Travel is a massively growing industry which is amazing because travel becomes more accessible but it also can negatively impact the environment. I want to share some tips on how to travel more sustainably.
Sustainable travel is travel that is mindful of the social, economic, and of course, environmental impacts and reducing negative influences.
There are a lot of phrases floating around like “lowering your impact” “sustainable travel” “eco-friendly travel” but what does it all really mean? Can anyone claim to be sustainable or eco-friendly even if they aren’t?
Well, that is complicated. Isn’t everything? Because of a trend towards more green options for travel, a lot of people are claiming to be doing it right, but there really isn’t a central regulation body in place. So, yes, companies can claim they are green without really doing anything and this is called green-washing. Because of this, it can be overwhelming finding the right accommodation or tour company that aligns with sustainable goals.
Below I offer 11 different areas that you can implement new sustainable options and I give various actions you can take today. I also share some companies that are creating databases of sustainable and responsible tourism options to help book your next trip.
As consumers, we can influence businesses by choosing to spend our money in responsible ways.
I do want to say that this article is in no way to shame anyone for their choices or to make someone feel bad because they don’t do everything on this list. I don’t do everything on this list but I try to do what I am capable of and have a willingness to learn and adapt because we only have one earth. I do understand that some of these choices below are not financially viable for everyone or within their comfort zone but I do urge all of you to try to do at least one thing from the list on your next trip!
Reconsider your mode of transportation
Sustainable transportation is a very hot topic at the moment. Every week I see a new article claiming this mode of transport is worse than the next, and more often than not it is targeting planes and cruise ships. And rightfully so!
The National Geographic did this excellent infographic to explain exactly what goes into play using a sample trip comparing various modes of transport.
Cruise ships have been in the news a lot recently because of their excess emissions, pollution, and crowding of cities (see: Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona). I don’t need to explain everything because there is this article, and this one, here is a personal account, oh and this one, too.
If you want to cruise try this site to see how different cruise companies rank for various responsibility categories.
Now let’s say you have to fly or you have a cruise booked already and you are feeling like you want to do some positive. You might have heard about carbon offsets. This works by calculating your carbon emissions from your flight. There are various calculators that you can use. This can help with the planning stage or to determine your contributions.
From this point, you can choose to offset your emissions. Carbon offsets do not remove the carbon emitted from your travels. I repeat, your emissions are not canceled out. Instead, the money you donate goes towards ongoing projects that contribute to reducing carbon emissions. I suggest browsing Gold Standard or UN’s carbon offsetting platform.
- Consider a car or train for short trips.
- Decrease the number of flights taken and book direct flights.
- Carpool with companies such as BlaBlaCar or Prevoz in Slovenia.
- Purchase carbon offsets – or donate to organizations working towards sustainable goals.
Carry your own reusable water bottle
There is no excuse not to carry a water bottle. Yes, I am shouting at myself. I am trying very hard this year to create a new habit of carrying it anytime I leave the house because it reduces the number of plastic bottles I purchase.
Many European cities have potable water fountains all around the city so you can refill your water bottle at no cost. This saves you money, saves the environment from more plastic, and it is fresh cold water from the source!
Sometimes recycling isn’t enough because in some places only a small percentage of recycled products actually make it through the entire process. Because of this, it is much better to focus on prevention and carrying a water bottle is the easiest and fastest way to do this.
- Take a reusable water bottle with you every time you travel.
- Bring your own compact reusable silverware or straw, too!
- Find out where potable water fountains are in your location (if available).
Know local trash and recycling laws
In places like Slovenia, you might find yourself being very overwhelmed looking at three to four different trash cans of various colors. Places that are serious about recycling will separate biowaste, packaging, and waste. Some go as far as separating glass and paper but this often happens at the residential level.
Familiarizing yourself with local trash management sounds like the last thing you want to do while traveling but it does help to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in landfills. If I am on a road trip I keep a bag in the backseat to hold all of my trash until I find the proper containers to dispose of it. Sometimes this means it stays there until I arrive home where I can sort it.
This site shares recycling symbols found around Europe.
Stop littering. I mean really, it is 2019 and there is absolutely no reason to ever litter. Even if there is already trash on the ground, don’t be that person.
- Learn local recycling laws.
- Dispose of all trash appropriately.
- Limit your trash by buying package free.
Choose local and sustainable accommodation
Local vs Sustainable: the long argument. The dream would be local and green but it doesn’t always work out that way so this comes down to a personal choice.
I prefer to support locally-owned businesses and book with smaller establishments. I believe in the power of spending money locally to support local communities. Now if the local community is also running a sustainable hotel then, by all means, choose it but, do your research. There are different types of green labels and each one means something different.
There are also ways for you to make your stay sustainable no matter where you go. Opt out of getting towels or sheets changed, don’t use excess water, and don’t leave the air conditioning or heating on all day.
Ecobnb is a great alternative to find eco-friendly accommodation and activities. To be listed on their database a set of criteria must be met that cover organic food, renewable energy, ecological cleaning products, water management, and more.
Green Pearls offers green and luxury accommodation. Services listed on this site must satisfy a long list of requirements concerning sustainable architecture, water, and energy consumption, waste and local resource management, food, employment, social commitments, and more.
BioHotels operate in Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Greece, and require all hotels listed with them to serve organic food, provide vegetarian options, all toiletries are certified natural, and hotels use green electricity and recycled paper products.
- Research sustainable accommodation.
