A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Travel

Why travelers need to take responsibility

You’re not the only one paying for your vacation. Who’s paying the highest price for the world’s transportation and tourism? The environment.

In an era where climate change and environmental degradation are at an all-time high, we need to address the traveler’s contribution. This applied to you if you’re globetrotter who’s been to 50 countries or if you’re simply someone who looks forward to each spring break in Cancun.

Now, first it’s important to understand that it’s not so much the fact that people are traveling as it is how people travel. Call it what you will– eco-travel, green-travel, responsible-travel—the objective is to be more mindful. Though this is an extensive topic to cover, I’ve broken down the basics to help average individuals make their travels more sustainable.

Use transportation wisely

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Traveling to Barcelona a few years ago.

Unless you’re walking or biking to your destination, your transportation is polluting the atmosphere to some extent. Planes, cars, and boats are all significant sources of carbon emissions, where one transatlantic round-trip plane ride equates to an entire year’s worth of driving. However, taking a road-trip is not necessarily better for the environment. With Europe as the world’s number 1 tourist destination, surprisingly cars have the largest impact on air quality.

There are several ways you can get to your destination without completely compromises the environment. Here are a few tips:

  • Choose an airline company that actively seeks to offset its carbon footprint.
  • Invest to offset your individual footprint.
  • Fly less, and opt to take buses or trains (usually cheaper anyways).
  • Opt for walking, biking, and using public transport while on vacation.

Cut down on plastic

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A trashcan full of recyclables during peak tourism season in Dubrovnik.

When you’re catching that connecting flight, you just need something quick: water, juice, coffee, or a fruit cup. Whatever it is, chances are that on-the-go container is made of plastic. Many travelers continue to reach for the plastic water bottle in airports and on vacation (though bottled water is not cleaner than most tap water). There are 2.7 million tons of water bottles used annually, and the worst part is, 85 percent of plastic is not recycled (see picture).

Here are ways you can minimize your plastic consumption:

  • Bring your own water bottle while traveling (TSA will let you bring it through if it is empty).
  • Take time to recycle. Even if you have to collect it and find a drop-off!
  • Avoid ready-made food on-the-go. Bring/make your own food or eat at a restaurant.

Put your money into the local economy

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Local cheese and berries from the Dubrovnik area.

Travel and tourism take up 9.8 percent of global GDP, generating $7.2 trillion. Indeed many communities thrive off of tourism. However, tourism leakage occurs when profits end up leaving communities after outsourced expenditures. This is common with most of the all-inclusive travel packages. For example, UNEP reports that 70 percent of all money spent by tourists in Thailand ends up leaving the country. Most likely that tacky shot-glass that says, “I love Bangkok” also has some fine print that says “Made in China”.

The best thing you can do to mitigate tourism leakage is to shop local. By doing this, you’re investing in cultural and environmental preservation. Here are some tips:

  • Purchase authentic souvenirs made in the country you’re visiting.
  • Buy food at local farmers’ markets.
  • Stop going to Starbucks and McDonalds! Find the mom-and-pop restaurants that serve local food.
  • Look for housing accommodations owned by locals (I like airbnb.com or bookings.com).

Support conservation efforts

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Shot of Plitvice Lakes (I didn’t go off trail, unlike some people!)

Influx of tourists can sadly end up destroying the environment and community. Defined by UNEP, “negative impacts from tourism occur when the level of visitor use is greater than the environment’s ability to cope with this use within the acceptable limits of change.” Several global landmarks are slowly eroding because of this. Plitvice Lakes in Croatia are at risk of losing their world heritage status after tourists strayed off path for “stupid selfies”.

Here are some tips to strengthen conservation efforts:

  • Visit nationally protected parks, and do so responsibly.
  • Check out any eco or nature tours at your destination.
  • Most of all, have common sense and respect when visiting landmarks, and don’t be an idiot.

Does sustainable travel require more effort? Of course. But that should be the price we pay for experiencing new places. Not only are intergovernmental organizations addressing sustainable travel, nonprofits and bloggers are dedicating themselves to the topic as well.

So who’s with me? Let’s use travel to sustain the world, not destroy it.

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(Click above to pin it!)

Question for the reader:

  1. Are you passionate about sustainability and travel? Do you have any hacks you could share with the rest of us?

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19 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Travel

  • Great tips! All this actually doesn’t require more money to spend – it is more the matter of will in individuals. One more suggestion -people can actually save money with buying plastic bottles that has filter on the top. You can fill the bottle with tap water that you can get anywhere,and in long term actually save a lot of money 🙂

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  • Yes, it’s more about the effort than the money! And water bottles with filters are a great suggestion. Thanks for reading stranger! 🙂

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  • Loved your post. I’m trying to be more conscious in my decisions when traveling, so lately I’ve been choosing more eco hotels, and cut down on using plastic containers.

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    • Thank you Cristina! That’s awesome that you are trying to be more conscious, and it looks like you’re stepping in the right direction!

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  • Great beginners guide to sustainable travel! I’d love to read more posts about sustainable travel. I’m always interested in learning about accommodation options that are truly environmentally friendly and not just advertised that way!

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  • A really handy introduction to sustainable travel. It is so important to invest in the communities you visit. But we must also think about the carbon impact of our travels as you have rightly noted. I will share this as I focus on responsible and sustainable travel on my blog too.

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    • Thank you Amanda! I’m glad you’re also thinking about how we need to invest in the communities we visit and address our carbon footprint. Glad to connect, and send any sustainable travel pieces my way! 🙂

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  • This is great–so many things we could easily prevent or change with just a tiny bit of forethought, a little extra care. Thanks for posting; I’ll definitely be sharing!

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  • A lot of food for thought here. I have seen a lot of tourists ignoring signs asking them to stay on paths, too. I always go on a trip with the mindset that I am a guest and I want to behave in a way that has people wanting me to revisit their country!

    We have been carrying empty reusable water bottles with us and only buying bottled water if we are told the local water is unsafe to drink. The idea of getting a bottle with a filter top is a great one.

    Also, taking public transportation is a great way to meet local people and to get insider tips on the best local restaurants and things to do. So, you are lowering air pollution and making your trip more enjoyable at the same time!

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  • Great tips! I’m always trying to find time to use my steripen instead of buying bottled water in developing countries! SPREAD THE AWARENESS GIRL!

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  • Your story is very similar to mine about Dubrovnik. Went there for school, met a boy, did the travelling back and forth for a few years, and eventually moved to Dubrovnik. Your story about Budva, was very similar to mine and I have memories to last me a lifetime from that trip. We had limited money and he worked in the tourism industry, so must of the time I was there in the summer I explored on my own. When I traveled in the winter, he worked odd hours, so I explored the rainy city on my own.
    Sadly, I no longer live in Dubrovnik, but I have fond memories of my time there and hope one day to return. I was there before its peak in tourism, so it was a different atmosphere for me.

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