6 Tips for More Sustainable Travel
I travel quite a bit because it is one of my favorite ways to connect with other cultures and learn about history. I love to explore places near and far, whether they be wild lands or cities. I am deeply grateful to have traveled as much as I have around the globe. I am also aware that my travels have a negative impact on the planet. Unfortunately, there is no way around it - traveling is not good for the environment. To put it simply, the most sustainable way to travel, is to not travel at all.
With that said, does that knowledge keep most people from traveling? No. Does it keep me from exploring the world? Honestly… No. While I make every effort to live as sustainably as I can, I also feel that there are so many wonderful up-sides to traveling.
Connecting with other cultures, experiencing wondrous natural landscapes, learning natural history and human history are wonderful benefits of traveling. Exploring new places increases our exposure to a variety of political structures, diets, lifestyles. I believe we can even learn different ways to live sustainably from other cultures.
Getting out of our comfort zone and going on an adventure is good for our souls. Traveling helps us become well rounded and educated people. We are more connected as a human race when we can experience each other’s way of life in person. I also believe that the life experience gained from traveling can, in turn, impact the environment for the better - if we choose to travel mindfully and act upon what we learn during our travels.
If you are like me - passionate about both the environment and traveling, then you may want to adopt more eco-friendly travel habits. With all of my traveling experience, here are 6 simple tips I’ve picked up along the way to be more sustainable in my adventures.
Participate in the Local Culture
One of the best ways to travel sustainably is by shopping local and engaging in the local culture. Go to the food markets with the reusable bags you packed and load up on local fresh produce. Dining out at locally owned restaurants is great, but I promise that you’ll prevent a lot of packaging and food waste by shopping at the local markets. I like to incorporate a mix of both dining experiences in my travels. I’ll typically make my own breakfast and pack snacks or a lunch made from local ingredients, then I’ll leave space in my day for an authentic locally made dinner.
When buying souvenirs, avoid the tourist trap shops. Many of those chintzy items are imported from overseas. Spend a little more money and select a handmade item from a local artisan. Be careful not to purchase items made from materials that are endangered or being exploited, such as animals tusks and skins, or wood from over-harvested forests. When you are researching accommodations and customs, also look into local environmental concerns. This will cue you into any tourist attractions, activities, services, or souvenirs that could be exploiting the people, land or animals.
Your goal in engaging with the local culture should be to really connect with the people and support the local economy. Participate in festivals, gatherings, and farmers markets. Instead of booking a tour through an international agency, look for an experience offered by a local guide.
One of my most favorite traveling memories was of the time my husband and I joined a paella cooking class hosted in the backyard of a sweet Catalonian woman, Sara. I can still taste the succulent jamón ibérico and hear the sweet sizzle of sofrito at the backdrop of a bustling Barcelona afternoon. Not only did we come home with a mouthwatering recipe, we left with friends from all over the world and we supported Sara’s small culinary business.
Avoid High-Traffic Destinations
When you are considering your vacation destination, try to avoid locations that are suffering from over-tourism. High traffic tourist attractions are extremely harmful for the environment. For example, Yellowstone National Park in the Summertime. This national park, in the Western US, gets hit with close to 1 million visitors each month. That is not a typo. With that many visitors, the road is bumper to bumper in traffic all day, causing roadside soil erosion and vegetation trampling, as well as unsanitary conditions around busy bathrooms. Think of all the emissions! The noise pollution, the trash, the foot traffic, the unsafe interaction with wildlife - all of this compounds, ultimately harming the bio-region. With visitation rates steadily inclining, the impact is devastating.
*I’d also like to note that this impact evaluation does not account for the impact of the visitors during the various US government shut-downs over the last two years.
Yellowstone is just one example of overtourism, but think about Machu Picchu, Venice in the Summer, or Cancun during Spring Break. I’ll be honest, I have been to each of these popular destinations. And I admit, there is good reason why these magnificent destinations draw such a crowd. However, to lower my impact, I mostly travel in the off season, when the crowds are minimal to none.
Rather than flocking to one of those global bucket list destinations, get off the beaten path and go somewhere different. Spend your travel dollars supporting a small local economy by lodging and dining there for a longer period of time. Look for the small places that need the tourism rather than the popular places that suffer from it.
If you must check off those big bucket list vacations, travel there in the shoulder season, and off-season, when the crowds are elsewhere and your tourist footprint can be better managed. When you do find those hidden gems - don’t overshare the location on social media. Try to keep them hidden. Destinations that grow in popularity too quickly are extra susceptible to environmental harm.
Consider Alternative Transportation
Most people are aware that flying can be one of the least eco-friendly choices when it comes to traveling. If you are curious how your flight impacts the environment, you can calculate the Co2 emissions of your trip by using this calculator. However, you might be surprised to learn that you don’t always have to fly to get where you are going.