- Don’t get new towels and sheets daily.
- Supporting local businesses keeps money locally.
I mean various things by eating local. First, support locally owned restaurants. Second, eat food that hasn’t traveled thousands of miles. The second one is a bit harder when eating out unless a restaurant is explicit about it, but it is useful to consider when shopping at the grocery store and you check the origin on your produce.
Eating local is an excellent way to make not only your travel more sustainable but your lifestyle. Of course, organic products are also preferred and are the most beneficial but be mindful that not everyone can get certified organic. The process is very intense and very expensive so smaller farmers are not always able to do this.
Also, who doesn’t want to try to local dishes when traveling? I thought that was most of the fun. Opt for the small local place over the flashy big chain for a more authentic and genuine experience you are sure to remember.
Another thing to note is that reducing your consumption of red meat also has a positive effect on the environment. I try to keep my meat consumption to once a day and usually spend a few days a week meat-free.
- Eat from locally-owned restaurants.
- Local food has a lower carbon footprint.
- Reduce meat consumption.
- Support traditional establishments and foodways.
Select tour operators and activities mindfully
It is important to research your tour operators to see what they are doing to give back to the local environment and communities. Are their activities harming local traditions, environment, or animals?
The National Geographic did a heartbreaking piece exposing the dark side of animal tourism and I think it should be a must read before booking an experience for yourself.
Many of the principles I discussed around supporting local food also falls into this category. Lonely Planet wrote a very useful guide to help you select responsible operators and activities.
Visit Good Place offers bike tours, hikes, and wildlife watching in Slovenia and Croatia while subscribing to sustainable policies, nature preservation, and responsible trade.
G Adventures have extensive criteria for their tours which make their activities responsible and sustainable. The offer tours to every part of the world, covering many styles of travel.
Responsible Travel is a UK based tour company who work with operators all around the world that meet specific sustainable and responsible criteria.
- Select tour operators that are openly sustainable.
- Avoid animal tourism that harms animals.
- Consider visiting in the offseason. Over-tourism harms the local population.
- Avoid tour companies and activities that harm local populations.
Learn about local customs and history
Sustainability is not just about recycling and supporting local businesses but it is also about supporting local people and their culture. It is respectful to learn before arriving what the local customs entail. This can be a dress code, religious rules, learning a bit of the language, local food habits, laws, etc.
When we visit a place it is not just a location full of buildings to see and food that magically appeared on our plates. There are people who live there and are influenced directly by our actions. I urge everyone reading this to be more mindful about these interactions and the impact you are having while traveling.
- Learn a few phrases in the local language.
- Dress appropriately.
- Follow local customs.
- Support sustainable businesses.
- Book with tourism companies that respect the local customs.
Implement sustainable habits
Most of this list discusses ways to book your travel more sustainably and about how the choices we make with our spending impacts the world. I do not want you to forget that practicing everyday sustainable habits is also important. Being sustainable while traveling isn’t enough and for most of us, that is only a small percent of our time.
I understand that being sustainable is harder. It is far more difficult to make responsible choices than to do whatever we want. There is more research involved, more preparation is needed, and yes it is a bit more effort, but the results are important. The results are the future of our world and why not act when we have the choice.
- Carry reusable shopping bags at all times.
- Decline packaging that cannot be recycled or biodegradable.
- Use menstrual cups over traditional products (article coming soon).
- Purchase products with the least amount of packaging.
- Spend money locally and responsibly.
Walk or bike around your new location
When you travel to a new location opt for walking or biking when exploring. You will get to experience a lot more this way and maybe find things you wouldn’t otherwise. If you are in a much larger place then, of course, public transport is the way to go.
I love to travel by car and do fairly often but once I arrive somewhere I will park my car and leave it until absolutely necessary. I prefer to walk around, observe my surroundings, take photos, explore random streets, you never know what you might find. Many European cities have sections where no cars are allowed to discourage drivers.
- Walk or bike when exploring new places.
- Use cars only when absolutely necessary.
Be mindful of how you interact with nature
I touched upon this briefly before but I want to be very explicit. Everything we do in nature is felt by nature. You damage an ecosystem the moment you pull a flower out from the ground or touch coral while snorkeling.
We need to treat nature with respect and to nurture its growth because we are part of its ecosystem. Please do not litter and be mindful of chemicals you are using via sunscreen and bug spray.
- Check if your sunscreen harms ocean creatures and corals.
- Don’t touch fish, corals, or turtles.
- Leave nature how you found it.
- Do not litter and pick up litter when found.
Don’t underestimate your home and the areas close by. Traveling local is the best and easiest way to be sustainable.
I travel throughout Slovenia a lot. People ask me why and first off, why not, it is beautiful, but also it is a more responsible way to travel. I’m not using planes. I’m supporting local tourism and businesses. I always eat at small local restaurants and try to purchase something locally produced (usually food products).
I challenge all of you to try and travel locally this year and use the hashtag #wanderinglocally on social media so I can see the wonderful places you’ve gone!
- Travel locally!
- Learn more about your own history and culture.
- Try a new local restaurant.
- Tag your adventures with #wanderinglocally
Pin it for Later!
I hope that this article has helped you learn some new things about sustainable travel and maybe now you are considering to implement some of these new ideas. If you would like to read more articles about sustainable travel let me know in the comments. -Helene
Owner of wanderinghelene.com. Anthropologist, content creator, castle explorer, coffee drinker, and lover of markets and very old places!