Everyone’s on the hunt for sustainable travel tips at the moment – it’s become something of a fashion in the travelling world to be more of an eco-traveller, showing off your metal straw and staying at ‘green’ hotels. Rightly so, because travel needs to be sustainable! That’s how you stumbled upon this post, right?
We all want to know how to be a sustainable traveller, without really knowing what sustainable means. The word ‘sustainable’ has become entwined being eco-friendly – a melange of bamboo toothbrushes, reusable water bottles and metal straws. However, sustainable travel is about much more than just reducing plastics.
a framework for engaging travelers and the travel industry in supporting goals that include protecting the environment, addressing climate change, minimising plastic consumption and expanding economic development in communities affected by tourism
Whilst we seem to have a firm grasp on the first part of that definition, it’s the ‘expanding economic development in communities affected by tourism‘ part that’s often forgotten.
Whilst environmentalism does play a part in sustainable tourism, what it really comes down to is the act of being conscious of your impact when you travel. It’s about leaving a positive impact in your destination – leaving the place you’re visiting in a better (or at least similar) state as it was when you arrived, through your impact on its environment, culture and economy.
The travel industry has taken a huge hit from Coronavirus and it will take years for it to recover – but we shouldn’t simply return to ‘normal’. Now we have the opportunity to create a new ‘normal’, a better way of travelling in the future, to help sustain the travel industry for the long-term.
No matter the length of your trip, there are always habits you can adopt to make your travels more sustainable. This list of sustainable travel tips will truly help you become not only an eco-friendly traveller, but one who is conscious of their impact when they travel: that’s what sustainable travel is all about.
I’ve split this post into sections to help you understand the different ways your trip can be more sustainable in future.
It’s not what any of us want to hear, but the reality is that the most environmentally-friendly trip you can take is to not travel at all. Every trip will increase your carbon footprint, so if you truly want to be a sustainable traveller, travelling less should be your first priority.
Many places in the world have seen such huge influxes of tourists in recent years that the local infrastructure and environment is straining. Destinations like Venice, Paris and Bali are those which we repeatedly see on Instagram – but why, when there are so many other destinations to visit?! Over-tourism results in wildlife escaping the area as the influx of people and buildings grow, local hotels packing up to make way for hotel chains, and huge amounts of traffic on streets that were once quiet and charming.
Related Post: What I didn’t like about Portofino
In Europe, we’ve become accustomed to cheap flights, which mean weekend breaks to foreign cities aren’t a novelty anymore. However it’s much more eco-friendly to swap European city breaks for getaways in your own country. If you’re looking for inspiration on where to travel in the UK, have a read of my UK travel posts.
Travel agents have done brilliantly by creating package deals that are often cheap, but don’t help the local economy very much at all. All inclusive is usually a package option in large hotels or resorts, essentially meaning you don’t need to leave your accommodation at all. This means most of your money is going directly to the millionnaire who owns the hotel in question.
Cruises are hugely impactful on the environment. Not only are the ships huge gas guzzlers, they also don’t allow you to travel in a sustainable way; guests spend only a few hours in each destination they visit and don’t spend their money in these destinations because their cruise includes everything they could ever need onboard. This is therefore one of the worst ways travellers can take so much from a destination without giving anything back to the local economy. Not to mention cruise ships are ugly when docked in port towns too.
Some destinations are really hot on sustainable tourism; they encourage visitors to travel responsibly and Slovenia, Palau, and Tanzania are just a few on the list (this is a handy tool). Countries make this list for the work they do to protect local environment, culture and wildlife, whilst allowing tourists to experience the best that their destinations have to offer.
I never used to understand the concept of slow travel; if I’ve got two weeks annual leave, I want to pack as much into those two weeks as possible! But maximising your annual leave doesn’t necessarily mean you have to travel to as many new destinations as possible. Slow travel simply means staying longer in each destination. I made the mistake last year of only allowing 10 days for our trip to South Africa when you need at least two weeks to visit all the places we crammed into our trip. By travelling slower you are able to immerse yourself more in local cultures and of course avoid using transport as much. It’s funny that the longer I’ve stayed in a place, the more I’ve loved it…
The world doesn’t need any more white saviours thinking they are helping developing countries by volunteering their time; in fact many volunteering schemes are much more harmful than they are good. You need to thoroughly research the opportunity before agreeing and never pay to volunteer. Volunteering often only benefits the volunteer; they leave their destination feeling they’ve ‘made a difference’, but in reality the dangers of asking an unskilled person to work for free instead of paying a skilled worker is not helping the local economy at all. This article by National Geographic is a good read.
