What is Sustainable Travel?

Before we talk about how to travel sustainably, what is sustainable travel really? There’s often a misconception that sustainable tourism is only about your carbon footprint. While important, that’s only part of the equation. Sustainable travelers should also consider their impact on local economies and cultures.

With so many factors in play, sustainable travel can begin to feel a bit daunting. But even the small choices travelers make can have a huge impact (think about the difference between your last vacation’s hotel stay budget going into the hands of a multi-national corporation vs directly into the local economy).

There’s also many organizations out there working hard locally and globally to make sustainable tourism possible for you! Which brings us to our first sustainable travel suggestion…

1Support a Sustainable Travel organization

There are some wonderful, reputable organizations out there promoting sustainable travel, and helping governments and destinations build and market sustainable tourism. Consider donating to Sustainable Travel International, or Impact Travel Alliance. Truly sustainable travel doesn’t just happen on an individual basis, and both organizations are working to educate and create the framework to make sustainable travel possible on your next trip.

2Travel with a local tour group

In addition to really knowing their stuff, locally based tour groups keep the money in the area, and there’s many who are eco-conscious as well.

Wilderness Travel, for example ensures money stays in the community by sticking with small lodges and hotels. They also set the bar high by working with over a dozen conservation groups and charities to ensure sustainable travel and provide medical care and education in the countries they travel to.

Montenegro Eco Adventures, another laudable tour company, focuses solely on sustainable tourism in Montenegro. They work to provide tours that have minimal environmental impact, and ensure that locals are involved in and benefit from everything they do — including donating 5% of their profits to Zero Waste Montenegro.

If you’re looking to be directly involved in making a difference when you travel, consider Me to We’s volunteer trips, where you’ll get your hands dirty working on projects alongside communities in India, Africa and more. We love that these trips provide a nice balance of traditional tourism activities and work in the community.

3Take fewer, longer trips

If your schedule allows, embrace slow travel! By taking fewer, but longer trips, you’ll reduce your hours of plane travel per year.

And if you needed an excuse to spring for that direct flight, consider this: planes use the most fuel at takeoff. Something as simple as avoiding layovers will reduce your carbon footprint.

4Stay away from travel size toiletries

Rather than purchasing travel size bottles of your favorite toiletries for each trip, consider buying quality, BPA free, reusable travel bottles that you can re-fill for each new adventure. You’ll save money by refilling from bulk sizes, and create less waste. (Check out our travel size bottle recommendations here!)

5Take your trash with you

You’re hopefully already sticking to this golden rule when it comes to keeping natural spaces pristine while hiking, but what about elsewhere on your trip? If your hotel doesn’t offer a recycling program, toss any recyclables you brought with you back in your suitcase to recycle at home. Ask about recycling nearby before you toss that empty juice bottle in the trash! It’s easy to shrug off responsibility on vacation, but taking ownership of your trash can encourage you to seek out more eco-friendly options to begin with.

6Book a room in a local’s home

Use Airbnb or Homestay.com to book a room with a local (see more Airbnb alternatives here). It’s eco-friendly, keeps money in the community, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how generous many hosts are with their time and knowledge, giving you a chance to really connect with locals.

7…or Channel your hotel stay into charitable donations

Book a hotel stay through Kind Traveler’s curated selection of hotels, and you can pass your cost savings on to a wide range of global charities. In return for donating $10 a night, you’ll receive at least $10, and up to $100 per night savings on your hotel rate–often putting the cost below Expedia’s rates, essentially netting a nice donation at no cost to you.

8Take trains and other public transport

Whether you’re going 5 blocks, or jumping from city to city, choose public transport over taxis and planes. You’ll help to save fuel, get to travel like a local, and c’mon, trains are just more fun.

Biking and walking are also healthy, sustainable options that will give you deeper insight into the city and encourage a slow travel mindset.

9Pack light

Packing light means a little less weight on the plane, decreasing fuel usage. And having just one lightweight suitcase also allows you to jump on and off public transport with ease.

When packing, be sure to avoid packing products with ingredients that can wreak havoc on the environment, like microbeads, sulfates and aerosols.

10Choose tours that support the community and causes you care about

Tours led by locals support the local economy, and offer rich windows into the culture. One of our new favorites for finding activities is Visit.org, which curates local tours and activities according to the causes they support, like human rights, animals, and education. What’s better than knowing that your tour supports women’s empowerment or the sustainable lifestyle of indigenous peoples?

Airbnb Experiences can also be a good place to look, just be sure to ask questions and look at reviews before booking. (see more on the pro and cons of Airbnb Experiences here).

11Be social

Contribute to a positive cultural impact by making an effort to be friendly with locals! Be respectful, learn some of the language, and be open to new foods and experiences. Behaving poorly and angering locals by treating their city as your personal playground is poor ambassadorship for your country, and is quite literally not a sustainable way to travel.

12Bring your green habits from home

This one covers A LOT of ground! Do your best to keep up your everyday green habits from home, and you’ll eliminate a lot of the waste that can come with travel.

For example, if you’re in the habit of carrying a refillable water bottle, taking short showers, and washing your towels every three days at home, consider doing the same on vacation. Before you leave, take stock of those everyday habits and consider what you can reasonably continue doing on the road. Ask yourself if there’s a good reason to eschew a green habit on vacation–i.e. a refillable water bottle might be a better strategy for Europe than Mexico, where tap water isn’t always safe to drink.

Hi, I'm Holly! I'm a passionate traveler who's dedicated to sharing my experiences and expertise to help you travel better.