02 Dec Sustainable travel tips: 21 ways to reduce your environmental footprint
Discover 21 sustainable travel tips that can help to reduce the amount of emissions and waste we produce when we’re away from home. From big changes to small steps, there’s plenty of things we can all do to help take a little more care of the world around us.
When I asked the Girl with a saddle bag facebook group if they’d like to read more about ways to reduce the environmental impact of travel, the answer was a unanimous ‘Yes’.
It’s something we’re all being more acutely aware of in our everyday lives and most of us agree that being more sustainable and reducing waste as well as carbon emissions can only be a good thing – even if it can be challenging.
Travel in particular can feel like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, travel opens our eyes to the majestic world around us, and can inspire us to take better care of it. It can introduce us to new ideas, encourage us to slow down and enjoy the great outdoors. But at the same time, the very nature of travel itself means we are often negatively impacting the environment by heading to new places, exploring and doing different things.
The honest truth is, that although I care deeply about the world around us, I’m not going to stop travelling. Which leaves me with question, how can I make better choices when I travel to reduce my impact?
So this post is dedicated to these changes. 21 sustainable travel tips we can all try. Some have a big impact, some a smaller one. But each is valuable, and makes a statement about the world we want to live in. To paraphrase Anne-Marie Bonneau, the zero-waste advocate “We don’t need a handful of people doing things perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.
A note on sustainable travel
Just a few caveats before we get going.
I’m aware that this is a huge topic and one that I’m never adequately going to be able to cover in one post. For this reason, I’ve decided to focus just to actions that reduce negative impacts on the environment. In particular, I’ll focus on reducing carbon and exhaust emissions, the impact of the food we eat and lowering the amount of waste we produce. I’ll save talking about the equally import subjects of the ethics of tourism and overtourism for another day.
In addition, I’ve tried to provide sources for as many of the stats as possible so that you can read more and see where the research has come from. Be curious and interrogate statistics you see quotes and check the academic sources to be sure that the numbers are up to date.
1. Don’t fly, try an alternative
Action: Choose to travel by road or rail instead
Benefits: This is the single biggest way to cut the environmental impact of your travel. It’s also great fun, offers a different perspective and can be faster overall as well as budget-friendly
There’s no hiding from the fact that air travel produces significantly more carbon emissions than any other mode of transport. Surprisingly, travelling by car (especially if there are multiple passengers, and the vehicle itself is modest in size) produces considerably fewer emissions over the same distance. But better still, consider train travel and long-distance bus routes more environmentally-friendly and engaging ways to travel.
Public transport can take longer. But once you’ve added up the hours waiting for flights, waiting for transfers, getting to the airport early – you might actually get there sooner. Not to mention, making the journey part of the adventure is a fantastic way to experience new places and take it all in. Overland travel allows you to soak up changing landscapes and architecture in a way that air travel never does. If your journey is longer, why not plan an overnight stop and discover somewhere new en-route? We loved exploring the pretty French town of Troyes on our way to the Alps two years ago, an opportunity we’d never have had if we’d flown.
If you want to find out more about the relative impact of different modes of transport, take a look at this article from the BBC: Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? There are references to the articles sources should you wish to read further.
2. If you do fly, reduce your impact where possible
Action: Choose destinations closer to home, book direct flights and consider your choice of airline
Benefits: Reduce the emissions associated with your flight
Whilst choosing not to fly might be best, it’s worth recognising that there are ways to reduce the impact of flying. Flying direct to your destination (rather than taking a stopover) will reduce the carbon emissions associated with your trip. Before you book, take the time to research the airlines you choose to fly. Not all are equal.
Surprisingly, some of Europe’s budget airlines have better environmental credentials than flag carriers. They fly more modern, fuel-efficient, aircraft fleets and run leaner businesses that aim to sell out all seats and minimise the need to move empty aircraft around. As passengers have to pay to check-in luggage, this keeps baggage loads comparatively low – meaning less fuel is required. All together, these initiatives help to reduce the impact associated with each passenger.
If you want to find out more about reducing the impact that you have when flying, take a look at this video from the BBC. It shares some helpful tips and goes into this subject in more detail.
3. Take public transport to the airport or station
Action: Take a bus, coach or train to the airport or your international station
Benefits: Lower your emissions and make your journey smoother
It’s worth thinking about your journey door to door.