One of the best ways to travel more sustainably is to spread out the influx of tourists at any one time. High seasons mean more people, which puts a strain on the local infrastructure of a destination, much like the effects of over-tourism we looked at earlier. Destinations like Europe are hugely popular between June to August, but attractions are often very busy and accommodation books up well in advance – not to mention everything is more expensive! South East Asia is a favourite over December to February, but there’s lots of great weather year-round.
Although we all know places like the Hilton, Radisson Blu and InterContinental have got good reputations, it’s so much more important to support small businesses rather than multi-national corporations when we travel. Who wants to stay in the same place in every country they visit anyway? You’ll get a much more authentic experience if you stay with a small, friendly I use booking.com to find cheap deals on accommodation, may small accommodation options are listed here.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Help Exchange (HelpX) and Workaway are all organisations that make sustainable travel very easy. These organisations list places where you can stay for free in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. This is such a brilliant way to give something back to the local community. I used HelpX when I was on my Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand – it was great!
AirBnB is a brilliant initiative: Hosts can rent out a spare room to others, while guests get a comfortable and cheap room with local hospitality. However, in may large cities such as Barcelona, AirBnB has begun to take over, meaning the small accommodation businesses that we discussed earlier have been forced to close after going under. I only choose AirBnB if I’m staying in the same place for an extended period of time or if I can see that AirBnB doesn’t have a monopoly over a particular destination. I also check to see if a Host has more than one property before booking. You can get £34 off your first trip with AirBnB using this link.
More and more hostels and hotels are choosing eco-friendly practices as they operate, from using renewable energy, to eliminating those annoying mini-toiletries. Research the hotel’s approach to sustainability before you choose to book. Most places with eco-conscious initiatives don’t cost much more than regular accommodation.
Not only is camping a much cheaper accommodation option, it also almost completely eliminates the use of any electricity. I absolutely love camping, be it at festivals or after a hike – it’s a great way to reconnect with nature and have some time away from reality. Just be sure not to leave any waste behind, as this wouldn’t make your trip sustainable at all.
If camping is a little too unluxurious for you, make upgrade to a little more glam by going glamping! Glamping usually involves hot showers being available and sleeping in a real bed in a large bell tent rather than on a blow-up mattress in a tent that’s a little too small.
Why not stay with a local family to have as authentic experience as possible? This is the best way to experience the true culture of the destination you’re travelling to and the money you spend will go directly to the families who partner with the organisation. These are usually families who are in need of extra financial support. I stayed with a local Sri Lankan family in Panama, near Arugam Bay when I visited with EcoWave. You can search for homestays through HomeExchange and Couchsurfing.
I’ve always thought it’s strange that hotel staff clean your room every single day when you’re on holiday. No one cleans that much at home! When you arrive at your accommodation, ask at the front desk that the cleaners don’t clean your room every day, instead opt for every 3 days or even once a week. You can also place the ‘Do not disturb’ sign on your door until you want your room to be cleaned. This will save additional cleaning products and energy being used.
The reason dorm rooms are so cheap is because the electricity used for them is shared between many more people than a private room. Throw in a shared bathroom, and you save on water costs too. If you decide to travel solo, dorm rooms are one of the best ways to meet new people too – just make sure you remember to pack your earplugs.
Refuse to use the free mini-toiletries that are provided by the hotel. If you use them and don’t finish them, they’ll go in the bin – the excess won’t be saved for the next guests! Besides, you’ll be bringing your own shampoo and conditioner bars with you so you won’t need to use them!
Again, you wouldn’t do it at home so why do it on holiday?! Hang your towels up on the hook in the bathroom instead of leaving them on the floor. Most places will change your sheets after a few days, confirm at the front desk to see if you’re happy to wait longer.
Laundry services – particularly when provided by hotels – uses a LOT of water and detergent. Your laundry is done as a separate load to other guests’ so that your items aren’t misplaced , which means that it might not be a full load of washing for a commercial machine. Often your clothes are returned in single-use plastic coverings too. Instead, take a small bottle of eco-friendly detergent with you (or just use soap). I’ve washed my delicates and swimwear in the shower on holiday for as long as I can remember – not only to help the environment but to save money on laundry too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve stayed in some places where having no AC is killer… a couple of times in Bali we planned to go without AC before realising it was just TOO hot and humid, we couldn’t cope! However the worst part about choosing an AC room is that often, you will return to your room and the AC will be on, in order to make you more comfortable when you return from your day out. Ask the Reception staff not to do this, or choose a fan and avoid AC altogether, you’ll save on so much wasted electricity.
I have a love-hate relationship with flying – it’s so time-efficient but has a huge carbon footprint! Avoiding air-travel where possible will do wonders for the environment. Travelling overland (by train or bus) is often cheaper than by plane and is easy enough to organise – you can travel overland via Inter-rail in Europe, and easily on other continents too. I use Rome2Rio to workout my route overland, and in the UK I book my trains through The Trainline.
