Long-distance travel is not good for the environment.
At least, not the way most people do it today. According to the New York Times, “one round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person.”
If you’re an average American, that’s 10% to 15% of your annual carbon footprint in a single six- or seven-hour flight.
Travel Decisions Have Consequences
The airline industry accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, according to a study by Manchester Metropolitan University, but it’s obviously not the only travel-related contributor to climate change and resource depletion.
The food you eat, the beverages you drink, the equipment you use to carry your things, the packaging all of that stuff comes in – it all adds up.
So, too, do the cars and buses you ride in on the ground, the electricity you consume at your hotel, and the vendors you choose to reward with your hard-earned travel dollars.
If you care about the future of our planet, reducing the adverse environmental impact of your travels is imperative.
Reducing Your Vacation’s Impact Is Easier Than You Think
The urgency with which (most of) humanity is confronting the threat makes doing so less troublesome and more cost-effective than ever before. Though sustainable travel involves inevitable trade-offs, it’s actually more affordable under certain circumstances than comparable journeying taken without regard to the consequences. These green travel tips could therefore reduce your vacation expenditures, setting up a win-win for the environment and your household budget.
I’ve divided this guide into three sections: planning and transportation, lodging, and on-the-ground choices. Each includes plenty of straightforward tips, many from seasoned travel experts, that don’t require huge up-front expenditures or unreasonable logistical maneuvers.
Getting There & Getting Around
1. Don’t Go in the First Place
“The greenest business trip is one that doesn’t even happen,” says Dan Ruch, CEO of Rocketrip, a travel incentives provider that helps companies and employees reduce business travel expenses. “We’ve seen many companies save money by [replacing business trips with] virtual meetings.”
This tip has limits, of course. Replacing an in-and-out business trip with a series of virtual meetings is one thing. Scrapping a once-in-a-lifetime leisure trip to somewhere truly exotic is quite another.
Still, if you routinely jet about for business and you’re in a position to influence your employer’s travel policies, it’s worth looking into curtailing or eliminating nonessential work travel.
2. Pack Light
Packing light is like a full night’s rest: not at all controversial, but definitely easier said than done.
It’s worth trying. Thrifty packers avoid checked baggage fees (as much as $50 per bag, each way). They don’t need an extra person (who, at least in many cultures, deserves a tip) to move their stuff from point A to point B. And, with less stuff in tow, they’re less likely to misplace something important.
Light packers can also do one very specific bit of good for the environment: skip the taxi. That’s also good for one’s wallet.
“When you pack light, you can move more easily at your destination, which means using public transport instead of taxis,” says Andre Arriaza of Barcelona Eat Local, a culinary tour operator in Catalonia. “That is a great way to reduce your travel carbon footprint.”
3. Use Secondhand Travel Gear & Reusable Bags
Next time you need to replace luggage or some other essential travel item, consider buying it secondhand. If you don’t travel often and therefore anticipate needing the item only intermittently in the future, do yourself one better and borrow from a friend or family member.
“Buying secondhand travel gear, or borrowing, saves a ton of money,” says Laura Hall, marketing executive (and seasoned business traveler) at Shiply. Borrowing bags is doubly efficient for infrequent travelers, she adds, as the alternative is “having [luggage] locked up in the cupboard and only used once every few years.”
If you must buy, Hall advises looking to auction sites like eBay, where the selection is broad. I’ve personally had luck buying refurbished luggage on Amazon, of all places, and at garage sales in my neighborhood.
Also, Hall encourages travelers with sufficient luggage capacity to bring extra canvas or vinyl tote bags for laundry, groceries, and refuse. Failing that, she says “take spare bags with you for when you’re in the supermarket to avoid buying plastic carrier bags which will likely have to be thrown away when you leave for home.”
Just make sure you can find a place to recycle them – usually back at the supermarket – when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
4. Don’t Fly First Class
You’re probably thinking, “Duh.”
I’ve personally never flown first class, and I can’t imagine ever willingly paying for a first-class ticket. I don’t have that kind of money.
But what if I didn’t have to pay? Frequent travelers who wait long enough to redeem their airline loyalty miles or credit card rewards can easily cover the entire cost of a first-class fare with minimal out-of-pocket expenditure. When first class is free or close to it, the prospect is much more tempting.