Choosing an airport close to home and/or your destination shortens the journey time either side of your flight. It also makes it easier to get there by public transport – minimising the need to drive or hire a car. If you’re heading a little further before you embark on the main part of your journey, consider booking a bus or minibus service for the transfer. Not only is it more sustainable, it helps to save time and money you’d otherwise spend on parking (plus no frantic search for your parking ticket on arrival!).
4. Minimise fuel consumption if driving
Action: Keep checks on car maintenance and have a clear out
Benefits: Reduce carbon and exhaust emissions, lower your fuel costs
If you choose to drive, there’s a few easy steps you can take to ensure you’re using no more fuel than you need to. Firstly, give your car a good clear out so you’re not carrying any more weight than your luggage. Next, check your tyre pressures and top then up with air if needed. Lastly, make sure your engine is running as smoothly as possible. Get your car serviced if it’s due, get any niggles checked out and top up oil and fluids as needed. Good for your pocket, and good for the planet.
Bear in mind, too, that roof boxes, bike racks and trailers add to the fuel consumption of your vehicle. If you can get your luggage inside, you’ll save on petrol costs by making your vehicle more efficient.
5. Investigate carbon offsetting
Action: Choose to carbon offset your travels with a scheme you feel comfortable with
Benefits: Support schemes that have a net positive impact on environment
Carbon offsetting schemes are becoming more and more mainstream. Whilst there’s no catch-all definition, they’re essentially schemes that allow you to contribute to environmentally-positive programmes, such as tree-planting, to balance the impact of your travel. It’s a nice idea whether you’re flying or not, although of course, it’s not a substitute for reducing your emissions in the first place.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s no international accreditation for carbon offsetting schemes, so it’s worth doing your own research to determine what feels right for you.
The Guardian’s guide to Offsetting carbon emissions is well worth a read. As well as an in-depth dive into the challenges of carbon offsetting, it also explores some viable options.
6. Walk whenever possible
Action: Explore your destination on foot
Benefits: No environmental impact, enjoy getting to know your destination better
Once you’ve arrived, explore on two feet. Not only is this good for the environment, its a great way to know a new location. It’s fun, free and my favourite way to soak up local landscapes, streets and culture. Yes, it may take a little more time – and time is precious. But take things a little slower, and you’ll enjoy your adventures all the more.
7. When you want to go further afield, hire bikes
Action: Opt for cycle hire as an alternative to public transport
Benefits: Zero carbon emissions and great fun!
I’m a self-confessed cycle lover. But don’t let this put you off, you don’t need to be die-hard cycle commuter to get out on two wheels. Whilst walking is a great way to get to know a city centre, you won’t want to limit yourself to locations you can comfortably stroll to. Hire bikes and you’ll have the freedom to explore city suburbs, head out to local nearby towns or discover landmarks on the city limits.
Want some inspiration? Find out more about our cycle adventure from Amsterdam to the Dutch tulip-growing countryside in Blooming brilliant: Exploring tulip fields by bike from Amsterdam.
8. For transfers and day trips – try trams, trains and buses
Action: Take public transport in place of taxis or hire cars
Benefits: Create fewer carbon and exhaust emissions
In short, choose public transport over taxi rides. Uber might make it easy to pick up a ride in a new destination, individual cars on the road rack up more emissions than trams, trains and buses. Thanks to the internet it’s even easier to check timetables (and translate if necessary) before you arrive. This way you can find the fastest, most convenient and most cost-effective route.
When it comes to airport transfers, it’s fair to note that public transport options aren’t always convenient – especially if you’re travelling to a smaller or more rural destination. Look out for private minibus transfers instead. You’ll share with other passengers heading the same way. Not only is it cheaper, sharing with others again helps to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
You might be surprised at how easy it is to travel by public transport rather than hire a car at your destination. We toyed with the idea of hiring a car for our two week trip to Slovenia last year but chose to make use of the country’s fantastic bus network instead. Not only did it save us a fortune, but it also helped us to skip the congestion and car park queues you’ll inevitably find in mid-summer.
9. Look for accommodation with eco credentials
Action: Choose a hotel, hostel or apartment that’s taking steps to reduce it’s impact
More and more hotels, hostels and other types of holiday accommodation are advertising that they are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. From global hotel chains reducing single-use plastic to independent boutique properties going above and beyond to offer net-neutral accommodation, there’s a huge breadth of activity going on.
