Eco-Friendly Travel Tips for Your Next Adventure

You’re the person who yells over the loud music at a party to ask if there’s a recycling bin.

You thrift shop. Take public transport to work. Buy local.

That kind of mindset — constantly thinking about your carbon footprint — doesn’t have to end when you go on vacation. And it shouldn’t, because tourism travel is a major stressor on the environment.

According to a 2018 study in the journal Nature Climate Change, global tourism accounts for about 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — and that number is growing.

Seemingly small changes to the way you travel aren’t so small in the long run. Skipping out on a flight just once or twice a year, for instance, can reduce your carbon footprint by 20 percent.

And according to one study, most travelers care about leaving a place the same or better off than it was when they got there.

There are plenty of ways to be a good environmental steward on vacation.

1. Fight against ‘overtourism’

There’s no doubt that tourism is good for a country’s economy. But because international travel is easier than ever due to technology, it’s also growing in popularity.

Illustration of small hotel. Eco-Friendly Travel Tips pbs rewire
You might choose to stay in a LEED-certified hotel, which are often more energy efficient and produce less waste.

That’s leading some to worry about “overtourism” in the world’s most popular destinations wearing on the environment.

This year, the Instagram account Public Lands Hate You was launched in response to tourists illegally picking, lying in and walking through California’s famous wildflower “super bloom.”

Instead of visiting an ultra-popular destination swarming with tourists and unintentionally contributing to its destruction, you can choose one that is less popular, but just as beautiful.

For example, Machu Picchu isn’t Peru’s only beautiful ruin, and the U.S. has dozens of national parks you can visit outside of its most trafficked.

You can also choose a destination based on its environmental impact.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council accredits destinations based on their commitment to sustainability. Yale University also regularly releases an Environmental Performance Index ranking countries based on their commitment to environmental issues. (Denmark, France, Malta and Sweden came out on top last year.)

If you do feel the need to visit a popular tourist destination, try to do so off-season. And always stay on trails at national parks — they’re there for a reason!

2. Change the way you get there

One flight across the globe can put as much as 5 metric tons of climate change-causing emissions into the air.

While it’s not always possible, rail travel can be a more sustainable choice because it produces far fewer emissions. Land travel takes more time than air travel, but you’ll get to see a lot more of the country along the way.

That can make it more of an adventure.

U.K.-based travel writer Lauren Pears plans to cycle from London to Istanbul this summer. She expects the trip to take three months.

“I wanted to find ways of traveling without impacting the environment so significantly,” she said. She’s also using the opportunity to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund.

When you do have to fly, choose a nonstop flight — most airplane fuel is used during take-off and landing.

Many airlines also offer the chance to purchase carbon offsets from third parties along with the tickets to your flight. When you do this, you’re ideally funding the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in some way — whether that’s planting trees or capturing and burning methane.

However, depending on where you buy them, it can be hard to know whether the money spent on carbon offsets actually does directly make a difference.

“They can be good, but they are kind of seen as modern-day snake oil in the sustainability community,” said Ashlee Piper, an “eco lifestyle expert” and author of “Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet.

“We don’t totally know what is done with them — not every company is really transparent about it.”

You can also use a third-party website like myclimate.org to calculate your own carbon emissions and donate to an environmental charity of your choice.

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3. Travel lighter

Your environmental impact starts with your ticket. Because many airline tickets are made out of thermal paper — the same material retail receipts are made of — they often cannot be recycled.

Fortunately, many airlines offer e-tickets sent directly to your smartphone.

You should also try to pack light.

Because the weight of the plane impacts the amount of emissions it produces, Piper said, flying as light as possible makes a difference. Bring just a carry-on instead of checked luggage.

The seat you pick also plays a role. First class or business seats are also much heavier than coach, which means that your trip will weigh more heavily on the environment in more ways than one.

In some cases, being environmentally friendly means bringing more, not less.

“One of the most important things is to bring your own water bottle or drinking container,” Piper said. “I generally either say pass on the in-flight drink service, so you’re not using the napkins or the cups… or if you are going to get something to drink during in-flight service, don’t get the plastic cup or just ask for the can of whatever it is.”

She brings her own food, instead of buying whatever saran-wrapped offerings are sitting out at the airport deli.

4. Be a good guest

You might choose to stay in a LEED-certified hotel (there are more than 400 globally), which are often more energy efficient and produce less waste than other hotels.

“I also recommend Airbnbs too, because I generally find that if you’re staying at a place that doesn’t have a cleaning service, you’re going to be more eco responsible,” Piper said.

If you do stay in a hotel, bring your own toiletries. Hotel-provided often end up getting thrown away. Piper uses a bar shampoo that she can carry on the plane, and toothpaste tabs instead of a tube.

And don’t get the cleaning service until the end of your stay. (You don’t need 10 towels for two days, anyway.)

Piper says all these small choices add up — that what we buy and where we go has helped cause global warming.

Our choices can help fix it, too.

“What I like to remind folks is that we didn’t get into this position with very rapid climate change until basically post war industrialization, which was fueled by individual demands,” she said. “We have to take personal responsibility for what’s gotten us here.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.