7 Ways to Be a More Earth-Conscious Traveler
You can make a big impact with a few small changes.
You may have seen the photos these past two years of smog-free skies over LA, clear(ish) water flowing through the historically toxic Venice canals, and wildlife reclaiming cities all over the world amid coronavirus lockdowns—all proof that nature indeed fares better when we sit our fossil fuel-guzzling butts at home instead of traipsing around spewing carbon. You could say Mother Nature was enjoying some much needed R&R.
Well, travel has since largely resumed, and experts are biting their nails about whether pandemic-era sustainability goals will be upheld or simply pushed aside to continue business as usual.
"It would be hard to not say that the mass industry is all about getting the business back to what it was before, and that concerns me," says one of those experts. As Planeterra's president and G Adventures' vice president for social enterprise and responsible travel, Jamie Sweeting has occupied the front lines of eco-tourism for 25-plus years. He says that now, more than ever in his career, travelers hold the power.
Jessica Blotter, CEO and cofounder of Kind Traveler, seconds that sentiment: "The 1.4 billion travelers who took trips pre-covid have an enormous potential to help or harm the planet, depending on how their travel dollars are harnessed."
Of course, there are plenty of realistic ways to reduce your travel impact, from minimizing plastic use to choosing local businesses over chains, or from "voluntouring" to traveling on public transportation. With everything that falls under the ever-growing "sustainability" umbrella these days, Sweeting says, "You have to really ask yourself, 'What within sustainability is most important to me?'"
So why not celebrate this Earth Day right by considering what travel goals you care about—and can truly apply? Things that drive you to book community-based experiences instead of the cheapest flight to over-touristed Cabo, perhaps? And while you’re making that list, here are a few points to help you put your money where your well-intentioned mouth is.
Travel by ground more often
Every time you get on a plane, ride in a taxi, or use electricity or heat, carbon dioxide is emitted. Obviously we can’t all be Greta Thunberg and give up flying completely—but for short domestic trips, consider a road trip or taking the train instead. In the US, Amtrak not only provides a scenic experience and an automatically interesting travel yarn, but the company has also reduced its emissions by 20% since 2010, with the goal to achieve 40% reduction by 2030.
Outside of the US and Europe (home to the iconic Interrail), train travel is often cheaper, allows you to see more rural areas, and bridges the gap between tourists and locals. Best of all, medium-length trips by rail emit up to 80% less greenhouse gas than the same trip by air. Book yourself in first class if your idea of coach is more like a sardine in a tin can.
Book with low-emissions airlines
For long flights you can’t avoid, choose an airline that uses sustainable aviation fuel. As Sweeting says, "It's not hard to put 'award-winning environmental airlines' into Google." JetBlue, for example, was the first airline to achieve carbon neutrality for all domestic flights. In 2021, United Airlines was the first in the world to operate a passenger flight with 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Even by expressing our desires, we’re sending a message to the all-powerful about what consumers want.
Booking sites like Skyscanner and Google Flights are making it easier to shop by carbon footprint, too. The former offers a "Greener Choices" filter; the latter highlights low-carbon options in green.
Try to book direct flights on newer aircrafts like the A320neo or Boeing 787 Dreamliner, says Alix Collins, director of marketing and communications at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). "Travelers should first make every effort to reduce their emissions while traveling before making an offset," she says, referencing the (decidedly polarizing) carbon offsetting trend.
Essentially, carbon offsetting is a way to counteract the carbon emissions you generate while flying. The idea is to put money toward a project that funds renewable energy and combats climate change.
For example, Delta’s carbon emissions calculator shows that a round trip flight from NYC to LA will generate 0.709 metric tons of carbon. To offset that, you can donate around $7 to initiatives like Kenya's Tist Program or the Guatemalan Conservation Cost Project. Booking sites often present the option to carbon offset at checkout, making it an easy way to give back on top of emissions reduction.
Book LEED-certified hotels
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a universal set of guidelines that rates buildings by how sustainable they are. Buildings earn points by meeting certain qualifications, like reducing pollution, improving air quality, and limiting guest and staff exposure to chemicals. Based on the number of total points it gets, a building can earn one of four LEED certifications: Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Certified.
Along with prioritizing sustainability from a development, design, and operation standpoint, some hotels have also created executive-level leadership positions to oversee all aspects of sustainability—like Montage Laguna Beach, Southern California’s first luxury Gold-certified LEED hotel, and brands like Marriott International, which has a published list of LEED-certified hotels in their portfolio.
You probably already have a modest roster of travel apps, but here’s one more: Glooby, an aggregator that not only finds you low-cost flights and hotel rooms but sustainable ones. That can mean a flight that’s more fuel-efficient than a comparable one or a hotel that’s earned an eco-friendly label. You can also search through their featured cities just to see what options are out there.
