Image: Mount Hood
Steve Terrill  /  Corbis
Alpenglow on a snow covered Mount Hood is a beautiful sight. You can do your part to save the planet and use public transportation to get around.
By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 7/10/2008 1:33:05 PM ET 2008-07-10T17:33:05

All the talk about green travel, carbon offsets, and emissions impacts can leave your head swimming, but there’s one truth that’s easy to comprehend: trains and buses inflict less damage on the planet than cars. But can a family go on a multi-city vacation — in North America — using nothing but public transportation?

I was ready to meet the challenge, but we’re beyond the backpacker stage and didn’t want to rough it. Could we travel in comfort from city to city, and get around once we arrived, without renting a car?

It turns out that if you choose the right places to go, it’s not all that hard. Our trip took us from Portland, Oregon to Banff, Alberta in Canada, by way of Seattle and Vancouver.

Portland to Seattle
We arrived by plane in Portland, Oregon, a day later than planned because of weather problems in Chicago and an unexpected night’s hotel tab added to the budget already. It was an apt reminder of the frequent hassles of domestic flights.

We then explored Portland for two days on their excellent Trimet mass transit system, riding the MAX light rail train out to the zoo and back and catching frequent buses to and around our friends’ neighborhood. An all-day pass for these two methods and the streetcar is only $4.25, plus you can easily bring a bike along for taking advantage of the bike trails all over the city.

Slideshow: The Emerald City To get to Seattle from Portland, the three of us took an Amtrak train for only $63 total by booking in advance and getting a $7 AAA discount. I had forgotten how pleasant a train ride could be compared to today’s exasperating flying experience. With no baggage fees and plenty of legroom, saving the planet feels like a guilty pleasure instead.

Our family played games on the table between us and we grabbed food and drinks (including microbrews!) from the dining car when we felt like it, not when the cart came around. The scenery rolled by at a leisurely pace and we all enjoyed being able to get up and walk around. The amount of time spent in transit worked out to be about the same as it would have been flying once we factored in all the arrival and waiting time.

Slideshow: Great Northwest Now if only the government would step up and get Amtrak the funding it needs to maintain and expand this eco-friendly mode of transportation in the U.S.

In Seattle, we got a $12 taxi to the Mayflower Park Hotel, where their family package came with tickets for the monorail to the Experience Music Project. Apart from the monorail, we got around fine in the kid-friendly center by foot, walking to the Pike Place Market, the aquarium, and lots of restaurants. City buses are free in the central zone too, though Seattle is otherwise not much better than other car-happy U.S. cities when it comes to public transportation beyond the core.

Seattle to Vancouver
Did you know you can book a bus through Amtrak.com? I found out the hard way that yes, you can. The train tickets I had booked for us from Seattle to Vancouver at Amtrak.com were not in fact train tickets, but bus tickets. “There’s only one train a day and it’s sold out,” the ticket counter woman told us when we tried to fix the problem. “But on the bus you get to go to the duty-free shop.”

One obligatory bottle of booze later, we were in Vancouver, Canada by means of a standard four-seat-across touring bus with limited legroom. Although it’s no cheaper than the train, it was hard to argue with the price: $67.50 for all three of us with the AAA discount (normally $75).

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Slideshow: Let the Games begin In Vancouver, we grabbled a $10 taxi to a hotel in the center, but took advantage of a transit pass and our own leg muscles for two days of sightseeing after that. We rented bikes for a 12-mile transit around Stanley Park. There are several bike shops by the park, but if you visit the Tourist InfoCentre office first, you can buy a voucher for $18 that covers three hours of bike rental and a helmet.

We used the mostly electric buses and the sea bus to get to the Anthropology Museum and the Capilano Suspension Bridge up in the mountains. At only $9 for adults and $7 for kids, an all-day transit pass will quickly pay for itself. We were able to walk to the Gas Town and Chinatown neighborhoods though, grabbing an impromptu dinner of street food at the Chinese night market.

Into the Rockies
We saved the best inter-city trip for last, boarding the Rocky Mountaineer train to go from Vancouver to Banff. This is one of the most spectacular train trips in the world, with dramatic scenery and attentive service. With the upper class Gold Leaf option, we enjoyed a double-decker coach enclosed in glass at the top, offering a panoramic view the whole way across the Continental Divide. When it was meal time, we all descended a spiral staircase and ordered from a menu, enjoying interesting dishes cooked to order.

There are no sleeping compartments, however. Instead everyone overnights in the city of Kamloops, transferring by motorcoach to and from a hotel. Video: Travelers switch to trains

Throughout the trip, the guides — who also double as waiters — gave historic background on the areas we passed through and helped in spotting bighorn sheep, coyotes, eagles, ospreys and deer. A map in the seat pocket broke down the trip by milepost as well.

In Banff, we boarded a bus to head to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, with its panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies. The next day we would have to return to the ranks of the car drivers in order to head north to the glaciers and national parks. For 12 days and nights though, we had managed to vacation as a family without getting behind the wheel.

That alone won’t do much to stop the global temperature rise, but it’s nice to see that in the Pacific Northwest anyway, you can make a small contribution to cutting emissions without giving up much in the way of convenience or comfort.

Tim Leffel is author of the book “Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune” and co-author of “Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.” He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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