I feel torn. I love to travel, especially if that means I’m rejoining old friends and potentially making new ones.
But I know it’s hard to make travel a truly “sustainable activity.”
I don’t know.
I’ve traveled through the U.S., Spain, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Thailand, Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Canada.
Reflecting on my travels, were those trips as sustainable as they could have been…?
Definitely not. Back then, I didn’t know a fraction of the things I know now!
But all those previous trips (and my trips to come) are part of the motivation for writing this post. We’re going to walk through the best sustainable travel tips I could come up with, from planning your trip to arriving back home.
Sustainable Tips for Planning a Trip
Consider a Shorter Trip (Distance)!
Turns out, the majority of our carbon emissions come from our travel to and from our destinations. But you’re a savvy, sustainable traveler…you probably knew that already.
How to travel (plane, bus, train, car, etc.) we’ll cover later.
So, a simple way to travel more sustainably is to reduce the distance we travel.
If you’re still in the planning phase of your trip, maybe find a local destination that might get you the same fix!
As a frequent international traveler myself, I know this isn’t always possible…but it’s well worth considering.
Have you fully explored your local region?
Consider a Longer Trip (Duration)!
If you are traveling a large distance, then make it count! Maybe not the “sustainable travel tip” you expected, but if you choose to take a few longer trips each year vs. a lot of small trips, we’ll be making progress on reducing our carbon footprint.
The goal might simply be to cut down on the number of plane, train, and long road trips you make each year.
Spend more time in the locations that you do visit and you’ll spend less time actually traveling (the greatest emitter of this whole thing).
Consider the Lesser Known
Of course, the most popular travel destinations are typically popular for a reason. Take the U.S. National Parks for example.
Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, both are incredible! There’s wildlife, incredible scenery, and a real aura about them.
However…with that popularity has come overcrowding. It was just reported in The Guardian that half of all recreational park visits in the U.S. go to only 5% of the parks! This leads to more waste for the park staff to manage, greater noise pollution for the local wildlife, and high emissions from cars and transport in the local area.
Seek out somewhere less traveled. Big Bend National Park out in West Texas, for example, is one of the least-visited parks in the country!
It’s breathtaking and also where my wife and I got engaged. 😉
The economies of local communities can benefit from tourism. While seeking out more unknown destinations can better distribute the negative impacts, it can likewise also distribute the upsides of tourism for locals.
Tips to Pack Sustainably
Pack to Prepare!
While you might think that my first bit of advice would be to “travel light,” I’d rather make the case for packing to be prepared. After transportation, the goods we purchase at our destinations are what make up the greatest amount of carbon emissions while traveling.
While there’s always the urge to pick up a local souvenir of some kind to memorialize the experience, we sometimes run into issues where we need to buy something to make our trip more comfortable.
An extra t-shirt, maybe a sweatshirt because we’re cold. We buy the cheapest, most readily available option, with no expectation of wearing or using it after the trip.
While you might travel with an item you don’t end up using, bringing that rain jacket you’ve already purchased makes less of an impact than just planning on buying something if you need it when you’re traveling.
Don’t go overboard, here! Just mitigate the chance that you’ll encounter a scenario where you need a clothing item you don’t have with you. And, if you end up in that scenario anyway…think twice about buying something that you’ll just dispose of afterward!
Think: Reuse & Multi-Use
As you pack, think about the items that you can bring that might have multiple uses. Annie and I like to use Stashers to hold our toiletries, snacks, and sometimes other things once the snacks run out. 🙃
We also like to pack a tote (that packs into itself) in case we find ourselves at a grocery store or market and want to avoid using plastic bags.
Finally, we’ll bring travel versions of shampoos, conditioners, and body wash so that we can avoid using those tiny hotel-size plastic bottle soaps and lotions.
Get the Right Gear
Also, if you happen to be in need of new luggage to pack all these “sustainable travel must-haves,” make sure you’re supporting companies who’ve taken care to make their products with people and the planet in mind.
For international, more on-the-go travel, I like my Cotopaxi Allpa Travel Pack. It’s just the right size for a carry-on and quite flexible and adaptable if I’m on an extended trip and making lots of moves.
Cotopaxi is a Certified B Corporation and on a mission to alleviate global poverty.
For most of my domestic and work travel, I’m going to be using the Carry-On Pro from Monos, a Certified Climate Neutral and 1% for the Planet company.
Carry-On a *Kanteen!
