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We know travel has a significant environmental footprint. In some cases, travelers may even be ruining the sites they travel to visit. However, it’s possible to reduce the environmental footprint of your travels. Much of that footprint is created by transportation. So for the past three weeks we’ve considered the basics of carbon offsetting, airlines that offer carbon offsetting programs and how to select carbon efficient airlines and flights. This week, in the last piece of this series, we consider how you can be more environmentally friendly while traveling.

In This Post

Destination Matters

A staycation or visiting a nearby location often has a smaller transportation-based environmental footprint. Traveling to an area with a massive water shortage may put unnecessary strain on already limited resources, but traveling to an area recently hit by a natural disaster could infuse the local community with needed income and support.

Use Efficient Transportation

Consider the trade-offs of different transportation modes. Some airlines and aircraft are more carbon efficient than others. If you’re traveling as a family, driving an electric or hybrid car may be more carbon efficient than flying. Likewise, trains, buses and ferries can provide environmentally-friendly alternatives to renting a car or flying. Walking or biking in a new city can can decrease the number of vehicles on roads and also be a great way to see the sites while getting exercise.

Stay Smart

Some hotels tout sustainability initiatives, such as solar power, wind turbines, rainwater harvesting, energy-efficient lighting, composting, recycling and low-flow toilets. Look for hotels that have certifications, such as LEED, to back up their claims.

Apollo Bay Eco Hostel in Australia has many eco-friendly features including passive solar design, trombe walls to absorb winter sun and concrete floors and internal walls to maintain temperature.
Apollo Bay Eco Hostel in Apollo Bay, Australia, has many eco-friendly features including passive solar design, Trombe walls to absorb winter sun and concrete floors and internal walls to maintain temperature.

It has been argued that hotels and Airbnbs take real estate and resources away from local communities. If you believe this is the case, consider home exchanges or renting Airbnbs where the host is renting extra space within their home or legitimately renting their entire home while traveling. Avoid hosts that manage many properties, as they likely own the properties solely to rent them.

Reduce

Reduce the amount of items you use, even if you plan to reuse or recycle them. In particular, avoid single-use items such as paper cups, maps, brochures, take-away containers and plastic bags. Bring your own multi-use razor, toothbrush and shower cap instead of using those provided by hotels.

Reuse

Reuse items whenever possible. In particular:

  • Reuse towels and sheets for multiple days by leaving a note for housekeeping or putting the “do not disturb” sign on your door.
  • Consider wearing your clothing multiple times until you have enough dirty laundry for a full load.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle and/or coffee mug. Fill the bottle with tap water when safe. When drinking tap water isn’t recommended use a Steripen or similar device to treat tap water or buy large jugs of water to refill your bottle multiple times. Reusable bottles are also great for refilling after security so you stay hydrated on flights.
  • Carry a reusable bag for shopping. I carry a nylon bag that folds to smaller than a coin purse.
  • Carry a reusable camping fork. This helps for street food and can be bought for less than $1 at a sporting goods store.
  • Reuse your amenity kits. I use one as a pouch for foreign currencies, one as a travel sleep kit and one as protective case for my traveling robot.

Recycle

When you’re done with an item, recycle it if possible. Many hotels and cities have prevalent recycling bins and some hotels even recycle unused soap and toiletries. Unfortunately, in some cities you may struggle to find recycling bins. In these cities, ask a local or specifically look at parks, grocery stores and public transportation hubs.

Local students happily manned recycle stations at
Local students happily manned recycle stations at the Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto, Japan.

Besides traditional recycling, consider donating jackets, umbrellas, shoes and other items you don’t want to take home. Many cities have donation bins, but you can always ask your Airbnb host or front desk.

Support Local

Shopping and eating locally infuses money into the community and minimizes the transport costs of goods and foods. Another way to support the community and meet people is to get involved in a local volunteer day. Projects such as beach or river clean-ups often occur in attractive locations, require limited skills and commitment and can always benefit from additional manpower.

Be Wary of Animal Tourism

Although there are some high quality and ethically operated sanctuaries, such as Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL and Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, it can be difficult to evaluate individual facilities while traveling. In general, don’t visit or support facilities that allow activities such as walking with tigers, riding elephants and holding animals like tigers or sloths. Avoid these activities since they often feature drugged, cruelly trained and/or overly stressed captive animals.

Tours and attractions that allow or involve feeding of wildlife should also generally be avoided, as this can alter the animal’s natural diet as well as the surrounding ecosystem.

Tread Carefully

When enjoying the great outdoors, follow Leave No Trace principles. In particular, don’t litter (even gum and apple cores) and leave everything you find including flowers, rocks and leaves. When hiking or driving, stay on the road or trail and avoid trampling plants and other foliage. When diving or swimming, don’t touch or step on coral and determine whether your sunscreen might affect the local ecosystem.

Conserve Energy

Just like at home, there are many ways to be energy-efficient while traveling. For example:

  • Turn off lights and heat or air-conditioning when going out
  • In an Airbnb or multi-room suite, only heat or cool rooms you’re using
  • Wash clothing in cold water
  • Hang dry clothing instead of using a dryer
  • Only run water heaters when needed
  • Use blinds or shutters to help with temperature regulation
Much of the world - like this AirBnB in Belgrade, Serbia - uses shutters to conserve energy.
Much of the world — like this Airbnb in Belgrade, Serbia — uses shutters to conserve energy.

Conserve Water

Especially in areas where water is in short supply, follow local advice and:

  • Take fewer or shorter showers
  • Turn off water taps when not in use
  • Don’t use hotel or laundry services unless you have a full load, as they often wash every guest’s clothes separately
  • Don’t expect lush lawns in desert or drought-prone areas

Bottom Line

Travel will almost always create a bigger environmental footprint than staying at home because you’re away from your normal routine. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t travel, though, as thoughtful travel can provide many benefits to us and the communities we visit. Many of the suggestions in this article are relatively simple to adopt, so consider giving some of them a try on your next trip; you might find they soon become second nature.

Featured image by Image Source/Getty Images. All other images by the author.

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