5 Ways to Be a More Earth-Conscious Traveler

You can make a big impact with a few small changes.

Over the past year and change, while we languished in lockdown and attempted to quell our cabin fever with virtual tours of the Louvre and animal cams, Mother Nature was enjoying some much needed R&R. According to a new study, fewer cars on the road—among other closures—in 2020 actually caused a 7% (or 2.6 billion metric ton) decline in carbon emissions, with the United States showing the most significant decrease. 

Though viral posts about swans and dolphins frolicking in the fresh clear waters of the Venice canals were mostly debunked, it's a sentiment worth holding onto after lockdown. 68% of consumers want to be more conscious about supporting sustainable hospitality brands—meaning the bulk of today’s travelers are more mindful about how and where they travel, how they spend their money, and the impact they have on the earth.

There are simple ways to protect the planet while also seeing the best it has to offer. From booking environment-friendly vacations to making your hotel stays more green, here are five ways to be a more eco-conscious traveler.

Donate to a carbon offset program when you fly

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, opt for a road trip, or take the train instead. Amtrak not only provides a scenic experience and automatically interesting travel yarn, they’ve also reduced emissions by 20% since 2010, with the goal to achieve 40% reduction by 2030.

For long flights you can’t avoid, consider donating to a carbon offset program. Essentially, this is a way to counteract (or cancel out) 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 the emissions, you can donate around $7 to initiatives like the Tist Program in Kenya, or the Guatemalan Conservation Cost Project. Booking sites often present the option to carbon offset at checkout, making this an easy and quick way to give back.

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

Do you really need clean towels every time you take a shower? Eh, probably not. You’ll conserve loads of water by not having your hotel sheets and towels changed every single night. (But remember to still tip your hotel housekeepers.) Skipping baths and cutting down on shower time is also essential in drought-prone areas like California and the Southwest. Ideally, keep showers under seven minutes on that Route 66 road trip.

As much as we love hoarding fancy hotel shampoos, it’s ridiculously easy to bring your own products in refillable containers, which cuts down on plastic waste. Take it easy opening all those little hotel soaps, too—in the US, almost a million bars a day end up in le garbage. Hotels like Marriott International and Hilton Hotels & Resorts, among others, have partnered with Clean the World, one of the largest organizations to recycle, sanitize, and distribute leftover hotel soap to developing countries. 

Side tangent: At this point, there is really no excuse for buying plastic water bottles either. Get yourself a Nalgene or other reusable water bottle of your choice. Take it with you to see the world. Start an Instagram account for it and pose it artfully in front of the many natural wonders it's helping to protect. Whatever makes you (and the earth) happy.

Plan trips and excursions with eco-conscious, ethical companies

Heaps of travel companies make it their business to help you plan a sustainably-minded trip. You can use resources like EarthCheck, Rainforest Alliance, and Green Globe to find and hire tour groups all over the world which are certified in sustainable practices.

Take a bike tour with Backroads or VBT. Or book a trip with Intrepid Travel, the world’s largest sustainable tour operator. Already carbon neutral since 2010, Intrepid plans to remove all flights under 90 minutes from its top 50 trips wherever possible by the end of 2022, replacing them with options like river boat cruises and high-speed rail. They also recently announced 40 low-carbon adventures “closer to home” such as walking and cycling trips in the US, UK, and Australia.

And if your plans involve wildlife encounters, do your due diligence to hire environmentally and ethically-responsible guides. Be skeptical of tours that offer petting zoos, photo-ops, and hands-on encounters with wildlife. 

Take time to volunteer and give back to local communities 

According to The New York Times, “regenerative travel” is the industry buzzword of the moment. It’s the notion that not only should you leave no trace, but you should in fact leave a place better than you found it.

One option is to carve out time on your vacation to volunteer. Hawaii launched a program called Malama Hawaii (malama meaning “to respect and care for” in Hawaiian), which invites travelers to join volunteer projects like self-guided beach cleanups, tree planting, quilt-making for elders, and ocean reef preservation. 

Some resorts even offer incentives for participating: Upon completion of a three hour volunteer beach clean-up, the Four Seasons Maui rewards guests with a $250 resort credit for their current stay, plus one night in an Ocean View Room during a future stay. (If you’re interested, you can book through the hotel’s concierge.)

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

Kastalia Medrano also contributed to reporting for this article.