Go Small or Go Home

Expand your horizons, not your carbon footprints.

bike vacationers in san jose
Lydia Lee

With Labor Day weekend upon us, many Californians are looking forward to one last getaway. However, many of us have become more aware of the fact that flying is the most carbon-intensive way of traveling, making us rethink our plans. A round-trip flight between San Francisco and New York, for example, generates 1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is your entire carbon budget for the year if you want to limit global warming, according to Flight Free USA. Rather than skip your vacation—or wallow in “flight shame”—consider a trip that relies on public transportation and bicycles.

I’ve become a new convert to what some are calling micro-travel.

Last year, my family—two adults, two teens—had such a good micro-vacation over Labor Day weekend that we’re puzzled why we didn’t start doing these kinds of trips sooner. The nominal goal was to enjoy the end of summer in a pool. I found a last-minute deal on rooms in an aging convention-center hotel in San Jose, 30 miles away from where we live. In addition to being affordable and centrally located, a convention-center hotel seemed like an unlikely place to run into crowds of vacationers. We also arranged to meet friends at an outdoor concert that was taking place nearby, “Strike Up the Band," by Symphony Silicon Valley and Opera San Jose. Other than that, we were open to whatever we could experience on foot and two wheels.

Leaving the car at home added a whole extra layer of adventure (and exercise) to the trip. We decided to take the train, which is more environmentally friendly than car travel and also saved us on steep hotel parking fees, and get around town strictly by bike and foot. Packing was easy, since we could bring only what fit into small backpacks. A bigger challenge was figuring out where we were going to store our bicycles when we got there. On the advice of the hotel staff, we brought them up to our rooms. (Some hotels may also have space for bicycles in their luggage rooms.)

Walking through the hotel lobby with our bicycles felt vaguely transgressive but also cool, like we were cowboys rooming with our horses. Since we were there over a holiday weekend, the streets of downtown San Jose were relatively quiet, which made biking on unfamiliar roads less intimidating. In the evenings, we stuck to places within walking distance.

Like many big cities these days, San Jose has a trail designed just for bicyclists and pedestrians. We spent the good part of one day exploring the Guadalupe River Trail, which runs for miles through downtown, underneath roads and freeways. Amazingly, salmon still swim from the ocean up the Guadalupe to spawn. We took the opposite route, starting from the land of skyscrapers and ending at the tiny historic town of Alviso, at the edge of the Bay. The 11-mile ride back was long and hot, but it made us that more grateful for a dip in the hotel pool, which turned out to be hilariously small compared with its glamour shot on the hotel’s website.

Since then, the bike vacation has become a family tradition. For Presidents’ Day weekend, we took our bikes to San Francisco, where we spent a day exploring Angel Island. For our next trip, we plan to take the bus, which can carry bikes, to Half Moon Bay.

Fortunately, California is jam-packed with possibilities for tiny getaways. The main goal of travel is to experience a new environment and find “pockets of beauty wherever you are,” as Alastair Humphreys (@Al_Humphreys), an advocate of micro-adventuring, puts it. The climate is changing permanently. So, too, should the idea of “getting away.” With a little planning, you can downsize your vacation but still pack in maximum enjoyment.•

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