Adopting conscious practices at home is one thing, adopting them on the go is a whole other challenge. After all, it’s no secret that the environmental impacts of travel can be daunting. It’s not an excuse to never leave home though. From bringing reusables, to selecting your accommodations and excursions with sustainability in mind, there are plenty of ways to make your trip something you and the planet can enjoy. So if you’re wondering how to travel sustainably, consider the following questions as you plan your next sustainable vacation.
How to Travel Sustainably: 5 Questions to Ask When Planning Your Next Trip
1) Where are you going?
Closer to home is always better for the environment (assuming you opt for ground travel that is). For short haul flights, carbon emissions per traveler are about 82 grams per mile traveled, whereas a long haul flight is about 63 grams per mile. So, if you’re just looking for a change of scenery, consider locations that are a train or bus ride away. However, if an exotic adventure is the move, you can start by checking out the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations. Countries such as Slovenia, Ecuador, and Portugal are included in the Top 10.
You may notice that a number of “bucket-list” cities are missing from that compilation. Popular destinations such as Venice, Machu Picchu, and Barcelona suffer from over-tourism, which as defined by World Atlas means “a situation whereby too many tourists visit a particular destination.” The result is degradation of the local culture and environment.
Think about it this way—you throw a small house party. The party is great, so your friends invite their friends. Now 100 people are at your house. It’s noisy. You wait in line to use your own bathroom, someone breaks your favorite fruit bowl trying to wear it as a hat, a drunken stranger draws a mustache on a photo of your grandma. The guests leave and you’re left looking at an acre of trash on your floor even though your home is only 900 square feet—that’s over-tourism. Too many people in one beautiful place ruins the beautiful place.
So, the point: if you want to plan a sustainable vacation, but need to check those big cities off your bucket-list consider going in an off-peak season and pick activities that give back to the local community. Also, be mindful of the type of accommodation you select (more on that later) and please, please do not leave your trash on the ground.
2) How are you getting there?
Flying should be a last resort (although I don’t think you should boycott it altogether because what’s the point of saving the world if you can’t see it?). However, if global air travel was a country, it would be amongst the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gas emissions.
So before you hop on plane, consider ground travel. It may actually take less time than flying when you factor in distance to the airport, wait time and potential delays. With that said, if you’re wondering how to travel sustainably when flying is the only option, consider a carbon offset.
What’s a carbon offset?
To put it simply—planes run on fuel, fuel releases greenhouse gases into the air—the most common of which is the notorious CO2. You can’t stop the emissions from your flight, but you can try to neutralize them by purchasing a carbon offset (and if you’re on a budget, don’t worry, a 4-6 hour flight will only run you about 6 dollars).
Before getting any further, I want to make one thing clear: this is not a license to book plane tickets guilt-free. Purchasing an offset is like eating a salad after eating three slices of pizza. You can’t undo damage done by the pizza, but at least eating the salad puts something good in your body and it’s better than eating a fourth slice.
How to choose a carbon offset
Step one to canceling out those slices…I mean…emissions—calculate the damage. You can easily do so with an emissions calculator like this one from Cool Effect. Just enter the estimated duration of your flight and it’ll quickly calculate how much you owe Mother Earth.
Next, you have to look out for greenwashing (yes, even carbon offset programs can be a scam. A few key questions to ask before purchasing:
1) Would this project happen without my contribution? (ideal answer: no)
2) Is this project increasing emissions elsewhere? (ideal answer: no)
3) Is this project permanent? (ideal answer: yes)
Finally, check for certifications. Third-party certifiers like The Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard, and Green-e require carbon offset projects to undergo rigorous testing to verify their pro-planet claims. Their websites also act as databases for certified projects, making them a great place for sustainable travelers to start their searches. For more info, check out my in depth guide on carbon offsets and reputable projects.
3) What are you taking with you?
Falling victim to disposables is so easy when gallivanting across the world. To avoid single-use plastics make sure to bring reusable water bottles and utensils with you. Stasher bags are also great for snacks, as well as storing jewelry, makeup, or toiletries. Which, speaking of toiletries, instead of bringing liquid soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, consider bringing them in bar form. Not only are they typically plastic-free, but they won’t count toward your liquid allowance not the plane. Seems solid to me 😉
Looking for a recommendation? These shampoo and conditioner bars from HiBar received five-star reviews and last just as long, if not longer, than 16 oz bottles of conventional haircare products.
Now, cutting back on single-use items and plastic isn’t the only way to reduce waste on your trip. I’d also recommend giving some thought to any special gear or clothing you’re bringing. If you need specific gear that you may rarely use, consider renting or at least buying secondhand. Of course if you absolutely need new clothes, make sure to check out my guide to buying new clothes the eco-friendly way.