I’ve travelled great distances around Spain (and other European countries) by train, when I could have flown. Honestly, I’m better for it. Had I flown, I would have missed seeing the drama of the Andalusian countryside. I never would have seen the white-washed mountain towns scattered about. I still have dreams of those dusty fields lined with olive groves, and the medieval castles perched atop the hills. (I regret not taking a nice camera with me on that trip!) If you have a multi-leg journey, perhaps only traveling a portion of the distance by plane will suffice. Then, finish the rest of the journey by boat, ferry, or public transit.
If racking up tons of Co2 emissions rubs you the wrong way, yet you can’t give up flying, consider offsetting your footprint by donating to organizations that use your money to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and contribute to sustainable development.
Wherever you go, stay longer. Staying in one spot longer will cut down on your overall transportation carbon footprint. Moreover, staying put is the best way to really slow down and immerse yourself in the local culture.
Additionally, I cannot speak highly enough of walking as a means of getting from point A to point B. My husband and I walked an average of 11 miles a day while on our honeymoon in Europe, and we look back on that experience fondly. We do not feel that we missed out on any attractions or experiences by moving slower. If anything, walking enhanced our time because we’d stop at small cafe’s, sit on park benches, or meander into exquisite cathedrals to rest our feet.
Walking can be a great way to get exercise and see the town the way the locals do - not to mention there are no carbon emissions! Consider making walking the focal point of your trip. Walking Pilgrimages, like El Camino De Santiago in Northern Spain, and the Kumano Kodo in Southern Japan are extraordinary ways to experience the world.
Alternatively, consider traveling a shorter distance. There is so much to be explored within our own states, provinces, and countries. Perhaps a few hour drive, and a long weekend, is all we really need to take a slow holiday away. I like to balance my travel by favoring more local destinations, then peppering in exotic locations once every few years.
Leave It As You Found It
Leave No Trace is a set of outdoor recreation ethical principles that focus on low impact practices. Essentially, the concept is that nobody should be able to tell that you were there. This set of principles is a standard in outdoor recreation and can be applied to all types of tourism. I highly encourage you to familiarize yourself with each of the 7 principles before your next getaway. You will learn proper ways to dispose of waste (both man-made and human) low impact foot travel, campfire safety, and more.
Make an effort to leave the places you visit better than you found them. Stay on-trail and never pick the wildflowers. Don’t stack cairns, or tromp on protected ground (like the cryptobiotic soil we have in Southern Utah). Always remember to wash mud off your boots after a hike, because you could be transporting bacteria and plant seeds to your next location that could be extremely invasive. Always remember to pack out anything you arrived with - including trash.
Reduce Your Waste
One of the best ways to reduce your waste while traveling is by packing a zero waste kit. Bringing your own dining kit and water bottle will afford you the opportunity to avoid single-use plastic while eating out. Supporting local food is good, consuming single-use plastic is not. Your zero-waste kit will allow you to enjoy the local cuisine without contributing to the global plastic pollution crisis.
Clean drinking water can be hard to find in many locations without being forced to buy plastic bottled water. A handy zero waste tool you can bring with you, to ensure you always have filtered water, is a piece of bamboo charcoal. Simply plop the charcoal into your reusable water bottle, then fill your water bottle with basic tap water. The best part is that the bamboo charcoal can last up to 3 months and is compostable after use!
A snack pack is also another sustainable life saver. We’ve all had those hangry moments during a particularly stressful experience while traveling - or is that just me? My snack pack helps to curb my hunger quickly so I don’t resort to buying snacks packaged in plastic in the heat of the moment.
When it comes to lodging sustainably, there are a few things you can do. If you’d like to stay in a hotel or lodge, research what they value. Discover what their initiatives are, and if they have any eco-certifications or sustainability awards. Hotels are more commonly focusing on their sustainability efforts, and typically, leveraging those efforts as a selling point.
Look for hotels that conserve water through low-flow shower heads and toilets, as well as delayed laundry washing cycles. Look for hotels that use green energy such as LED bulbs, and solar, wind, or geothermal power. Also, look for hotels that locally source their restaurant’s food in addition to implementing a recycling program.
Alternatively, staying at Airbnbs and locally-owned vacant rental homes is a great sustainable option, because you can better control your footprint. Staying in short-term rentals that come equipped with a kitchen, and means of washing clothes, negates the need to eat out every meal or visit public laundromats that are not energy or water efficient.
Another option for sustainable lodging is participating in a workaway or homestay exchange. There are many options all over the world where estates, or farms, offer room and board in exchange for varying levels of help. Some can be better than others, so I highly suggest researching specific listings and speaking to the household directly.
I will be participating in my first farmstay exchange later this month. I cannot wait to experience a nice slow vacation on a remote organic farm. Who knows, maybe I’ll come home with a few new gardening tips!
Participating in farmstay and workaway experiences allow you to contribute to the local agriculture industry, economy, and really dive into the culture. These estates tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than large hotels, and a significantly more personal touch.
What are your sustainable travel tips?
What small change can you adopt for your next trip?