SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL DOESN'T HAVE TO BE A CHALLENGE. DON'T BELIEVE US? KEEP READING FOR SOME SUPER SIMPLE TIPS EVERY TRAVELER CAN FOLLOW.
For some reason, it seems so easy for travelers to forget their impact on the world when they are busy exploring it. Which, frankly, is kind of crazy.
But consider this: you are on vacation in some exotic, beautiful country but you cannot drink the water - so you have to buy plastic water bottles constantly. Then, because you are in such a magical spot, you feel like you need to go on every single tour possible, including ones that involve “wild” animals (elephants, tigers, etc.) and visits to “local” villages so you can gaze at indigenous tribal members going about their day. Then after all that, you wander around the local cities and towns and barely interact with any of the local citizens or when you do it is only in your native tongue. Finally, after a wonderful week exploring that exotic location you head back home.
Sound like a quintessential fast vacation? We get it. When you are on holiday you don't want to think - you just want to relax and enjoy the fantastic country or place you are in. But what if you could do all of that and still be making a more positive change for the planet?
By making a few small changes you can go from being a run-of-the-mill vacationer, to a more sustainable traveler. Here is how.
SIMPLE TIPS TO BE A MORE SUSTAINABLE TRAVELER
\\ Book Flights That Are Greener
Taking a plane is one of the most common forms of transportation when it comes to travel, for there really is no quicker way to get from Point A to Point B, especially when looking at traveling to places far away and when you are on a tight schedule.
While planes do give off a ton of CO2 (carbon dioxide) - there is no denying that - thankfully, many airlines around the world are starting to make necessary changes to ensure they are doing their part to help the planet.
This includes using more environmentally friendly materials, like installing carbon fiber seats, using environmentally friendly paper for items like magazines (or just getting rid of them altogether), serving vegetarian and vegan meals, and using less single-use plastic goods (like cups, silverware, etc.). Similarly, many planes are actually beginning to switch to more eco-friendly fuel (like biofuel) and even changing the design of the planes themselves, so they have less drag - which means less fuel consumption overall.
Today, it is easier than ever for travelers to choose to fly with more eco-conscious airlines. Some of the most common are Alaska Airlines, Delta, KLM, Cathay Pacific and Flybe, just to name a few.
TIP: We book almost all of our flights on Skyscanner. Luckily, they let you know which flights are greener by notating them with a green leaf.
This is another helpful tool to ensure you are booking more eco-friendly flights.
\\ Offset Your Carbon Emissions
Now, if you don’t have the option to book a greener flight there is still the opportunity to offset your carbon emissions from flying once you land.
There are a couple of ways to do this, including going online and paying for the amount of carbon your flight gave off. That money (usually - definitely do your research) is then used to help environmentally conscious projects around the world, including reforestation efforts, solar panel installations and even distributing more efficient cookstoves for women in Kenya.
See how much you can offset here.
\\ Walk Everywhere You Can and Take Public Transport (or Bikes!) Everywhere Else
Once you arrive at your destination you will likely have an uncontrollable urge to explore everything. Good - that is one of the great perks of travel: exploration. And one of the best ways, and one of the most eco-friendly ways, to do that exploring is on your own two feet.
Most cities are actually pretty walkable. Even ones without clear sidewalks (like Chiang Mai, Thailand) are still very easy to maneuver on your own two feet - just be prepared to maneuver around food stalls (learn more about Chiang Mai here), parked cars and the occasional tuk-tuk.
Walking around a city doesn’t just allow you to explore it more personally (a local shopkeeper won’t be able to show you his crafts if you are in a car…), but it is also a great way to combine curiosity with fitness. Plus, when you walk instead of drive you are also of course doing good for the planet.
Now we totally understand that not every city will be super walkable (here are 10 that are), and that sometimes you simply cannot walk where you need to go (it is too far, it is dark out, etc.), so instead consider taking other forms of eco-friendly focused transportation. Including, bicycles, electric scooters and even public transportation like trains and buses.
Just don’t drive everywhere. Please.
NOTE: We try to walk as much as possible when traveling, so we always have our Allbirds with us. They aren’t only super comfortable, but also super environmentally friendly!
\\ Eat Local Food As Much As Possible
This should not just be the case when you are traveling abroad, but also when you are at home. If given the chance, you should always try to eat as local (and as seasonally) as you can. Why? Because when you eat food that is grown closer to where you live, you drastically cut down on the overall carbon emissions put out to get that item to market.
