Our tips for traveling like a TreeHugger

Gardens by the Bay
© Margaret Badore. Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

In this installment of Town & Country, Katherine and Margaret share their tips for green travel.

Margaret: Trying to tread more lightly

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impacts of travel recently, with two big reporting trips in the past month. There’s an energy cost and a carbon footprint to almost everything we do, and traveling is no different, but I wanted to share some of the little ways I’ve been trying to tread more lightly.

In many cases, flying is an unavoidable impact made by our travels, but there’s a lot of other transportation that we use sandwiched between flights. When I’m in a new city, I avoid cabs and car rentals, in favor of public transportation. Using public transportation not only forces you to learn your way around a city in a way that being driven won’t, and it also gives you a bit more of a taste of what it’s like to live in that city. Bike rentals are another great option.

To make travel by public transport easier, it’s best to travel light. Many people dislike packing, but I actually enjoy the process. I approach it a bit like a puzzle, with the goal of reducing the number of items that end up in my suitcase. I lay all the items I think I’ll need out on the bed, and plan the necessary outfit(s) for each day. This helps me see everything, and I also use it as an opportunity to make sure nothing is redundant. I’ll play with combinations of outfits to make each item work in multiple ways. On my way to Kenya, a knee-length black skirt can be worn with sandals and a teeshirt for a casual day, or worn with tights and blazer for when business attire is appropriate.

I rarely check luggage for trips that are under two weeks, but this presents a challenge for toiletries. On one hand, flight regulations prevents containers of liquids and gels over 3 ounces from being carried onto the plane. On the other hand, travel-size items tend to generate a lot of trash. I know the allure of free hotel soaps and shampoos, but a less wasteful option is to use your own refillable little bottles (plus this gives you more control over the chemicals in these products).

Travel-sized snacks prevent a similar issue. I’m not saying I’m too good for free bags of pretzels on the airplane (although the resulting waste makes me cringe), but I do avoid buying packaged snacks. Again, filling your own reusable container at home is a less wasteful option, and those containers may come in handy during your trip.

Lastly, it’s nice to pack your own refillable water bottle. Of course, we need to balance health concerns with the goal of reducing waste. It’s not always advisable for travelers to drink tap or well water, but if I’m traveling in the U.S. or to a more developed area, having a refillable bottle saves me money and reduces garbage. It’s always good to check with your host, hotel or a travel agent to see if the tap water is potable.

Katherine: Airplanes make me feel guilty

© K Martinko -- A visit to Tharros in Sardinia

Right after 9/11 happened, all North American planes were grounded for a few days. I remember hearing that astronomers and other scientists took advantage of this brief lull in air travel to see things in the sky that hadn’t been clear for decades. I wondered, in all my teenage naivety, why more people couldn’t just stay at home so the sky could be clear on a regular basis.

Alas, that’s not how it works, and few people are willing to give up the incredible luxury that air travel is. Being able to wake up in one’s own bed and go to sleep on another continent or hemisphere, all in the same day, is an extravagance that’s hard to relinquish, despite knowing that relying on fossil fuels to move oneself around is environmentally damaging.

As someone who loves to travel, and has done quite a bit of it, I struggle to reconcile my green lifestyle values with my urge to globetrot. I know that as soon as I leave the house by car or plane, I leave an impact on the earth. There are a few ways, though, in which I like to think that impact is minimized. This is what I think about when planning trips:

Go ‘local’

Do what the locals do, and support the local economy by putting money directly into local pockets, rather than a hotel corporation’s. Seek out favourite local restaurants; hang out in popular local spots; try to adjust to the indigenous pace of life. I tend to avoid destinations or activities that cater only to tourists. Big hotels with all-you-can-eat meal plans make me uncomfortable, especially since they’re often located in developing countries. Just because I’m travelling doesn’t entitle me to excessive amounts of food, which also results in lots of waste.

Stay for as long as possible

The best trips I’ve had are long-term ones – a year spent in Sardinia, another year in northeastern Brazil. Not only did it give me an intimate view and knowledge of these regions, along with two new languages, but it had less environmental impact than if I’d made multiple trips from North America to get to know those regions. Going somewhere for a year is impossible for me now with a family, but I continue trying to extend family trips as much as possible to make travelling that distance more worthwhile.

Go slow

As a society, we’re so accustomed to moving with speed and efficiency that the idea of slowing down a process that could be accomplished quickly is very foreign. Consider alternative modes of transportation when planning a trip. Have you ever thought of taking a ship across the Atlantic or a train across the continent instead of a plane? Hiking and walking trips are becoming more popular. Pack your gear into a canoe for a wilderness camping trip or onto your bicycle for a long-distance ride.

Stay put, if you can

Minimizing the amount of airplane-hopping between cities and countries is a good way to reduce footprint and cost. Instead of trying to cram multiple destinations into a single trip, think about choosing one interesting place that you’d like to get to know better and just stay there. If you do need to move, look at ground level and/or alternative transportation methods, instead of airplanes, for short distances.

Do the research

The Rainforest Alliance does excellent work in the area of sustainable tourism. Check out SustainableTrip.org, which lists all hotels, tour operators, and other businesses in the Caribbean and Central/South America that are certified as sustainable. Put in the extra effort to seek out businesses that truly care about the earth and are trying to implement green policies and initiatives.

Tags: Living With Less | Tourism | Vacation

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