By Jessica Bennett on January 11, 2022 in Travel
These are tricky times for the enthusiastic traveler. On one hand, the world is calling, and they’re not afraid to enjoy gorgeous beaches, fascinating cities, rolling mountains, and more. On the other hand, travel comes with baggage, but not just your actual baggage: The baggage includes pollution, carbon footprints, and literal footprints that may be degrading the very places treasured by travelers.
The good news is that travelers are getting wise to this conundrum. According to Booking.com’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, 73 percent of U.S. travelers surveyed said that sustainable travel is vital. If you’re a member of the pro-sustainability faction, then it’s time to take action. Carrying your own reusable straw is a great start (the sea turtles thank you), but consider going bigger to really cut into that carbon footprint. Here are 10 ways to travel more sustainably.
The Impact of Traveling
Visiting new places offers inspiration, cross-cultural connection, and mind-opening insights. It also, unfortunately, creates pollution. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that travel and tourism account for eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
According to Sciencing, an excess of carbon emissions are a problem because it “creates a cover that traps the sun's heat energy in the atmospheric bubble, warming the planet and the oceans.” This increased temperature affects the weather and several other environmental factors, many of which have negative impacts on flora, fauna, and humans.
As of 2019, the number of international tourists doubled over the past two decades. That trend will likely only accelerate as the world opens after its pandemic shutdown, releasing nearly two years’ worth of pent-up travel desire.
These numbers highlight the fact that it’s time to think differently about travel. Here are 10 ways to plan travel through the lens of sustainability from the very start of the process.
Choose a Destination Close to Home.
One of the biggest ways to shrink your carbon footprint is to fly less often, especially on long-haul flights across continents and oceans. For example, a round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles will add 0.62 tons of carbon dioxide, or CO2, to someone’s personal carbon emissions tally. A passenger’s single trip is equivalent to roughly 14 percent of the annual car emissions for an average American.
If you want to get away but don’t necessarily need to visit a remote island, consider picking a destination closer to home. The benefits go beyond trying to save the polar bears. You’ll spend less time traveling and more time enjoying your trip, and you may save some money. Best of all, you’ll get to know your corner of the world a little better.
Embrace the Character-Building Experience of Economy Class.
Sometimes you’ve just got to fly. After all, you can’t make it to Australia in a rowboat. If air travel is in your future, there are still things you can do to manage your carbon impact. First, when your budget allows, try to snag a direct flight even if it costs you a little more. Planes use most of their fuel on takeoff and landing, so the fewer stops you make, the lower your carbon footprint. As an added bonus, you’ll get to your destination more quickly.
Need to recoup the cost of your direct flight plane ticket? Then it’s time to fall in love with economy class. Business- and first-class passengers take up more room on a flight and are therefore responsible for a greater amount of the trip’s carbon footprint: The U.K.’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy calculated that first-class travelers were responsible for four times the carbon emissions of economy passengers on long-haul flights.
Stay in One Place.
When you arrive on a new continent, in a new country, or even just in a different part of the country, it’s tempting to see all the major sites no matter how far apart they are from each other. After all, you may never visit again.
Resist this temptation. Instead, try to limit your travel to a reasonable area. This lowers your carbon footprint and frees up time to really get to know your local area. No one wants to spend half their trip in the car driving from one location to another. Rather than trying to see everything, focus on seeing all that your area has to offer. (Hint: Sometimes, one of the best ways to get to know a new place is to ditch the car altogether and walk or bike the area.)
Rent a Low-Emissions Vehicle.
If you rent a vehicle for your trip, choose the most ecological option that still meets your needs. If possible, rent a sedan rather than an SUV or a van. Ask if your rental agency offers hybrid or electric vehicles. Figure out if you really need to rent a truck to drive up the side of a volcano, or if you can rent a car and hike up the volcano instead.
While you might not always be able to find an electric or hybrid vehicle, that may be changing. Also, just by requesting an electrical vehicle, you let car rental companies know that there’s a demand for low-emissions vehicles.
Give Public Transportation a Shot.
