7 Tips for Traveling More Sustainably
Ok, time for a lightning round Q&A: Who loves traveling? Oh, that’s easy: just about everyone. Whether the only thing getting you through the snowpocalypse of winter is thinking about your Maui vacation next summer or if your dreams of lofting about the Amalfi Coast are finally coming true this year, traveling to new places is one of our greatest pleasures as humans. With travel bookings in 2017 reaching $1.6 trillion, it’s no doubt that globetrotting is a popular aspiration.
With an ever-increasing number of travelers each year, it’s important to consider the global impact of those travels and how we can minimize their impact on the planet. Below, I’ll share seven tips for how you can incorporate sustainable practices into your next adventure—wherever that may be.
Tip #1: Bring those reusables!
When prepping for travel, it’s easy to forget the reusable goods you use on a daily basis at home out of habit. To check if you’ve forgotten anything, take a peek at these reusable goodies to accompany you on your trip:
Hydration station! For water bottles, my personal favorite is a Hydroflask since it can keep water cool until it runs out every time and it’s particularly durable. At home, I use a 32 oz Hydroflask but they come in smaller sizes if you don’t have that much room in your pack. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker and won’t have access to these supplies where you’re staying, it might be worth it to bring along a reusable drink mug for your morning (or afternoon…) caffeine fix as well.
On the topic of drinkware, if you like to use straws, it’s a good idea to bring 1-2 reusable straws with you on your trip. Surprisingly, my favorite straws are green ones I picked up from Starbucks—they’re a hard plastic that’s easy to clean and seems to last forever. Stores like REI will also sell reusable cutlery like sporks along with any of the products mentioned above.
Just as you’d bring your reusable bags with you anywhere at home, don’t forget to pack some for your trip! These will come in handy for quick grocery trips or buying gifts at local shops to bring home with you.
When it comes to toiletries, it’s best to avoid purchasing the travel size products offered in stores. These have an incredibly short lifespan and are discarded in a matter of weeks, but still require a significant amount of plastic to produce. Instead, consider using options like these:
For your hair, a shampoo bar like those offered by Lush or Ethique will do the trick. These last a surprisingly long time and can save you a lot of space in your travel pack. Ethique also has conditioner bars that are the equivalent to 5 bottles of conditioner! Their products can be purchased on Amazon.
Soap and body wash can easily be purchased in bar form and you can find travel cases to tuck it away in when you’re on the move, like this cotton bag from Osmia Organics.
For face washes and moisturizers for both your face and body, these can be trickier to find in bar form. If you’re interested in a face cleansing bar, Vanicream sells these at a decent quality. Otherwise, consider using reusable travel tubes to take the products you love from home on your trip with you. My personal favorites are the humangear GoToobs and GoTubbs, which come in a variety of sizes and are easy to use over and over again.
Tip #2: Choose reef-safe UV protection.
In recent years, scientists have revealed a toxic link between chemicals found in sunscreen and the devastating bleaching of coral reefs around the globe. Some of the worst offenders to marine life include oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC), and butylparaben, which have been proven to induce rapid bleaching of coral even in low concentrations. How low? We’re talking one drop in 6 Olympic sized swimming pools, low. This affects marine life even if you’re not in the ocean, too, as wastewater from showers and pools can contaminate natural waterways housing these fragile ecosystems.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t protect your skin from harmful UV rays, but there are more eco-conscious ways of doing so. The best option is to wear light layers like a t-shirt and sun hat, even when you’re in the water. Who knows, if enough of us start doing it, we might even start a trend? #savethereefs! For the skin that remains exposed, or if you’d prefer to wear sunscreen all over, be sure to examine the active and inactive ingredients on your sunscreen before buying. Labels like “reef-safe” are largely unregulated, so it’s important to check to be sure the sunscreen you’re buying does not contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, or other harmful ingredients like mineral oil (petrolatum) and others listed above. To protect coral reefs, choose mineral-based sunscreens containing ingredients like non-nano zinc oxide. Just as these minerals sit atop your skin to protect it rather than being absorbed like chemical sunscreens, the particles of mineral-based sunscreens are not absorbed by coral and instead settle into the sediment on the ocean floor.
Tip #3: Travel to sustainable destinations.
More than ever before, we’re seeing countries across the globe strive to improve and protect the natural resources in their land while minimizing their carbon footprint and maximizing their use of renewable energy sources. In particular, we’re seeing these goals met by nations like Switzerland, France, Denmark, Malta, and Sweden, who topped Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) in 2018. Currently, Switzerland is ranking #1 on Yale’s EPI, excelling in categories like Climate & Energy and Air Pollution. In addition, Switzerland houses one of the most expansive public transportation systems by buses, boats, trams, trains, and cable cars, making it easy to travel throughout the majority of Europe from one central location.
When considering the destination of your next getaway, take a moment to research which destinations would be most beneficial to offset the carbon footprint of your journey to get there. Countries that offer extensive public transportation systems will make it easier to travel from place to place with minimal environmental impact. This is especially true for European countries that are accessible by train (hint: most of them!). If you can travel from France to Italy by train rather than by plane, you’re doing the planet a big favor. To get around more locally, consider renting a bicycle! Bike rental services are becoming increasingly popular, especially in major metropolitan areas, and are a much more personal way of exploring the landscape around you.
Tip #4: Fly as sustainably as possible.
