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Eco-Travel

How to Be a Sustainable Traveler

September 13, 2018

Travel, especially in the United States, is big business: According to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic and international travelers spent more than $1 trillion in the United States last year. From airline fuel emissions to overtaxed power grids to all that additional trash in a given destination’s landfill, travel takes its toll on the environment. As more environmentally friendly practices creep into our collective conscious at home, more and more travelers are taking note of their impact on the road.

According to AIG Travel’s 2017 Pulse Poll on sustainability, 72 percent of travelers polled called sustainable travel “very important” or “somewhat important,” up from 52 percent in 2016. If you’re one of those travelers, here’s how to be mindful of the environment—before, during, and after your next trip.

Sustainable Travel Starts With Planning

Is that safari guide in Tanzania working with government officials and nonprofits to stop illegal poaching? Does your hotel operator use efficient lighting and low-flow toilets? Is a well-regarded restaurant composting or taking steps to curb food waste? What kind of “green” practices does your airline of choice employ?

Before you buy a plane ticket or make your first reservation, look at the steps (if any) that various travel companies are taking to minimize their carbon footprint and improve the environment. If the company or organization is working to reduce its impact on climate change, chances are good it will promote the information on its website.

When considering a tour operator, ask about its environmental practices to find out if it is working to protect local culture and wildlife. Does it work with local guides and vendors? If not, find one that does.

Make Smart Choices About Air Travel

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When flying, choose the most direct route to cut down on fuel emissions. Photo credit: Margo Brodowicz

Air travel is one of the largest sources of air pollution for travelers. Fortunately, you can take a few steps to mitigate that impact and fly smarter. First and foremost, save on fuel emissions by choosing the most direct route to your destination. When comparing flights, see what different airlines are doing to improve their “green” practices and think consciously about their impact on the environment.

United Airlines, for instance, allows passengers to purchase carbon offsets that benefit programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and supporting the communities it serves. Delta Air Lines will enable passengers to donate money or miles to The Nature Conservancy, which works to conserve lands and waters around the world.

Pack Smart

You can you reduce your carbon footprint before you leave by packing light, which saves weight on the plane and burns less fuel. After all, every little bit helps. One way to do this is to bring along reusable microfiber towels, saving laundry and all the associated energy costs. Pick up biodegradable soaps and shampoos for your trip, which are less harmful if your shower water ultimately drains into local waterways (a sad reality in many developing destinations).

If the tap water at your destination is safe, bring along a refillable water bottle rather than buying individual water bottles on your trip. You can also filter your water or use a SteriPEN if you’re committed to a reusable water bottle. If not, look for recyclable glass bottles over plastic. According to the advocacy group Ban the Bottle, making plastic bottles for U.S. consumption uses more than 17 million barrels of oil every year—enough energy to fuel more than 1 million cars.

Skip the Rental Car

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Don’t rent a car on vacation. Instead, rely on bikes and public transportation to get around. Photo credit: Alesia Kazantceva

Once you’ve arrived, the biggest step you can take toward sustainability is to skip the rental car. Even with improved emissions standards, passenger vehicles remain one of the most significant contributors to air pollution, and the choice to drive on a given trip leaves behind exhaust and erodes air quality in that locale long after you’ve returned home.

Instead, consider spending more time on other forms of transportation. Walking when possible, cycling, riding the bus, or catching a train are all better for the environment than driving, and each eco-friendly transit choice gives you the chance to connect and engage with locals. (It doesn’t hurt that these options are usually cheaper than renting a car.)

If you must rent a car try to get a hybrid or electric model, if available and within your budget.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In addition to making smart transportation choices, you can take several familiar-sounding steps while enjoying your vacation. In your hotel room, turn off the lights when you leave for the day, shorten your showers, and (if possible) sleep with an open window at night rather than cranking the air conditioning.

While you’re out and about, try to recycle as much as possible to reduce your contribution to local landfills; if no such system is obviously present, ask the shopkeeper or cashier about whether they recycle. Don’t take that plastic bag when buying souvenirs—bring along a backpack to carry your finds.

Respect the Destination

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Be respectful to an area’s culture when visiting. Do what you can to ensure that future travelers can have the same experience. Photo credit: Shaouraav Shreshtha

Sustainable travel isn’t just about your carbon footprint and greenhouse gases; it also includes protecting the sites you see and experiences you enjoy for future travelers.

That means removing your shoes if asked, before entering a religious site. If you go for a hike, don’t stray off the trail or other designated visitor areas. And if a museum’s policy prohibits flash photography, you’ll protect the integrity of the exhibits by adjusting your smartphone or camera accordingly.

Shop and Eat Local

According to the World Tourism Organization, one in every 11 jobs globally is in tourism. Take care to ensure those jobs stay with locals by keeping as many of your tourist dollars in the community as possible. In practice, that means eating at local restaurants and shopping at local outlets rather than in retail chains. Local businesses offer experiences you can’t get anywhere else, and more of your tourist dollar stays with the local communities rather than getting funneled up to a larger corporate headquarters. You’ll also reduce the environmental impacts incurred by shipping and long-distance transportation when your food is made from local ingredients and your goods are produced in that community.

If possible, try to order sustainable seafood when sitting down to a meal. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website offers tips for choosing sustainable fish in various regions and avoiding overfished populations (such as crab from Argentina, Asia, and Russia; sharks; and shrimp that has been farmed outside the U.S.). This helps prevent overfishing and ensures a more sustainable food supply.

Make a Difference on Vacation

Want to get to know a destination? Consider taking a vacation that includes volunteering with an organization to improve conditions in the area. You can do some good while meeting locals and learning more about their culture. The Conservation Volunteers International Program works on wildlife habitat restoration and other environmental projects. Groups like GoVoluntouring and GoEco can help you find projects that fit your interest. It may not be a relaxing vacation on the beach, but it will probably be the trip that you look back on most fondly.

–Written by Matt Wastradowski for RootsRated Media in partnership with Royal Robbins.

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