Sustainable Travel:

How to Minimize Your Carbon Footprint

Charles Noyes |  September 15. 2021 | 4 min read

Sustainable Travel: How to Minimize Your Carbon Footprint

Sustainable travel is a guideline for promoting and practicing tourism in a way that supports local businesses, economies, cultures, and the environment. A 2018 study found that tourism is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Half of this number comes from air travel alone. By prioritizing sustainable travel, we can minimize the impact of our travels and even make travel beneficial for the climate, for the environment and for local economies and communities.

After over a year of being stuck at home, many people are eager to make up for lost vacations, travels, and getaways. But with all those flights, hotels, busses, and daiquiris on the horizon comes the need to mitigate the environmental impact of tourism. That's where sustainable travel comes in!

Here are 9 ways you can reduce your carbon footprint through sustainable travel

Airplanes at airport

1. Consider Your Flight Options

When planning transportation for your trip, consider every available option. Is your destination close enough that you could drive there? How about taking a train or a bus? As you've probably guessed, avoiding air travel is key to sustainable travel.  Of course, for many destinations, flying is the only practical option. In these cases, the flight you select can have a huge impact on your carbon footprint. Planes give off most of their emissions during takeoff and landing, so be sure to select the most direct flight possible. And don't knock those economy tickets —  business class seats take up as much as 5X the space, thereby using 5X the emissions. While none of these are "perfect" solutions, they will help you balance travel with making a dent on your carbon footprint.

Sustainable hotel

2. choose Your Accommodations Wisely

When it comes to the environmental impact of traveling, resorts and hotel chains play an outsized role. And while many hotels and hotel chains have begun putting more effort into sustainability, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Hotels in the United States alone create 60 million tons of CO2, generate 1.9 billion lbs of waste and use 219 billion gallons of water every single year. When traveling, look for green-certified hotels and lodges whenever possible. And don't forget about locally owned accommodations, which have the added benefit of directly supporting local economies. It's a great time for the ecotourism and sustainable travel industries — and many destinations are stepping it up when it protecting the environment. Encourage this shift by doing your homework and supporting "green" hotels and resorts whenever possible.

Volunteer Tourism

3. Volunteer Tourism

 “Voluntourism”, or when travelers volunteer their time abroad to help a community or the environment, has its pros and cons. But when done ethically and responsibly, it can be a great way to travel sustainably. Done right, it can be hugely beneficial for both the destination community and for the travelers themselves. But how can you be sure the project you’re signing up for is going to actually make a positive impact? Research the project and the organization thoroughly beforehand, and make sure to sign up for work that's within your expertise and skill set to avoid doing more harm than good. When done correctly, voluntourism can be an opportunity to learn closely about global cultures and communities while simultaneously empowering them through helpful and necessary labor. With good intentions and diligent research, there’s no reason why voluntourism can’t be a great way to travel sustainably.

Eating at local market

4. Dine Locally

When traveling, it’s important to try the local foods. Not only will it help bring you out of your culinary comfort zone, it can be great for the local economy. And just as important as what you eat is where you eat for a sustainable diet. Local restaurants are the best option as this keeps your money within the community. Eating local cuisine also gives you a chance to experience authentic cultures through their food, one of the cornerstones of sustainable travel. If your stomach is brave, try the local street vendors and purchase groceries in the local markets. Or better yet, take a cooking class to expand your repertoire and have fun doing it! We travel to expand our comfort zones and our world views, so why not experience the world through your taste buds?

Friends talking

5. Be an Advocate

If you’re passionate about sustainable travel, it’s important to advocate for it whenever possible. If airlines, hotels, or popular destinations ask for customer feedback, let them know that sustainability is your biggest priority. Ask them before and during your stay what they’re doing to maximize their sustainability to ensure that they are actually committed to sustainable travel. Once you return home, share your experiences with friends and family. Recommend your favorite sustainable accommodations and destinations, inspire them to reconsider their own traveling carbon footprints and push them towards greater sustainability efforts. Sharing your experiences on social media and advocating for sustainable destinations is a great way to support the best and greenest places on Earth.

