6 Tips for Traveling Sustainably

Sustainable travel can help both the planet and your wallet.
Sustainable travel can help both the planet and your wallet. / nito100/iStock via Getty Images

Let's face it: High airfare and gas prices don't exactly make it easy to travel right now. And the greenhouse gasses that come out of those transportation methods aren't particularly great, either. Commercial air travel makes up about 4 percent of carbon emissions in the United States alone. For those who love to see the world, giving up air time can be difficult. But you can travel a bit more sustainably with the following strategies.

1. Use public transportation. 

Sure, driving around in your own car is convenient. But on average, each individual vehicle releases about 1 pound of CO2 per mile. Public transportation like trains and buses reduces carbon output by as much as 45 percent. Having fewer private cars on the road should also cut down on traffic and contribute to better air quality. Plus, grabbing a bus ticket is often cheaper than splurging on a private rental or paying for your own gas.

If you have to fly somewhere, choose a carbon-friendly airline. The International Air Transportation Association airlines offers carbon offset programs that keep sustainable tourism in mind. Many airlines even show how they’re offsetting emissions at the time of the booking. 

2. Travel at a slower pace.

Tourists walking in Rome, Italy.
Tourists walking in Rome, Italy. / Giorgio Cosulich de Pecine/GettyImages

If you’re able to, consider walking rather than driving while exploring your vacation destination. Walking (or cycling) is more environmentally friendly, is good for your health, and is a great way to take in the sights while fully immersing yourself in the local surroundings.

3. Avoid single-use products.

It’s really convenient to grab a quick coffee or bottle of water while you’re traveling. But once you’ve finished your drink, you’re left with plastic waste that ends up in a landfill. In 2015, 730,000 tons of single-use plastic were manufactured in the U.S.—and only 13 percent of that was successfully recycled. Single-use plastics rely heavily on fossil fuels, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Some estimates suggest that fossil fuels in the plastic industry contribute to the emission of 12.5–1.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses. 

Bring a reusable water bottle or coffee cup while you’re on the go (some places may even offer a discount for using your own cup). And if you’re planning to pack toiletries, opt for ones that are zero-waste.

4. Conserve energy at home and while away.

Retro Motel Room Interior
Closing the curtains can help keep your room energy efficient. / Aladdin Color Inc/GettyImages

While traveling, consider using solar chargers to keep your devices powered up. You can also conserve water by taking shorter showers and asking hotels not to change your sheets and towels as often.

Be sure to turn off or reduce the air conditioner or heat while you’re out exploring; keeping your curtains drawn during the day will help your accommodations maintain a more pleasant temperature. And those tourism pamphlets most people take and then toss? Try returning them after you’ve browsed through them.

Make sure your home is also as energy efficient as possible while you’re away. Unplug any non-necessary devices, adjust the thermostat, and put your lights on a timer so they aren’t on all the time.

5. Support the locals.

While it’s good to keep the environment in mind while you’re traveling, it’s also important to be cognizant of your local impact. According to the World Tourism Organization, out of every $100 spent on tourism, only $5 benefits the locals. Whenever possible, consider finding local guides or homestays. This allows you to learn about the community while giving your money directly to those who would benefit most. Be sure to buy handcrafted souvenirs and gifts, and eat local food, too!

6. Choose low-impact travel.

person canoeing on a lake at sunrise
A low-impact, peaceful experience. / Christopher Furlong/GettyImages

Some types of travel result in higher levels of greenhouse gases than others. When you’re getting ready to pick your travel destination and activities, consider opting for a low-impact option. You might choose to go canoeing or camping, or head to a place that’s closer to home. You can also book eco-conscious guides who prioritize protecting the environment and supporting local communities.