50 ways to travel more sustainably

It’s fair to assume that most travellers would prefer to travel responsibly rather than irresponsibly. And to travel responsibly, is to travel sustainably. But what does that even mean? Does it cost more? Does it suck out the fun of travelling?

It doesn’t have to. Sustainable travel is all about making small choices that help to lessen your negative impact on the communities and environments you visit. These choices only require minimal effort, but collectively, travellers making these conscious can have a huge impact. Here’s 50 choices worth making.

Visitors to Bhutan are constantly reminded to travel responsibly. Image by Sarah Reid
Visitors to Bhutan are constantly reminded to travel responsibly. Image by Sarah Reid ©

Before you go: booking

1. Before you book an organised trip, research your intended operator’s environmental and responsible tourism policies – support those who support responsible tourism.

2. Choose small group tour operators, which tend to have less of an environmental impact. Membership in an organisation like The International Ecotourism Society is a good sign that the tour operator tries to conduct itself in a responsible, sustainable manner.

3. If you’re traveling with family or friends and the destination is within driving distance, consider taking a road trip together. If you’re traveling by yourself, it’s usually more eco-friendly to fly.

4. If you decide to drive, consider booking a hybrid or electric vehicle, which use less fuel and produce fewer emissions than regular cars.

5. If you do fly, consider doing so with one of the 30+ International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines who offer carbon-offset programs to neutralise the aircraft’s carbon emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects.

6. Book non-stop flights whenever you can: take-offs and landings create most of an aeroplane’s carbon emissions.

7. When booking hotels, look for seals of approval from eco certification programs such as the US Green Building Council, EarthCheck (Australia), Green Globe, Rainforest Alliance (Latin America, Caribbean), and Green Tourism Business Scheme (UK).

8. Consider taking a give-back trip. From a full-on voluntourism holiday with a company like GVI to working with a company like Pack With a Purpose to help deliver supplies to communities that most need them, there are loads of different ways to give back to the places and people you visit. Thoroughly research operators to ensure you can make a tangible difference.

Before you go: packing

9. Pack light. Not only does this give you more freedom as a traveller, but the more you carry, the more fuel your bag requires to transport.

10. Pack a canvas carry bag that you can reuse instead of accepting plastic bags with every purchase you make on holiday.

11. Bring a BPA-free reusable drink bottle that you can refill rather than having to purchase plastic bottles. Australian ecoretailer Biome has some great options.

12. Pack biodegradable toiletries in reusable bottles instead of relying on hotel-supplied options. Look out for The Body Shop’s ‘rainforest’ haircare line. I’m also loving Byron Bay’s Eco Minerals.

13. Remove all packaging from new products purchased for your trip, which you may not be able to dispose of responsibly on the road.

On the road: accommodation

14. Don’t believe what it says on the tin when it comes to ‘eco’-branded accommodation. Ask the operator to spell out the joint’s actual eco-initiatives.

15. If you prefer to find accommodation on the fly, ask the manager about the hotel’s sustainability initiatives before handing over your money. Does it recycle? Does it employ local staff? Even just the availability of filtered water for guests to fill water bottles in a country that doesn’t have clean drinking water shows a commitment to operating sustainably.

16. Reduce energy consumption in your room buy unplugging your mobile phone charger and turning off the lights, the TV and the air-conditioning when you’re not using them.

17. Take shorter showers, turning the water off while you lather up, shave, and brush your teeth. The average medium to large hotel in Australia, for example, uses 79,000 litres per day (or 301 litres per room per day).

18. Avoid using a hotel laundry service, as they typically wash every guest’s clothes separately (even when there are only a few items).

19. Leave the ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door unless you desperately need your room serviced; this cuts down on chemical cleansing agents, electricity used in vacuuming, and water used washing bed linens.

20. If you do crack the hotel toiletries, take any leftovers with you. Unused portions are usually thrown away, and you can reuse the plastic bottles on future trips.

After decades of being fed by tourists, many of the macques in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, show aggressive behaviour. Image by Halans / flickr
After decades of being fed by tourists, many of the macques in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, show aggressive behaviour. Image by Halans / flickr

On the road: outdoor activities

21. Opt for reef-safe sunscreen if you’re planning to snorkel or scuba dive. Check the label to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren’t included.

22. When snorkelling or diving, don’t touch or step on the coral, or stir up sediment, as it can damage the reef’s fragile ecosystem. While you’re at it, don’t touch or chase marine life, which can stress them out and sometimes kill them.

23. Avoid tours that promise hands-on encounters with wild animals, such as riding elephants, walking with lions, and even cuddling koalas. This supports an industry that illegally captures, transports, and abuses millions of animals each year, or in the case of koalas, simply puts animals under unnecessary stress (koala cuddling is banned in all but three Australian states for this reason).

