5 Easy Tips to Make Travel More Sustainable

Here’s how to tread gently on the planet while roaming the world.

Two empty beach chairs on a beautiful beach with the words "small acts big impact"

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In this edition of Small Acts, Big Impact we look at some simple ways to rethink travel with a lighter footstep in mind.

Exploring the world is a natural human instinct. For all of history, we have pushed the boundaries of home, walking and sailing to far-off places to see how people in other locations live. That urge has not disappeared, despite increasing awareness of the carbon footprint associated with travel. Nor should it—even here at Treehugger, we believe there are tremendous benefits to be had from seeing the broader world and exposing oneself to different cultures.
Fortunately, some aspects of travel can be done in ways that are gentler to the planet. Consider the following tips to lessen your impact when traveling, especially as more people venture out in the coming months. Small efforts add up when practiced by many individuals.

Small Act: Travel Off-Peak

Traveling off-peak or during shoulder seasons is one of the greatest travel hacks you can ever learn. Not only does it save money, but travelers will avoid lines and crowds. Locals may be happier to interact with and assist visitors in the off-season, and money spent will go toward supporting businesses that may struggle to stay afloat during the low season. The climate benefit is real, too.

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Weekdays offer better options for direct flights, which are more fuel-efficient. Planes burn up to 25% of their fuel supply when taking off and climbing to altitude, so fewer stopovers means less fuel used to get you from point A to point B. As Treehugger reported, "Connecting flights are often cheaper money-wise, but they're more expensive in terms of carbon count because of the multiple takeoffs."

Small Act: Pack a "Capsule Travel Wardrobe"

A woman's hand is shown packing a small and tidy suitcase with matching items.
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The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it requires to fly, so packing lightly is one simple way to reduce your personal impact. Choose items that mix and match well with each other, which makes it easier to get dressed each day and look consistently stylish. Select garments that can be washed by hand in a bathroom sink and will dry quickly.

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If you don't think a capsule wardrobe makes a difference, consider this statistic from Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders: "Finnair has calculated that if each passenger were to cut down the weight of their luggage by 5 kilograms (11 pounds), the total reduction—with the airline’s current amount of traffic—could save almost 17,000 tons of CO2 emissions—the equivalent of 400 round trips from Helsinki to Paris."

Small Act: Rethink Your Toiletries

Bring your own lightweight, solid toiletries that spare you from having to use mini plastic ones. Shampoo and conditioner bars, solid moisturizers, bars of soap, and toothpaste tabs are great options. Multipurpose items—such as a lotion bar that can be used as conditioner, facial moisturizer, shaving cream, and body lotion all in one—can cut down on weight and packaging.

Explore new waterless formulations, such as powdered shampoo, crushable cleansers, and soap swatches that lather up under water. Consider filling your own containers with products from home; specially-designed reusable carriers like Cadence and Palette make this easy.

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Hundreds of millions of mini toiletries are given to hotel guests every year. This results in enormous amounts of waste—not only of the contents, which most travelers do not use up, but also of the plastic containers themselves that are usually non-recyclable because they're so small. Several major hotel groups, including InterContinental and Marriott, have promised to eliminate mini toiletries in coming years, as has the state of California. Marriott said that "eliminating 500 million small bottles a year will save 1.7 million pounds of plastic." 

Small Act: Bring Your Zero Waste Essentials

A zero waste routine—in which you create as little waste as possible—is just as important when you’re away as it is at home. Too often, though, people use travel as an excuse to let their waste-reduction efforts slide—a fact that's deeply unfair to the locals of whatever place you're visiting.

Carry a refillable water bottle (along with a filtration method) and an insulated mug. (You can buy handy collapsible ones that take up very little space.) Keep a fold-up shopping tote for any purchases you make. Depending on space, it's helpful to have a basic zero waste food kit with reusable utensils, food storage container, and cloth napkin. This can be used for any takeout or street food you may buy, and for carrying leftovers back to your accommodations.

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Research has found that, during peak tourist season, marine litter throughout the Mediterranean region increases by up to 40%. There's also good chance your travels will take you to a coastal region, which is where 80% of the world's travel occurs. These areas are particularly sensitive to plastic pollution, so please do what you can to minimize it.

Small Impact: Don't Forget Your Home

thermostat on orange background
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Your home does not need to be doing business as usual when it’s empty. Adjust the thermostat to avoid heating or cooling an uninhabited house. Pull blinds and curtains to block sunlight coming in or to help insulate in colder months. Consider turning down the water heater to the lowest setting. Be sure to cancel any newspaper or magazine subscriptions that could pile up unread while you're away.

Turn off TVs, computers, and other devices, or ensure that sleep mode is on. Vampire power and network power are both energy hogs; the latter is a growing problem and refers to "smart home" items that require power for an ongoing Internet connection. Many things from security systems to smoke alarms to lighting, heating, and appliances use this, so be sure to buy efficient products, unplug whenever possible, or schedule usage in advance.

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Small increments do add up. As Paul Greenberg, author of "The Climate Diet," writes, "Turning down the thermostat by just a single degree can save a household in a northern climate around 40 kilograms of carbon emissions every year."

For more from our Small Acts, Big Impact series, see:

View Article Sources
  1. Zheng, Sola, and Dan Rutherford. "Variation in Aviation Emissions by Itinerary: The Case for Emissions Disclosure." The International Council on Clean Transportation, 2021.

  2. "Four Ways to Fly More Sustainably." Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, 2019.

  3. "Tourism's Plastic Pollution Problem." One Planet Network.