A few years ago when I was focused on travelling as cheaply as possible, I would think nothing of a long layover so that I could save on the total cost of getting to my destination. I once spent 17 hours in Singapore airport; even though it’s one of the most amazing airports in the world, it was a huge waste of time and money. Nowadays not only is my time more important to me, but the environment is too. A flight uses the most energy at take-off and landing, so by only taking one, longer, direct flight rather than shorter ones, you’ll have a smaller carbon footprint. I search for flights with Skyscanner (you can filter by direct flights).
Flying is sometimes unavoidable, but if you do fly, make sure you offset your flight. This essentially means that you will offset the emissions produced by your flight by spending money which goes towards planting trees. You can offset your flight directly with the airline, but I’m not sure how trustworthy this is. It’s much better to choose a reputable organisation with whom to offset your flight. This post by Lucy at On the Luce has lots more information on how to offset your flights.
If you do decide to do a road trip when you travel, opt for an electric vehicle instead of the cheapest option available. These vehicles produce less carbon emissions than petrol and diesel cars so are a great option to travel more sustainably.
One of the best ways to learn about a new place is on a local tour. Many of these involve walking or cycling around a city, stopping at various points en route where your guide will inform you about the historic and cultural importance of the sights. This is a brilliant way to see a destination and learn more about it, and your money will be funding local businesses too. I use Get Your Guide to find walking tours when I travel.
Hitchhiking is arguably a great way to travel but you can never be too careful, and for that reason I won’t recommend it on this site. I’ve only hitchhiked once and it was fine but thinking back, it was a huge risk. Nonetheless, travelling in a vehicle that is otherwise already en-route to your destination will share carbon emissions. Choose BlaBlaCar or similar services to have a more secure experience.
Many destinations are best enjoyed on foot; the charming streets of Prague, the Old Towns of Riga and Tallinn, the historic Scottish capital Edinburgh… You end up seeing a lot more when you choose to see a destination by walking instead of spending it in the back of a taxi or Uber – and you’ll save money and contribute to less carbon emissions too.
Tuk-tuks are a novelty, but try not to use them all the time, especially when public transport such as buses and metros is really efficient and often much cheaper. Generally, the only time I use a taxi when I travel is if the bus times don’t work for my schedule. I usually only use transport to get to and from the airport, and walk everywhere while I’m on my trip.
Choose to go for dinner in a locally-owned restaurant rather than at a chain. McDonalds and Starbucks exist everywhere in the world and aren’t a true reputation of the culinary traditions you can find in each destination and the money you spend in them goes to billionaires rather than to local people.
Everyone knows that cutting meat from your diet does wonders for the planet. I’ve had some of the best vegan food of my life while travelling, be it traditional curries in Sri Lanka or burgers in Poland! Make sure you try the meat-free options on the menu as they are usually delicious. If meat is your thing, choose local, sustainably sourced and seasonal produce – i.e. fresh fish caught that day if you’re in a coastal town.
There are farmers markets everywhere and what better way to support local people than to purchase from their stalls. This is a great idea if you fancy a little something (apples, bananas and other fruits are much healthier than store-bought plastic-wrapped snacks) and likewise are a good option if you want to cook in your apartment or AirBnB. This is supporting organic farming rather than store-bough pesticide-covered vegetables.
By spending your money in lots of different places, you are spreading your capital around lots of local businesses instead of giving it all to one organisation. This means the local economy will benefit from your presence. This goes for gift shops as well as bars and restaurants!
Many flights offer standard 20kg luggage, but before you pack everything in your wardrobe, ask yourself if you really need to take all of that stuff with you. The weight of your luggage adds more weight to the plane/ bus which in turn uses more fuel. Where possible, try to travel with hand luggage only; it could save you money on budget flights too!
With eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic favourites becoming increasingly popular, there’s no excuse not to invest in some sustainable alternatives before your trip – or just take what you’ve already got lying around at home! My staples are my reusable water bottle, metal straw and shampoo bars are my go-to plastic free travel essentials. By packing these essentials and keeping them in your bag while you’re out and about, you’re far less likely to use single-use plastic. Try Planet Organic for eco-friendly travel supplies.
Many people don’t realise that sunscreen is actually really damaging if you’re wearing it in the sea as it can harm reefs and marine life. Reef-safe sunscreen isn’t harmful to fish as it’s biodegradable and made from natural ingredients instead of being packed full of chemicals. I like the one from The Vegan Kind Supermarket.
