Have you ever wondered whether campervan travel is a sustainable travel alternative? We did. So we asked an academic researcher at the Centre for Sustainability, Tourism and Transport from the Dutch Breda University of Applied Sciences to calculate the CO2 footprint of various popular travel options. Here’s what we learned.
The CO2 footprint of popular travel options
We’ve listed different popular travel options and included the CO2 emission rate for each, accounting for travel and accommodation. All are two-week trips for a family of four. Curious how your campervan trip compares to these?
Popular options for flying to a hotel
About intercontinental flights
Keep in mind that these are all destinations within Europe. However, a quick Google search tells us that many of the trending destinations today would require intercontinental flights. Unfortunately, these come with a vastly different and much higher emission rate. Take for instance a round trip from London to New York, which amounts to 3208 kilograms of CO2 for a family of four. That’s just the trip, no accommodation is included yet.
About hotel accommodation
Another important takeaway here is that staying at a hotel comes with a rather hefty CO2 footprint. That’s something you could keep in mind if you do end up flying. Opting for a private apartment available through Airbnb for instance would reduce your accommodation’s emissions to 280 instead of 899 kilograms of CO2.
The main thing to remember is that more comfort almost always comes with more emissions. So a hotel with air conditioning, a swimming pool, an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a dinner buffet definitely adds up. And then there’s the fact that a hotel is built for tourism. So any footprint resulting from its construction and maintenance is directly attributable to the tourism it facilitates. That’s very different when you opt for a private apartment, listed on a platform like Airbnb for instance, which wasn’t originally built for the purpose of tourism.
Popular options for driving to Europe
Popular options for driving in the UK
Camping is a very green option
As the accommodation emissions clearly show, camping is a very eco-friendly option, especially if you compare it to the hotel options above. This is not surprising considering a campsite is not much more than a patch of grass and usually some modest facilities.
Distance makes all the difference
It's immediately clear when looking at the trip emissions that distance matters. How far you travel has a very immediate impact on your total travel footprint. The options within the UK as well as the ferry route to Mont Saint-Michel come in at 560 miles for a return trip, which is significantly less than the 1740 miles to to Nice and back. No wonder the trip to Nice results in a footprint that’s twice as big as those of the UK or Mont Saint-Michel options.
Prioritise experiences over destinations
When making your travel plans, perhaps it’s best to first consider what kind of experience you are looking for in your holiday break, whether it’s some stress-free time at the beach or an exciting adventure in a remote stretch of nature. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can then select a destination that suits your needs but is also a bit closer to home.
It’s also worth mentioning that flying to Nice comes with a smaller footprint than driving there in a diesel campervan. However, keep in mind it’s the combination of travel and accommodation that usually causes the flying option to still be the one with the largest footprint.
More importantly, we should consider that the potential range of driving and flying are very different since both come with very different travel paces. For a campervan trip, Nice is considered to be a far-off destination as it would take multiple days to get there. However, as a flying destination, Nice is considered to be very close to home.
Most campervan trips are made within the UK. Therefore, these trips automatically have a lower footprint than trips by plane, regardless of the type of accommodation you stay in.
Driving vs flying: what’s the takeaway?
In most cases, a camping trip by car or by campervan will definitely lead to a smaller footprint than flying, especially if you’d fly to a hotel, resort, holiday home or apartment.
You can further reduce your footprint by opting for an EV car or campervan as we’ve seen above, or by choosing one that’s shared by a private owner. Driving a privately owned vehicle is a lot greener than hiring one that was specifically manufactured to be hired out for tourism. After all, the privately owned vehicle has been made available for tourism simply by sharing it, causing no additional footprint.
And of course, the easiest way to keep your footprint small is to opt for a destination that is closer to home. But that counts for any type of travel.
Driving vs flying: what about the future?
A final thing to consider when comparing driving to flying would be the potential for both to become more environmentally friendly in the near future.
Campervan travel seems to have a good chance of becoming an even more sustainable alternative in the future. We’re currently seeing the initial steps of EV campervans hitting the market. This is still a slow process, but considering how EV technology in the automobile industry has developed in recent years, it is to be expected that EV campervans will become more widespread in the next decade, as well as more sophisticated and technically advanced.
Along the same lines, EV cars will likely become more suited for holiday trips across Europe. That is, assuming that the international charging infrastructure will also improve over the years.
As far as air travel is concerned, there are currently two main routes to make the industry less polluting. First, there’s the development of electric and hydrogen aeroplanes. Secondly, there’s the practice of blending regular kerosine with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
When it comes to the electrification of flying, the aim is to have the first commercial flights with all electric aeroplanes take place before 2030. However, in the best-case scenario these will carry 70 passengers at most and they will only be available for short-haul flights due to their limited battery range. With the volume of air passengers we’re currently seeing, we won’t be able to rely on fully electric aeroplanes any time soon. Especially since it’s not at all clear who will take the initiative to provide the charging infrastructure at airports, and what’s needed for mass adoption in that regard.
As far as SAF is concerned, there won’t be enough of this type of fuel derived from reused materials any time soon. Its contribution is therefore modest, to say the least. In 2022, only 0,15% of all fuel used by Air France KLM was SAF. Additionally, an argument could be made that the raw materials used to make SAF could be put to much better and greener use.
So to sum up, it’s unclear what can be expected of air travel in terms of becoming significantly more environmentally friendly. On the other hand, more widespread electrification of campervans seems to have a fair shot in the near future.
Other green travel alternatives
Of course there are more travel alternatives besides flying and driving. Let’s look into some holiday options that are very environmentally friendly indeed.
Popular options for train travel
Train travel is a very green option
It’s immediately clear that train travel is by far the greenest option we’ve seen so far. As such, it’s a great option should you wish to travel with a small footprint.
The only thing to consider is that if you want to take a round trip through isolated natural areas or stay at remote campsites, that will prove difficult or even impossible. The main reason is that international railway connections are mostly limited to major cities and urban areas. So you’d be very dependent on local transport options to find your way beyond the train station.
Also keep in mind that train travel requires a lot more planning in advance to work out connections, but also because ticket prices usually increase as you come closer to the departure date. Moreover, international train services often require you to reserve a seat in advance as well.
Of course, these things don’t make train travel any less of a great travel option and one with a very small footprint.
Hiking and cycling
Two other ways of travelling that come with a tiny footprint are hiking or cycling, especially when combined with staying in a tent. Unlike train travel, both hiking and cycling offer the same flexibility as campervan travel in terms of being able to decide on the day what you want to do or where you want to go. The only thing to note is that these options of course come with a physically more limited range. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but it does have practical implications. For instance, with a campervan, if the weather is bad, you can always opt to drive south for 1 or 2 hours to find a place where the weather is nice. That’s of course not as easy when you’re travelling on foot or by bike.
Conclusion: How green is campervan travel?
So is campervan travel a green option? Even though there are greener ways to travel, for many people it's most definitely a step in the right direction. We know that most people who hire a campervan for the first time would otherwise fly or drive to a hotel, apartment or holiday home, which all lead to a significantly bigger footprint.
Calculate the CO2 footprint of your campervan trip
The best way to find out what the footprint of your campervan trip would be is to use our trip footprint calculator. You’ll get an estimate of your trip’s total CO2 emissions, so you can easily compare those to that of the popular travel options listed above.