In 2018, not only did I become a better traveler; I became a better sustainable traveler.
I celebrated Italy’s independence day at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Verona countryside. I explored the charming town of Leiden on the back of my Dutch friend’s bike (and held on for my dear life). I indulged in Boulder’s vegan food scene, which opened my eyes and palette to creative, plant-based cooking.
Yes, travel in itself, especially flying, has a carbon footprint. And of course, you don’t need to travel anywhere to practice sustainability!
But when it comes to sustainable travel, it seems the caveat is always the cost. I can understand why blog readers and Instagram followers may assume I spend tens of thousands of dollars on travel every year.
The truth is, actually, practicing responsible travel has helped me become also become a more a frugal traveler.
My Sustainable Travel Budget for 2018
Countries visited in 2018: Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands, USA, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium
Cities visited in 2018: Zermatt, Zurich, Venice, Verona, Garda, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Leiden, Minneapolis, Duluth, Miami, Dallas, Austin, Boulder, Zagreb, Motovun, Plitvice Lakes, Pula, Sibenik, Durmitor, Mostar, Leuven, Brussels, Bruge, Dubrovnik.
In 2018 I visited 2 continents, 8 countries, and 25 cities. Covering this ground I spent roughly $3,000 on transport, accommodation, food, and activities all together.
You’re either thinking 1 of 2 things: a) “That is impossible and you are full of sh*t or b) “You seriously consider THAT budget travel?!”
Well, let me put this in perspective for you. I covered were Europe and the U.S., not the cheapest places to travel. I spent a week in Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Istria Peninsula in Croatia. (The rest of these European destinations were weekend trips.)
While visiting my hometown of Minneapolis this summer, I also spent a week in Texas, and took weekend trips to Boulder, Miami, and Duluth, MN.
I am somewhere in between a budget backpacker and a luxury traveler. I don’t do hostels or backpacking trips (I have a bad back). But I also cannot afford to stay in high-end hotels. I also don’t do overnight buses or trains.
So considering this, I do think this budget is quite frugal, AND feasible.
Let me break it down further for you to show you the areas that I really save.
Sustainable transport options
Flying budget airlines with flexible dates
The secret to finding the best flight deals? Flexibility. I work remotely, so I can technically work anywhere in the world. This means that if a Monday to Thursday flight is $100 cheaper than a Friday to Sunday, I’ll book it.
I know realistically, not everyone can be this flexible. But if you leave a little wiggle room with dates and PTO, especially further in advance, you can seriously save hundreds of dollars for the exact same trip.
While visiting Northern Italy last April, I found a round-trip flight with Volotea Budget Airlines for $35.
Typically I fly budget airlines within Europe, not just because it’s more affordable, but also because budget flights are generally more environmentally friendly.
Yes, I have less leg-room, but sitting in first class has a carbon footprint 4 times higher than someone sitting in economy, according to Nat Geo.
Smaller airplanes seats = less airplane load = less fuel = less carbon emissions.
Budget airlines also tend to be more fuel efficient to help keep cost of fuel down. As a result, these are better for the environment and your wallet.
When traveling back to the states, it just so happens that two airlines I like most are the most fuel and cost efficient: Aer Lingus and Norweigen. With both of these airlines, and being flexible with dates of course, I’ve flown round-trip from Europe to Minneapolis for less than $600.
Using public transport and carpooling apps
Of course, I do try to fly less by taking trains and buses whenever possible. (For me this can be difficult in Croatia where the public transport system connecting to other parts of Europe is seriously lacking.)
This is why I really love the carpool app called BlaBla car. Basically it’s similar to Uber, but for longer distance driving. I was able to get from Dubrovnik to Zagreb doing this, and the 7-hour drive was about $30.
Staying in locally-owned b&bs and eco-friendly hotels
When booking accommodation, I strive to stay at locally owned boutique hotels and apartment rentals.
Also, as you can see in the picture above, I recently visited Croatia’s first “glamping” site, which was fully equipped with a villa tent and various eco-luxury features, like this outdoor spa.
I recommend checking out the platform Ecobnb.com, which provides sustainable accommodation options in Europe. Just be weary of Green-washing in the hotel industry. Look for hotels that actually have a track-record of energy efficiency, minimizing waste, recycling, and using local foods.
Staying with friends or family
The benefit of having a support system scattered across the planet is that I have friends and family at all corners of the world. I always try to keep in touch with people I have not seen in years. The perks of this are that many people are kind enough to invite me to visit.
And where other people are all like “Yes, I have to visit someday!” I’m like “Okay I’m booking my ticket! What week in April is best for you?”
So what’s my BIGGEST secret for sustainable travel on a budget? I stay with locals whenever possible. This is not just to save money on accommodation, it is also intentional decision to minimize my environmental footprint whenever possible.