Try to avoid unnecessary paper when you travel. Instead of buying a new guidebook for each city, download an e-book that you can take with you on your tablet or phone. Instead of making notes in a notepad, make notes in an app instead. Instead of printing out entry tickets and confirmation slips, download e-tickets and online versions. You can have everything on your phone nowadays, including your boarding pass for your flight. If your phone is unlocked, you can buy a SIM card anywhere in the world so you still have access to 3G/4G/ Mobile Data.
Related post: A guide to getting an Indian SIM card as a tourist
I’ve mentioned before about how fast-fashion is one of the most toxic, cruel industries in the world; garment workers are forced to work in inhumane working conditions for as little as a dollar a day, and unwanted garments end up as landfill which takes a long time to decompose and emits damaging fumes as it does so. There’s a huge amount of decent clothing and travel equipment you can buy secondhand in your local charity shop, on Facebook Marketplace, or on apps like Depop, Vinted and Ebay.
Be respectful of local cultures, religions & behaviours when you’re in your destination. This means dressing appropriately – don’t walk around in your bikini in a predominantly Muslim area, and cover up if you enter any religious sites.
It seems ridiculous that you still have to mention this on sustainable travel tips lists but until places that engage in animal tourism stop we need to remember to boycott it all costs. Animal tourism is a vile industry where animals are illegally captured and abused for human entertainment, in order to make money. Don’t ride elephants or have selfies with wild animals or go swimming with dolphins. Don’t ride camels or photograph snake charmers. Don’t hold street monkeys or sea turtles. The ONLY ethical way to see wild animals on your travels is either on Safari or at a conservation centre – but many institutions pose as conservation centres and are not ethical behind closed doors – so do your research.
It’s easy to get really excited when we travel and want to take photos of all the lovely people we see and meet, be it our tour guide or a street vendor. Portrait photography is beautiful, but it is extremely disrespectful to take photos of people without asking if you can do so first. If you’re visiting developing countries this can be problematic when thinking about issues of tokenism; the people you see on your travels aren’t landmarks, they are humans with their own lives. Treat them with the same respect you would like to be treated with.
There are so many stories of people doing stupid things for an Instragram shot, and although it might make a great photo, it can have a damaging effect on the local destination. Don’t fly your drone where it says drones are forbidden. Don’t camp in places you’re not allowed to go camping. Don’t trespass onto private property for the perfect shot. Going to places that are off-limits, like the tower in Barcelona, Chandni Chowk stairwell in Rajasthan, India. Don’t trample all over the tulips in fields in the Netherlands.
There are scams all over the world involving children asking politely for something from you – be it money or something small like a pen. This encourages begging. A child will find long-term donations much more beneficial than a pen – so donate to local schools or NGOs instead of encouraging their behaviour.
We’ve all got the best intentions when it comes to getting rid of our rubbish, but just because something is able to go in the recycling bin at home doesn’t necessarily mean it can when you’re abroad. Recycling options can hugely vary when you travel. A good example of this is putting your toilet paper in the bin rather than flushing it when you’re in places like Greece and Asia. Our plumbing can handle the toilet paper but the infrastructure isn’t the same everywhere in the world.
Where possible, avoid plastics. By consciouslly refusing them, you’re committing to yourself that this is what you believe in. You’re also showing vendors that the demand for single-use plastic is decreasing. You may be the only person in your group to say ‘No straw, please’, but that one act can prompt the company to think differently about how they use straws in future – perhaps only providing them when asked for them instead of as a default.
You might have heard the phrase ‘leave only footprints, take only photos’. When I travelled New Zealand by Campervan, it was amazing to stay in so many beautiful, remote campsites. The beautiful thing about them was despite campers staying every night, everyone took everything away with them, left no trace of their visit.
I attended a beach clean when I visited Margate – it only took about an hour of my time but made a real difference to the cleanliness of the beach. No matter where you go, if you pick up litter that has been left behind by lazy, inconsiderate travellers you’ll be making the world a better place for us all.
Lots of people visit the beach and take a few shells back home with them. It’s only a couple of shells, right? But if everyone does it, it’s a lot more than a couple of shells. Be conscious of the long-term effects of your actions.
If you spread the word about how you care about being a sustainable traveller, you’ll only educate others on why this is such an important topic. Be vocal about refusing plastic bags or straws, about sharing transport instead of travelling alone and about protecting local wildlife. If people ask you questions about why you don’t want your room to be cleaned, patiently explain the bigger picture. The local people will see that you care about the beauty that their country has to offer. May people don’t think about their impact while they are on holiday and just want a break from their everyday life, but the more we normalise sustainable travel, the more sustainable travel will become. Never underestimate the power of your own influence.
Thanks for reading and happy travels
This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something from the linked site, I’ll earn a tiny (and I mean tiny!) commission at no extra cost to you, which contributes to running this blog.