How to Travel Sustainably, from Booking a Place to Packing Your Bag

"Traveling doesn't have to be bad for the planet. Here's how to make a positive impact abroad."

With the world reopening post-COVID, you probably have plenty of plans to travel. 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 eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

These statistics are alarming for anyone who finds joy in travel and adventure. Luckily, local and international organizations are working to turn these trends around. By making conscious decisions while traveling, we too can help make it possible to travel sustainably and ethically.

How to Travel Sustainably and Ethically

1. Research Travel Destinations

travel sustainably

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. 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.

Also, 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.

2. Curate Your Plans with Sustainability and Ethics in Mind

The United Nations reports that less than five percent 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

travel sustainably

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.

Furthermore, chain hotels 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. You can also search for accommodation options by eco-label to be certain that the accommodation is meeting environmental and ethical standards.

Browse local tourism agencies and be prepared to ask questions before making a selection. Some important questions to consider are:

  1. Does the company hire locally?
  2. How does the company support the local environment and people?
  3. What does the company do to minimize its impact on the environment and wildlife?
  4. Does the company establish fair treatment and welfare as priorities?

Also, avoid experiences where guests interact directly with animals. This often supports animal exploitation.

4. Consider Carbon Offsets

travel sustainably

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 create your own environmental project to mitigate the CO2 released while traveling.

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 less fuel requirements.

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.

travel sustainably

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.

In need of a mask to help you travel safely and sustainably? Beauty News NYC shared an option that can be upcycled into mattress padding once you’re done using it.

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Traveling doesn't have to be bad for the planet. Here's how to make a positive impact abroad.

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