According to Ruch, sustainability-minded travelers should resist the temptation. “Booking first class is worse for the environment than flying coach,” he says, since first-class flyers take up more space in the cabin and consume more on board.
Remember, everyone on the plane is going to the same place. You can probably grin and bear the cramped coach cabin until you arrive.
This is a good time to mention that the right rewards credit card could earn you that first-class ticket a whole lot faster – not that you should give in and trade up for it.
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5. Keep Your Airplane Trash
Airlines have been slow to hop on the recycling bandwagon. More out of convenience than any willful disdain for the environment, most cabin crews throw all their flight trash in oversized plastic bags and huck them overboard on stopovers.
Unless you’re asked for specific types of refuse, such as magazines or plastic bottles, you should assume that your airline isn’t sorting recyclables, says Gillaume Jaques of Barcelona Slow Travel.
“Have a look at the staff coming through the plane with garbage bags and check if they recycle,” he advises. “Most airline companies do not.”
If that’s the case, he adds, find a place to stash your recyclables temporarily until you get out into the terminal. In North America and Europe, pretty much every major airport has a recycling program. Elsewhere, it’s more hit and miss.
6. Travel by Land Whenever Possible
As I noted up top, air travel is really bad for the environment.
Unfortunately, it’s also by far the fastest option for trips longer than, say, 250 miles. If you’re traveling for business on a tight schedule, it’s simply not a good use of your time (nor your employer’s) to ask you to drive or take a train between two places with commercial air service.
If minimizing travel time isn’t paramount, the case for air travel is weaker.
Rocketrip’s Dan Ruch claims that “Amtrak…is 8% more efficient than domestic air travel” on a per-passenger basis. In Europe, where passenger trains travel at higher capacities, the difference is even starker. In the U.S., driving a passenger vehicle is marginally more efficient still. But the efficiency winner by far is intercity bus: According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, buses are about three times as efficient as cars for trips of 300 to 500 miles.
Not all trips are possible by land, of course. The good news is that transcontinental air travel is more competitive with other modes than short- and medium-haul air travel. So, if you’re debating whether to take a plane or train between London and Hong Kong, the faster option might actually be the more efficient one.
7. Walk or Bike Short Distances
If you’re staying on a resort property or in an urban area, commit to walking or biking short distances (weather permitting). It’s healthy, eco-friendly, and not as expensive as you think.
Most major North American and European cities have public bike sharing or low-cost bike rental providers that charge maybe $15 to $30 per day for a basic set of wheels. At resorts, bike rentals are often included in resort fees or nightly charges. Rentals generally cost more in touristy vacation towns, where visitors comprise a captive audience and taxis are rare.
8. Use Public Transit, Not Taxis, for Longer Intra-City Trips
In many major cities, particularly in the developed world, public transit is good enough to replace taxis on most longer-distance trips within the urban core.
Before you arrive, spend some time with local transit maps, learning the entire metro system and the buses and trolleys running near where you’re staying. Figure out the most cost-effective fare option: single rides, one-day pass, multiday pass, reloadable fare cards, or something else. (Every transit system is different.)
If you’re not staying in a transit-friendly neighborhood, find the nearest major station(s) and determine how best to get there. That might mean a long walk, a manageable bike ride, or a short taxi journey.
During my four-month stint in a residential section of south London, I alternated between taking the bus into the city center (which took nearly an hour) or grabbing a taxi to the nearest Underground station (a 45-minute trip all told, assuming the train wasn’t delayed). The choice came down to how pressed for time I was and how much I felt I could afford that day.
9. Utilize the Sharing Economy
The so-called sharing economy is increasingly indistinguishable from the broader economy. On your next trip, you’ll almost certainly utilize at least one sharing economy service: an app-based rideshare from Uber or Lyft, a short-term rental booked on Airbnb, a bike swap through Spinlister, a meal delivered by Grubhub or Postmates.
For travelers trying to get around their destination cities, rideshares are less resource-intensive than traditional taxis. That’s especially true of carpooling sub-services, such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line, both of which aim to fill as many seats as possible with travelers headed in roughly the same direction. And they both typically cost about 50% less than non-carpool services, so they’re easier on the wallet too.
10. Fly With Budget Airlines
Budget airlines are by definition cheaper than full-service airlines. Because they pack more passengers into the same amount of space, they also can be better for the environment – though their tendency to use older, less efficient aircraft complicates the calculation.
