Going green by participating on a trail restoration project at RockResort.

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

I hate to be a nag, especially on vacation.

The kids hate when I nag them about getting up early or posing for next year’s holiday card. But now I’ve got new motivation to nag, and I don’t think my environmentally conscious gang will complain about — traveling greener. If we turn out the lights when we leave home, why not in a hotel room, asks Herve Houdre, the general manager of the historic Willard Intercontinental Washington in Washington, D.C., and an emerging leader in hotel environmental initiatives. Ditto for turning down the air conditioning (or the heat) and hanging up towels. No one needs fresh towels or sheets every day in a hotel. Think how much water and energy that could save! (Download the Willards’ “Pocket Guide to Going Green” at www.willarddc.com/sd). In fact, Houdre says his hotel donates that savings to local community projects. Guests applaud their efforts, he adds. “We’ve never had any negative feedback.”

In fact, travelers say they want to travel greener, even if it costs them more. Seventy-eight percent of those polled by Travelocity recently said they would spend extra for an eco-friendly destination. At the same time, according to TripAdvisor’s latest survey, travelers vow to travel greener in the coming year — doing more outdoors, at national parks. One-third of those polled by TripAdvisor report they are now more environmentally conscious of their travel decisions.

But that resolve seems to crumble the minute we’re in a hotel. “A lot of people just don’t think about it. They think the energy is free,” says Rosamond Kinzler, whose responsibility as the senior director the American Natural History Museum’s Center for Science Literacy and Technology (http://www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/) is to engage kids in science. And with the museum’s new stellar Climate Change exhibit that includes showing kids how they can reduce their carbon footprint — on vacation and at home. (Blog about what you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint at www.amnh.org and steer kids to the museum’s special site (www.amnh.org/ology/).

The exhibit explains how little changes can translate into big energy-saving initiatives. The Museum of Natural History, incidentally, for the first time in its 140-year history, is opening an outdoor Polar Rink for skating this month — the rink’s surface is made from synthetic ice.

Certainly it makes sense to tote a reusable water bottle rather than buying plastic ones every few hours. Not only are they cheaper and better for the environment, but they also make instant souvenirs, once the kids slap stickers all over them from the places they’ve visited. We could also carry tote bags or backpacks for souvenirs, rather than take new bags everywhere. We don’t need to drive everywhere either. Clearly, you get a better sense of a place on foot, on a bicycle or via public transportation. Even packing lighter makes a difference, we learn from the museum exhibit. The heavier the load, the more fuel it takes to get it there.

Even the way we eat on vacation can make a difference, suggests Richard Edwards, co-founder of www.Greenspot.travel/, which is dedicated to helping travelers vacation greener. Local foods and local products, he explains, don’t have to be transported to that region. At the same time, you can introduce your kids to local flavors and the local culture. Check out a farmer’s market, like San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (www.cuesa.org) where the kids can talk to California growers and sample their goods.

Rent a greener — or at least smaller, fuel-efficient car. Hertz (www.hertz.com), Avis (www.avis.com) and Budget (www.budget.com), for example, all offer the option of renting a hybrid. Take advantage of hotel programs that give back to the community or environment. You can plant a tree at Lapa Rios Lodge in Costa Rica (www.laparios.com), for example, or participate on a trail restoration project in Colorado while staying at a RockResort (www.rockresort.com). Help clean up a Washington, D.C., park with Willard Intercontinental staffers. “It really makes you feel good,” says Herve Houdre, who also invites guests to take the hotel’s complimentary hybrid shuttle rather than a taxi.

Take a snow science tour at the Keystone Science School in Colorado (www.keystone.org) or stay at a hotel in Florida’s Gulf Islands (www.floridasgulfislands.com), certified green by the Florida Department of Environmental Transportation, which protects Florida’s natural resources. Take a “green” walk with the in-house naturalist at Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont (www.stowemountainlodge.com), where everything from furniture to vases has been built with organic materials. Take the kids to see “Exploring Trees Inside and Out” now at the Orlando Science Center (www.osc.org/) and also all across the country as a traveling exhibit. The exhibit is sponsored by Doubletree Hotels (www.doubletree.com/thinktrees), which has organized the planting more than 250,000 trees across North America and initiated other environmental awareness programs for children.

It always pays to ask hotels exactly what they’re doing to “be green,” says Melissa Teates, the research director for the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org), which has developed a green program to better educate travel agents. Ask if the hotel uses “green” cleaning products, she suggests. (Visit www.travelsense.org to find a travel agent who is a “green” specialist.) When you arrive, stage a scavenger hunt with your eco-savvy kids. Where are the recycling bins? Are there reusable coffee mugs in the rooms, rather than paper cups? Does the hotel use energy-efficient light bulbs? We recently stayed at an entirely green hotel in Truckee, Calif. The 42-room Cedar House Sport Hotel (www.cedarhousesporthotel.com) was built “green,” from the water conservation system to the green roof, by Jeff and Patty Baird. You can’t help but feel good when you walk into the place.

Global warming, of course, is one of the most complex issues facing our planet today. There is no one solution, the American Museum of Natural History exhibit stresses. But we can all help by using energy more efficiently, wherever we are.

“It’s kids who are the drivers of change,” observes Rosamond Kinzler. “We want them to see what they can do and how their choices can make a difference.”