How to Be a Sustainable Traveler: 18 Tips

These sustainable travel tips will help you become a more responsible traveler

A woman hiking in Port Angeles, Washington, United States
Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Being a sustainable traveler means keeping your ecological footprint low while supporting ethical economic development in local communities affected by tourism. That means everything from minimizing plastic consumption and making greener transportation choices to eating at locally owned restaurants and booking eco conscious accommodations.

The goal of sustainable travel is to meet the needs of the tourism industry without harming natural and cultural environments. If not managed properly, tourism can have incredibly negative impacts, from the loss of a destination’s cultural identity to the depletion of natural resources, pollution, and degradation of ecosystems. In many cases, tourism can be a valuable tool to help support communities and give back to nature.

1. Make Smarter Flight Choices

Air travel emissions make up a whopping 20% of a tourist’s carbon footprint. If you must fly, be sure to pack light to lessen the plane’s load and try to book a non-stop flight. On average, non-stop flights reduce carbon emissions by 100 kg per person compared to connecting options. Not only do connecting flights usually require flying greater total distances, planes use more fuel during taxi, take off, and descent.

Two male lions, Panthera leo, walk across a shallow river, one crouching drinking water, two game vehicles in backgrounf carrying people

Londolozi Images / Getty Images

2. Switch to Reusables

Rather than buying plastic water bottles on your travels, bring along a reusable water bottle instead. If you’re heading to a destination with questionable water quality, look into a water purifying system or tablets. Bring along reusable utensils, tote bags, containers, and straws so you can say no to single use plastic while shopping or eating out.

3. Skip Travel Size Toiletries

Single use travel size toiletry bottles are a huge source of tourism-related plastic pollution and help contribute to the nearly 11 million metric tons of plastic pollution dumped into the oceans annually. Switch to refillable and reusable bottles made of glass, silicone, or even recycled plastic material and fill them up with products from your larger sized bottles at home. Even huge chains like Marriott have begun to phase out single use travel toiletries, citing the fact that their properties send 500 million mini plastic bottles into landfills each year.

4. Be Mindful of Local Resources

Pay attention to how much water you’re using while on vacation by opting for short showers instead of baths and turning off the water while brushing teeth or shaving. Fill up your refillable and reusable travel containers with an eco friendly biodegradable soap and shampoo, especially while camping.

Local resources can also include necessities like emergency services and hospital beds. Always research weather conditions and terrain before hiking or taking a road trip to avoid getting lost or injured and having to get rescued, which can drain important public resources and tax dollars.

5. Do Your Research

Look for accommodations, destination, products, and tour companies that have been deemed sustainable by a legitimate certifying body. In the sustainable tourism world, that means organizations like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, The Rainforest Alliance, and Earth Check.

Sustainably-minded travelers should always be on the lookout for greenwashing in the travel industry, as well. Any company can call themselves sustainable or “green” in an attempt to attract eco-minded customers, so it is important to research ahead of time to find out what specific sustainable actions they’re taking. If a company has done the work to develop responsible tourism policies that include environmental and social impacts, they’ll have the information displayed on their website. If not, don’t be afraid to ask.

6. Respect Natural Places

Protect the Tundra Sign
Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ronda Kimbrow / Getty Images

Remember that marked hiking trails are there for a reason, usually to help preserve the surrounding environment and keep native flora out of harm’s way. Take out what you brought in and don’t litter. Keep your distance from wildlife and never feed or touch wild animals, for your own safety and for the safety of the animals themselves.

In beach areas, use reef safe sunscreen without harmful ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate, and never step on coral or stir up sediment (which can also cause damage to the ecosystem).

7. Support Locals Directly

Seeking out local experiences like homestays and hiring local guides is the best way to learn about a new culture — while also ensuring that your money goes directly toward stimulating the local economy.

Purchasing handmade souvenirs and art created by indigenous artisans can help preserve authentic cultural heritage and provide jobs. Food that is grown locally and businesses that are owned and operated by local families are often better quality and more budget friendly, all while helping keep money in local pockets.

8. Go Low Impact

Canoeing
FatCamera / Getty Images

Choose vacations that demand less resources and make less of an impact on the environment, such as camping or even glamping. If you go the more traditional vacation route, opt for low impact activities that will have zero to minimal impact on the environment, such as kayaking or hiking. 

9. Find Ways to Give Back

Consider the ways that you can contribute to the local community and give back while traveling. This can be as simple as picking up a piece of trash in the park or volunteering for a beach clean up. If you’re planning a trip where volunteering is your primary objective, make sure that the charity has strong links with host communities and isn’t taking jobs away from local people. There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not “voluntourism” does more harm than good, and in many cases, you’re better off donating money or goods through a reputable organization.  

