area. However, if it’s not an option, invest in a portable, foldable toilet. Or if it comes down to it, dig a hole. If you have to dig a hole, make sure it's about nine inches deep and more than 200 feet away from a water source or other campsites. Most importantly, be sure to check your campsite’s rules, as this doesn’t apply everywhere.

Most camping trips don’t require a lot of energy. Maybe a few rechargeable batteries in a flashlight or lantern so you can navigate in the dark. But other than that, many campers rely on campfires as their primary light and heat source. The downside is that campfires can negatively impact the planet, polluting the air and nearby water sources wildlife depends on. Campfires also contribute to wildfires in dryer areas. Try to only use a campfire when you're cooking or need warmth. Also, always use a fire pit and follow campfire safety rules.

There are other ways you can be eco-friendly while camping, too. Use a portable solar panel to charge your phone and pack eco-friendly supplies. If you're using propane, which is considered a low-carbon fuel, opt for a refillable propane bottle instead of an individual propane cylinder. Disposal propane tanks are hard to recycle and are often incorrectly disposed of.

Overall, camping is a great way to unplug—while also being eco-conscious. Camping trips call for quality bonding time away from technology, an improved connection with nature, reduced stress, and more. You’re also more likely to experience better air quality in the great outdoors!

As long as you're a mindful camper, the overall community and environmental impact can be positive.

3. Ski Trips

Total Score: 10/20

  • Waste: 2/5
  • Energy: 2/5
  • Carbon Emissions: 3/5
  • Community Impact: 3/5

The environmental impact of a skip trip varies depending on the resort you choose. Though skiing may seem like a very down-to-earth hobby, it’s one that requires fossil fuels to keep things moving. Ski lifts use a lot of electricity, with one lift requiring about 1,400 to 1,600 amps for just 10 seconds.

Unless you live close to a ski mountain, you'll need to travel to get to your wintry destination. Ski resorts aren't nearly as accessible as camping spots, so traveling further distances is likely. The good news is that once you’re there, you won't be leaving the general vicinity, as skiing and lodging tend to be in the same area. However, if you're flying instead of driving or taking a train, your carbon footprint will increase.

When it comes to waste, you may think there are no issues with the slopes. Unfortunately, ski resorts disrupt natural habitats through deforestation: the skiable terrain is typically in forested areas, and trees need to be cut down in order to make room for the resorts and slopes. According to past research, doing so disturbs local wildlife. Building and maintaining ski resorts can also damage vegetation and destroy natural biodiversity.

Ski resorts also use a lot of single-use plastic. Not just to serve warm hot chocolate and coffee, but also all the food that's served on a day-to-day basis in the cafeterias and restaurants. The food that isn't eaten goes into the trash at most locations, which goes to the landfill and releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. There's also the issue of what's done with old ski gear, as recycling it is difficult.

Ski resorts generally require a lot of water. To stay afloat in the tourism industry, ski resorts make their own artificial snow, and according to SMI Snow Makers, many ski areas can convert more than 5,000 gallons of water into snow per minute. Between droughts and shorter winters, ski resorts are relying on this option more.

According to U.S. News, snowpack in the U.S. West—aka the amount of snow on the ground "that's compressed and hardened by its own weight"—has decreased by 20% in the last century. That means making man-made snow is crucial. Otherwise, ski resorts won't be able to open in a timely manner, and ski town economies will suffer.

As previously mentioned, resorts also use significant fossil fuel energy to power ski lifts. But that’s not all: Resorts groom the trails each night to keep the snow compact and ready for skiers. This process requires diesel fuel to power tractors, ATVs, and snowcats.

However, the community impact of ski trips and resorts can be positive. There are both social and economic benefits for those who live in a ski community, including job opportunities, tourism boom, and training accessibility for athletes.

That being said, resorts can also pose problems for locals. For example, most ski resort jobs are seasonal, meaning these jobs are temporary with a lower salary. These seasonal opportunities can create a disproportion for residents who live in the area full-time.

To make your ski trip as eco-friendly as possible, check out the National Ski Area Association and Save Our Snow for a list of sustainable resorts worldwide. You can also check out individual resorts' websites for sustainability practices.

4. Beach Vacations

Total Score: 7/20

  • Waste: 1/5
  • Energy: 2/5
  • Carbon Emissions: 2/5
  • Community Impact: 2/5

When we talk about beach vacations, we’re mostly talking about resort options. Several resorts boast being an all-inclusive paradise, but they don’t always go into detail about their sustainability practices.

In terms of transportation, a beach vacation likely requires some means of travel that’s not a car—unless you live in or near a beach town. Although airplanes transport a large number of people at once, planes still use a lot of fuel and produce significant greenhouse gas emissions.

A single flight burns 8,255 gallons of fuel. To put that into perspective, if there are 87,000 flights per day, that's 718 million gallons of fuel burned. In addition, jet fuel produces 21 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO₂) per gallon. Overall, air travel creates about 1 gigaton of CO₂ to the Earth’s atmosphere annually, so it's best to avoid flying when you can.

Beach vacations may also be particularly wasteful. All-inclusive resorts often use single-use plastics such as cups at the beach bar, or utensils for your lunch on the water. And we're no stranger to the infamous viral pictures of beaches after spring break. According to World Crunch, about 200 million people travel to the Mediterranean for the holidays, and during that season, waste increases by about one-third.

