It’s hard for an environmentalist like me to admit it, but travel is not the most eco-friendly activity. If suppressing your wanderlust is not an option, consider these 10 tips to make your travels a little kinder on the planet.
Consider alternatives to air travel. Planes are the least eco-friendly way to get from one place to another (with the exception, perhaps, of rockets). A cross-country U.S. flight will put 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It may surprise some to discover that solo travel by car is almost as bad for the environment as flying. If it’s possible, consider travel by bus (pretty good), train (even better), or bicycle/foot (best!).
Sometimes travel by plane is the only convenient option. If that’s the case and you’re looking to ease your guilty conscience, consider buying carbon offsets through any number of organizations, which invests your money into carbon offset projects, such as wind farms and reforestation activities. The cost per ton can range from a few dollars to upwards of a hundred, depending on the program you choose, but most options are between $10 and $20. Here’s a handy chart of different carbon offset providers, costs and project types.
Become a locavore (on the road). It may seem silly to be a locavore – that is, one who eats only locally sourced food – while you’re transporting yourself great distances, but consider that your food may have traveled even further than you to get to your plate. So instead of visiting New England and getting the same Washington apples you could get in Seattle, pick up some Maine blueberries or sweet summer corn. Read labels, shop farmer’s markets and local grocery stores, and eat at conscientious restaurants.
Stay at environmentally friendly accommodations. Is your hotel doing its part to preserve the environment? Staying in hotels and other accommodations can take a surprising toll on the earth. Consider the amount of water a place could use washing sheets and towels daily or the itty bitty bottles you’re using. Hotels also use a lot of energy, and even in the off-season, they need to heat and cool all of the rooms, including those that are not occupied.
To some extent, these concerns are unavoidable, but you can choose to stay at a hotel, hostel or bed and breakfast that implements green practices. A good place to find green hotels is iStayGreen, which gives listed hotels an “eco-leaf rating” and a detailed description of the hotel’s environmental initiatives. Green Hotel Bookings also lists hotels that have been certified by programs like LEED and Energy Star.
Remember that the less space you occupy, the more energy you’ll be saving. Hostelling and couch-surfing are very eco-friendly options because you’re taking up less space, washing sheets and towels less frequently and bringing your own toiletries.
Choose an environmentally conscious destination. Some cities have taken great strides to protect the environment. Some parks have done more to reduce the footprint left by visitors. You’ll feel better about your impact if you’re spending your travel funds in a place that will reinvest them wisely. In 2009, National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations released a new list of 133 destinations rated on their environmental friendliness, based on six criteria, as determined by experts in related fields. Here’s a taste: Norway’s Fjords top the list, while Spain’s Costa del Sol is at the bottom.
Consider eco-tourism. If you’re ready to get your hands dirty for the environment, consider an eco-tourism expedition to help monitor the effects of climate change on the Alpine marmot population or patrol the beaches of Costa Rica in search of egg-laying sea turtles. You can find great eco-tourism opportunities like these (and many, many more) through G Adventures or Earthwatch.
Buy and pack with the environment in mind. It’s a terrible habit of many travelers – myself included – to go a little overboard before a big trip. You can stop yourself from buying unnecessary items by creating a well-researched and thought-out packing list and then checking off what you already have. For items you still need to pick up, consider eco-friendly options and alternatives. REI has a great selection of eco-conscious camping and backpacking gear, ranging from organic clothing to bamboo eating utensils. If you don’t have one already, a bag might be your biggest investment. eBags has a large selection of eco-friendly luggage, backpacks and handbags to consider.
Be mindful of the local environment, especially when traveling to national parks or protected areas. When you’re visiting a protected environmental area, be mindful and stay on marked paths, leave with only what you brought, and follow the park rules, both for the local habitat and your own safety. For a more thorough list of ways to be mindful while visiting protected areas, visit the Leave No Trace website.
Consider your souvenirs carefully. Remember that the places you’re traveling may not have the same protections in place for the environment and endangered species. Think seriously before you buy items made out of animal products, including ivory, turtle shells and fur, all of which may come from illegal or endangered sources. Other materials, such as different types of wood or plant material, may also come from unsustainable sources. If you research your destination before you go, you’ll have a better idea of what to avoid. The International Fund for Animal Welfare also has a list of animal souvenirs to avoid.
Prep your home for your trip. If you’ve got a permanent dwelling you’ll be leaving behind, make sure you’re not wasting energy you aren’t using. Turning down your thermostat is just the beginning. Electronics and appliances use energy even when they’re not in use – a phenomenon called “phantom power” – because they’re waiting in standby mode for the next time you need them. So unplug all your electronics from the wall. If you’re going away for a longer period, unplug major appliances, especially your refrigerator (but clean it out first!), which uses a lot of energy to keep cool. If it’s accessible, you can also turn down the temperature of your water heater.
Do what you normally do to reduce, reuse and recycle. Take short showers. Recycle your cans and bottles. Reuse your bath towels. Most of the things you do at home to make your life a little more eco-friendly you can do while traveling.