A basic tip, but an important one: make sure to bring your water bottle. From the little plastic cups used for serving drinks on your flights, to plastic water bottles you’ll buy during your stay, you can quickly rack up the plastic use if you don’t BYOK (bring your own Kanteen).
I’m saying Kanteen because Klean Kanteen is a favorite and worth considering if you don’t have a water bottle you love or just lost yours (what typically happens to me; I’ve always just lost my water bottle).
This isn’t always possible, especially in communities where potable water isn’t widely available. But even then, I’d recommend buying the largest volume of water you can and refilling your water bottle from that, instead of buying single-use bottles each time.
Bring the Extras
While they may feel silly to pack, here are a few extras that you might find useful throughout the trip that will cut down on potential waste:
- To-Go Utensils — Sometimes to-go is a great option while traveling when you’ve had a long day exploring. But the plastic cutlery is not! Fix that.
- Final Straw — This may or may not be an essential item for you. Some people are straw people—a great option is the Final Straw. Compact and easy to pack!
Tips for Sustainably Getting There
Drive, Don’t Fly…Or Maybe Fly?
Okay, I’ll be honest…when researching for this article, I 100% believed that air travel was without a doubt the most inefficient and carbon-intensive means of transportation. However, the results of my research weren’t that absolute.
The answer of whether you should fly, drive, or take a train is…well, it depends! How unsatisfying, right?
I learned a few key things (thanks to these excellent articles from Grist and TreeHugger). If we’re given the opportunity to drive (vs. fly), the most fuel-efficient form of transportation is a bus. That’s because “buses have about three times the per-passenger fuel efficiency of an average car.”
Really, it’s all about the fuel efficiency per passenger over the distance. This may or may not be within your control.
Hitting the road for the 278 miles from Seattle to Spokane? Get a friend in the car who needs to make the trip too and it’ll be more efficient than if you flew.
Start talking about a cross-country road trip from Seattle to Boston (3,000+ miles)? Well…it might be better to fly.
Now if we’re talking about visiting Costa Rica or Hawaii from the continental U.S., then, there’s not really an option—we’re flying, right? This brings us to our next tip…
Yes…I know all our wallets are shaking, but the majority of a plane’s fuel supply is used for take-off and landing. On shorter flights, it’s near 25% of the total fuel supply! That means it’s best for us to avoid connections as much as possible.
I know that direct flights are often more expensive, but if you do decide to treat yourself and splurge on direct, do know you’re doing the planet a solid, too.
Not driving your own car? Look to rent a hybrid or electric vehicle. Most major rental companies offer both options.
Offset Your Travel Footprint
Lastly, with all your travel accounted for, you can take the additional step of offsetting your emissions by purchasing carbon credits. Don’t get carried away with the hope of offsets being the ‘silver bullet,’ they aren’t a perfect solution.
As long as we keep that in mind, I don’t believe that purchasing them can hurt.
Work with a provider like Sustainable Travel International to estimate your carbon footprint and purchase carbon credits. With Sustainable Travel International, your purchase gets invested in one of their certified carbon reduction projects.
Tips for a Sustainable Stay While You’re There!
When doing your research (perhaps back in step #1), it’s important to think about who you’ll stay with as much as where you’ll stay!
There are really two factors at play here:
1 – The environmental component: Obviously, it’ll make it easier to be mindful of your impact if you stay somewhere where your hosts have some eco-consciousness about them. Look for local sustainable hotels that advertise low-flow toilets, energy-efficient lighting, etc.
2 – The community component: Stay with a hotel or lodge that has a serious stake in the local community. Not just that they’re “locals,” although that’s usually a good thing to look for, but also that they have the best interests of their community at heart. Whether you’re visiting somewhere domestically or internationally, try and stay with people and businesses who you can tell are invested in the local community.
This is an extremely important act of voting with our dollars that we can’t pass up!
Do a quick check to see if your hosts have any recognizable certifications or associations. For example, our friends at Bodhi Surf + Yoga (mentioned again later) in Costa Rica, are a Certified B Corporation and this is displayed clearly on the homepage of their website.
This certification means that Bodhi Surf + Yoga adheres to a rigorous set of environmental standards (audited by a third party).
When Local, Go Local!
Support the local economy. Buy local produce! The same rules apply as when you are at home. That produce that was grown locally had to travel a much shorter distance. Plus, finding a local street market is always a plus!
When dining, shopping, or touring, try to support businesses that are invested in the local community. While we’ve all done it at various points in our travels, buying your coffee at the nearest Starbucks doesn’t do much for the town or city you’re visiting. Not to mention, seeking out the local fare and coffee is a big value-add.
