Travelling can be an environmentally damaging hobby and for those of us who love to see new parts of the world it’s important to try and tackle our travel footprint and overall impact on the world. Here is our ultimate guide to reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling and how you can make your next adventure that bit more sustainable. By travelling responsibly we can ensure we still manage to see wonderful new places and seek out new experiences while lessening our environmental footprint on the world. So without further a do, here’s everything you need to know on sustainable travel, from what to pack, how to travel and what to look for on your trip, you’ll find loads to help you become a more eco-friendly traveller!
Planning sustainable travel
Planning your trip can be so exciting. Sometimes you have a location in mind and sometimes the world is your oyster and you could do anything. Even at this stage you can help cut down your impact with the most important tool of a sustainable traveller – research! Just like hunting for bargain trips or budget stays, lots of research will pay off when seeking out eco-friendly options for your travels.
Research your planned locations. Sometimes those top Instagram spots aren’t as idyllic as they seem and there can be a whole range of negative environmental impacts to visiting certain areas. Look out for places that may be struggling with tourist overcrowding, putting pressure on local resources or causing water shortages or perhaps natural places that are struggling with too many camper vans damaging the environment. Look for alternatives or choose part sof your trip wisely so as not to add to damaging practises – perhaps a day trip to the must see spot rather than staying there and adding to tourist overcrowding? And hey why not consider using Ecosia to do all the research? The search engine say they use the profits from your searches to plant trees and surely that can only be a good thing!
Packing to save the planet
Once you know where you’re going the next task will be packing for your travels. One of the top tips for more sustainable travel is simply to pack less disposables and that applies no matter how long the trip! Longer term travel will always mean more stuff overall but there are great ways you can save the planet while saving yourself some much needed backpack space. Some simple swaps include cutting out the shower gels and sticking to good old fashioned soap bars, leaving the giant shampoo bottle with it’s potential to leak all over everything and go for bar forms which come in pretty little tins. You also don’t need to wrap everything in plastic bags just in case it gets wet – try investing in some waterproof packing cubes instead.
It’s also worth considering all the lotions and potions you’ll be taking with you. Sometimes we don’t even think about what might be in our health and beauty products so consider how ethical your products may be and how you might be indirectly harming the wonderful places you are so eager to see. Heading to see the beautiful rainforests of Indonesia? Maybe don’t carry lots of products filled with unsustainably farmed palm oil that is destroying those very forests you seek to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at!
Those where the direct impact is a bit more obvious include sun lotions and insect sprays. Chemicals in sun creams can keep us protected but can also cause severe damage to our coral reef systems so why not consider an eco-friendly sunscreen as an alternative to the big brand names. DEET-based sprays can work well to kill bugs but remember you are in their habitat so try to minimise your environmental impact and be aware of how much you spray. DEET also melts plastic so just remember that when you are applying it to your skin. Always remember to use insecticides wisely and consider DEET-free options or buying appropriate clothing and mosquito nets to protect yourself in other ways.
Before you head off it’s also worth investing in some quality gear. The last thing you need is to have to keep buying the same items constantly throughout a long trip because you opted for a bargain knock-off product rather than something worth a little more. From hiking shoes to backpacks to travel clothes look for things that will last. Seek out high-quality sturdy gear that won’t need to be replaced on a longer trip and then look after it! It’ll save you money as well as reducing your environmental footprint.
Transport choices for reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling
If you can opt for less carbon heavy modes of transport you’ll instantly be cutting out a big chunk of your travel footprint. Booking the train rather than a plane might take longer but could actually mean you see more of the beautiful countryside of the country you are visiting. Maybe the route goes through places you might want to add into your trip that you hadn’t even though of yet. Train trips can also be so much more convenient than dealing with airport queues, luggage restrictions and those laptop and liquids rules, so it is worthwhile considering on your next travel adventure.
If you’re renting a car, aim for the most efficient model you can. Check what the resources are like for electric vehicles and why not consider an electric or hybrid car. Here is Scotland there are 2000 charge-up points, making an electric car a fantastic way to explore the mainland (and a few of the islands too!) plus you get preferential parking in city centres.
If you’re planning on long-distance travel, it’s most likely going to mean a flight but there are still lots of ways of reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling this way. One that you’ve probably already spotted when browsing airline prices is carbon offset programmes. Most airlines will offer these as an add-on but you can also pay into those of your own choice.
An easy measure is to opt for e-tickets and boarding passes and keep itineraries on electronics rather than waste lots of print outs. Just remember to keep your devices charged so you can scan QR codes or show tickets when required.
It might be a little basic but take an empty refillable bottle through security rather than having to buy your own water on the other side. If we all did this think how many plastic bottles could be diverted from landfill. Many airports have water coolers on site. I was delighted to find one at Glasgow Airport on a recent excursion though I was saddened to see so few people using it.