If you can confirm in advance that your plane will be just as efficient as the full-service alternative, and are willing to pay for literally every extra (including carry-on bags, which can cost $25 to $50 a pop), then flying with a cut-rate carrier like Frontier or Spirit is a no-brainer.
11. Purchase Carbon Offsets
No trip, no matter how well-planned, is entirely carbon neutral. It’s inevitable: Your journey will directly contribute to greenhouse gas pollution.
The good news is that you can indirectly make up for it by purchasing carbon offsets. This National Resources Defense Council article explains how to evaluate offsetting entities and projects for authenticity and impact – it’s worth a read. Well-known options generally regarded as legitimate include the Carbonfund.org Foundation, TerraPass, and Native Energy.
Carbon offsets aren’t crazy expensive. TerraPass charges $4.99 per 1,000 pounds, which adds up to $20 to $30 per transatlantic fare, for its a la carte offsetting option. That’s less than the cost of the typical full-spectrum travel insurance policy for a round-trip to Europe.
Some tour companies offset their carbon emissions as a matter of course. If you’re leaning toward a guided tour or all-inclusive vacation package for your next trip, try to go with a carbon-offsetting vendor. Most build offsets into their quoted prices, so you won’t notice an added cost.
“We calculate the miles traveled and carbon-offset our flights by donating to reforestation projects and other initiatives that reduce greenhouse gases through the Carbonfund.org Foundation,” says Jake Kelston, operations manager for Gondwana Ecotours and Beyond the Bayou Tours, which are both focused on environmentally sustainable and locally authentic travel.
Where & How to Stay
12. Stay Longer in Each Destination
Planning a multi-stop vacation? Consider extending your stay in each place.
If that means extending your trip or cutting out the stop to which you’re least looking forward, so be it. The less you move about, the less waste you’ll produce, and the better acquainted you’ll get with wherever you happen to be.
“Choose to stay longer at each destination you visit instead of picking up and moving every other day,” says Gillaume Jaques of Barcelona Slow Travel. “Apart from being more sustainable, you’ll save money [on travel] and get more time to immerse yourself in local life.”
Don’t take it from me alone: This is a well-worn trick used by people who travel full-time.
13. Stay in a Multi-Person Dorm Room
Hotel rooms are private, yes, but at what cost?
Double occupancy hotel rooms require more energy to power and keep comfortable than dorm-style accommodations. Unless you have a compelling reason to bunk by yourself, such as worries about personal safety in an unfamiliar part of the world or the need for plenty of space to prep for an important meeting, multi-person rooms are by far the better environmental choice.
They’re also much cheaper than traditional hotel rooms or private hostel rooms. And they’re more social: I’ve met a half-dozen impromptu travel companions in hostels over the years.
14. Look for Guesthouses or Hotels With Sustainable Food Policies
Humans waste a staggering amount of food. The Atlantic cites studies showing that some 50% of all produce picked for U.S. consumption is wasted. That’s equivalent to about 33% of the country’s total food supply.
The United States is the global leader in food waste, but the picture isn’t much better elsewhere in the world. Due to its clientele’s transience, the lodging industry is an especially egregious offender.
The good news is that more hospitality operators than ever are getting serious about reducing food waste. No matter where you go, try to find guesthouses (hostels) or hotels dedicated to the cause.
Waste-conscious guesthouses “have sharing food shelves where you can leave behind food you haven’t finished rather than binning it,” says Tabby Farrar, seasoned world traveler and principal at Just Can’t Settle.
It works both ways, of course: “You can prevent other food going in the bin by using up items that other travelers left behind,” Farrar adds.
15. Stay at Properties With Confirmed Commitments to Sustainability
Farrar advises going a step further and limiting your overnight stays to properties with demonstrated commitments to sustainability.
Eco-friendly hotels and resorts aren’t necessarily more expensive than their wasteful analogues, says Farrar. She points to her list of “cheap and cheerful budget-friendly European eco-resorts” as proof.
If you’re going somewhere Farrar hasn’t yet examined, no sweat. Netanya Trimboli of Pack Your Impact, a Hostelling International USA initiative for “eco-curious” travelers, explains that most hospitality operators are up front about their sustainable practices.
