How to Travel More Sustainably
Updated: Feb 3
Travelling sustainably is more important than ever. Find out exactly how you can lower your impact on your next journey.
At the words ‘sustainable travel’ you might think of Greta Thunberg perilously sailing across the Atlantic, generating zero emissions, and abstaining from all plane travel. This is certainly one way to approach it.
However, the reality is that there are lots of different ways to travel just a little bit more sustainably, including the food you eat, the tours and attractions you choose, and even the time of year you visit. Read on to learn about some of the best ways to travel more sustainably.
In This Article:
What Is Sustainable Travel?
So, exactly what does sustainable travel mean? As well as the amount of carbon emitted by your mode of transport, sustainable travel is all about the impact your visit has on the local communities and environments you visit. Sustainable travel, in an ideal world, wouldn't have any negative impacts
That’s why the very best way to become a more sustainable traveller is to be more aware of the impact you are having at every step of your journey. If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry - when it comes to greener travel, small steps can take you a very long way.
Book an Eco-Certified Hotel
One of the most impactful things you can do is to choose eco-friendly accommodation. A good eco-certified hotel will allow you to rest easy knowing that things like your water and energy consumption, your rubbish disposal, and even your breakfast have been considered for you with the environment in mind.
Luckily, there are a huge number of eco-certifications out there that can help you spot eco-friendly hotels, that check everything from energy, design and staff training to food and drink.
There are many hotels that give back to local community projects as well, so you can know that your hard-earned cash is doing right by the local area. Some of the best eco-certifications to look out for are Biosphere Responsible Tourism, Earth Check, Green Key, Green Globe, and the TripAdvisor GreenLeaders Gold.
Slow Down When you Travel
Simply slowing down your approach makes one of the biggest differences to your environmental impact when travelling, and the great thing is it can also kick your experience into a higher gear.
Opting for trains, boats, and buses over planes and private cars allows you to soak up far more of the local culture and landscape. It can be incredibly rewarding taking the more intrepid approach, engaging with real people going about their real lives. Who knows? The journey may end up being the most memorable bit of your trip.
Slow travel means more than just slower modes of transport, too. It means taking a little more time than you usually would to plan, research, and generally not rush into your plans. As small an action as remembering to pack your reusable water bottle can go a long way.
Take a Train Instead of a Plane
You may not be surprised to learn that of all the methods of slow transport, the humble train comes up trumps nearly every time. Its benefits range from carrying a larger number of passengers per mile travelled, to causing far less inner-city traffic, pollution, and infrastructure decay. It also has the benefit of being very ‘Some Like It Hot.’
Whilst not all train travel is emissions-free, an increasing number of trains do now run on clean electricity, especially in Europe. Switzerland’s capital of Bern is one of the most energy-efficient rail networks in the world, powered by virtually 100% hydro-power.
It doesn’t hurt that Switzerland’s rail routes are also some of the most scenic and mountainous in the world.
For more information on the debate about trains vs. planes, have a gander at our article about why train travel is good for the environment.
Choose a Sustainable Destination
Picking a sustainable travel destination doesn’t just mean choosing a place within a small radius of where you live to cut down on emissions (though of course, this makes for a very sustainable trip).
Finding a sustainable destination is all about awareness and weighing up the different elements. There is no perfect destination, however, some are much better than others.
For example, Berlin is known for having great public transport, recycling initiatives, and a huge array of vegan restaurants.
A less sustainable choice might mean somewhere only accessible by car with very few options for sustainable accommodation. Check out some of the most sustainable cities in Europe here.
Avoid Bottled Water Where Possible
According to the WWF and One Planet Network, high tourist season causes an average 40% spike in ocean plastic pollution, not helped by the fact that 80% of tourism takes place in coastal areas.
It makes sense - it can be all too easy when spending full, tiring days out exploring to get caught out without any water.
It’s not always possible to be perfect, especially in hot destinations, but you can at least vow to start the day with a decent, full reusable water bottle in your bag. Plus, you’ll be ready - and not kicking yourself - when that free water fountain does present itself.
Eat Local Meals
For any self-professed foodie, sampling the local food will be a non-negotiable activity anyway, but it can also gain you serious sustainable traveller points.
Locally sourced cuisine means that your food hasn’t racked up its own sizeable carbon footprint by travelling thousands of miles to reach your plate.
The term ‘zero kilometre’ is increasingly used in countries like Spain and Italy to describe the concept of using ingredients sourced only from nearby farms and the sea.
Cities like Barcelona boast a beautiful variety of slow food restaurants, and Copenhagen has an exciting, fast-growing culinary scene centred around the trend of urban farming.
Minimise Your Stopovers
Whilst travelling by train is the greenest option, sometimes a plane is just necessary to get you where you want to go. Though best to avoid if possible, not all plane travel is created equal.
Planes give off the most emissions during take-off and landing and less whilst cruising, meaning it's those short domestic flights that are overall the least eco-friendly.
So, if you really have to fly, the more direct your flight is the better. Whilst this is often the more expensive option, it’s also the greener, quicker, and usually far less stressful option.
There are also a number of other ways to make plane travel more sustainable.
Offset Your Carbon
It is important to realise that carbon offsetting is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. The logic and communication surrounding carbon offsetting are often deeply flawed because the damage caused by carbon entering the atmosphere simply cannot be eradicated by trees being planted (not least because the average tree won’t reach its carbon-storing potential for around 20 years.)
That said, taken with a pinch of salt, carbon offsetting schemes can be a great tool to help you balance out the overall impact of your trip by supporting important projects tackling climate change. A website like myclimate.org is a good place to start.
Travel in the Offseason
High tourist season has a negative impact on a lot of places, with the sudden rush of visitors causing a big spike in waste pollution and emissions. It can also squeeze the rental market, which can have a negative impact on residents. That’s why travelling in the offseason can be a big win-win for green travellers seeking an authentic experience.
You’ll often enjoy a more peaceful, authentic experience at major attractions by avoiding peak tourist season, not to mention you can bag yourself cheaper rates on almost everything.
Not only this, destinations that rely heavily on tourist trade will appreciate your visit all the more in the off-season, as you’ll be helping support their financial stability year-round.
Join Tours Run By Locals
Another great way to ensure your trip has a positive overall impact is to research tours and activities run by locals instead of by larger, international travel companies.
Knowing your hard-earned cash is supporting the local community will make it that much more enjoyable, not to mention locals can almost certainly offer a much more knowledgeable, more authentic experience.