Flights and airports can seem like they are out of our control but airlines and airports are business like anywhere else and consumers can use their voice to change them. Companies will often send a feedback email asking “How was your flight?”. Use that space to tell them you want more environmental policies and eco-friendly options. If enough people do, it they will bow to pressure. The same applies to airports. We regularly have to give our emails for airport WiFi access so use any feedback emails to praise sustainable aspects or highlight a lack of them. Give reviews online or use social media to cheer on green behaviours or to share your disappointment of unsustainable practices. Like any other organisation, they want you to pick them and customer feedback is still a powerful tool to airports as there can be fierce competition if there are a number of regional airports close together.
Finding environmentally sustainable travel accommodation
Finding the perfect accommodation shouldn’t just be about location and price but environmental impact too. Eco-hotels are certainly increasing in popularity as more people seek out sustainable travel options and ways to be more environmentally friendly on their travels. Accreditations that are worth looking out for include the Green Key, a global eco-label, Green Tourism Awards in the UK or The Green Building Council in the US. Or you could try alternative accommodation types such as home stays, house shares such as Airbnb or try couchsurfing!
While you can help be a more sustainable traveller through your choice of hotel, that doesn’t mean you can’t do more with your own habits. Hotels and resorts are terrible in terms of water wastage but you can help mitigate that a little by reducing your own water use. No, I’m not suggesting you don’t shower for your two week holiday but you can cut your shower times a little, avoid using hotel laundries – which wash every room’s item individually no matter how few items you submit, and re-use your room towels more than once. If you’re only staying somewhere a few days do you really need it cleaned everyday? Use the do not disturb sign to reduce water and power usage from cleaning your room.
Keeping the basics going such as seeking out recycling bins, turning off lights or plugs when not in use and using heating or aircon efficiently all help reduce your impact. Try to avoid slipping into ultimate holiday mode and keep up environmentally friendly habits you already have at home.
Eating sustainably whilst travelling
Research what is sustainable to eat. It’s amazing to try new things when travelling but just because it’s popular doesn’t mean you must have it. An example is eating whale meat in Iceland which is more popular with tourists than with locals and so fuels hunting of endangered whale populations. During our trip to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia we knew the local delicacy was the Lake Ohrid trout and it continued to be advertised in many restaurants and by locals but, as an endemic and endangered species, we made sure to pass on that one. It’s important to make sustainable food choices but remember to be respectful of local cultures and customs which often surround foods, offerings of meals and harvesting or hunting methods.
If you’re partial to a takeaway, avoid the single use plastic cutlery and invest in your own and remembering to carry it with you will go a long way in reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling. Try to avoid buying bottled drinks and where you can, use a refillable water bottle. Check where you can drink the tap water and where you might need to use a purifier. Bars and restaurants are the worst for straws! I don’t know about you but I learned how to drink from a glass without a straw as a child but this doesn’t stop bar staff dropping a plastic straw into my drink. These single-use items are completely unnecessary and cause so much damage to our marine environments so do the right thing, be a sustainable traveller and refuse the straw. If you really can’t live without one you can bring your own on your travels and glass and stainless steel options are now readily available on the market.
If you’ve chosen a self-catering or hostel option you’ll most likely be making most of your own meals, try to shop plastic free when you can and reuse leftovers. Food waste is one of the biggest environmental impacts we have on the planet and when we consider how many places in the world suffer from a lack of food it really is shameful. If you’ve made too much, package it up and have it for lunch or offer it to fellow travellers if you’re in shared accommodation – you might save some money or make some new travel buddies while ensuring you reduce you travel footprint.
How to reduce your travel footprint on tours and sightseeing
We travel to see things and so reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling will largely come down to your activities while you are away. There are so many ways we can lessen the damage we cause on holiday or during long-term travel, so here are some suggestions.
Go green with city sightseeing, tours and attractions
Those shiny eco-awards come into play here again but lots of places don’t use such systems so you’ll need to look out for other signs. Many tour companies will be eager to promote either environmentally conscious image so look out for electric vehicles or low emission buses, commitments to lowering their carbon footprint, using local produce and suppliers or membership to sustainable travel organisations. Reviews are also key. Not just to make sure you get the best service and value but visitors and paying customers will be first to highlight unsustainable practices so keep an eye on third-party review sites to see who’s winning the green points and who isn’t.
Don’t underestimate the walking tour or getting public transport. While a big shiny bus might be a comfy, cosy option, why not see if you can build your own city sightseeing plan and use local transport to reduce you environmental footprint. While not suitable for everyone, walking tours or self guided walks can really help you see a new city up close and appreciate the local atmosphere much more than from the bus window. Tourism boards will regularly have city passes or tourist cards that include transport options as well as attractions so check these out as a great way of reducing your environmental impact whilst traveling. Feeling energetic? Bike hire might be for you!