“[Look for] an accommodation that is green certified or weaves sustainability into how they describe their brand online,” she says. In other words: If you don’t see clear indications of a property’s environmental consciousness on its website, that’s probably because it doesn’t do much in that department.
16. Try Short-Term Rentals
Not jazzed about the noise and all-hours comings and goings of the typical guesthouse? Consider a short-term vacation rental instead. Airbnb is the market leader, but there are plenty of other rental platforms out there; check a lodging aggregator like Trivago for an efficient sweep.
“Already-built homes that are currently vacant are sustainable, eco-friendly places for families and groups of friends,” says Andrea Lamond, marketing director of Owner Direct Vacation Rentals.
Rental houses with fully equipped kitchens obviate the need to eat every meal out, she adds. Cooking fresh, locally sourced food at home is usually more efficient than eating at restaurants – this is another point in short-term rentals’ favor. (Cooking at home is almost always cheaper than dining out too.)
17. Do a Homestay
Why stay in a hotel, hostel, or short-term rental when you can swap houses (or crash on someone’s couch) with no out-of-pocket cost?
Plenty of sustainable travel experts recommend doing just that. Every homestay platform is a little different. Some, such as HomeExchange, are designed primarily for house-swapping travelers. Others, such as Couchsurfing, cast a wider net, and aren’t averse to direct-pay arrangements.
If you’re willing to take on household chores and engage socially with your host (if they’re present), “[c]onsider staying in someone’s house through a homestay network like Servas or Couchsurfing, rather than in a hotel,” says Shel Horowitz, green business expert and operator of multiple sustainability-themed websites, including Frugal Fun and Going Beyond Sustainability.
“It’s a great way to meet people, too,” he adds.
“For stays of a week or more, I arrange accommodations through HomeExchange,” she says. “HomeExchange gives me the opportunity to stay in a comfortable space where I can work and prepare meals like I do at home without paying anything for it.”
The whole point of platforms like Home Exchange is to avoid financial obligation, notes Carl.
“Each partner in the exchange simply pays for their home like they normally do and no money changes hands,” she says.
18. Look for Alternatives to Commercial Laundry
In a major city, you can probably find a commercial laundromat within reach of your hostel, hotel, or apartment. But is doing your laundry alongside weary travelers and busy locals really the best choice for the environment?
Probably not. Commercial laundry uses a ton of water and lots of detergent. Both are problematic for the environment, especially in drought-prone regions like the western United States and northern China.
You don’t have to forgo laundry entirely. Just be smarter about it. If you have access to a private or semiprivate bathroom or sink basin at your home base, do your laundry there. Buy a small bottle of eco-friendly detergent at the closest convenience store or supermarket, and remember to pack a few clothespins in your luggage for air-drying.
Sustainable Itineraries & Activities
19. Don’t Pay for Water
Before you leave for your trip, challenge yourself never to pay for water in your destination. It’s easier than it sounds.
First: Bring a refillable water bottle. Even if you’re not particularly active, you probably have one in your kitchen cupboard.
Second: Find out whether the local tap water is safe to drink. In most parts of the developed world, it is. Where naturally occurring minerals lend an unpleasant aftertaste, hotels and restaurants generally use source filters.
If the water isn’t safe to drink in your destination, buy a self-purifying water bottle to bring with you. Top-of-the-line models cost $60 or so on Amazon – a small price to pay to avoid a potentially crippling gastrointestinal illness.
Third: Whatever you do, don’t buy bottled water.
“Bottled water is hugely unsound economically and environmentally,” says Horowitz. Only a fraction of the water used in the bottling process actually makes it into bottles packaged and sold for sale, he adds – the rest is wasted.
Plus, there’s the plastic waste. “The average plastic bottle takes 450 years to decompose,” says Chris, proprietor of ethical travel website Lessons Learned Abroad.
20. Eat Local
If you have a kitchen at your disposal, hit a local street market, farmer’s market, food co-op, or ethical grocery store. (Your choice will probably depend on your position on the globe and the size of the city you’re in at the moment.)
Look for locally sourced raw ingredients and prepared foods. Calculating the carbon footprint of any given ingredient is complicated, but shipping is inarguably a major variable: The farther an ingredient travels, the bigger its carbon footprint. It’s therefore best to stay away from anything too exotic.
“I always eat local rather than seek out imported goods with a big carbon footprint,” says Just Can’t Settle’s Farrar.