Many major cities offer an array of public transportation options. Subways, metros, and public buses may seem intimidating to some car-loving Americans, but they can also be a fun challenge. Taking public transportation will let you live like a local and get to know the real character of the city. You might find you love riding Berlin’s U-Bahn, the London Underground, or the Paris Metro. You’ll also likely save big bucks when compared with renting a car or taking taxis.
Book Eco-Conscious Accommodation.
While you work to lower your carbon footprint, are your accommodations doing the same? It can be a challenge to figure out if your lodging is helping or harming the local community.
Fortunately, many places are getting vocal about their green credentials. In fact, three out of four global accommodations providers claim to have started some form of sustainability practice. You can also use sites like bookdifferent.com, which rates lodgings on several factors, including sustainable management, fair treatment of employees, respect for local traditions, and environmental policies.
Use Less Water.
According to sustainabletravel.org, tourists use more water than locals (as well as more energy — see the next section for more). It’s tempting to treat yourself to a gloriously long shower, a simmering tub soak while on vacation, or fresh towels every day, but pay attention to your water usage. Many locations around the globe, including many parts of the southwest U.S., face long-term drought conditions. If you don’t want to take three-minute showers on your trip, that’s understandable. An easy way to save on water is to reuse your linens instead of having them cleaned each day.
Use Less Energy.
In many areas of the world, energy is primarily produced using coal or natural gas. You’re probably already in the habit of turning out the lights when you leave a room at home. Continue that habit while you’re on a trip. Of course, some of the biggest energy drains are heat and air conditioning. Turn off the system before you leave for the day and turn down the heat (or turn up the air) at night when you go to bed.
If you really want to be conscientious, see if you can keep the heat to 68 degrees during the cold season and air conditioning to 78 degrees during the summer. Just because you aren’t paying the energy bills doesn’t mean that energy is free.
Eat Less Meat.
Travel and indulgence can go together like bacon and eggs. Before you head out for a steak dinner followed by a night on the town, give some thought to your dietary choices. Livestock produces 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. A simple way to even out some of the carbon you created during your trip is to cut back on meat. If you can’t quite get yourself onboard the tofu train, switch out your red meat for chicken or sustainable seafood.
Buy Carbon Credits.
Purchasing carbon offsets is one way to balance out travel-related carbon emissions. Ideally, these credits go toward projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as building wind farms, planting trees, or capturing methane from a landfill. At around $10 per metric ton, even world travelers can clear their carbon conscience for $100 or less.
However, carbon credits aren’t exactly the panacea they may seem to be. It can be difficult to fully quantify the value of the carbon-sequestering efforts, and some experts argue that credits are wildly underpriced. That might change as prices have started to rise.
At the end of the day, purchasing carbon credits from a well-respected organization can support some great efforts, but it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. The best way to protect the environment is to emit less carbon in the first place.
A Quick Aside About Cruise Ships
Cruise ships are fun. They take you to beautiful places and most include casinos, fun events, a gluttonous amount of food, and a relaxing getaway. Unfortunately, cruise ships are also one of the dirtiest ways to travel. According to a New York Times article on sustainable travel, “even the most efficient cruise ships emit three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than a jet.” Cruise ships also burn dirty fuel, which ends up in the water through which the ships sail.
Cruising has its benefits. These ships allow older adults, people with disabilities, and other groups who would otherwise struggle to travel and see different parts of the world. However, if you can comfortably travel without the help of a behemoth boat, nix the cruise.
Final Thoughts about Traveling with a Heart of Sustainability
Sustainable travel is about more than just keeping your carbon emissions in check. Viewed through a wider lens, it also seeks to support the health and economic vitality of your destination and the people who live there.
To up your sustainability game, try to buy local. Eat at local restaurants instead of the same chains you can find at home. Hire local tour guides. Buy locally made crafts. Take a local cooking class. Keep your money in the community and support the people who make your destination so wonderful and inviting — or just those who keep your day running smoothly while you’re there.
Something calls travelers to venture out and explore new places. That urge sings inside a lot of people. However, as we grow our understanding of the impacts our choices have on our environment, we must accept a new responsibility while traveling. With that in mind, wander far and wide and fill your soul with all things new and remarkable, but keep sustainability at the heart of your travels. It’s up to all of us to protect this amazing world so we can preserve it for tomorrow’s travelers.