Because beach destinations are so close to our oceans, it’s particularly important to make sure your vacation is as low-waste as possible. But, that can be nearly impossible depending on where you travel. In some parts of the world, tap water isn't safe to drink. Therefore, many beach resorts go through thousands of water bottles. For example, a resort in Thailand sent 250,000 plastic water bottles to landfills annually before switching to glass bottles. Try to find a resort that has sustainable measures in place.

Food waste is also an issue at all-inclusive resorts, as guests have unlimited access to whatever they want to eat at all hours of the day. Anything that's not eaten goes into the trash. Look for resorts that are working on solving this issue. For example, one resort in Mexico shared it delivers 700 pounds of food waste to a local hog farmer every morning in order to keep it out of landfills.

All-inclusive beach resorts also require a lot of energy to keep them going. There’s a pool, hot tubs, saunas, and spas—not to mention, a lot of rooms and guests—that require significant energy. Resorts are also known for having a high water footprint, and unfortunately, sewage doesn’t always go where it’s supposed to. Instead, it ends up in the waterways.

In terms of community impact, the reviews are mixed. On one hand, most hotel jobs don’t pay very well and require odd hours. According to the International Transport Workers' Federation, most all-inclusive resort workers get short-term contracts with few benefits, little to no job security, longer shifts, and unpaid overtime. And to add insult to injury, many workers don’t make a lot in tips.

Of course, this ranking could then be offset by staying somewhere local or using your wallet wisely. By putting your money toward the local community—shopping at small businesses, taking local tours, eating local, and making sure you’re not partaking in any tourism that exploits its employees or the environment—your vacation’s community impact could be more positive.

5. Cruises

Total Score: 5/20

  • Waste: 1/5
  • Energy: 1/5
  • Carbon Emissions: 1/5
  • Community Impact: 2/5

Cruises are at the bottom of our list. They're another mostly all-inclusive option that tourists love, with seemingly everything at your fingertips—a buffet, an unlimited soft-serve ice cream machine, pools, hot tubs, sunshine, and spas. But truth be told, cruises simply aren't great for the environment.

Both a mode of transportation and the destination itself, a large cruise ship can have a carbon footprint greater than that of 12,000 cars. According to a Griffith University study, the average cruise ship passenger emits 0.82 tons of carbon dioxide, and the average cruise ship can carry about 3,000 passengers. Past research has also found that passengers on a seven-day voyage may produce as much CO₂ as the average European does in an entire year.

Now, let’s talk about waste. Living on a cruise ship for a week means an accumulation of all kinds of waste. So, where does it go? While there are some regulations that go into what and where ships can dump waste, many cruise ships still dispose of waste irresponsibly by dumping sewage into the ocean. While it's legal for ships to do this as long as they're more than three miles off U.S. shores, this disposed waste wreaks havoc on both marine life and water sources. 

There’s also bilge water to consider. This water collects in the bottommost part of the cruise ship and often contains oil and other contaminants that leak off the boat’s engines and other mechanisms. Cruise ships are responsible for treating this bilge water before taking off, but it's not uncommon for bilge water to be dumped into the ocean as they go.

How about food waste? With all-inclusive dining options, there's a lot of unlimited food for passengers. Much of which goes to waste. It's estimated that food waste on cruise ships can be as high as 30% due to uneaten leftovers. Cruise ships also use a lot of single-use plastics. Some major cruise ship lines have had to pay penalties in the past for dumping that plastic into the ocean. For example, Carnival Corporation and its Princess subsidiary agreed to pay $20 million in 2019, and that wasn't even its first time doing so.

Additionally, such a massive vessel requires a massive amount of fuel. According to the University of Colorado Boulder, a large cruise ship can use an average of around 250 tons of fuel per day. That equates to 80,645 gallons of regular gasoline, which experts say is "more fuel than you'll use in an entire lifetime of driving cars." Cruise ships also use a lot of electricity—between 5-10 megawatts—to operate.

The community impact of a cruise just might be its saving grace—although there are some drawbacks in that category, too. In 2019, the cruise industry was responsible for employing over 178,000 people from all over the globe, according to Statista.

However, the industry has a bad rap—one soiled with unfair wages, unethical working conditions, and odd hours. According to Insider, most cruise employees work 12-hour days on a six- or eight-month contract, making $550 to $2,000 per month.

And what about the impact on the countries and islands that cruise ships travel to? These communities may all be different, but they're alike in at least one way: They rely on tourism to keep them afloat. But often, fossil fuels, water pollution, and overcrowding pose threats to these locations. Favorite tourist hotspots, like Barcelona and Santorini, are negatively impacted by waste and pollution—a direct result of tourism.

The Takeaway

Whether you're planning on spending a week by the water or simply taking a few days off to recharge, your vacation plans are ultimately up to you. But no matter which type of vacation you choose, there are always ways to make your trip more eco-friendly.

When you're planning your next trip, do a deep-dive into your potential vacation spots to ensure they prioritize people and the planet. Also think about how you can make a difference while you're there. Maybe that's supporting local businesses, reducing waste by taking your leftovers back to your room, using reusable silverware and drinkware, and walking or taking public transit whenever possible.

Check out our tips for traveling sustainably to learn how to make the most environmentally conscious decisions when planning your next getaway. There are plenty of ways to get in some me-time while also bettering the planet.