TravelTravel Advice

Should I Feel Guilty for Flying?

As an environmentally conscious person, should I feel guilty about flying on commercial planes? How can I minimize my impact?

Flying isn't great for the environment. (Photo: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock)

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.


Should you feel guilty? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Air travel has a lousy effect on our precious environment. (And I’m probably a bigger part of the problem than you are.) Not only do planes burn more fuel per passenger mile than cars, but they also give the Earth a double whammy by belching out vapor contrails and nitrogen oxide, which both contribute to warming. Worst of all, the use of plane travel is exploding around the world.

Ready for some good news? There are some simple, small steps you can take to minimize your impact.

Low-cost carriers pack people onto planes like cattle—and that’s a good thing. They generally leave the gate with fewer empty seats, and they don’t bother with space-hogging sections like first or business class. Budget airlines also generally have newer planes, which are slightly more fuel-efficient.

Just like with a car, the fewer stops and starts you make, the better your gas mileage will be. The problem with direct flights is that you’ll often have to pay a higher price for them.

The smaller commuter carriers that use puddle jumpers to hop from city to city are the worst environmental offenders among planes because they burn much more gas per passenger than a typical jet would. Before booking your flight, check online for the size of the plane you’ll be flying.

The fewer bags you take on your flight, the less fuel the plane will need to burn to get to its destination. On an individual level, your effort might seem insignificant, but if everyone takes this step, it could make a huge impact.

You'd have to live off the grid for almost a year to offset a round-trip transatlantic flight. But you can at least minimize the impact of your travels by following sustainable practices when you arrive at your adventure destination. Stay at a sustainable resort, use public transportation or walk to get around, go camping, buy your food from a farmer’s market—all of this will make a positive difference. 

Trains are immensely more fuel-efficient per passenger mile than planes, but in the U.S. they’re often not a realistic option. Let’s use your hometown of Bend as an example, Stacie. If you want to get to, say, Seattle from there, it would take Amtrak more than nine hours to deposit you at your destination. Meanwhile, you could hop in your car and get there in five hours, or take Alaska Airlines and arrive in an hour. Time is money, after all. But if you’re on the East Coast, you could take the higher-speed Acela Express anywhere on the route between Boston and Washington, D.C., and your overall travel time (door to door) will be comparable to flying.

Unsubscribe from those emails that alert you to budget weekend getaway airfares. If you’ve only got a few days to spare, stay closer to home—find a national park within a half-day’s drive, or escape in your fuel-efficient car to the ocean or some secluded mountain resort. Be creative along the way, and you’ll feel less guilty about how you get there.

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Filed To: Adventure Adviser
Lead Photo: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock
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