5 Tips to More Sustainable Travel

Yes, it takes some planning, but traveling in a less environmentally impactful manner is critical. Here are five ways to do it.

By Kathryn Romeyn
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In Sweden, birthplace of environmental activist extraordinaire Greta Thunberg, there’s a word for the guilt those of us who fly around the world should feel: flygskam, which translates to “flying shame.” As a travel writer (see my newsletter, Journeys), I’ve stopped to think about how best to do my job and pursue my passion without exploiting the earth. It’s certainly a conundrum, but the answer isn’t to stop going places, since it’s more important than ever to venture outside our personal bubbles, it’s to travel more consciously.

“The more aware we are of the detrimental effects travel can have on our planet, the more conscious we can be about how we go about it,” says Marta Tucci, cofounder of Naya Traveler, which gives guests the option to offset the carbon footprint of their curated journeys. 

Tip one: Dive deeper into one destination

“Our members are seeking out slow travel,” says Melissa Biggs Bradley, CEO and founder of members-only, boutique travel-planning company Indagare. To do this, she recommends itineraries where the focus is on exploring a city or country destination by foot, or a hiking-focused experience (say, at Mii Amo or in the Dolomites). Other ways to take it slow: Enroll in a local cooking school to learn culinary traditions or rent a villa for an extended stay in one area as opposed to frenetically traveling to several locations. “This cuts down on carbon emissions from transportation and also allows travelers to truly get to know a place,” she says. 

Tip two: Choose your destination wisely

In many parts of the world, tourism provides a major incentive to protect an area from a more destructive industry. “Take Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador,” Biggs Bradley says. “Roque Sevilla bought the area from a logging company and turned it into an eco-hotel and nature reserve. Now, nobody would claim that traveling there is a carbon-negative experience, but it's an area that would have been otherwise clear-cut and now operates as a carbon sink.”

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Tip Three: Choose smarter transportation

For short-distance journeys, electric and fuel-efficient cars drastically reduce your carbon footprint (more so when road-tripping with a few others). Europe’s mostly electric trains are one of the most sustainable means of travel, with lower emissions than either driving or flying. American trains mostly run on diesel, reducing their eco-friendliness. But sailboats and solar-powered yachts (which are trending among serious travelers), says Biggs Bradley, are among the greenest ways to travel — “and make for a great experience visiting smaller, off-the-beaten-path ports of call.” While ships holding fewer than 500 passengers are becoming somewhat more sustainable, the cruising industry has a long way to go vis-a-vis over-tourism and community impact. Says Biggs Bradley, “For long-haul journeys, a plane is actually the greener way to go in terms of carbon footprint.” 

Opt for a greener flight

Twenty-five percent of all carbon emissions from airplanes come from takeoff and landing, so organize trips around direct flights or limited connections on longer-haul routes. JetBlue and British Airways are now offsetting emissions of domestic flights, while SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) carbon offsets all their youth fares and EuroBonus club member flights (it’s free to sign up). They’ve also just introduced the option for all travelers to purchase biofuel (a renewable energy source) along with their tickets. “Some international airlines are also opting for the use of environmentally friendly materials, such as carbon fiber seats and recycled paper, and reducing their use of plastic during in-flight service,” says Tucci. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are also pioneering electric planes (SAS and Airbus have partnered in this effort), which will hopefully take off in a meaningful way soon. 

Tip five: Be uber-committed to the cause at every turn

Purchase carbon offsets; travel to destinations that are not over-touristed or during shoulder seasons to minimize negative impact; make your tourism dollars count by patronizing businesses that support the people who actually live there with training programs and meaningful jobs, and look for travel companies that protect and preserve the local environment and wildlife, such as Indagare partners Wilderness Safaris and The Brando.

Also, evaluate hotels by their genuine commitment to the environment. California has banned hotel amenities that use plastics, while Marriott International has banned plastic straws worldwide. “It’s also important to remember how our behavior during a hotel stay can help the matter: small gestures like turning off the lights, electronics and AC while out on excursions can reduce the use of power and emissions,” adds Tucci. And if you don’t use a fresh new towel every day at home, why should you in a hotel? Keep your towels hung up after use so that they are not cleared daily.

Tucci also extols the virtues of packing light. Airlines like SAS are constantly trying to lessen the heft of their aircraft — they’ve even stopped inflight tax-free shopping to reduce the plane’s load — since less weight significantly reduces emissions. Tucci also recommends traveling with a reusable water bottle. One person can rack up pounds of plastic buying bottles of water over a single trip. 

Adds Biggs Bradley, “The impact of travel on the climate crisis is undeniable right now: Extreme weather, devastating storms and over-tourism are taking a toll in Venice and the Caribbean, at major sites like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Cinque Terre and more. But every day — at home and while traveling — there are opportunities to minimize your impact on climate change.” So, don’t let flygskam stop you from seeing the world. 

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