A hotel’s website is a good place to start understanding their overall impact. Any place worth their salt will want to share the steps they’re taking to provide a greener experience – but be wary of greenwashing. Plenty of houseplants and ‘green’ interior decoration scheme is not the same as taking tangible steps to look out for our environment.
Instead look out for hotels that are will to talk about their energy use and waste policies, food sourcing and construction techniques. Eco-certification labels can also be a helpful tool, although there are many to choose from with different criteria. The EU Ecolabel badge offers some of the most rigorous certification and is well-worth checking out. You can read their certification criteria here (admittedly not the easiest read) and search for accommodation with the badge here.
10. Choose an EcoLabel or eco-friendly campsite
Action: Opt for a campsite taking sustainability seriously
Benefits: Support responsible businesses, be reassured that energy use is considered, contribute less waste
Camping can be a fantastic way to escape to the countryside and enjoy a low-impact adventure. Simple, rustic sites are a great choice with a visibly lower impact than large one with static accommodation and heavy landscaping.
Again, an easy way to spot sustainable options is to look for the EU EcoLabel for campsites. The comprehensive certification scheme assesses sites based on their energy and water consumption, dedication to reducing waste, commitment to using renewable and non-hazardous products and efforts towards educating visitors about the environment.
That said, it’s not the only eco-certification scheme for campsites – and besides, you’ll find many smaller sites doing a great job but not necessarily shouting about it. Check out the sustainability credentials that the site shares, or look for more local green schemes like The Greener Camping Club based in Wales.
11. Opt out of hotel freebies and services
Action: Avoid using or taking single use and highly-packaged freebies
Benefits: Reduces plastic packaging waste, saves energy that would be used for cleaning and washing that isn’t needed
Whilst there are more and more hotels trying to reduce their impact, you can make a difference wherever you stay.
Say no thank you to free toiletries, packaged snacks and drinks if you don’t need them. Hang a ‘do not disturb tag’ on your door or request no room cleaning service during short stays – this helps to reduce the use of cleaning products and unnecessary laundry. Opt out of daily towel changes by following guidelines for indicating whether you need fresh ones. It all helps to set a new normal, and lets hotels know that sustainability is important to their guests.
12. Choose to reuse
Action: Make great use of reusables, like water bottles and coffee cups
Benefits: Cuts down difficult-to-recycle waste, get discounts on your coffee and save money by not paying for bottled water
Disposable products can help us to pack lighter and can also seem unavoidable in some places – like airports and street markets. But choose to re-use instead!
Opt to bring a reusable coffee cup, a water bottle and shopping bag and surprise yourself at how much waste can be avoided. Not only are these options better for the environment, the savings quickly stack up. More and more airports are now equipped with water fountains, plus many places will offer a discount on drinks served in your own cup.
This article from National Geographic shares some insightful stats on plastic water bottle usage, that I hope will pursuade you to bring your own.
13. Shrink and solidify your toiletries
Action: Choose solid soaps, shampoos and more in place of liquids
Benefits: Reduces plastic packaging and waste, makes it easier to travel with just hand luggage, avoids untimely explosions in your washbag
Yes, that does sound a little odd. But unless you’re travelling for months at a time, you don’t need a huge washbag. And there’s no need to compromise. Invest in miniature bottles for liquids (or better still recycle freebies you have lurking around). You might be surprised how long a small bottle of shampoo lasts.
And consider solid options too – there’s a huge range of companies offering solid shampoos, soaps and more. I’m a recent convert to Lush in the UK. Bars like this won’t need to go in your liquids bag at the airport and are lighter than traditional equivalents.
14. Recycle like a local
Action: Recycle whenever you’re away from home
Benefits: Reduces waste to landfill, helps to return valuable materials to the circular economy
Recycle, recycle, recycle. It might even be easier than at home. Look out for recycling facilities and check out the local rules for use (they may require you to sort your waste in a different way to what you’re used to). Ask your host or at reception if you’re not introduced to a recycling option.
15. Travel light
Action: Only pack what you need
Benefits: Helps to keep emissions from transportation low, makes it easy to get around at your destination
Whether you’re travelling by road or by air, the less weight that’s carried, the less fuel that’s needed. So opt to go hand luggage only if you can. Creating a packing list, planning outfits in advance and being prepared to wash the odd item whilst you’re away are all helpful strategies for carrying less by having just as much fun.
