7 Steps to Go Green: On the Go
“Sustainable travel, ultimately, is moral travel.”
I love to travel, whether it’s a day trip to a neighboring town or state park or a flight to the other side of the world. There’s something mind-blowing to me about seeing an ancient temple that I’ve read about or a beautiful landscape so different from the terrain that I’m normally around.
The past couple of years have opened my eyes to the privilege, costs, and responsibility that comes with traveling. Not everyone can travel, and those that can have varying degrees of the distance they can afford to cover.
Traveling can lead to party fouls: contributing to climate change through transportation, unknowingly harm residents by driving up rent prices, crowding already overtouristed destinations, or acting irresponsibly and disrespectfully.
But there are practices you can develop and follow that help you reduce or eliminate the negative consequences of travel. Check out our other articles in the Go Green series; you’ll find that you can bring along many of the tips on your trips – i.e., saying no to single-use plastic by bringing a reusable with you or eating more plant-based foods.
Here’s how to up your sustainable travel game.
7 Ways to Tread Lighter on the Earth While Traveling
1. Choose your destination – and transportation – wisely
- Explore closer to home. The less distance you cover, the more emissions you’ll avoid. Take a train or car to check out local state or national parks, or hiking trails, and consider camping. Travel to a nearby town, exploring it and trying the local cafes, bars, and restaurants.
- Avoid destinations suffering from over-tourism: for example, Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Bali, and certain spots in the Philippines and Thailand. You can read more about the causes and consequences of travel in this National Geographic article. Explore alternative destinations to overcrowded spots here.
2. Avoid flying – if you do, fly smart
Let’s make this clear: Flying is extremely bad for the planet.
While I’m not here to point fingers and recognize that there isn’t an easy option to cross oceans or cover large distances fast. (Personal context here: I’m an Army Brat who grew up in Germany so have been flying at least twice across the Atlantic Ocean every year since I was young. And during my university junior year, I flew to Nepal and back – on a trip researching the effects of climate change, no less!)
But this article from The New York Times really opened my eyes, so I’m now more hesitant to fly. If flying is unavoidable, do your best to make it as efficient and environmentally-responsible as possible by following these tips:
- Buy carbon offsets. Carbon offsets help pay for projects that draw down or offset the same amount of carbon dioxide that you emitted on your flight. Projects mainly take the form of planting trees or investing in renewable energy or technology.
- Choose Economy Class over Business. The more people packed into a plane, the more efficient the flight becomes at moving people from Point A to B.
- Take direct flights instead of layovers. Yes, direct flights are more expensive. But considering that planes produce the most emissions during take-off and landing, it’s better to do it once rather than two, three, or four times.
- Pack as lightly as you can. Extra weight on a flight requires more fuel to power it up. Packing carry-on only versus checked baggage may sound small, but if a majority of travelers followed this guideline, planes could become noticeably more fuel-efficient.
3. Say “no” to cruise ships
Shipping, whether it’s commercial or tourist-related, substantially contributes to climate change and the disruption of marine ecosystems. Three percent of humanity’s annual emissions come from ships. Our oceans are already under extreme stress from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, and plastic pollution and don’t need the added pollution from cruise ships.
Here are other environmental reasons you should reconsider booking your vacation on a cruise:
- Ballast water pollution: Like other big ships, cruise ships take on an average of 1000 metric tons of ballast water to remain stable on the ocean, filling up in one region and dumping in another. This water can carry vegetation and microorganisms, which can become an invasive species in a new region, threatening the local ecosystem’s balance and health.
- Gray water pollution: Gray water is the used water from washing dishes, showering, doing laundry, preparing food, etc. On cruise ships, this water passes through a water treatment plant before being dumped into the ocean. A cruise ship can release as much as one million gallons of gray water during a one week voyage! Despite the treatment, this water can still contain harmful chemicals, metals, and minerals.
- Blackwater, or sewage pollution: Yes, sewage, after going through the ship’s water treatment plant, is dumped into the ocean. A week-long cruise voyage can produce 210,000 gallons of this blackwater, which is rich in bacteria and algae. These can lead to algae blooms, which suck up all the oxygen in the water and leave dead zones.
4. Explore alternative accommodations
One of the biggest culprits when it comes to environmental destruction in the tourism industry is hotels. Think about it: The mini plastic bottle, plastic-wrapped toiletries, blasting AC, towels washed every day and food waste.
Where you stay impacts the local economy. Keep these suggestions in mind:
- Avoid big international hotel chains. Most of the profits made by these get siphoned out of the country, which is called economic leakage in tourism.
- Instead, stay in locally owned and managed hotels, hostels, or guest houses.
- House-swap, which is when your household and another household stay in each other’s residences, or house sit for owners (and potentially the owner’s plants and pets).
- Use Airbnb with caution. People are turning entire blocks into lucrative Airbnbs in heavily touristed cities like Barcelona, leading to rents unaffordable to locals. Read more about the issue and when or where you shouldn’t go with Airbnb here.
5. Do your best to travel zero-waste
Plastic pollution may seem like small issues compared to climate change, but replacing single-use disposables with reusables made from wood, metal, glass is a great first step. Destinations may not have recycling facilities or even responsible garbage management, so the less you throw away the better.
- If you fly, bring your own food and snacks packed in reusable containers with reusable utensils to avoid the single-use packaging of in-flight meals. Feel up a reusable water bottle before the flight. Most airlines will refill your water bottle, bypassing the disposable plastic cup.
- Don’t litter. This isn’t acceptable in your own community, it’s not acceptable at your travel destination, and it isn’t acceptable anywhere – EVER.
6. Buy local souvenirs
Most people like to purchase something to remember their trip, as well as bring back some gifts for family members and friends. There’s nothing wrong with this, but not all souvenirs are created equal. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Avoid the tourist souvenir shops with plastic snow globes made in China and opt for locally-made purchases from local-owned stores or market stands. Your money will go back into the community’s economy. Keep an eye out for these souvenirs at neighborhood markets, independent stores, and roadside stands.
- Minimize your purchases and take photos instead. Consider if you’ll appreciate souvenirs for years to come instead of throwing it in the back of your closet to collect dust. If you don’t find anything that really catches your eye, photos can capture memories to remember.
7. Be Respectful of local culture
True sustainability goes beyond treating the natural environment with respect. Sustainable travel needs to incorporate social and economic justice as well.
- Avoid “white savior” volunteerism: Volunteerism, which is a booming multi-billion dollar industry, often does more harm than good.
- Be prepared: Learn about local customs and history before you visit. Take the time to go on a walking tour or take a local class in cooking or textiles.
- Take public transport, walk, and bike. Beyond easing the environment, it can also immerse you deeper into the culture. You’re more likely to meet locals and experience what day-to-day life is like.
- Always ask before taking photos of other people.
- Learn the language. Don’t assume that everyone speaks English. Particularly try and remember key phrases in the local language like yes, no, thank you, please, hello, and Do you speak English?