Tips for treading a little lighter as we explore our beautiful planet
Happy earth day! Today is a day to celebrate our beautiful planet and if you love to explore, as I do, a chance to share ideas for more sustainable travel. The reality is that our adventures come with a carbon footprint, but there are many ways that we can minimize that impact of our travels.
Reduce Single Use Plastics
Bring your own reusable water bottle
I am listing this first because I think it’s easy to do and can make a huge impact. Bringing your own water bottle along on your travels will prevent the use of many water bottles over the course of a week’s vacation. It also allows you to to forgo the little plastic cups on the plane. I always fill up my bottle just before I get in the car or on the plane. I am also better hydrated when I have my own water bottle because I make a point to fill it and carry it with me, whether I am sightseeing in Paris, or lounging at the beach.
When you are tempted to not bother carrying your own bottle think of this phrase: “What’s one little plastic bottle, said 7 billion people.”
The most sustainable way to travel is to avoid flying; it’s always going to come with the biggest carbon footprint. If you have an opportunity to travel by train, whether to your destination or on your trip, that’s a great choice.
Europe is enacting new initiatives to encourage Europeans and visitors to travel by train. The EU wants to double its high-speed rail use by 2030, and triple it by 2050. That is intended to support the reduction of carbon emissions from transportation by 90% in that time.
Of course, we can’t take a train across the Atlantic or Pacific. If flying is required as a part of your travel, a direct flight will generate less emissions than making a connection. And traveling in economy creates a smaller footprint than an upgraded seat. (We can feel good about being packed in like a sardine.) Packing light helps as well – more weight requires more fuel.
If you do fly, you can also purchase carbon offsets. The idea is that you compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions your flight creates by reducing that same amount by supporting an environmental initiative somewhere else in the world.
Most airlines now offer them when you book your flight, and there are independent companies which sell them as well. The New York Times recommends Gold Standard which has a marketplace for purchasing offsets. I really like their thoughtful options which include donating toward improved cookstoves for women in India (traditional cookstoves are harmful to health and the wood required leads to local deforestation). Other options include planting biodiverse forests in Panama or funding renewable energy in Brazil.
You can calculate the footprint of your flight at cooleffect.org which also has offset programs. If you know more about offset programs, please share in the comments below!
Explore Vegetarian Cuisine
One of the beautiful things about travel is the chance to explore other cultures and a part of that is trying new foods. Much of the world eats far less meat than those of us from western countries. If you are someone who usually orders meat, you may be pleasantly surprised how flavorful vegetarian cuisine can be. If you do enjoy some meat, try and skip the beef and choose a different meat or fish. Beef is far and away the most resource intensive meat to produce, it requires large amounts of water and harms the environment because cattle expel methane as they digest food. A study at Tulane University concluded that the average American who eats beef could cut their entire carbon footprint in half by swapping it for chicken or pork.
What better time to embrace some new food experiences than when you are a guest in another part of the world.
Choosing a Hotel
When you are considering a hotel have a look at their website to see if they have a ‘sustainability’ page that explains any ways they are eco-friendly. Examples could include water-saving initiatives or eliminating single-use plastics.
The Shinta Mani hotel where I stayed in Siem Reap, was far ahead of North American hotels in this regard. The water in our rooms and the restaurant came in glass bottles. The hotel also offered re-usable water bottles to borrow when we went sightseeing.
Treading lightly during your hotel stay
Regardless of the hotel’s policies, you can make your hotel stay more sustainable in several ways. Avoid using using single-use plastics at the hotel. Since you’re traveling with your own water bottle you won’t need to use any plastic bottles that might be left for you in the room. You can also bring small toiletries from home in reusable containers.
Laundering towers and linens requires large amounts of water and energy. Use towels multiple times and let housekeeping know not to change your sheets daily. During hotel stays I have my sheets changed as often as I do at home – once a week.
(Side note: please tip housekeeping. These are among the hardest working and lowest paid people who work in hotels. I typically leave $5-7 a day).
Travel in the Off Season
Some places such as Venice, which have struggled with over-tourism, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to re-think their policies with regards to tourism. Their canals were clear for the first time and locals felt as though they had their city back.
While cities like Venice and grapple with this challenge, we can address the problem of over-tourism by traveling in the off-season when possible. Many of us are restricted to children’s school holidays. But when you’re not the benefits are lighter crowds and lower prices.
The stewards of world wonders such as Angkor Wat are also dealing with over-tourism (or were during the pandemic). I went to Cambodia and Siem Reap during the rainy season and enjoyed lighter crowds at Angkor Wat and the other temples we visited. It was crowded enough at Angkor Wat; in the high season the crowds would have been totally overwhelming.
Visiting at slower times of the year makes a difference for locals who rely on tourism. The guide I hired said, “my kids were so happy when they saw I wasn’t in the hammock – it meant I had work today.” (He took the above photos)
While it wasn’t all that rainy in late September, it was extremely hot. We still enjoyed ourselves but it did limit how much we could see in a day. Do some research to make sure the season you are considering will be pleasant enough weather for your preferences – it is your vacation after all.
Choose Cruises Carefully
Not everyone is going to love this suggestion but not all cruise companies are the environmental stewards they should be. Do some reasearch about the environmental impact and policies of a cruise you are considering. Some are much more advanced with their focus on impact
I hope this has give you some new ideas and inspiration for more sustainable travel. Remember that every small change makes a difference. Pick one or two of these ideas to bring along on your next trip. Once they are habits, you can add another.
And please share your own ideas for eco-friendly vacationing, in the comments below, so we can all become better stewards of this beautiful earth – at home and away.