Being a responsible traveler sounds simple in theory: Just go green. Take care of the environment. But when it comes time to actually taking action, it can get a bit overwhelming. Where to start? And what to pack?
With this in mind, we’ve compiled 26 actually doable steps to be an eco-friendly traveler. Some—like ditching single-use plastics—will have an effect on the environment, while others—like bringing a journal—will help hold you accountable and contribute to a culture of awareness. Others will require you to spend more, but many cost nothing at all. Don’t sweat it if you can’t tackle all 26 on the next trip, or the next, or the next. Even a few small changes to your travel lifestyle will lead to a better trip for you and Mother Earth, whether you’re heading to Senegal or Sweden.
A is for avoiding the buffet
Put down that spoonful of soggy eggs in the hotel buffet line and order à la carte instead. Though there have been improvements in recent years, buffets are still incredibly wasteful. The U.S. alone generates 63 million tons of food waste annually, with an estimated 40 percent of that from consumer-serving businesses like hotels and restaurants, reports the New York Times. Only 10 to 15 percent of that food can be donated or repurposed because of food safety regulations. It comes down to this: Hotels are worried about seeming like they don’t have enough food, so they overcompensate—and waste. By avoiding the buffet, you’re casting your vote—one bite at a time.
B is for bringing your own amenities
All those little toiletries tubes? Yep, they’re terrible for the environment because they generally aren’t biodegradable, which is why you’ll see more and more hotels adopting containers secured to the wall instead of ones that are largely useless after one wash (hey, we’ve got a lot of hair). Bring your own shampoo, conditioner, and lotion in reusable bottles, and better yet, take the unused samples, donate them to your local homeless shelter, domestic violence shelter, or community non-profit. Then encourage the hotel to adopt more eco-friendly policies.
C is for choosing a green destination
Supporting places that are working to combat climate change and preserve their local ecosystems is a big step in protecting the planet. Just a few of these destinations? Slovenia, Portugal, Lake Tahoe, and Sani Isla, Ecuador, all of whom were singled out at the 2018 Sustainable Top 100 Destination Awards for their focus on going green, whether it be showing innovation in sustainable tourism (Portugal) or protecting their natural habitats (Sani Isla).
D is for dropping pounds
Packing efficiently for a flight not only helps you narrow down what you truly need, it also reduces an aircraft’s carbon emissions. To lighten your load, cut out clothes that aren’t multipurpose and get rid of paper weight by downloading books on an iPad or e-reader. The next time you feel that familiar urge to complain about baggage rules and fees, remember that the lighter the aircraft, the less fuel it burns. The airline matters, too: A 2017 study from the International Council on Clean Transportation shows that Alaska Airlines continues to be a fuel-efficient leader; Frontier, Spirit, Southwest, and Hawaiian rounded out the top five.
E is for employing e-tickets
Scan your smartphone, save a tree (not really, but almost).
F is for flicking off the lights
Sure, some bulbs are more affected by the number of times they’re switched on and off than by the length of time they’re left on, but a good rule of thumb is to turn off the lights you don’t need. Reducing energy use = decreasing power plant emissions = protecting the air = preventing climate change.
G is for getting by without a car
Using Uber Pool and Lyft Line to share a ride may make you feel a little better, but the reality is that cars in general are still not ideal: they pollute the environment, lead to congestion, and compete with public transportation for the affection of travelers. Public transportation is good; walking is even better.
H is for hitting up hotels
“Aside from air travel, properties have some of the greatest impact in terms of energy use, food, and being LEED-certified,” says Jim Sano, the World Wildlife Fund’s vice president focused on tourism and conservation. Check a hotel’s website for a “Responsible Travel,” “Environment,” or “Good Stewards” section—if they’ve spent time, energy, and money to be low-impact, says Sano, they’ll likely have this information displayed. For a list of global vendors, destinations, and hotels that abide by certain sustainability standards, explore the database at the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Here, too, are a few of our favorite eco-friendly resorts.
I is for Instagramming
Resist the urge to pick up your phone and geotag everywhere you go. Social science shows that traveling for the ‘gram is on the up and up, and that it’s changing how we “discover.” Consider Wyoming: Last year, the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board asked travelers to stop geotagging, saying the flood of visitors to little-known places meant that trails were being eroded. It also just means less engagement in the ways that actually count. “We want people to have a real connection to nature, not just a page with a pin on it,” Brian Modena, a tourism board member, told the New York Times.
J is for journaling
We’re not perfect, and it’s easy for travelers to want to splurge, to indulge, or to still visit Santorini, even as it struggles under the weight of overtourism. We get that. Bring a journal on your trip, both because it helps you remember things better, and because it helps hold you accountable to ways in which you could be more eco-friendly. (We’ve got a list of our top picks here, but journaling on a phone or tablet will save you paper.) Look back at your entry from the day before: What’s something you can do better today?
K is for keeping it local
Part of being responsible when you travel is making sure you’re not perpetuating any negative cycles. Eat in locally owned restaurants, and stay in locally owned lodges, hotels, and B&Bs. Buy locally made handicrafts and products that double as practical, everyday items, so you’re not stuck with a dust-inducing souvenir you never use. Never buy crafts or gifts made from protected or endangered animals.
