7 Travel Tips for an Environmentally-Conscious Vacation
As global travel restrictions are lifted, we're all itching for an adventure – but, before you head to the beach, the mountains, or a new city, take the time to plan a trip that's both enjoyable and sustainable.
While traveling has many benefits – among them a greater appreciation for other cultures, and an important diversion from our daily lives – the travel methods, food, accommodations, and activities involved can be environmentally harmful. A 2018 study conducted by the University of Sydney found that 8% of global carbon emissions come from travel, and it's estimated that a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions will come from flying by 2050.
Many people support the idea of sustainable travel, but few report a willingness to engage in responsible tourism if it is inconvenient. Luckily, there are many ways to travel responsibly without compromising your trip. Use this guide to help make decisions about your destination, travel methods, and activities before booking your next vacation.
Choose Sustainable Destinations
Visit and support the economies of places that are doing important conservation work or prioritize sustainability by sourcing energy from renewables, disposing of waste properly, maintaining good public transportation, etc. Palau – a Micronesian island country – for example, won the IBT Earth Award in 2019 for its commitment to conservation and sustainability. All tourists who visit the island must sign the Palau Pledge, promising they will respect both the people and the ecosystems of the island. Other recognized sustainable cities include Ljubljana, Slovenia; Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Bengaluru, India; Copenhagen, Denmark; Freiburg, Germany, and Singapore.
Consider also visiting locations that are recovering from natural disasters – like Puerto Rico, building back after Hurricane Maria – to support their economy.
Travel by Train, Bus, or Public Transportation
Staying closer to home is, of course, the best way to cut down on travel-related greenhouse gas emissions. For shorter trips, instead of taking flights to faraway places for only a few days, explore nearby destinations that you can reach by other means of transportation, like buses and trains. Buses are more fuel-efficient than single-occupancy vehicles, as are passenger rails, which are 3 times more efficient per mile for each passenger than driving a car.
Traveling by boat is, unfortunately, not a sustainable option. Cruise ships generate at least 3-4x more carbon dioxide emissions per passenger than commercial flights, according to a 2017 study. In fact, while aboard a cruise ship, the carbon footprint of passengers is roughly three times higher than it would be on land.
If you do fly – since, realistically, we still must in many circumstances. – avoid layovers and trips that require multiple flights in each direction. Takeoff and landing require much more power than cruising, so the more flights you take, the greater your carbon footprint.
Before booking your transportation, compare the energy consumption of your trip by various means of travel on ecopassenger.org to make an informed decision about how to transport yourself as sustainably as possible.
Consider Carbon Offsets
To mediate the impact of their trip, some travelers choose to purchase carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets are just what they sound like: a way for individuals and companies to theoretically offset the emissions they produce by contributing to projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere. Examples of offset projects include tree-planting initiatives that will create carbon sinks, improving the energy efficiency of buildings so less heating and air conditioning is needed, and renewable energy projects, like building wind farms. For an offset to be legitimate, it must be permanent, verifiable, and additional, meaning that this work would not have occurred without the money provided.
Unfortunately, these projects are not always legitimate and can even have negative consequences for the communities they're based in. For example, a reforestation project might consist of monocropped trees that don't support a biodiverse ecosystem. It can also take decades for a tree to mature enough to capture the amount of carbon promised from an offset purchase. Many projects are also carried out in faraway places – often in poorer countries in the Global South – so consumers don't see what their money is actually going towards.
Some airlines offer consumers the option to offset their emissions, and travelers can add an offset to their cart when booking their flight. Research the airline and their current offset projects before purchasing to ensure that it's legitimate. You can sidestep this complication, however, by donating to a project on your own. Find projects vetted by trusted organizations that evaluate offset projects, like the Climate Action Reserve, Cool Effect, and Gold Standard. Calculate your emissions and then purchase an offset accordingly.
Smaller, more local offset projects are also an option, like the Finger Lakes Climate Fund, which funds home insulation projects for families in the Finger Lakes region that wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. The better insulation lowers their heating/cooling bills and requires less energy.
While a decent option for travelers in some circumstances, offsets are controversial. Critics argue that consumers won't reduce the amount they fly if they perceive offsets as a get-out-of-jail-free card for emissions, which will lead us to believe that we can continue business as usual regarding our emissions. In reality, if the aviation sector were considered a country, its emission would rank sixth in the world: a major indicator of the breadth of this source of greenhouse gases.
Before heading out, pack your bags more mindfully to minimize your trip's environmental impact. Resist the temptation to purchase a whole new wardrobe for your trip. Instead, shop secondhand for the items you need – like better shoes or more weather-appropriate clothing – or borrow from friends and family. Likewise, instead of buying new travel-sized toiletries every time you head out on a trip, refill reusable (or already-used) travel bottles with body products to bring along.
On vacation, it's easy to slough off the things we do for the planet every day, but be sure to pack the waste-free supplies you use in your normal life: water bottles, to-go coffee mugs, grocery bags, straws, silverware, and napkins. You'll likely encounter even more disposables while traveling than in your daily life, so have these items on hand so you're not generating waste in your wake. Look into collapsible options for silverware and beverage containers if space is a concern.
Choose Responsible Activities
Sustainable travel isn't just about conservation and reducing emissions, but about being cognizant of your impact on the community you are visiting. Support green businesses and choose experiences that support conservation efforts in the area while on your trip, like visiting a Marine Protected Area, going on nature tours and excursions led by nonprofits or groups that preserve land, and engaging in activities that respect ecosystems and animals. Especially on trips centered around viewing wildlife, choose organizations that acknowledge and address how the presence of humans can impact the feeding, breeding, and migrating of animals when booking an activity. Check to see if they are a member The International Ecotourism Society – which requires that their organizations follow certain criteria related to sustainability – or if they have other accreditations.
Be sure that the money you spend on vacation is going to the community you're visiting, rather than large companies centered elsewhere. Support businesses that employ local people and prioritize workers' rights, like eating at a restaurant run by local people, shopping for souvenirs at a small business, or hiring a local guide rather than an international tour company that brings in their own workers. If you do use a tour company, look up their sustainability efforts, or ask them before booking.
Stay in Accredited Accommodations
Eco-friendly hotels are becoming more and more popular, and options for sustainable accommodations are growing. If you're not up for going hotel- or rental-less and camping under the stars, look up the sustainability efforts of your accommodation options, and research places that use green energy, serve local food, etc. Some hotels and rentals might have different stamps or seals of sustainability on their promotional materials, like a LEED certification. Learn whether the accommodation's certification has been recognized by the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) to see if it's legitimate. On Bookdifferent.com, users can also search accommodations and calculate their projected nightly carbon footprint at each location.
Utilize Bike Shares and Public Transportation
Think ahead about how you'll get around while on vacation. It's great to purchase a legitimate offset or stay in a LEED-certified building, but that can all be undone by renting and driving a car for hours every day while you're away. Research public transportation in cities and plan your excursions around what you can reach by bus or train when possible. Biking is another option to transport yourself and explore the city; find out whether bike rentals are available, either for the entirety of your stay or for a few hours
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia's NPR Member Station, WHYY.