- According to this awesome infographic by Hotel.Info, hotels in the U.S. produce 60 million tons of carbon and roughly 2 billion pounds of waste every year.
- In Europe as the number one tourist destination in the world, even green hotels still need to make room for more improvement in lowering water consumption, increasing energy efficiency, improving waste management, and minimizing overall environmental impact.
Also, I think staying with locals gives you a more authentic experience. You get to cook together, gain insider knowledge about all of their favorite places, and gain insight about what their life is like.
I can definitely say I’m privileged for the connections I have, and I know that traveling all over Europe and the U.S. by staying with locals is not realistic for everyone. BUT chances are you probably have a family member or say, a friend that started a job in a new city, that would love to host you.
Activities & Food
Travel in the off-season
Especially in Europe, I try to avoid traveling in the peak tourism season. I can’t stand the heat, crowds, and higher prices.
Also, living in a place like Dubrovnik, I really think it is more sustainable to spread tourism throughout the year. I generally try to avoid contributing to the masses that make so many cities unlivable in the summer months.
You’ll also notice that prices for many attractions and restaurants are cheaper in the off and shoulder season.
Tour the town by foot
Most of my destination guides are curated with the independent travelers like myself in mind. I generally avoid the hop-on-hop-off buses and other tourist traps when possible.
My favorite activity when I travel is to explore monuments and neighborhoods, take lots of pictures, and get a little lost at my own pace. Walking is my way of getting my bearings on a city and it happens to be eco-friendly, and FREE.
The easiest way I recommend doing this is by downloading Google Maps and marking all the attractions, restaurants, and areas you’d like to visit. Even without data, you can still have your location on your phone turned on to see where you are at all times.
This makes it incredible easy to explore a city on your own, and all of the major attractions, while customizing your experience.
Depending on the destination and your interests, I do think it can be beneficial to schedule tour. I think as long as you keep car transport to a minimum and book with a locally-owned operator, it can be an incredible way to experience the culture.
Take a hike and support conservation areas
Many of my fondest and freest moments, spiritually and financially, are hiking while traveling. I am by no means an extreme hiker, but it is one of my favorite ways to get outside and explore the nature of a city.
In a city where I am not familiar with the hikes, I try to see if I can meet up with a local, an old friend, or a friend of a friend to go explore. It ends up being a cool way to meet new people, or spend quality time with those you already know.
Also, I am all for splurging on an admission ticket into a national park to help conserve the nature landscape. For example the picture below on the left was taken at Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, which is truly like the Alberta of the Balkans. The picture on the right was taken at Plitvice National Park.
Both of these areas are encouraging conservation and kick-starting a movement of environmental awareness that is still very much needed in this corner of Europe.
And of course, when visiting National Parks make sure you stay on trail and respect the rules of the parks. I suggest trying to visit national parks in the off-season, as the admission prices are cheaper and the parks are less busy.
Buying seasonal ingredients at local market
You can tell a lot about a city based on their local markets. The combination of local cuisine, culture, and chaos is what captivates me to spend a whole afternoon looking at different types of local cheese.
Usually at these farmers markets you can buy the same exact products that restaurants are selling for a 50% markup. This way, you’re also directly supporting local vendors.
Many times when traveling I’ll take one day to do a picnic in a nearby park with some products from the market. I also try to cook at home at least once, if not more if I’m staying with locals, with ingredients from the market.
Support farm-to-table and sustainable restaurants whenever possible
To me, food is a huge part of how I experience a new culture, so this is always the area that I let myself splurge a little. There’s no way in hell I’m going to eat at McDonalds, Chipotle or Starbucks when traveling.
I usually do extensive research about the local cuisine, and various restaurants to try before visiting a destination. Also, since I’m gluten free for medical reasons, this is another reason I have to do research. Even though it can be really inconvenient, many of the places that cater to gluten free or vegan eaters are also the most environmentally conscious.
When researching ahead of time, I recommend looking for restaurants that are family-owned, use local ingredients in traditional dishes, and have a seasonal menu.
No matter the city these restaurants do tend to be pricier, but that’s why I usually go for a nice lunch instead of dinner.
All in all, I definitely think sustainable travel is doable on any budget. You don’t need to be an eco-luxury guru, nor a budget backpack in Europe. You can STILL be cute and cool, while being conscious of the planet and cost.
Don’t forget to pin it:
*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a portion of commission on any tours you book through my site.
2 thoughts on “My Secrets to Sustainable Travel on a Budget”
Hi Alex, IF your grandma were alive, IF I were younger, we would be enjoying your amazing adventures! Thank you for these pix and stories, so that I and others are able to vicariously enjoy these travels. Continue your travels and journeys spreading and sharing your love of “mother earth” through your smaller carbon footprint. Hugs, Maretta
Hi Maretta! Thank you so so much for your thoughtful comment. It means so much to me, and I hope to continue grandma Fran’s legacy!