4) Where are you staying?
We have a lot of options when it comes to accommodations these days—hotels, all-inclusive resorts, hostels, Airbnbs, even Tiny Homes. Some of these options are more planet-friendly than others, let’s compare.
A big pro to staying in an Airbnb is that you’re more likely to immerse yourself in the local culture (i.e., shop at the local shops, eat the local food). This is preferable to falling into giant tourist traps, which are often unsustainable and damaging to the local economy.
To take it one step further, there are some Airbnb hosts that are more conscious than others. In fact, according to Airbnb more than 364,000 sustainable accommodations are available on the site, with the number of stays in eco-friendly dwellings increasing by 141% between 2018 and 2019. A few things to consider when searching for sustainable short-term housing:
- Does the Airbnb offer recycling or composting?
- Does the host offer suggestions for local eateries, shops, and activities that support the local economy?
- Is any of the decor handmade or made with planet-friendly materials?
- Are the toiletries organic or cruelty-free?
- What is the energy efficiency like? Does the home utilize LED lights? A smart thermostat?
- Is the rental run by a company or an individual? It’s becoming a popular practice for management companies to purchase multiple rental properties in a city, which they rent out year-round. This hikes up rent prices and decreases the amount of housing available to locals.
Airbnb hosts will often highlight their conscious efforts in their listings, but if they don’t touch on something you’re curious about, don’t be afraid to ask. Even if it’s something they don’t have at the moment, maybe they’ll look into it.
According to the EPA, 15% of total water use in commercial and institutional facilities in the U.S. takes place within the hotel / lodging industry. So while the complementary breakfasts, mini bottles of shampoo, and freshly washed linens make for a delightful stay, these conveniences also result in a staggering amount of plastic and water waste. Curious as to what was being done to reduce this impact, I sifted through a number of hotel brands’ corporate responsibility plans and identified a couple leaders:
Accor Group, which includes popular hotel brands such as Fairmont and Swissotel, has considered sustainability to be a core part of its business for over 25 years. In 1994 it was the first hotel business to establish a department dedicated to environmental impact. Since then it has enacted a number of sustainability initiatives, including Planet 21, which outlines 65 actions that promote sustainable development. Since first implementing the plan in 2011, the group has created new iterations and set more aggressive targets. A couple of the plans highlights: creation of 1,200+ urban vegetable gardens and elimination of all single-use plastics by the end of 2022. To learn more you can view their in-depth overview.
Since the 90’s Hyatt has been tracking energy and water use, but in more recent years they’ve made a number of advancements. The hospitality veteran has made small (but mighty) changes, such as swapping travel shampoo bottles for in-shower dispensers in addition to tackling larger challenges such as food waste. By partnering with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Hyatt helped develop a toolkit aimed at advancing food-waste prevention within the industry. For more on Hyatt’s commitment to sustainability, visit their website.
All Inclusive Resorts
Though convenient, all-inclusives are generally not the greatest option for anyone who wants to plan a sustainable vacation. In theory, you don’t have to step foot off the grounds your entire stay. There’s no incentive to visit local shops or eateries or immerse yourself in the culture. That lack of business can be detrimental to the local economy.
Unless the resort sources it’s food from nearby restaurants and chefs, then many of the ingredients are likely flown in from other parts of the world, further contributing to carbon emissions.
Not all resorts operate that way though. For assistance finding an eco-friendly resort (or hotel), visit bookdifferent.com, which can help you identify sustainable lodging in eco-friendly destinations.
5) What are you doing once you get there?
An exciting part of traveling is getting to see and do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience at home. Often such activities include wildlife. While getting to interact with the beautiful creatures of the planet may seem fun and exciting for us, that often isn’t the case for the animal.
According to research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), there are at least 560,000 animals worldwide that are participants in tourist attractions. It’s important to note that 25% of these attractions positively impact the welfare of the animals involved (snaps for rescuing animals from not-so-hot conditions). However the other 75% are the aforementioned not-so-hot conditions. For more information check out the World Animal Protection’s report on Wildlife Tourism, which includes a list of the top 10 wildlife attractions to avoid.
Good news though! There are ways to ethically incorporate animal encounters into your trip. Consider experiences where you can see your favorite furry, majestic, powerful or slimy creature in its natural habitat. This is often possible at National Parks, safaris, sanctuaries or conservation and protection projects. Just make sure to do your research and read reviews to weed out any scams. Safaris shouldn’t be overpopulated with vehicles following animals at a close range and parks should allow animals to roam free (basically animals should just be allowed to do their animal thang). A couple certifications indicating an ethical attraction: Blue Flag Certification and The Fair Trade Tourism Certification.
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