16. Hire sports kit rather than bringing your own
Action: Avoid transporting kit when you can hire on arrival
Benefits: Reduces the emissions from transporting your kit, reduces the need to buy new items, saves a lot of pennies
If you want to reduce the weight of your luggage and avoid keeping rarely used kit in the cupboard, consider hiring sports kit at your destination. It’s pretty mainstream for skiers and snowboarders, but there are loads more options out there. Look for cycle hire shops that rent out pro-standard bikes and helmets, watersports kit hire and even golf club hire.
17. Better still, borrow
Action: Rather than buy anything you’ll need when you’re away new, borrow from friends or when you’re there
Benefits: Reduces the emissions from transporting your kit, reduces the need to buy new items, saves a lot of pennies
Before you travel, check what you can borrow at your destination. Borrowing umbrellas or even phone chargers can help to keep your luggage light and easy to pack. It’s also hugely helpful if you’re travelling with kids as travel cots, changing mats and pushchairs can take up a lot of room.
Even if you can’t borrow at your destination, borrow from friends and family before you go – rather than buying new. Planning your first ski holiday or camping trip? Borrow kit from friends who are enthusiasts. Unless you’re certain you’re going to make good use of something year after year, sharing is a better option.
Eating and drinking more sustainably
Eating and drinking. Two of my favourite activities when I’m away. Choosing wisely can be fun, fresh and impactful.
18. Eat fresh and local
Action: Explore the local cuisine in place of global goodies
Benefits: Reduce food miles – the energy used transport food to your location, have fun trying new dishes
Go local! Try local dishes and produce over imported and unseasonal foods. I love buying fresh local produce on European markets and sampling the best local cuisine we can find. Eating local helps to reduce food miles – in short, it reduces the amount of energy and resources used to transport the food to where you are. Markets are a great source of inspiration in terms of understanding what is in season and popular locally – and then look for these ingredients when checking out menus.
19. Be waste aware at street food markets
Action: Avoid disposable cups, plates and packaging where possible
Benefits: Reduce your waste, enjoy your food just as much
I love street food markets. But on our recent trip to the Netherlands, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was to notch up a lot of waste over a few plates of food. Thankfully, it’s pretty simple to start reducing your impact here. Take your own cup, politely decline items like napkins and packaging you don’t need and make sure compostable containers and leftovers go into compost rather than regular waste bins if available. Opt for beverages in glass bottles or aluminium cans if you’ve not got a reusable with you, and recycle them when done.
20. Choose to go meat-free some of the time
Action: Opt for vegetarian and vegan options
Benefits: Reduce the environmental impact of the food you’re eating, discover delicious local dishes
Rearing animals for meat and dairy has a significantly larger impact on the environment than raising crops. I’m not suggesting that you become vegetarian or vegan when away from home, but choosing plant-based meals and snacks will help to reduce your environmental impact. It’s often tempting to indulge when you’re away, making it easy to eat more meat and dairy than you would usually do. Opting for veggie meals just some of the time still makes a difference and is a great way to explore foods you might not otherwise have tried.
21. Drink in, and enjoy
Action: Drink in rather than take-away
Benefits: Save on disposable cups to reduce waste, enjoy your time more
Rather than grabbing a coffee to go, take time to linger over a latte on a cafe terrace or a cold beer at the local bar. Not only does this help to reduce your use of disposables, it’s so much more enjoyable. Soak up a little local culture, watch the world go by and take your time – it’s what holidays are for.
What changes am I making?
You might wonder what I’m doing to help reduce the impact of my travel on the environment.
I’d like to think we’re pretty good at taking things slowly when we arrive in a destination. We like exploring on foot and by bike, and take public transport over driving. Eating and drinking local is one of our favourite ways to get to know somewhere new, and I’m also a very lightweight packer. I rarely travel with checked-in luggage and often hire sports kit when I’m away rather than taking my own.
But I’m very conscious that I take several flights a year, and that this has a significant impact. I’d like to explore more options for getting away without racking up the air miles – so watch this space. There are lots of places close to home that we are yet to explore, and others we’d like to return to. Plus I’d like to spend a little more time considering options where driving could be as fast and more efficient than flying. Whatever I get up to, I’ll share with you here.
If you have any suggestions of your own, or know of any great resources for more inspiration and education, please share! Drop me a line in the comments below, or join the discussion on my facebook page.