Once you’ve decided on a destination, it’s time to fly! The takeoff and landing of flights produces the bulk of carbon emissions, so fly non-stop when you can. To help lessen your impact of flying, consider using airlines that are working to up their eco-friendly game too. Some of the top-ranking North American airlines include Alaska, Delta, and United. Worldwide, the most sustainable airlines include TUI, China West Air, LATAM, and KLM. These results are based on 2017 rankings, so be sure to keep an eye out for how airlines are improving over time to adopt sustainable initiatives.
Tip #5: Consider Airbnbs or eco-lodges over chain hotels.
Housing 50+ guests a night, hotels may be efficient in their use of space but they are not efficient in terms of energy and water usage. On top of guest showers and faucet usage, hotels run loads of laundry throughout the day as they clean guest rooms. Altogether, this can amount to 100+ gallons of water per room, along with the energy consumption required to keep everything running (air conditioning, hallway lights, elevators, etc etc). If you’re staying at a hotel, there are still ways you can help mitigate water and energy waste during your stay by taking shorter showers, turning lights off when you don’t need them, and leaving the Do Not Disturb sign on your door so your room isn’t cleaned every day.
If you’re looking for more eco-friendly lodging options altogether, though, you certainly have choices! With the rise of Airbnbs, these have become an affordable, more sustainable alternative to standard hotels that can be found just about everywhere. Since Airbnbs are typically in single homes, they use significantly less resources—the lights are off when guests are away, water is used primarily for showers and intermittent faucet use, little waste is produced in a single trip, and single-use toiletries are absent for the most part. If Airbnb hosts provide guests with shampoo and conditioner, it’s almost always a full-size product that is simply left in the bathroom for guests to use as they wish during their stay. Altogether, this really adds up! As an added benefit, Airbnbs tend to be more affordable than big hotels and offer a more intimate staying experience.
Lastly, an option for eco-conscious travelers is an eco-hotel or “eco-lodge.” At these hotels, sustainability is at the forefront of their mission and they typically offer renewable energy sources; recycling services; energy-efficient heating, lighting, and cooling; eco-friendly toiletries; non-toxic cleaning products; reusable dishes and so on. In addition to these benefits, eco-hotels tend to be more in tune with the community surrounding them and employ locals at fair wages to contribute to the local economy as a whole. Though these tend to be pricier than Airbnbs, it’s worth it to research environmentally friendly lodging to see if these are available at your destination at a price that fits into your budget.
Tip #6: Support the local economy.
When traveling to any destination, it’s important to remember that you are taking a step into the homeland of hundreds (or millions) of people. Though it’s undoubtedly important to care for their space by picking up after yourself, a less obvious way of showing your respect is by supporting their local workers. In some countries, tourism is heavily relied upon by many for livelihood and a living wage. When traveling, keep in mind that purchasing products directly from locally owned shops—whether that be gifts to take home, personal care products you need during your trip, or food and drinks—will go so much further in boosting the local economy and will help create a demand for jobs in their market.
One easy way to do this is by choosing locally owned restaurants or shops for eating and drinking your way through your destination. Not only will you get the pleasure of exploring the region as authentically as possible, but you’ll get to contribute to the well-being of the people living there, too. To find hidden gems wherever you’re located with plant-based options, I recommend using HappyCow. Alternatively, Yelp can be a valuable resource!
Another major way you can support local businesses is by booking local accommodations that employ the residents of the country you’re visiting at fair wages and healthy working conditions. Rather than big, lofty resorts that may get away with paying locals low wages for a high output of work, locally owned hotels tend to give back to their community more by supporting their employees and engaging in initiatives that better the community as a whole. When travel is used in this way, it is a benefit for the destination rather than a burden.
Tip #7: Be wary of animal attractions and do your research beforehand.
If Southeast Asia is on your bucket list, a trip to an elephant “sanctuary” may be something you’ve considered for your itinerary—touted as an exotic adventure that’s sure to be a hit on your social feed. Similarly, if your trip is geared towards the Caribbean, you may have your eye on swimming with dolphins. Unfortunately, most of these experiences are harmful and cruel for the animals involved. While some elephant attractions may advertise their facilities as a sanctuary for rescued animals, in many cases this is far from the truth. Sparing you the heart-wrenching details, young elephants are taken from the wild and their behavior is wildly altered by force to allow humans to ride them for their pleasure. For dolphins, they suffer a similar fate when placed into tourist attractions by being cramped into small enclosures for the entertainment of humans.
With that said, if you want to see animals while on your vacation abroad, there are kind ways of doing so for many species! Do research beforehand to read reviews from other travelers and take a look at the activities promoted at the facility. If tourists can ride or touch the animals, consider it a red flag and avoid those attractions. For a list of elephant sanctuaries worth supporting, check out this guide by Responsible Travel.
With so many factors that go into planning a trip, this is by no means a comprehensive guide and there are no steadfast rules to be followed here. When it comes to sustainability, we do the best we can and if you have to choose between a third pair of socks and a reusable mug—don’t sweat it! Leave the mug at home and opt to enjoy your morning cafe au (soy) lait in the “for here” cup at the cafe instead. Learning to live sustainably is meant to be enjoyable, and something we want to do with intention every single day.
If you have any tips of your own that you take with you on your travels, please share in the comments below! I’d love to take them along with me on my next adventure.