Apply the same principle to your restaurant meals. Look for restaurants that play up their commitment to locally sourced ingredients. In foreign countries with lively street-food cultures, eat on the street unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise. Those glorified home cooks are using the same hyperlocal ingredients you saw in the market a few hours earlier, after all.
21. Dine Out Less
This is easier said than done when you’re based in a hotel or kitchen-less hostile, but it’s worth going out of your way for. Plus, it’s significantly cheaper, and usually healthier.
Shel Horowitz has a simple rule: “Eat in restaurants only once a day.”
For your other two meals, he advises: “Buy picnic food from local farmers markets and grocery stores, or specialty shops selling fruit, cheese, bread,” and so on.
In most parts of the world, chain supermarkets have sizable prepared foods sections hawking sandwiches, salads, hot foods, and delicacies like sushi at substantial discounts to restaurant prices. If you don’t have the tools or patience to make your own meal from scratch, this is your ticket to quick, cheap, sustainable eats.
When all else fails, look at home (away from home) cooking as a diversion from the tiresome work of sightseeing in an unfamiliar city.
“It can be a lot of fun to pick things up from local markets and try to recreate regional specialties at home,” says 15 Miles’ Cori Carl.
22. Consume Less Meat (or None at All)
Whether you’re eating in or dining out, one simple change can dramatically reduce your diet’s ecological impact.
“Reducing how much meat you eat while abroad is another simple way to lower your environmental impact,” says Chris of Lessons Learned Abroad. For international travelers, he advises “sticking to local culinary staples,” which typically have little to no meat.
“Not only will this reduce your ecological footprint, it’ll help you avoid some foodborne illnesses that can easily ruin your trip,” he adds.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I adapted to a near-meatless diet with relative ease while traveling in Southeast Asia in 2017. By the second or third day, I barely noticed that most of the street food my wife and I were chowing down on was vegetarian (and would have been vegan were it not for unavoidable doses of fish sauce).
23. Reward Mission-Driven Travel Companies
It’s tough to work only with locally owned and operated travel companies, especially in less developed parts of the world. The next best thing is to patronize mission-driven operators that demonstrate their commitment to the destinations they serve.
The most innovative find ways to align their good works with their revenue-producing activities – call it cross-promotion for do-gooders.
For instance, California-based Safari Surf Adventures organizes all-inclusive “eco-surfing” tours to Costa Rica, Australia, and a handful of other exotic destinations. Even as its expert riders guide clients to the waves of their lives, the management team works with local charities and community groups to clean up marine plastic pollution – a crucial service for beach vacation destinations that rely on pristine water and sand to attract tourists, their economic lifeblood.
Other organizations cast an even wider net (no pun intended) with their charity. Gondwana EcoTours and Beyond the Bayou Tours “donate a portion of profits to a non-profit organization in each destination we travel in order to support the nature and culture that make these places unique,” says Jake Kelston, the organization’s director of operations.
“In Tanzania we donate to a water bore project in a Maasai community, in Rwanda we partner with ASPIRE Rwanda for a tour and cooking demonstration to support their educational and job training programs, [and] in Ecuador we partner with the Achuar community to protect the Amazon and the culture of the tribes that live there,” he adds.
Plus, Kelston’s company employs “only small independent local operators and guides” to give guests “the most authentic [possible] experience and directly support the communities in which we travel.”
All of these decisions can reduce the environmental repercussions of your next vacation.
So, too, can one of the first decisions you make during the planning process: your destination itself.
In much of the United States, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are now consistently cost-competitive with dirtier alternatives like coal and natural gas. No matter which political party controls the levers of power in state and federal government, this welcome trend is likely to accelerate as energy storage technology continues to improve and utility companies make long-delayed investments to modernize and strengthen the country’s energy distribution grid.
For now, it’s still worth researching the energy generation mix in destinations you’re planning to visit. With approximately 30% of its electricity produced by renewable sources, California is the U.S. leader. Arizona leads on solar, specifically; Texas on wind; and the Pacific Northwest region as a whole on hydroelectric.
If you really want to your travel dollars to make a sustainable statement – and, potentially, encourage laggard states to invest more in clean power – then perhaps a trip to Oakland, Tucson, Seattle, or Austin is in your future.
How do you reduce your carbon footprint when you travel?