Do you really need three different tourist maps, two region guides and a brochure for every attraction in the city? Cut down how many leaflets you pick up at the airport. Most of us carry a smart phone so save info onto it, download maps or a local tourism app or if you’d rather have a paper copy, why not return it to the stand after you’ve used it if it’s still in good condition. If it’s not in the best shape, utilise a recycling bin.
Seeking out responsible animal encounters
Zoos and animal attractions are a controversial one and I’ve been on both sides of the fence (quite literary). I’ve visited quite a few animal parks and zoos on my travels and I’ve worked as a zoo keeper too. Not all zoos are created equal and so if you want to visit look for recognised standards – membership of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) is a big one across Europe and the Middle East as is AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) in the US. If places look questionable, it’s best to avoid than support unethical locations out of lack of information. Things like elephant riding, tiger selfies and lion walking are all becoming well known no-nos but there are hundreds more bad practices so do your research before heading to animal attractions.
If you’re considering a dedicated wildlife tour or animal spotting experience remember that vehicles should never get too close to animals and there will be guidelines for different kinds of creatures. Tours should never interfere with an animal’s normal behaviour and feeding wild animals can have lots of negative impacts. Animals can become reliant on human feeding and lose their natural foraging instincts or they might not be eating their natural foodstuff and overall such activities can put both animals and wildlife at risk if everyone gets too close.
Reducing your environmental impact during outdoor activities
I love exploring nature and could spend hours wandering through the wilderness just soaking in the beauty of our world but that doesn’t mean we can just aimlessly disappear off into the woods without a plan. Nature walks and hiking are fantastic activities but it’s also a key place where we must ensure we travel responsibly. If there are set walking trails where you have decided to explore, stick to them. These help reduce the damage to the nature flora and reduce the impact of walkers where places are popular. Most National Parks or Nature Reserves will have bins somewhere so use them and if you can’t find one take your trash home. Never leave your litter even at the side of trails or next to bin areas as, despite your good intentions, this will likely blow away or be rummaged through by local creatures looking for a tasty snack. Best to keep it simple in wilderness areas and if you hiked it in then hike it back out.
Camping can be great fun but if you’re planning a fire make sure you know how to build and contain it safely without risk to the surrounding environment. Stones rings are not magic and do not stop flames or embers escaping onto nearby ground so learn how to dig a fire pit, how to properly extinguish a campfire and how to safely use a barbecue or cooking gear when camping. But before you even get to that stage check local warnings about fire risks. Camp grounds, National Parks and environmental organisations will put out fire risk alerts so make sure you know who is responsible for the region you are camping in. In dry seasons local councils, or state officials may put out total fire bans – heed them or you could be putting yourself and others at risk as well as causing untold damage to wildlife and nature.
Camping also brings the fun of, well, poop. It might be the call of nature but it’s important to deal with human waste responsibly. Learn how to dig a latrine and where is a safe place to put it – ie. not next a watercourse. Some countries require visitors to carry out their waste while in wilderness areas so check out the rules before you “go” and, if you need to, read up on how to safely and hygienically store your waste. Mountaineering Scotland has a great resource for this!
Not all environmental impacts can easily be seen. If you spend a lot of time outdoors you can easily pick up local bugs and pests that might be endemic where you collect them but invasive and damaging to where you’re going. To ensure you are reducing the risk make sure you thoroughly clean walking shoes and camping equipment when moving place to place. Plant diseases and stow away pests can cause such big issues, some countries including New Zealand will fine you if they discover you are attempting to bringing contaminated equipment in. Natural souvenirs such as coral, pine cones or shells are also a big no-no, not only because of contamination issues but because you most certainly will not be the only one taking from that local habitat and it all adds up.
Environmental volunteer placements or eco-friendly travel gestures
Why not try reducing your environmental impact whilst travelling by volunteering. Joining an environmental placement on longer travels or something like a local forest planting afternoon on shorter travels can give something back to the places you are visiting. While there are lots of organised options, you can also look for local groups needing a hand in the places your passing through or just go for it and do your bit for the environment independently. Do a quick beach clean, pick up discarded plastic along a forest trail or donate things to local charities for reuse rather than in a bin.
Promoting sustainable travel and everyday changes
Once the adventure is over you can still help sustainable travel. Tell people about the awesome places that were eco-friendly, praise tours that highlighted impacts and give feedback to others on how they could improve. Be a loyal customer to responsible hotel chains and break ties with those who pollute or are wasteful. One of the best ways to reduce the overall environmental impact of travel is simply to let other travellers know about the issues with plastics, unethical animal attractions and unsustainable tourism practices and help educate them on aspects of travel that they just might not have thought about. If you can make a recommendation on a more responsible and greener option then all the better and people will be more likely to make the right choice. Share your knowledge and help us all find new environmentally friendly hints and tips to apply to our travels and our everyday lives!
Do you have more tips for reducing your environmental impact whilst traveling? Share them below, we’d love to hear them!
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