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How to Travel Sustainably, From Accommodation to Packing

You can travel sustainably with our easy-to-follow guide. Here's what to know about booking, packing, and more.

Written by
Bailey Coleman
Published

With the world reopening again, you probably have plenty of plans to travel: About 71% of Americans say they’re likely to travel for leisure in 2022. But while it's a great way to explore history, culture, and nature in a foreign environment, it's harder than you think to travel sustainably; tourists can negatively impact the areas they visit.

The International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University found tourists use up to 2,000 liters of water per day. This raises environmental and ethical concerns as tourists deplete freshwater resources in areas where it's already scarce. Furthermore, according to data published in the journal Nature Climate Change, tourism contributes to 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

These statistics are alarming for anyone who finds joy in travel and adventure. Luckily, there are plenty of ways you can travel more sustainably. In a recent episode of Good Together, Laura Wittig (Brightly's founder and CEO) and Leon Jacobson (Brightly's senior marketing manager) share tips and tricks that make it possible.

How to Travel Sustainably and Ethically

1. Research Travel Destinations

Educating ourselves is one of the important steps we can take in traveling sustainably. This is not to say that we have to check out half the books in the library or spend countless hours in deep corners of the internet. With numerous blogs, websites, and companies devoted to ecotourism, creating a sustainable trip is easier than ever before.

The process begins by selecting a sustainable destination, as some locations have devoted more resources to sustainability efforts than others. Websites like Ethical Traveler and Green Destinations feature the top sustainable travel destinations each year.

Once you've chosen a location, spend time getting to know its history and culture. Cultural awareness not only shows respect to locals, but also enriches the experience for the traveler. Also, be sure to respect religious sites by dressing conservatively and following all photography rules. If you plan to attend any festivals or holiday events, research the event beforehand and familiarize yourself with cultural traditions.

Finally, educate yourself on issues currently faced by the region to ensure that you don't contribute to these problems. For instance, many beaches have a policy against outdoor lights at night in order to help endangered sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the sea.

"Try to educate yourself if you can before you get there on some environmental issues that are currently being faced by the region to make sure you're not part of the problem," Wittig says. "I think a lot about reef-safe sunscreen in Hawaii and how before they did a really big PR campaign, all these people were entering into those precious coral waters and bleaching them because they just didn't even understand what's going on."

2. Curate Your Plans with Sustainability and Ethics in Mind

The United Nations reports that less than 5% of the dollars spent in a country stay there. This is compounded by the fact that an increasing number of destinations are reporting overtourism—aka excessive amounts of tourists negatively impacting the quality of an area. Large, international tourism corporations are benefiting while locals are suffering.

This trend can be reversed by supporting local businesses and companies. Search for social enterprises operating in your travel destination. These for-profit businesses work to address environmental and social needs in a variety of ways, including hiring locals facing otherwise limited employment opportunities, selling goods that directly benefit the surrounding neighborhood, or investing profits into projects focused on improving the community.

3. Choose Local

When booking an accommodation, prioritize homestays, bed and breakfasts, or other locally-run lodging options that employ residents of the area. Large hotels require more energy to run and are built on substantial land plots that take away from the natural environment while displacing local people.

Another downside of staying at a chain hotel is that they typically offer extensive menus filled with international cuisine that must be imported. As a result of the transportation process required to get the food to the destination, imported foods have a larger carbon footprint than options offered at local accommodations.

Choosing a local accommodation was a goal of Jacobson on a recent trip, and after having such a great experience, it's going to become his family's new go-to when traveling.

"When I was looking at reviews, they said they don't use any single-use plastics and how everything was very local. So my wife and I thought that sounds like a really great opportunity to do something different and try something we don't normally get to," he says. "Do some extra research, look at reviews, and see if it's owned by a mom and pops versus, you know, a huge company that owns a ton of different hotels."

On top of supporting local when choosing a place to stay, Wittig also loves supporting family-run restaurants, businesses, and experiences while she's on her trips.

"My husband and I went to Italy and we really wanted to take a cooking class. We were like, 'Let's figure out how we can connect with a local,'" she says. "We did it through Airbnb Experiences, but there's a lot of different places you can look for these things. And we actually did—we learned how to make pasta with an Italian family in their home in Tuscany."

4. Consider Carbon Offsets

Unless you plan to sail across the world, flying is often inevitable in international travel. One flight can release more CO2 into the atmosphere than the rest of your yearly activities combined.

Carbon offsets can help account for this CO2 release. Although they don't directly prevent CO2 emissions from your flight from being released into the atmosphere, carbon offsets have important environmental and social impacts. Carbon offset projects either sequester carbon already in the atmosphere or prevent carbon from entering the air.

Research different carbon offset options or utilize new technology to mitigate the CO2 released while traveling. "Google has a feature where you can see which flights have the lowest carbon footprint," Jacobson says. "That's amazing to me that the technology even exists and you have that when you're researching trips."

5. Pack Sustainably

Packing light is beneficial for both you and the environment. You'll thank yourself for packing light when you have to carry your suitcase on public transit or drag it through crowded streets. Less luggage weight also means a lighter plane and fewer fuel requirements.

"The more weight you bring onto the plane, the heavier it's going to be and you're going to actually decrease the efficiency of that flight," Wittig says. "I know that's a little bit crazy sounding, but it's true. And you can simplify your life a lot if you can be creative with clothing that you rewear in multiple ways."

When packing, include multipurpose clothing and reusable items. Two often overlooked travel must-haves are solid toiletries and reusable cutlery. Solid toiletries produce zero or minimal amounts of waste. As an added bonus, you can carry solid shampoos, conditioners, and lotions onto the plane without having to worry about separating them as liquids. If you have ever had a bottle of shampoo explode in your suitcase, you will appreciate these mess-free alternatives.

Reusable cutlery always comes in handy as well. Include a straw, fork, knife, and spoon so that you can always say no to plastic and never risk being caught in a messy food situation without utensils. Wittig is also a fan of bringing a reusable water bottle.

"We have this really cool collapsible reusable water bottle from Stojo in the Brightly Shop, which is just a really good thing to bring that's super lightweight so that you don't have to buy a bunch of bottled water," she says. "Just make sure you get filtered water and throw it in there."

Final Steps

Preparing your own home for departure is an important step in the travel checklist. Turn off the lights before you leave, and adjust the thermostat to a more environmentally conscious temperature. If you'll be gone for more than a couple days, consider turning off the water heater.

After you leave, all that's left to do is enjoy your trip! You can rest easy knowing that your experience is contributing to environmental preservation while simultaneously fueling local economies. And as a final takeaway, don't forget the golden rule of travel: Never take anything more than photos, and never leave anything but footprints.