Cut back on water usage and plastics
You already know to reuse your towels—a win for both your hotel and the planet—and you probably know to avoid all those little hotel soaps, too. In the US, almost a million bars a day end up in le garbage. Although some hotels like Marriott International and Hilton Hotels & Resorts donate to Clean the World, one of the largest organizations to recycle, sanitize, and distribute leftover hotel soap to developing countries, it’s still better if we all just stop popping one open for only a couple washes. Instead, bring that mini bottle you stole from your last hotel and refill it at home whenever it runs out.
On the subject of plastic, there's really no excuse for buying disposable water bottles either. Unless otherwise noted, you can drink the water straight from the tap in most places—filter it with a charcoal stick if it makes you feel better. If visiting a destination where the tap water isn't safe to drink, there are more sophisticated purification systems specially designed for travel. Some bottles pump water through a carbon filter; others use the power of UV light to kill even the gnarliest bugs and bacteria.
Ultimately, you should be using all the same low-waste methods you would use at home: Take a tote bag shopping, say no to straws in your drinks, have your coffee sitting down to avoid the paper cup, and carry bamboo cutlery that you can compost or reuse. If you're serious about the issue—and you should be, with 8 million new pieces of plastic being funneled into the ocean daily—contact your airline and ask what it's doing to reduce its plastic usage. Sometimes demand equals change.
Plan trips and excursions with eco-conscious, ethical companies
Heaps of travel companies make it their business to help you plan a planet-friendly trip. The problem is that they *all* claim to be the most sustainable, ethical, and eco-conscious in the business, even when they're far from it. So how does one know whether a company is taking its environmental impact seriously, not just spouting off buzzwords?
"Does it pass the sniff test?" asks Sweeting, meaning: Is there more to its claims than a press release and a few bullet points on conservation? Are its sustainability initiatives clearly stated on its website? Is it backed by certifications and/or awards?
"Companies making an honest effort to be more sustainable will be doing more than simple, energy-saving efforts like asking guests to reuse their towels," Collins says. "In addition to those energy-saving efforts, sustainable companies will also be partnering with and giving back to the community and operating in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment, wildlife included."
Wildlife encounters are rarely ethical. Sweeting points out that even refuges that claim to rescue animals actually fuel poaching by paying locals to bring them a sloth, say, or a toucan. The animals aren't always orphaned or hit by cars as alleged.
The benefit of booking a trip with a sustainable tour operator like Intrepid Travel or G Adventures is that the excursions have already been vetted. These companies go the extra mile to keep the overall footprint to a minimum. Otherwise, you can use resources like EarthCheck, Rainforest Alliance, and Green Globe to find and hire tour groups certified in sustainable practices all over the world.
Take time to volunteer
"Regenerative travel” is the buzzword du jour. It’s the notion that tourists should go beyond leaving no trace to, in fact, leave a place better than how it was found. A lot of times, the concept involves voluntourism—staying at an agriturismo in Italy, teaching English to kids at a Kenyan village, or building a church in Haiti. Truth is, these volunteer opportunities can get a little murky.
"If you really want to build a church in Haiti, invest in a good charity that will hire Haitians to do that," Sweeting says. "You don't need to take jobs away from local people to make yourself feel better."
He recommends visiting a social enterprise cafe whose profits benefit the community instead. A good voluntourism opportunity is one that doesn't take away from locals or create dependency on Western organizations.
Consider Malama Hawaii (malama meaning “to respect and care for” in Hawaiian), a program that invites travelers to join beach cleanups, tree planting, quilt-making for elders, and ocean reef preservation. Upon completion of a three-hour volunteer beach clean-up, the Four Seasons Maui will even reward guests with a $250 resort credit for their current stay, plus one night in an Ocean View Room during a future stay.
Another recommended by Blotter is Charlie's Acres, a farm that rescues slaughterhouse-bound farm animals in Sonoma, California. Here, you can learn about livestock welfare and, on the side, indulge in sheep meditation or goat yoga if morning vinyasa with horned animals is your thing.
Ensure your tourism dollars stay in the local community
When asked about the one thing that makes the biggest positive impact while traveling, experts agree that it's localizing your experiences.
"This could mean traveling closer to home, but it could also mean more intentionally and actively participating in the local supply chain," Collins says.
Supporting local businesses stimulates economic growth in your destination, ultimately leading to financial independence and better living conditions for its residents. It goes all the way from the top, like choosing an independent hotel instead of an international chain, down to the ingredients sourced by the restaurants at which you eat.
Do your research in the planning stage to make sure your dollars stay in the community. If, on the spot, you don't know where a souvenir comes from or whether a driver is hired by a foreign company, the best you can do is ask and hope for an honest answer. You’ll find most people are proud to tell you when they are locally operated.
Olivia Young is a freelance journalist, slow travel advocate, and vanlife expert. Her favorite travel days usually involve vegan food, wildlife sightings, and an occasional liability waiver.