That’s why I always hunt for the closest local coffee shop to where I’m staying. As a visitor enjoying a city you don’t know, do everything you can to give back to it while you’re there. An easy way is to shop with locals!
Mind Local Culture & Customs
It’s always important to be both mindful and respectful of the communities who are hosting you. You are a guest there!
This is also important from the standpoint of sustainability. Depending on where you travel, it’s easy to assume that in some way, shape, or form, the community you’re visiting should look a little bit more like yours.
Maybe you think more of the roads should be paved.
Perhaps you think shops, cafes, and restaurants shouldn’t close in the middle of the day (looking at you, Spain! 🇪🇸)
Or, that you should be able to dry your clothes using a dryer versus having to hang dry them!
True “Sustainable Development” is tricky. Not all “progress” is good. In fact, not all “progress” is even progress, really. Especially if you’re coming from the United States, there’s a tendency to believe that all countries want to and should be like the United States.
That’s just not true. That also might not be a good thing. After all, the U.S. has consistently been the second highest emitter in the world. So, is our model for development the best way?
Be mindful of this when you’re visiting other communities. Consider that what’s best for their local economy and preserving and celebrating their culture might not be what your home country has done.
Leave No Trace
Along similar lines, make it your goal to make it seem like you never visited. Isn’t that the goal of being a good house guest? Well, the same applies to our travels!
Pick up after yourself. Mind local waste and recycling guidelines and capabilities. Respect the local flora and fauna!
When staying with our friends at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, for example, our group was instructed not to take any rocks, shells, or anything else from the beach we were surfing on. That’s because it was protected national park land.
It’s nice to act like everywhere you’re visiting is protected like a national park (it should be, right?). Appreciate your surroundings, heck, even capture the beauty and your experience with a photo when it’s permitted.
But take nothing with you and respect what you’re enjoying as it is. Isn’t that how you feel about your parks and natural surroundings back home?
Regenerate! Give Back
Perhaps a contradiction to making it seem like you were never there—see how you can leave the community you visited better off than you found it.
However, be cautious in this endeavor as well. Not all volunteer programs and organizations are the same! Take tips from local resources to find the best ways to give back. While I get that the urge might be to “get your hands dirty,” if the recommendation might be to donate to a local organization who is doing excellent work, feel content with that.
Again, we can’t assume that what we believe is helpful or good is useful in the eyes of the community that’s hosting us.
Bike! Don’t Cab
Easy! When visiting a new place, find a local bike rental instead of getting cabs or ride shares. This is such an incredible way to visit a new place.
Of course, the feasibility of this varies city to city, but it’s worth looking up. Annie and I utilized the city bike-share services during our first visit to Boston. You cut down on your own emissions, you support a bike-friendly culture in the city you’re visiting, and it’s a great way to feel connected to the area as you explore.
Work the Public Transport
If the bike rental plan falls flat, consider learning about the public transportation options in the community you’re visiting.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a more efficient emissions per passenger figure, it’s typically far cheaper than cabs or rideshare, and you get to see how real locals are living!
Eat it All! Or Order the Right Amount
Yes, many of us love to indulge in the local cuisine when traveling. I’m with you, it’s the best part! However, it’s easy to overdo it. We want to try everything, right?
If eating out, be mindful of how much you’re ordering and how you might take it away if needs be. This typically adds some more plastic to the conversation, so keep that in mind.
Help keep your food waste down; order only what you’ll eat or be prepared to take it away.
The Sustainable Way to Head Home
Review, Reflect, & Make Progress
Ahh, there’s little better than reflecting on an incredible travel experience. For me, it’s most perfect on the trip home, the last flight, or the last 100 miles on the road. In those moments I find myself particularly reflective, content, and grateful for the opportunity to have seen and experienced so much.
If that’s an exercise that sounds familiar to you, then perhaps, the next time you go through it, also think about how “sustainable” your adventure was.
Traveling “sustainably” is not just about the environmental impact anymore. It’s much broader than that! We must consider the people affected, too.
There’s something quite incredible about traveling. It challenges us to try and experience new things, opens our minds up to new perspectives, and puts our lives into scale with all that’s happening around us in the world.
By adding in this additional consideration, of not just what that travel experience meant for you, but what it meant and means for the local community where you were a guest, we can broaden both the significance and impact of what it means to be well-traveled.
Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.