Ways to Be a More Eco-Friendly Traveler

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, global travel was on an exponential rise. The U.N. World Tourism Organization recorded 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019 and was projecting a 4% increase for 2020. But that came with an adverse side effect for Mother Nature: The travel industry was accountable for an estimated 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions.

“There isn't a silver bullet for fixing the climate crisis, and that means we're going to have to identify solutions from many different angles,” says Kelley Louise, founder of Impact Travel Alliance. “As travelers, the first step is making sure our experiences are as eco-friendly as possible.”

This pause in global travel allows us the time to rethink how we approach tourism — and realize the power in making more mindful and sustainable choices when it’s safe to wander the world again. As Intrepid Travel’s Chief Customer Officer Leigh Barnes says, “Travel can also serve as a way to open our eyes to the impacts of climate change around the world and inspire advocacy for our planet.” Ready to make your first post-pandemic trip more eco-friendly? Read on for eight simple steps to take for the ultimate sustainable travel checklist.


Take the Most Direct Flight

The wing of a plane above the clouds on a daytime flight.
Credit: Anna Sullivan/ Unsplash

When booking flights, travelers tend to just look at fares and flight times without realizing that various options can add up to a 20% difference in carbon emissions, according to Erica Eliot, co-founder of Jet-Set Offset. “It’s always the more environmentally-friendly option to select a nonstop flight when possible and to avoid layovers,” she explains, pointing out that takeoffs and landings account for 25% of the emission production, according to a 2010 NASA study. Some airlines use sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), a cleaner alternative to fossil jet fuels, which also lessen their impact. By searching for flights on Jet-Set Offset, the amount of emissions for each option are calculated to help make the most sensible choices.


Understand Carbon Offset and Carbon Storage

A line of wind turbines at the shore at Canoa Quebrada in Brazil in the summer.
Credit: silkfactory/ iStock

Carbon emissions from flights continue to be a contributing factor in causing climate change, but there are ways to try to alleviate the impact. “Carbon offsets are an effective tool to compensate for the carbon we release into the atmosphere through our actions,” Eliot says. “While they don’t erase our carbon-creating actions, they do allow us to mitigate them by investing in environmental projects that reduce carbon emissions — reforestation, the development of renewable energy, and methane capture from livestock or landfills are just a few examples of carbon offset projects.” Eliot believes in even taking it one step further by going climate positive, with Jet-Set Offset offering the opportunity to make charitable donations to vetted organizations, based on mileage traveled.

Louise echoes the need to go beyond offsets. One solution is permanent carbon storage, which actively removes carbon from the atmosphere and can be done through Tomorrow's Air. “First and foremost, we need to minimize our carbon footprint, and then we need to get really proactive about both nature and tech-based solutions in order to save our Earth,” she explains.


Practice Slow Travel

A flat-lay shot of a camera, a backpack, travel books, and a map for a weekend destination.
Credit: Annie Spratt/ Unsplash

Americans are used to multitasking and overscheduling — and they often take that habit with them on trips, trying to fit as many places as possible into their itineraries with limited vacation days. But that has unforeseen consequences. “Going around the whole country in 10 days is not just unfair to the destination, it's also not responsible in terms of carbon emissions,” Rafa Mayer, founder of Say Hueque, Argentina’s first carbon neutral tour operator, says. The “slow travel” movement has been gaining popularity in recent years to combat this problem — the idea is to spend more time in fewer places in order to truly get to know those communities, while also cutting down on the impact of transportation getting from one place to another. “It’s not about destinations — it's about how you travel,” he says.


Opt for Local Options

Two girls waiting for drinks at a local coffee shop.
Credit: Dan Burton/ Unsplash

Perhaps the most conscious choices travelers can make is where they choose to spend their dollars on the road. The simplest rule of thumb: Go local in every way. “Travelers can consider staying in locally-owned and simpler styles of accommodation, eat at locally-owned eateries where the food has been locally-sourced — therefore reducing food mile emissions — and use public transportation where possible,” Barnes says. His company, Intrepid Travel, is built upon investing in local communities through sustainable travel; it has been carbon neutral since 2010 and is now aiming to operate by offsetting impact at 125%.


Choose Active Itineraries

An orange old school Volkswagon van parked on the side of the beach.
Credit: Simon Rae/ Unsplash

Taking slow travel one step further, even the experiences tourists chose in a destination can make a profound difference. “In terms of carbon emissions, active experiences are usually more eco-friendly than a created experience for tourism,” Mayer says. For example, he explains that driving around a national park and searching for viewpoints can be less eco-friendly since visitors are often just trying to check sites off a list without gaining an understanding of its purpose. “Hiring a local guide has less carbon impact and results in more employment for the local community,” he says.


Pack Mindfully

Aerial view of a suitcase being packed with travel necessities.
Credit: GrapeImages/ iStock

The next time you add a few more “just in case” items to your bag before a trip, consider this: If every person packed one less pair of shoes when they traveled, the reduction in fuel consumption would be the equivalent of taking 10,500 cars off the road. To be more mindful, travelers should adopt the habit of packing multipurpose items. Maybe that puffy jacket can keep you warm and serve as an airplane pillow or that t-shirt can double as pajamas.

Additionally, think about bringing reusables to minimize one-time-use items on that road. That includes water bottles, shopping bags, and reusable cutlery. Also, take an extra look at the kinds of products you’re buying, like whether sunscreen for a beach vacation is reef-safe and what ingredients are in bug spray. “As conscious consumers, there’s a lot of little things we can all do that add up to a larger impact,” Louise says.


Minimize Your Waste

A cotton mesh bag, glass bottle, jar and bamboo cutlery in a reusable bag.
Credit: Olesia Bekh/ Shutterstock

Be aware of what you’re leaving behind in each place you go, especially in natural areas like national parks. “Even if there are special bins for trash, try to keep your own waste,” Mayer suggests. “Trash bins can be damaged in a storm in the forest, and there is no guarantee trash won’t be flying away over nature.” And it doesn't come down to just garbage — also think about the residual effects of your actions, like washing items out in nature with soap. “When river water is drinkable, it's sad to see people dirtying it,” he adds.

Even in urban areas, there are ways to minimize waste: “Before you buy a coffee to go, think twice. It can be so much more enjoyable to stop, sit down at a table, and enjoy watching people by — and you won't be left with a plastic cup, spoon and more,” he says.


Beware of Greenwashing

Binoculars and a travel book on top of the middle compartment of the car.
Credit: Nikada/ iStock

Along with more sustainable travel options comes greenwashing, or that misperception that a company is more eco-friendly than it might actually be. It can be challenging to sort through the truth, especially when it’s not in your native language. Mayer suggests using a local travel agency who knows the ins and outs, and also looking for official certifications. However, a little common sense can also go a long way. “Going to an ice bar in the jungle can't be right — how much energy has to be spent to keep an ice bar cold in the hot jungle? Ask yourself these kinds of questions, and translate your concerns to your travel agent. If we all look together for better services, more services will be available.”


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