Going somewhere new is the best. But traveling, especially the actual travel part, can also do a number on the planet. Luckily there are some actions you can take, both big and small, to cut back your footprint when you’re on the road.
How you get to where you’re going, and then how you get around once you’re there, will have the biggest impact on your environmental footprint. Air travel, for instance, accounts for almost 9 percent of global emissions, and a flight from New York to London emits 1.2 tons of carbon per person. That’s a lot. So consider your options. It might not sound as sexy, but you could have a great, cheap vacation closer to home. You could take a train or a ferry. Ferries are awesome — they’re like cruise ships for people who can think for themselves. If you do want to fly somewhere, or you have to go to Guam, try to fly directly.
Once you’re there, focus on public or human-powered transportation. Local buses can be the best way to get a feel for a new city, while biking gives you the speed to cover a lot of ground. Many cities now have bikeshares set up, which makes getting your hands on a bike for a short period of time super easy. Here’s a map of all international bikeshare programs, from Beijing to Bratislava.
2. Eat local
This is where you’re going get weird. Like, real weird. Eating local food hits on all levels: It keeps your culinary footprint small, it helps you experience the culture, and it’ll probably turn you on to something new, which is the point of traveling, right? So don’t shy away from food trucks or hole-in-the-wall operations. Eat what the people who live there are eating and where they’re eating it. Most of that talk about food poisoning is trash.
3. Do some homework about your lodging
Even if you like to keep things spontaneous while traveling, do a little research about lodging options before you go. That’s going to be the second biggest suck of energy besides your transportation. These days, many hotels are Green Seal or LEED certified, or have their own sustainability programs. You can learn a lot from the internet.
4. Act the way you would at home
This seems obvious, but plenty of people go on vacation and turn their brain off. At home, you wouldn’t leave all your lights on, take excessively long baths, wash your towels every day, or drop trash on the ground. So don’t do it when you’re on the road. This can be tricky, sometimes, especially in developing countries, where environmental ethics might not be at the forefront of the local lifestyle. You don’t want to violate local customs or seem smug. But you know what your standards are at home, so keep to ‘em.
5. And treat the wilderness the same way
Same thing goes for the way you impact the environment, especially if you’re going out into the backcountry. You would not, in your home zone, try to provoke the wildlife or trample off trail, so don’t do it anywhere else. The leave-no-trace practices you adhere to on trips near home should still stand when you’re abroad, or even just in another state.
6. Bring things instead of buying extras
Packing light saves you fuel in weight. You should try to slim down your carry-on as much as possible, but there are a couple of extra things you can bring that will reduce your need to load up once you’re out of town. Carry your own water bottle so you never have to buy a plastic one, and bring a reusable shopping bag. The latter is also great for bringing home souvenirs if you’ve over packed.
7. Work within your budget
There’s a fallacy that “ecotourism” equates to rich old white folks in zip-off pants staying in swank, zero-waste lodges deep in the rainforest. Sure, maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t think that because you’re traveling on the cheap that you’re not eco-friendly. Camping and home stays are both low-impact ways to find a place to sleep, and they can often be more authentic than staying somewhere designed for tourists. And getting ingrained in the place you’re visiting is part of traveling sustainably.
8. Buy solid souvenirs
None of your friends really need new shot glasses or ponchos. But, if you do want to bring home gifts, make sure that they don’t contain rare or endangered plants or animals, and that they’re made in the region. We live in a connected world, which means that a lot of the tchotchkes that you see at markets were mass manufactured in China. If you’re going to bring home goodies, do better.
9. Support the local community
Sustainability is a broad term, and the best way to travel sustainably is to make sure that your impact brings the community up instead of bleeding it dry. Make sure your dollars stay where you spend them. Support small locally owned businesses. Eat, travel, shop, and stay with locals. It will also basically guarantee that you’ll have a more genuine experience.
10. Remember that it’s all connected
Here’s your dose of hippie dip: When you’re on the road — maybe in a country where the rivers are full of sewage and the streets are paved with old soda bottles — it’s easy to feel like you’ve been dropped into never-never land, and that your impact will be so small that it won’t make a difference. But it does and you do. So travel lightly.