couple hiking on a mountain
Nature has been thriving without us. | Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Nature has been thriving without us. | Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images

7 Ways to Be a More Earth-Conscious Traveler

Here's how to make a big impact with just a few small changes.

Over past three years, you may have seen photos 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 keep our fossil fuel-guzzling butts at home instead of traipsing around spewing carbon. One could say Mother Nature was enjoying some much needed R&R.

Well, global travel has since largely resumed, and experts are biting their nails about whether pandemic-era environmental advances will be continued 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 such expert. 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 Sweeting's 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 dropping single-use plastics and choosing local businesses over chains to "voluntouring" and opting to get around 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 which sustainable travel goals you care about—and can truly apply? Factors 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 eco-friendly travel tips to help you put your money where your well-intentioned mouth is.

train on high bridge through forested mountain
Help cut emissions while enjoying spectacular views. | Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

Travel by ground whenever you can

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.

plane flying among clouds
Find airlines that use sustainable aviation fuel. | Philip Myrtorp/Unsplash

Purchase tickets on 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. The company recently announced a $15 million investment in carbon capture technology. 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.

Montage hotel on the beach in Southern California
Sustainable design looks pretty good. | Montage Laguna Beach

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.

Or, consider more independent properties that are pushing boundaries, like Norway's energy-positive Svart, or Jordan's solar-powered Feynan Ecolodge. 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.

woman drinking from a grayl water bottle in the forest
Low-waste practices when at home and when traveling. | GRAYL

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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.

Woman photographs zebras on ethical safari
Is your safari really sustainable, ethical, and eco-conscious? | Intrepid Travel

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.

three goats at charlie's acres animal sanctuary
Leave a place better than how you found it. | Charlie's Acres

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.

If you're wondering how to ethically visit Hawaii, 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. The Four Seasons Maui will reward guests who volunteer with Pacific Whale Foundation or Lahaina Restoration Foundation with a $250 resort credit. 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.

Peruvian woman selling souvenirs at Inca ruins
Eat at sustainably sourced restaurants, buy regionally handcrafted gifts, and ask if tours are owned and operated by locals. | La Gruta

Stay, shop, play, eat, and drink local

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 wherever you land, 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 shopping at an artisan market, or, perhaps most importantly, deciding where to dine.

When visiting a food-forward destination, this might look like doing your research and making a reservation at a local spot that's actively invested in giving back to the community. A great example? La Gruta, located in an atmospheric, naturally cooled grotto about 25 miles outside of Mexico City near the famous Teotihuacan archaeological site. Earlier this year, the restaurant’s sustainability program was recognized and awarded twice by Guía México Gastronómico, an organization that distinguishes the 250 best restaurants in the Mexican Republic.

At La Gruta, third-generation chef-owner Carlos Cedillo not only oversees the lush organic gardens that provide the bulk of the kitchen's ingredients, but has also implemented a variety of social, economic, and ecological sustainability measures. There’s a composting system turning leftovers and unused produce into nutrient-rich soil and they work with area farms to establish fair trade practices for anything they need to outsource, like heirloom corn, certain cactus fruits, beans, and livestock. They also reuse wherever possible, even requiring their ice cream vendor to wash, sanitize, and refill the same tubs for every delivery. All that plus community outreach programs and an emphasis on gender equity and fair pay within the business, and you’ve got what Cedillo calls “sustainability at the table.” Oh, and did we mention the inventive, Pre-Hispanc-inspired food is amazing, too?

That's all to say, do your Googles in the planning stage to make sure your all your hard-earned vacation cash stays in the community. If you don't know where a souvenir comes from or whether your driver has been hired by a foreign company, the best you can do is ask and hope for an honest answer. You’ll find most people are pretty proud to tell you when something is homegrown.

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Leila is a travel writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her adventures around the world on Instagram @LeilasList.

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.