L is for leaving no trace
Take a cue from leave-no-trace camping, where the goal is to have as little effect as possible on the destination: anything you carry into camp, you should carry out. Carry your own reusable bags, straws, utensils, and takeaway containers whenever you can, and you’ll be making a small but mighty change. “Although we all like to treat ourselves to bits and pieces before we travel, be aware that in many places recycling, or waste disposal full stop, is tricky. So leave packaging at home,” says Justin Francis, CEO of U.K.-based travel agency Responsible Travel.
M is for making sure you follow local recycling rules
Just because you’re away from home doesn’t mean you can—or should—skip on separating your plastics from your papers. Staying at a hotel? Ask about their recycling program. Talk to your Airbnb or vacation rental host, too, to see what local rules or best practices you need to follow.
N is for navigating responsibly
Remember those selfie-taking tourists who were wandering off of wooden walkways in Croatia’s Plitvice National Park and causing damage to the park’s waterfalls and forests? Or the woman who ignored signs to stay on trails and headed off to take a selfie with a crocodile in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park? If there’s a lesson here, it’s that selfies are so 2018, sure, but also that venturing off designated paths is dangerous for both you and the environment. There’s a reason trails exist where they do, after all.
O is for offsetting your impact
To find out how much carbon you “produce” on a trip, crunch the numbers and donate the monetary value to any number of organizations including Carbonfund.org and TerraPass. Some airlines even have a carbon offset option when booking your flight—any money donated will go toward reducing the emissions you’re adding somewhere else. Plus, if you use Goodshop coupons to purchase anything from luggage to currency, a portion of what you spend can be donated back to an environmentally focused organization, like the Natural Resources Defense Council or Conservation International.
P is for putting up a fuss
Got a favorite airline? Grand. Are you a status member with that airline? Even better. Research their policies and be vocal about changes you’d like to see, whether it’s ditching plastic on their flights or partnering with companies to offset their carbon. Same goes for hotels and tours of choice: by communicating with them that this is a priority for you, you’re helping hold them accountable to more environmentally friendly options. In your correspondence, don’t forget to mention other airlines or brands that are doing good things—nothing gets things moving like a little competition, after all.
Q is for quitting single-use plastics
Globally, almost 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually—half of which is single-use—and more than 8 million tons of that plastic are dumped into the ocean, according to the Plastic Oceans Foundation. Read up on countries and travel companies that have phased out single-use plastics, and think about how you can do so when you travel, by declining plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, plastic bags, and plastic cutlery.
R is for raising responsible travelers
Find opportunities to get younger members of your traveling pack involved where you can—perhaps it’s helping you sort recycling, or picking clothes they want to donate. Raising responsible travelers only helps the next generation, and the next—especially since they’ll have to live on this planet long after you’re gone.
S is for slapping on safe sunscreen
In July 2018, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been found to increase coral bleaching. Make sure you’re slathered up with the good stuff, no matter where you’re traveling: here’s a list of reef-safe sunscreens that we love.
T is for touring smartly
Choose companies that utilize the best environmental practices—even if it takes work, or added expense. “You’re paying for people who live and breathe this space and have thought about how they’re going to do it in a way that has the least amount of impact,” says Sano. Doing so can also strengthen local communities: “Many of the tour operators who are best in class make an effort to leave a fair chunk of the money that travelers pay in-country—upwards of 60 percent.” Utilize a trusted travel specialist to help you sort the details.
U is for using that same towel again (and again)
We know, we know—this is a hot topic (so hot we’ve debated it). But when it comes to what’s better for the environment, there’s no question that using the same hotel towel throughout your stay is the right choice: Laundry generally accounts for 16 percent of a hotel’s water bill, according to Circle of Blue, which reports on water issues around the world.
V is for vowing to protect the destination
In 2017, Palau made history when it began requiring tourists to sign a stamped pledge at immigration that reads, “I take this pledge as your guest, to protect and preserve your beautiful island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully.” Iceland, too, has an unofficial “oath” for tourists, as does New Zealand.
W is for welcoming the right kind of water bottles
We’ve already established that single-use plastics are terrible for the environment. If that doesn’t get you, consider that the average price of a water bottle at an airport is around $5—and that’s $5 you could have spent on Auntie Anne’s, we say. Here’s our list of the best water bottles to help you stay hydrated while traveling, from silicone glass-covered ones to insulated stainless steel tumblers.
X is for x-factoring
Francis of Responsible Travel says that the best thing you can do for a destination depends on, well, that destination. Research where you’re going, and see what part of your trip you can change to help—we’ll call this the X-factor. An example? “Using water sparingly in areas that experience droughts, or if you are going to see wildlife, then make sure this is done responsibly where the wildlife is put first, not the tourist,” he says.
Y is for yielding with a fuel-efficient car
Ok, ok. Say you skipped over “G” and have to have a car. So do Mother Earth a solid and reserve one of these fuel-efficient options, won’t you?
Z is for zooming out
When planning your next trip, look at the big picture, says Samantha Bray, Managing Director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). “One of the biggest misconceptions is that traveling responsibly somehow puts a damper on your trip or is difficult. I would argue that the opposite is true. Traveling responsibly doesn’t mean giving something up. It means appreciating the place you are visiting and acting in a way that ensures it is taken care of for the community that lives there and future generations.”