Donate to sustainable travel

6. Donate to Sustainable Travel

One of the best and most direct ways to support sustainable travel is through donations, but choosing the right way to donate your money can be difficult. There are so many options available, but choosing the right organization to support is key to making sure your money goes out to people and projects who need it. To this end, avoid curated or boutique experiences that pose as sustainable travel. Instead, look for organizations that make sustainable travel accessible to anyone, work directly with the local communities they claim to be helping, have a low overhead cost (most reputable nonprofits subscribe to the 80/20 rule, which means that 80% of funds raised go directly to the program and 20% go towards administrative and fundraising needs) and are transparent about their environmental and social impact. 


7. Go Green or Go Home

When you consider the millions of tourists that travel the globe each year, little decisions can add up to have a huge impact on the environment. When traveling, it’s important to continue following as many of the sustainable lifestyle tips we live by at home as we can. Things like turning the lights off, cycling instead of driving, taking short showers, recycling and avoiding single-use plastics are great places to start. Don’t overuse linens, as this is a huge source of wastewater, and try to avoid ordering room service in favor of pursuing local dining options. As with most things in life, it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference when it comes to sustainable travel. 

Van traveling off the beaten path

8. head Off the Beaten Path

There are endless cities and countries worth visiting in the world, yet certain cities dominate the most visited lists year in and year out. Cities like Bangkok, Barcelona, and Paris are so overcrowded with tourists that it can become impossible to differentiate tourist traps from authentic experiences. Instead, skip the beaten path and check out places like Ljubljana, Slovenia (recently voted the greenest city in the EU), Palau, (which requires visitors to make a sustainability pledge before entering the country), and Costa Rica, which is well regarded for its sustainable tourism. By choosing options that are less "popular", you can have a richer experience while also supporting smaller, more sustainable communities.

Tree planting

9. Plant Trees

No sustainable travel list would be complete without mentioning planting trees.  As they grow, trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, accounting for as much as 45% of all land carbon. And healthy forests provide habitat biodiversity, improve human and ecosystem health, and more. Volunteering to plant trees within your local community or abroad is a valuable service that benefits the environment, wildlife, and local communities. Don't have time to plant trees yourself? Not to worry: donating to reforestation charities like One Tree Planted can help reduce your travel impact and ensure that iconic travel destinations across the globe can continue to support sustainable tourism.

Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most
Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most

Plant Trees Where They're Needed Most

As the need for reforestation is global and ever-changing, we feature where trees are most needed now. For Treecember, we're planting trees that support a global forest fire recovery fund. Learn more

With your help, we will:

  • Reforest lands damaged by record-setting fires
  • Support healthy habitat for iconic biodiversity
  • Plant tree species that will help reduce future fire impact
  • This holiday season, we’re planting trees in areas around the world that have been severely affected by forest fires and aren't able to recover a healthy ecosystem on their own. The most common naturally-caused wildfires occur during droughts or dry weather, and under these circumstances, trees and other vegetation are converted to flammable fuel. Human-caused forest fires can be a result of various activities like unregulated slash and burn agriculture, equipment failure or engine sparks, and discarded cigarettes.

    After wildfires, reforestation is essential in areas where the fire intensity burned off available seed supply within the soil, and/or where there are not enough healthy trees still growing and producing new seeds nearby. Reforestation starts once professional assessments have been made to determine where human intervention would be the most ecologically beneficial. Help restore these vital ecosystems by planting a tree. 🌿
  • Every year, forest fires are increasing in size and severity, damaging vital ecosystems and creating a need for millions of trees. Some major consequences of forest fires include significant loss of wildlife, loss of vegetation, soil erosion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

    With so much fire damage, reforestation is essential to catalyze the environmental recovery process. The trees are carefully planted to prevent invasive species from colonizing burn scars and restore quality habitat for native biodiversity. One Tree Planted is connecting with on-the-ground partners to establish viable reforestation projects when the recently affected regions are ready for planting. This fund will contribute to planting projects in British Columbia, Idaho, Ghana, Portugal, and beyond. Let's get to work! 🌲
  • A personalized tree certificate (see gallery) to say thanks for your donation. We'll also send you updates about this project, so you can track the impact your trees are having on the community and environment.
  • To maximize the impact of your donation, our partners on the ground will determine the most appropriate species of tree and shrubs. We only plant native tree species that will restore the local ecosystem, re-establish wildlife habitat, and reduce the likelihood of future fires.

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