24. Say no to opportunities for selfies with exotic animals, for the same reasons as above.

25. Keep a respectful distance from wildlife, and never feed animals, for any reason. Feeding them makes them habituated to and reliant on humans, and can make the animals aggressive. This can lead to attacks, and subsequent death for the animal. #RIPHarambe

26. Leave no trace when visiting the natural environment, not to mention built environments that don’t have established waste management systems in place (70 per cent of waste generated in Bali, for example, is not collected by official services).

27. Don’t ignore other people’s trash either; pick up rubbish you encounter while hiking in the mountains or walking along the beach, which can be a hazard for wildlife.

28. Research weather conditions and terrain before setting out on a hike, or any kind of wilderness expedition. You don’t want to be that guy (or girl) who got lost and required the assistance of emergency services, which drains resources.

 I was grateful to be a in a group of six while exploring Canada's stunning Lake Moraine. Images by Sarah Reid.jpg
Canada’s Lake Moraine: great views and big bears. Images © Sarah Reid

29. Marked hiking trails are there for a reason. Stick to established paths to avoid harming native flora (and fauna you might not notice). It could also save your life – more than 20 people have died in Yellowstone National Park’s geysers and hot springs; the most recent fatality occurred this year.

30. Seek out day trip operators operating sustainably. Ask if they hire local guides. Does a portion of tour fees help support community initiatives? Do they take a leading role in preserving the area’s natural resources? Sustainable operators do the right thing by the local community and the environment.

31. Before buying a shiny new guidebook, maps or other travel gadgets, check whether there might be an app, a downloadable resource or second-hand gear readily available that can meet your needs instead. Opt for paperless tickets wherever possible.

32. Try to return maps, brochures, guidebooks and other tourist info once you’re finished with them, or pass them onto someone who might be able to use them.

It's much nicer to see a minke in the wild than on a plate. Image by Tony Morris / flickr
It’s much nicer to see a minke whale in the wild than on a plate. Image by Tony Morris / flickr

On the road: eating and drinking

33. Do not eat endangered species (such as turtle and blue fin tuna) or animal products that are associated with animal welfare issues (such as whale meat, shark-fin soup and foie gras). Choose sustainable seafood; Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide is a handy resource.

34. Eat locally farmed, in-season produce in destinations you visit wherever possible, just as you would at home. Imagine the carbon miles accrued by a hunk of New Zealand steak served in the Seychelles.

35. Don’t be afraid of offending staff by bringing your reusable water bottle to restaurants where tap water isn’t available. At the very least, purchase a larger bottle of water that can be shared between several people rather than ordering individual plastic bottles.

36. Share your tourist dollars around: ask locals where they eat and drink rather than sticking to the popular spots you’ve read about in the mainstream press.

37. Don’t hit the booze too hard, especially if you tend to get rowdy when you’re drunk. You behaviour can disrupt the local community, and put both you and them in danger.

38. Whether you eat them, drink them, smoke them or snort them, consuming illegal drugs can help to fund terrorism, child abuse, people trafficking and worse. Or see you wind up dead.

They might not be very comfy, but at least the Phjilippines' jeepneys look good. Image by dachalan
They’re not comfy, but at least the Philippines’ jeepneys look good. Image by dachalan / flickr

On the road: transport

39. Walk, cycle or use public transport to get around whenever possible, which cuts down on fuel usage and saves money.

40. Drive efficiently. Just having the correct tyre pressure can save 10 per cent on your fuel consumption. A well-serviced car can save you – and the environment – a lot more.

On the road: community interaction

41. Be considerate of the communities you visit, from dressing appropriately to observing local customs. Educate yourself about the place and its people so that you can speak and behave appropriately.

42. Ask for permission before taking a photo of someone. In some cultures, such as Australia’s Aboriginal community, taking a person’s picture is considered akin to stealing their soul.

43. Accept cultural differences, and keep you temper in check; in some cultures arguing can cause locals to ‘lose face’, which can have an adverse impact on your interaction.

44. Learn the language. You don’t have to do an intensive course, but you’ll be amazed how knowing simple phrases such as ‘thank you’ and ‘what’s your name?’ will impact on the way locals interact with you.

45. Do not give pens, sweets or other gifts to local children – it fosters a begging economy. If you wish to donate, contact a local school or organisation that can ensure appropriate gifts are distributed appropriately.

46. Do not visit orphanages, which child welfare experts claim does more harm than good. Spend a bit of time on the brilliant ChildSafe website if you have aspirations of volunteering with vulnerable children.

50 ways to travel more sustainably
These traditional textiles make the perfect souvenir from Timor-Leste. Image © Sarah Reid

On the road: shopping

47. Support the local economy buy purchasing locally made, sustainably-produced souvenirs.

48. Don’t buy anything made from endangered plants/animals, unsustainable hardwoods, or ancient artefacts. Not only is it unethical, but you probably won’t be able to get them through customs. Bringing seashells into Australia, for example, is banned.

49. Seek out indigenous artisans. When you buy directly from an artist, you’re not only helping them to feed their family; in many cases you’re also helping to preserve their culture.

50. Avoid aggressive bargaining – ask around about the market rate and pay fairly. Don’t overpay, either, which can see standard prices inflated unnecessarily.