Pack for a Purpose helps connect travelers with charities to provide supplies needed for specific communities.

10. Don’t Support Unethical Wildlife Tourism

If you want to view wildlife, see them in their natural habitats or go to accredited wildlife sanctuaries that work to rescue and rehabilitate animals. When it comes to ecotourism, check with advocacy groups like the International Ecotourism Society for organizations that follow strict sustainable tourism practices.

Supporting activities like cub petting and elephant riding helps encourage abusive industries that often illegally capture animals from the wild. Never buy products made from wildlife parts, as this helps support marketplaces for animal trafficking.

11. Don’t Leave Your Sustainable Habits at Home

If you’re a regular Treehugger reader, chances are you already have plenty of sustainable practices you use every day, so continue to use them while traveling. Turn the lights off and the air conditioning down when you leave a room, and ask your hotel about their recycling program. Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean your sustainable lifestyle has to fly out the window. 

12. Respect Local Culture and Traditions

Indigenous Brazilian Young Man from Guarani ethnicity Showing the Rainforest to Tourist
Indigenous Brazilian young man from Guarani ethnicity gives tour of rainforest. FG Trade / Getty Images

Do some research on the culture and traditions of a destination before you travel; it will not only help you make a connection to the place, but also help ensure that you honor the local customs. Even better, learn the language or a few important words and simple phrases such as “please,” and “thank you.” If you run across a local ceremony while on your travels, keep a respectful distance.

13. Stay Longer

Tourism transportation demands affects energy use and CO2 emissions, but also puts pressures on infrastructure and land. Shorter lengths of stays that focus on restricted time budgets can lead to high concentrations of tourist flows in “must see” attractions, while tourists who stay longer are more likely to visit more small businesses in locations outside of main tourist areas. Instead of planning trips where you try to visit as many places or see as much as possible in a short amount of time, consider staying in one spot for longer and really getting a feel for the area.

14. Be Adaptable and Understanding

One of the best parts of traveling is seeing new things and having new experiences. Keeping an open mind and not demanding everything that you’re used to in your own country will put less pressure on your destination and its people. Not to mention, you’ll probably have a better time.

15. Travel Shorter Distances

Tourism is responsible for about 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and transportation accounts for nearly half of global tourism’s carbon footprint. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your lifelong dream of visiting the Eiffel Tower, just don’t count out the unique experiences available in your very own country or closer to home. If you do want to visit popular tourist destinations, go during off season or shoulder season.

16. Walk as Much as Possible

Family holidays in Langhe region, Piedmont, Italy: Electric bikes trip in the hills
Langhe region, Piedmont, Italy. ilbusca / Getty Images

A majority of tourism’s environmental footprint can be attributed to transport, but that doesn’t just include airplanes. A tourist’s first stop after arriving at a new destination is often the airport car rental counter, so that they can get to their accommodation or head off to see the sights. Instead, sustainable travelers use every opportunity to walk, bike, or utilize public transportation in order to avoid those transportation related emissions. Check if your destination has a bike sharing program or has an easy-to-navitage train system, you might even save some money at the same time.

17. Look Into Carbon Offsets

Sustainable travelers should always try to reduce their carbon footprint first, but offsetting can be a useful tool in situations where reducing your footprint might be more difficult.

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for generated greenhouse gas emissions by reducing emission elsewhere. For example, TerraPass lets users calculate their carbon footprint from vehicles, public transit, air travel, and home energy before providing ways to contribute to sustainable projects like water restoration and wind power.

18. Share What You’ve Learned

Share sustainable travel tips with friends, family members, and fellow travelers; even small changes can make a huge difference. Travel teaches us how to better understand the world by introducing us to new cultures and customs different than our own. Plus, humans are innate explorers, so traveling will always be a massive industry. If we can share ways to make travel more environmentally friendly, respectful, and sustainable, we can highlight the valuable aspects of tourism and reduce the negative ones.

View Article Sources
  1. Debbage, Keith and Debbage, Neil. "Aviation Carbon Emissions, Route Choice, and Tourist Destinations: Are Non-Stop Routes a Remedy?" Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 79, 2019, pp. 102765, doi:10.1016/j.annals.2019.102765

  2. Gossling, Stefan, et al. "Global Trends in Length of Stay: Implications for Destination Management and Climate Change." Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol. 26, no. 12, 2018, pp. 2087-2101, doi:10.1080/09669582.2018.1529771

  3. Lenzen, Manfred, et al. "The Carbon Footprint of Global Tourism." Nature Climate Change, vol. 8, 2018, pp. 522-528, doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0141-x