Plus, isn’t the unique cuisine of the country you are visiting one of the biggest perks of traveling anyway? Why would you want to sacrifice the ability to eat delicious food, especially produce, in the place it is grown. We promise that the local mango, pineapple, and coconuts (and everything else?) tastes much better when it has come from the local farm down the road instead of off a container ship from across an ocean.
While it can sometimes be a bit nerve-wracking trying new foods, to offset that fear, try to do some research before heading out to the market so you have some idea of what each thing is. Or if you are feeling really confident, simply ask the shopkeeper what the items are and what they taste like. Expanding your horizons when it comes to food is not only more eco-conscious, but it also helps you connect so much better with the local culture overall.
Similarly, when out at dinner, if you don't know what each thing is - or where to even start - a great option is to ask the waitress what they would recommend. Because if anyone is going to know what is tasty, it will probably be the people working with it daily.
\\ Shop at Local Markets Instead of Grocery Stores (When You Can)
This very much aligns with the previous point. When you have the option while traveling to get food from either a local market or a big box grocery store, always (always) choose the market.
Yes, we know shopping in local markets can be a bit scary, a bit overwhelming. But we promise it will be worth it when you purchase a piece of fruit from the person who actually grew it in their field!
If you are hoping to connect with the culture, then shopping at the local market and buying directly from the producer is a great place to start. In many places, including our home country of the USA, the opportunity to interact with the people who actually grow the food you eat is very rare, something that research shows leads to less connection with your food overall.
So if you get the opportunity, head to the market - you won’t only walk away with delicious food, you will also likely get a better idea of the country’s culture and how regular people live. Plus, you will probably save a few bucks too.
\\ Use Reusable Containers & Bags
When out shopping, no matter where you are, you should always use reusable shopping bags instead of plastic ones. Now we know that you can’t always get away from plastic bags - trust us, we totally understand. But. When you have the option to substitute using a reusable bag instead of a plastic one, always, always go reusable.
Because consider this:
| It takes the same amount of gas to drive one mile as it does to make about 14 plastic bags.
| 1.9 million grocery bags and other plastic bags were collected in the 2018 International Coastal Cleanup.
| Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It lasts forever. In the ocean, it breaks down and degrades into little pieces, which are then ingested by marine animals. This often kills them. In fact, these plastic-sized particles outnumber plankton 6-1.
| It is estimated that the world uses between 500 billion and 1 TRILLION plastic bags a year.
\\ Use Less Plastic Overall
But you shouldn’t just give up plastic bags. No, you should try to give up plastic altogether.
While it might sound challenging, in truth, today there are many eco-friendly options available on the market - and many of them are not any more expensive than their plastic counterparts.
Here are some great places to start:
| Switch from plastic straws to a reusable metal one. Like these.
| Use metal or bamboo utensils instead of single-use plastic. We like these.
| Reusable bags for produce instead of those clear plastic ones. These are pretty great.
| Shampoo bars (and other soap bars) instead of plastic containers. Check out these from The Earthling Co.
| Toothpaste tablets instead of an actual plastic toothpaste tube. Why? Because an estimated 400 million toothpaste tubes are thrown away each year in the U.S. alone.
By starting with these small, rather simple, changes, you are more likely to decrease your plastic consumption overall. While plastic usage may seem like an unmovable negative force, something that is too big to even start to fix, when it comes down to it, if we all make small changes every day, we will have a positive impact overall.
More facts on plastic:
| Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.
| Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.
| Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics.
| Microplastics have been found in every corner of the globe, from Mount Everest, the highest peak, to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean.
| About 34% of dead leatherback sea turtles have ingested plastics.
\\ Bring a Water Bottle & Filter
We never go anywhere without a reusable water bottle, and you shouldn’t either.
Now we understand that in some countries you cannot drink the tap water, which definitely makes things a bit more challenging. But in many cases, even if the water is not safe to drink, you do have a couple of options that don’t include buying plastic water bottles all the time.
First, in many places, there will be water filter stations dotted around the area. Meaning you can either fill up your water bottle there regularly, or you can buy one or two large water bottles (the only time we suggest buying plastic bottles - ever) and refill those every couple of days. This is what we did in Thailand and it was super easy and affordable (it cost about $0.15 to fill up a large water bottle).
