Sometimes it seems easier to stick to the old “reduce, reuse, recycle” when we’re settled into the comfort of our own homes. Once we hit the tarmac or land in unfamiliar territory, we’re in vacation mode, throwing caution to the wind.
But that doesn’t mean we should, right?
In fact, travel is one of the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste. Jetsetters everywhere (myself included) know it’s bad for the environment, but we keep feeding the wanderlust anyway. The good news is that being mindful of our environment doesn’t mean we need to cut out vacations or stick to camping in our own backyards. We can all make a few changes, big or small, to be a little more sustainable while traveling.
Here’s a list to get you started:
1. Explore new places
Sometimes we get so caught up in our carbon footprints that we forget about our physical ones. The truth is, overtourism — the overcrowding of a destination by visitors — is a real problem in many places made popular by Instagram, influencers, and too-successful marketing campaigns. One of the best ways to be a mindful traveler this year is to be thoughtful about where and when you visit places. Consider off-season travel. Get lost on streets and in alleyways off of the main tourist boulevards. Check out one of these bucket list-worthy locations dealing with undertourism. You’ll contribute to an economy that needs your tourist dollars, enjoy a road less traveled, and avoid trampling more delicate nature while you explore!
2. Take the train instead of a plane
As the Washington Post reported, one climate stability expert said that air travel is one of the worst (and fastest) ways to degrade the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Instead of flying across the country this summer, consider a classic road trip. And while train travel might take longer than a short flight, the slow route is often delightfully serene and romantic — totally worth it.
3. “Vote” with your wallets for eco-friendly hotels and resorts
Once you’ve chosen your next destination, hop over to Kynder, Green Hotels Association, or Ecobnb to search for conscious, sustainable places to stay or activities to try in the region. Why not put your hard-earned dollars toward a business or organization focused on being kind to the planet?
4. Opt out of daily fresh sheets and towels
Nothing feels more luxurious than slipping into a freshly made bed with crisp, clean sheets… but consider how much water is wasted at hotels and resorts where housekeepers give guests fresh linens each day. Instead of dropping your damp towel on the floor for the housekeeper to exchange while you’re out, hang it back up and use it for a few more days, just as you would at home.
5. Hydrate with a reusable water bottle
We all know single-use plastic is bad news for the environment. It’s smart to stay hydrated on the road, so pack a reusable water bottle to avoid last-minute splurges on pricey, disposable bottles of water.
6. Pack snacks without packaging
Next time you head out on a hike, why not grab an apple or banana for your backpack instead of a wrapped protein bar? One more bit of packaging might not seem like the end of the world, but these small decisions add up over time.
7. Be extra aware of waste in countries that don’t have prominent recycling receptacles
Not sure? Pack it out. Take your trash with you. (And it can be an eye-opening experience to see just how much plastic trash we use in the span of one long weekend getaway!)
8. Use mineral, not chemical, sunscreen
National Geographic recently reported that we’re dripping about 14,000 tons of sunscreen into the ocean each year. So what happens to all those filmy chemicals riding the waves? They contaminate coral reefs and the marine life that makes a home there. Here’s a handy list of sunscreen ingredients to avoid. Bonus tip: Rub it in, don’t spray.
9. Use public transportation at your destination
If you’re flying far away this year, curb your carbon output once you’re back on solid ground. Instead of hopping across Europe on cheap flights, take the train. Instead of renting a car in a congested city, take public transportation. Bonus points if you explore by bike or on foot!
10. Rent a hybrid or electric car
Yes, this will cost more. But you’re reading this list because you care, right?
11. Ditch the straw on that piña colada
12. Leave each place better than you found it
It only takes a moment to pick up a stray plastic bag blowing down the street or a water bottle on the beach. And it will feel good to be part of the solution, not the problem.
13. Opt out of one-time use travel commodities
Instead of stashing Colgate Wisps, Wet Wipes, and adorable tiny bottles of your favorite shampoo, invest in a pack of refillable, TSA-approved containers. Fill them by using the full-sized soaps and beauty products you already use at home.
14. Shop local
When you make sure your souvenirs are truly made in the town or region you’re visiting, you get to support the local economy and eliminate extra costs (and carbon) for transporting goods to the storefront.
15. Don’t mess with nature
Speaking of souvenirs, don’t steal them from the natural environment. Collect wildflowers with your camera, not your hands. And it’s always better to leave coral and seashells on the beach so they can provide refuge to small creatures and remain part of the sand cycle.
16. Conserve energy like you would at home
When we’re on vacation, it’s easy to feel indulgent and forget about common sense. Please, at home or away, turn the lights off when you leave a room. Be aware of your water use even when you’re not footing the bill. And don’t forget to unplug what you can before you leave your house!
17. Avoid plastic whenever possible
Could you eat street food with your hands? Could you pack bamboo utensils for your picnic? Could you avoid buying that bottle of water (yes you can, because you followed tip #4!)?
18. Eat and drink local
Who knew being a green traveler could be so delicious? Instead of expecting your favorite food and beverages to be flown in, try the local cuisine. This is a great way to be mindful of the environment and a new culture.
19. Speak up
If you don’t see a recycling bin, ask the hotel concierge about it. When you see people littering on the beach, politely point them to the nearest trash can. If you’re hounded by a tour agent who wants to sell you an elephant ride, explain why it’s important to you to be kind to the planet and its wildlife.
Travel blogger Alexandra Baackes once wrote, “If we can show those working in the travel and hospitality industries that caring about the environment is not only the right thing to do, it also affects their bottom line… that is where real change happens.” It’s okay to ask questions and compliment the sustainable practices you witness! It might make real change.