10 Tips for More Sustainable Travel
1.) Take a train.
Trains and buses use far less fossil fuel per mile than cruise ships or planes. So, one of the best ways to trim your carbon footprint is to keep your trips close to home. Instead of traveling overseas, can you reach awesome local trails or campsites via a bus, subway, or Amtrak train instead?
If you’ve already bought plane tickets to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere, can you travel within the region via bus or train, rather than taking short-haul flights or renting a car? Use Google Maps or apps like CityMapper to figure out what your public transportation options are.
2.) Fly direct.
When there’s no way to avoid booking air travel, try to fly direct. Not only are nonstop flights less stressful than multi-stop flights (no one loves running to make a tight connection), but they also use less fuel per mile.
The actual minutiae of flight energy efficiency are pretty complex, but the upshot is that a lot of a flight’s fuel is used in takeoff and landing. So, if you have two journeys that each go 500 miles, and one is direct while the other has a layover, the latter will likely use much more fuel than the nonstop flight. Other ways to minimize your flight’s impact: Book economy-class seats on newer, more modern aircraft whenever possible.
3.) Choose your destination carefully.
Over-tourism is a big problem in today’s crowded world. In places like Barcelona and Venice, it has changed local landscapes, forced out family-owned businesses, and dramatically impacted the lives of local residents. In places like Colorado, over-tourism has been responsible for the trampling of local vegetation, damage to delicate ecosystems, and even destructive, human-caused wildfires.
If you’re dead-set on visiting a popular location, try to visit during the off-season. If you’re not too picky, look for a destination that’s off the beaten path. Better yet, spend your money in places like Nepal or Haiti that need tourism dollars to recover from recent natural disasters.
4.) Book carbon-neutral lodging.
If you’re staying in a hotel, look for eco-friendly lodges and inns (find pre-vetted accommodations through sites like bookdifferent.com). If you’re staying in an Airbnb, look for a room in someone’s home as opposed to booking an entire place. That way, your money is more likely to go to a local family rather than supporting a vacation rental market that inflates housing prices and forces out longtime residents.
You can also look for hotels accredited by third-party vetting organizations like The Rainforest Alliance, Earth Check, or Green Key.
5.) Shop local.
When you reach your destination, spend money at local, family-owned restaurants and businesses whenever possible. Big international chains profit off tourist hotspots without giving back to the local economy. (They also use more CO2 in importing foreign goods, ingredients, or personnel.)
Similarly, be sure to hire local guides rather than big international tourism companies. If you’re not sure where to begin, try working with a sustainable travel agent like Lokal Travel or the platform I Like Local, which helps travelers find impactful, locally curated experiences.
6.) Rent a bike or scooter.
Many big cities now have an extensive network of electric or human-powered transportation options like scooters, bicycles, and e-bikes. When you get to a new city, scan around to see what services are available, download the apps to activate them, and start riding. You’ll see more of the city—and save a ton of money and carbon doing it.
7.) Skip the rental car.
Rental cars can be fast and efficient, but parking and gasoline costs add up quickly over the course of a trip. Cars also use more fuel per mile than public transportation. Plus, there are tons of ride-sharing options that can help you both save money and connect with locals. Check out sites like blablacar.com or carpoolworld.com to find a ride instead of renting a car to yourself.
8.) Pack light.
Your car uses more gas when it’s loaded down. The same is true of planes. If you can avoid checking a bag, you’ll help save valuable fuel. Trim down your toiletry kit, rely on a capsule wardrobe, and limit yourself to two pairs of shoes to fit all your stuff into a single travel backpack or carry-on duffel—packing light and smart is easier than it sounds.
9.) Bring your reusables.
Adventure travel can provide a much-needed break from real life, but it shouldn’t be a vacation from your values. Instead of giving into the ease of single-use plastic bottles and utensils during your travels, bring your good habits with you: Add a water bottle, reusable utensil, and tote bag to your packing list.
10.) Offset as a last resort.
Some travel companies and even airlines offer carbon offsets as an add-on. Purchasing offsets funds environmentally beneficial projects—usually the planting of trees—to help “offset” the carbon you’ve burned through flying. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, offsets are more of a bandage than a real fix, and it can be hard to track and verify whether or not the trees were actually planted.
In short: Purchasing offsets is a great way to reduce the environmental footprint of your trip, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do.