Or you can bring a water filter with you when you are traveling. There are many reusable water bottle options available on the market today, and many of them also include a water filter in the actual bottle (here are seven good ones). While some can be a bit expensive, if you think about not only the money you will be saving by never having to buy another plastic water bottle again, but also the amount of plastic you won’t be using overall, we think the price point is worth it - and hopefully you do too.
Impacts of plastic water bottles:
| Water bottles used to package water take over 1,000 years to biodegrade and if incinerated, they produce toxic fumes. It is estimated that over 80% of all single-use water bottles used in the U.S. simply become "litter."
| Recycling is only feasible in limited circumstances because only PET bottles can be recycled. All other bottles are discarded. Only 1 out of 5 bottles are sent to the recycle bin.
| It is estimated that actually 3 liters of water is used to package 1 liter of bottled water. Crazy!
\\ Be Mindful About Your Souvenirs
Somehow it seems that when travelers are off adventuring in exotic and unique destinations they get this urge to buy everything. Now we have been there before ourselves. The idea that you need to buy a souvenir for everyone you know when you are traveling seems like just another part of travel itself. But how about instead of just buying anything that looks good - and usually anything that is cheap - you focus on purchasing goods that actually do some good.
For example, fair-trade items that help the local craftsman personally. This means buying from family-run businesses and/or small cooperatives. While sometimes the price might be a bit higher, won’t you feel better knowing that the item you are purchasing for someone special actually made a positive impact on another person’s life?
Or you can go an entirely different route and try not to purchase much at all. If you are buying stuff just to buy stuff then consider cutting down and instead focus on minimalist travel. Plus, if you want a way to remember a special place, how about a photo? It is free, totally digital, and way easier to lug around with you.
NOTE: just make sure to be a responsible photographer.
\\ Try to Communicate With the Locals - in Their Language
Learning languages is hard. While we have met some people who have a knack for it, most people struggle for months, even years, to become even somewhat fluent. So we aren’t saying you need to focus on becoming fluent - though that would be pretty awesome. What we are saying is that you should put in the effort to try to learn some basic terms in order to have very basic conversations with the locals.
Some basic phrases you should know:
| Hello & Goodbye
| Yes & No
| Please & Thank you
| Where is the bathroom?
| How much does it cost?
| Basic numbers
When you are traveling and you show that you are at least trying to communicate with the locals - no matter how bad it might be - you will often be rewarded with plenty of smiles. But more than that, when you try to speak the local language it shows that you actually care about the culture and the people that live there. Really, it is a respect thing more than anything.
Find our basic Spanish language guide here.
\\ Say No to Animal Tours
Just like with plastic, when it comes to interacting with “wild” animals - or more often than not one-time wild animals that are now in captivity - just say no.
While an afternoon spent riding elephants sounds like a ton of fun, just think about the misery that those elephants actually go through to give you that experience. The same goes with riding camels and horses.
Then there is the whole area of shady animal rescue centers - which are really just horrible zoos under a more wholesome name. We cannot tell you how many times we were excited to visit an animal rescue only to find that the animals were just housed in metal and concrete cages and put on display for human enjoyment. That is not a rescue - that is a prison.
So if you are like us and want to help support wild animals, be it in the wild or in an actual rescue and rehabilitation center, then first do your research. Some places are just wolves in sheep’s clothing.
\\ Go Slowly
You might have guessed by now (hopefully) that we are all about slow travel. The ability to slow down, soak up a place, and really connect with it on a more personal level is incredibly important. Not just for yourself but for the country as well.
So next time you are thinking of jam-packing your travel itinerary full of stuff, instead focus on a few things, a few places to explore more deeply. While this may seem tough at first - the belief that you have only one chance to see these places is real - if you instead focus not on just checking a place off your bucket list but on connecting to that place more deeply, you will fly home feeling much much better (and likely more relaxed).
So slow down. Do less. Connect more.
Sustainable travel can sometimes feel like this big, challenging endeavor that is just out of reach for many travelers. But when you start to look at it as just simple changes, you realize that sustainable travel doesn't have to be hard or even expensive. Hopefully, these simple tips will help you be a more sustainable and help you make more sustainable decisions overall.
Learn more about humans impact on the environment below: