5 Tips for Choosing Sustainable Travel

If there is one thing a global pandemic will do, it is to provide each of us the time to reevaluate those things we hold dear. Spending time with loved ones, our longing for travel and connectedness to people and culture, what we label as important, and what we do not. Along the way, we have been dreaming about what future travel may look like, and certainly we are rethinking how we are going to travel. 

The world has never seemed smaller, and it has heightened our awareness of taking care of each other and our planet. We have a responsibility to make our world a better place after the shutdown, and each of us can do our part by choosing more sustainable travel options. Here are five tips to help you do just that. 

1. Transportation 

During a recent TravMedia webinar panel discussion where travel industry professionals projected what the future of travel post Covid-19 might look like, AAAMagazine Travel Editor Elizabeth Harryman surmised that most of us will opt for road trips to nearby destinations before we begin to board airplanes again. Keeping sustainability in mind, this is the best case scenario. Not only will this be good for us, but it will be better for the planet. 

Traveling by land allows us the opportunity to enjoy the scenic route, while also reducing our carbon emissions relative to airline travel. Flying has the largest impact on your carbon footprint, so if you do travel by air opt for a direct flight whenever possible. 

Interesting fact: take-off and landing produces the most carbon emissions during air travel. 

2. Choosing Your Accommodations

We’ve all seen the glossy cards in our hotel rooms stating where to put our towels if we want to reuse them, or how to let the cleaning staff know if you desire clean bed sheets, but true sustainability efforts go far beyond less laundry. So how do you know if a hotel is truly putting effort toward this critical mission? 

In the U.S., the most common and easily recognizable standard is to obtain a LEED certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, ranks hotels in three categories: silver, gold, and platinum. Rating determinations are based on water savings, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and more. LEED certifications are expensive to obtain, and many smaller destinations cannot afford to boast this prestigious award.

To dive deeper into sustainable accommodation, consider staying at an eco-lodge or an eco-resort. These lodges tend to be located in more natural and pristine environments such as forests, mountains, and remote beaches. The one thing these eco-accommodations all have in common is their dedication to environmental responsibility. Many boast fresh locally sourced food, eco-friendly toiletries, organic sheets, and even use non-toxic cleaning supplies. Also common is hiring local workers to boost the overall economic impact, as opposed to hiring lower waged employees from other countries. 

3. Finding a Sustainable Travel Destination 

Initiatives such as partnering with local wildlife refuges, educating visitors about the region’s flora, and on-foot group tours are just a few of the ways eco-destinations are further embracing the green travel trend. 

A lack of a universal definition makes it difficult for responsible travelers to differentiate the eco-friendly destinations from others. Several reputable non-profit groups have taken the initiative to rate eco-friendly lodges, resorts, services, and products in an effort to make finding the best easier. It is important to note the labeling differences. 

Services and products can carry the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) seal of approval. GEN is a group comprised of over 25 third party organizations across the globe, and their mission is to provide clarity for consumers and provide authenticity in the marketplace based on overall environmental preference. With a wide range of unproven buzzwords such as eco-friendly, green, natural, low-energy, and the like, growing mistrust and skepticism has branded these generic labels as “greenwash.” 

Green Key Global is designed solely for the lodging industry and has certified over 1600 eco-hotels and lodges in 20 countries worldwide. By partnering with recognizable travel services such as Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, and check-in Canada, Green Key Global’s mission is two-fold: helping destinations lower their overall carbon footprint and advertise their initiatives to potential green-seeking travelers. 

In the last decade, online travel service groups are scrambling to meet the growing demand for more sustainable travel hotel and destination information. Leading the way is the online booking service called ECOtripper. According to their website, at ECOtripper “we have pinpointed the green hotels that are pioneering green travel practices.” What makes them stand out from the crowd is that ECOtripper donates 10% of its proceeds to the charitable green organizations with which they partner. 

4. Sustainable Tour Groups: How to Spot the Good Ones

Similar to the lack of a global definition for a sustainable destination, sustainable tour group is also a fairly nebulous term. The most common pledge is a donation of a percentage of their revenue to local green initiatives. As with much else in the green travel industry, exactly what that percentage is varies widely. You will find some groups donating only 1%, while others promise 10%. 

More important than the total monetary donation is how these tour groups benefit their local areas. For example, in Latin America several tour groups are specializing in community based eco-tourism (CBET). Typically these tour groups are comprised of local farmers and villagers who arrange cultural tours, local cooking lessons, visits to museums, and other area attractions. The locals provide travelers a genuine, rich experience. Since they know the local culture and traditions, travelers get a more realistic experience of the destination. 

CBET benefits the local communities both economically and environmentally: travelers provide an additional source of revenue by purchasing fair trade products and reduce their carbon footprint by utilizing sustainable accommodations.

5. Doing Your Part: How to Become a Sustainability-Focused Traveler

Each action we take can lead us toward becoming a more sustainability-focused traveler, and it is actually easier than you might imagine. Staying near the city center at your destination allows you to travel by foot more often while sightseeing. Using the public transportation, trolley, or local pedicab reduces your carbon footprint compared to renting a car or taking a taxi. 

Staying local, shopping local, and eating local all reduce your overall carbon footprint. When you visit more remote, eco-friendly destinations, supply chain items are most often locally sourced. Look for farm-to-table initiatives, street art vendors, and village markets to find items that haven’t traveled far. 

Reusing is probably the biggest small action you can take while traveling. Packing a refillable water bottle, reusable utensils, metal drinking straws, and even using cloth shopping bags will help keep tons of plastic from eventually entering our waterways. Many companies have created easily packable eco-friendly travel kits that include bottles, food containers, reusable straws, cutlery sets, and travel mugs that are designed to be lightweight for easy packing.

Whether you plan to visit local attractions in your own hometown, road trip to a domestic location further from home, or jump on an airplane for a vacation abroad, how we travel will forever be changed by this global pandemic. Sustainable tourism is about refocusing and adapting to the changing global climate. Small steps might seem insignificant on a personal level but added together the planet benefits in massive ways. If each of us does our part by being a responsible traveler, then together we will blaze a new path toward a more bountiful and connected world.