How to Make Travel More Sustainable

Couple riding rented bicycles in a city

Alistair Berg / Getty Images 

Talking about travel can be a fraught conversation. From an environmental perspective, it is impossible to argue with the fact that staying home is the best thing to do -- but humans aren't like that. Many of us crave the world, wanting to push boundaries, navigate foreign cities, and meet strangers who speak different languages. Humans have roamed throughout history and that urge is not going to disappear anytime soon. What we can do, though, is talk about how to reduce the impact of our travels by planning trips conscientiously and carefully.

Last month I wrote about how to make flying a bit less damaging (a hard sell, I admit, but still worth a discussion). Today I will cover two other aspects of travel -- planning a trip and being on a trip. Feel free to share thoughts and travel advice in the comments below.

1. Choose Your Destination Carefully

Where you go has a big effect on your environmental footprint. Choose a place that isn't so far, that you can perhaps reach without relying on an airplane, or that is pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly, so you don't need to use a car upon arrival. Go to a place that is not overcrowded with tourists, where the locals are not feeling overwhelmed and resentful about your presence. Avoid destinations that are being harmed by the presence of too many people (think Venice, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Teotihuacan, etc.), so as not to contribute further to its degradation. Stay away from the big no-no's: cruise ships, mega resorts, and large beachfront developments.

2. Research the Accommodations

If you plan to stay in a hotel, choose a place that holds itself to high environmental standards. These should be certified by a third party, such as Rainforest Alliance or the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Find out who owns the hotel and choose one whose owner is local, as opposed to a large foreign corporation; that way you know a greater portion of the profits will stay in the community. Consider alternative forms of accommodation, such as house swapping, couch surfing, or camping.

3. Stay in One Place

Avoid trying to cover as much territory as you can within a limited time, but instead embrace a slower pace. Stay put and get to know a single community more intimately. This can be a hard concept for many North Americans to grasp, who, for example, tend to "do Europe" and hop from city to city, as opposed to settling down in a small fishing village somewhere and getting to know its rhythm for a few weeks.

4. Act Like a Local As Best You Can

Imitating the local way of life is the most respectful way to travel. Disconnect from the online recommendations and the travel books (if people even read them anymore), and talk to people where you're at. Go to libraries, restaurants, markets, shows. Strike up conversations and get people on the ground to give you recommendations.

5. Eat Like a Local

Eat the way people around you are eating, without dragging along your preconceived notions of how a diet should be. For example, if beans and rice are the daily staple, then chow down with enthusiasm! I try to avoid meat and dairy as much as I can when traveling because it feels like a small 'offset' of sorts, if I've flown to get there. Shop the local markets, but be sure that these actually are the local markets; on a recent stay in Bologna, my Italian friend Francesca pointed out that the beautiful market stalls I was drooling over are really just for the tourists: "No locals actually shop there," she scoffed. "È solo per i turisti."

6. Always Carry Reusables

Make it standard practice to pack a reusable water bottle (I like the collapsible ones from Hydaway because they're so amazingly convenient), a travel mug, a cloth shopping bag to transport purchases, a metal straw, utensils, and possibly a container or two for leftovers. If you have these on hand, you'll never need to use single-use disposables.

7. Learn Some Bottled Water Hacks

Avoiding bottled water can be tough in some places, but take advice from travel blogger Shivya Nath, who lives in Goa, India, during the monsoon seasons every year. India is notorious for having bad water, but Nath says it's possible to get by without bottled water. She often requests filtered water refills for her water bottle from restaurants and also advises asking for a jug of filtered water for your hotel room and using that to refill your bottle.

Some bottles come with built-in filters, or you can use a portable travel water purifier such as SteriPEN (it uses a UV light to destroy 99.9% of bacteria) or a filter system like LifeStraw. Water purifying tablets are another option.

Speaking of water, avoid traveling to places that are facing water crises, such as Cape Town; it puts even more strain on the local residents.

8. Choose Souvenirs Wisely

Avoid gimmicky, junky purchases that are likely to get tossed in the trash eventually. Check where an item is made; you want something that's truly local, not imported from afar. Invest in things of lasting value, such as art, textiles, and ceramics. For gifts, I usually opt for consumables -- unusual chocolates or candy, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spice mixes, a locally made apéritif.

9. Pack Smart

The most important thing is to pack light. It will make your life easier on so many levels. If in doubt, remember this great quote from Oneika Raymond:

"For every hotel with a luggage cart and paved street, there's a town on a mountaintop on the Italian coast with 150 stairs. Try rolling that bag then."

Be aware of the chemicals in your personal care products, especially sunscreen, if you're planning to be in the ocean. Girls, always bring a menstrual cup; it's a total game-changer. TreeHugger has lots of packing posts. See: How to pack lightly for every trip & Build a travel capsule wardrobe with these expert tips.

10. Talk About Your Travels With Friends and Family

Share your stories with people when they ask about your trip, but not just the high points -- talk about what didn't feel right, what felt uncomfortable, what you'd do differently next time. Write honest reviews online so that future travellers will have an easier time doing research.