We all hear about luxury eco-tours, eco-resorts and eco-travel accessories. Sustainable travel is all the rage, which is a great thing! Unfortunately, with the popularity, greenwashing - misleading claims about a companies positive environmental benefits or practices, has come with it. In addition, many of the 'good companies', although they care deeply about the environment and so do their customers, have high prices that most cannot afford (including me). The World Wildlife Fund has week long tours that are approximately $1000.00 a day to see polar bears in the wild! Yikes! I understand that sustainable practices, technology and supporting locals is more costly and if I had the money I would definitely use these businesses. However, there are many budget friendly ways to travel sustainably. We've condensed our knowledge into 23 tips on how to be a more responsible traveler:
1. Invest in reusable everyday items
We try not to buy anything specific for travel unless absolutely necessary. I'm a big fan of "use what you have" and believe that some companies in the zero waste/eco trend are simply trying to convince you to buy more products. Same goes for travel accessories. Of course, we have a travel adapter and suitcase but otherwise most things we bring on our trip are things we use everyday. Products that save money and stop waste being added to the landfill have the same impact whilst traveling. So pack that lunchbox on your next vacation! Things like reusable water bottles or shopping bags are cheaper and better for the environment in the long run if used on a regular basis. Forgot your reusable bag? As the article above suggests, reusing plastic bags before recycling helps offset their environmental impact. They can be used again as a garbage bag, a shoe bag or for your dirty laundry.
You don't need to buy any of the long term items brand new either. Thrift stores always have a selection of reusable water bottles and with a little determination you can find luggage or backpacks for a great deal. It reduces landfill waste, the environmental costs of new production and saves the economic problems of unpurchased items being shipped to developing countries.
2. Don't waste money on travel-sized
We heard online that travel-sized toiletries are often more expensive than the regular-sized bottles. We quickly retested this when we went to Shopper's Drug Mart and found the travel-sized Colgate toothpaste was over three times more expensive than the regular size (see photos below). We use left over everyday containers for our travel gear, old make up jars or face wash bottles are particularly useful because of their small size. Failing that, we get travel-sized reusable liquid and soap containers at dollar stores or thrift stores that can be used for years. Plus, we get to bring the products we already own and love. We also try to use our travel-size bottles even when we aren't traveling. For example, I carry a small homemade travel lotion in my purse instead of buying mini's.
Expanding the active life span of items and not buying new ones is key to product-related sustainability. We used to buy the travel-sized and keep leftovers for the next time we traveled. You can no doubt guess what ended up happening! They'd sit in the cupboard until we forgot about them or they went bad. Not exactly very sustainable or budget friendly.
We also try to purchase locally made products to discourage transport emissions and tourism leakage (where tourists money is spent in the destination country but at an international company, so the money 'leaks' out of the country).
4. Read the labels
This doesn't just apply to beauty products but pretty much everything you buy. With a little time and effort you'll save money and help the environment. You can find better quality and longer lasting clothing by looking at labels, see our clothing guide for tips on how to pick your travel wardrobe.
Another example is "reef safe" sunscreen which has made the news a lot in the past year thanks to a law passed in Hawaii banning sunscreens that contains oxybenzone, a chemical known to cause damage to coral reefs. But as this Consumer Report's article explains, there are a number of other sunscreen ingredients that cause damage to water systems. As with everything, there are positives and negatives to each choice. When it comes to sustainability, it is even harder to define what is better or worse when we can't see it's full life cycle, including it's production, emissions and other environmental impacts. It's complicated and very difficult to research everything! But doing something is better than nothing. Sunscreen can protect you from skin cancer and many people are not willing to give it up. We use Badger's Active Unscented Cream as suggested by Consumer Report's or wear long sleeves and hats to avoid sunburns. If you are going to a rural area without plumbing or running water, consider using biodegradable soaps and shampoos (sparingly) like Dr. Bonner's Pure Castile Oil Soap. Or if you want to have zero impact? Leave the soap at home!
5. Don't buy new clothes for your trip
I've been guilty of this one. You convince yourself that you need a new dress for that trip somewhere warm. Think of the cute insta photos and how good you'll feel. Travel can be the perfect excuse to buy things you've been eyeing for a while. But what happens when you get back home? Will you still put in the effort to wear it and does it fit the climate you live in? We've got a guide to help you choose your travel wardrobe. If you have time before your trip, go through all of your clothes. I guarantee most people have clothes that are suited for their holiday. You might even find something you forgot about! WRAP in the UK found that extending the active life of clothing by just 9 months can significantly reduce its environmental impact. If you are going somewhere completely different and don't have the clothes, try a thrift store! We did this for skiing; we didn't have ski jackets or snow pants and ended up finding everything at second-hand shops. It was a fraction of the price and we got to extend the active life of these pieces.
6. Embrace the "hand luggage only" lifestyle
One of our favourite things is traveling with hand luggage only. There's less stress about lost or damaged luggage, we are organized and we don't need to worry about getting a cab to our accommodation. If we arrive in the morning, we don't need to find a locker or stress where we'll put our luggage until we check in to our accommodation. Plus, we save money on checked baggage fees. We love becoming backpackers; it's the same two backpacks we use for hiking and work. On the environmental side, there is no added handling or weight to the plane, no extra transportation being used and most importantly, the less resources we use in the form of clothes, products and general "stuff" the less impact we have on the environment. A Delta airlines rep stated that if every passenger packed 2 pounds lighter it would be the equivalent to 10,500 cars being taken off the road for an entire year!
If you need to fly, here's something budget travelers can feel good about! First or business class flyers produce on average three times the emissions as economy class travelers. According to a World Bank study, most of this has to do with the added space a first class seat takes up. So save money and the environment with your "eco"-seat.
8. Book your trip using a carbon offset site
Carbon offsets are a form of trade, where you can pay to offset unavoidable emissions. Companies use this money to invest in environmentally-friendly projects such as green energy, like solar panel farms, or to restore natural areas. Carbon offsets are mandatory in many countries in the development sector due to emission caps and in recent years have become available on a smaller as well as public level. So do they really work? Yes, according to an article published in Scientific American which nicely summarizes a study done in California, carbon offset programs really do reduce emissions.
So how can you do it? We are new to the public carbon offset program but have recently spoken to FlyGreen about how they offset flights for free. All you have to do is book through their website and they'll use part of the commission from airlines to plant trees or invest in solar energy. If you've read any of our posts, you know we love the flight comparison website Skyscanner because it consistently has great prices. We decided to put FlyGreen to the test to see if it was just as budget friendly. And in many instances it really is! I did a quick search to the same destination (Krakow, Poland) on the same dates within 2 minutes and FlyGreen had the better price! I even clicked on them both to make sure the price was up-to-date. A few other quick searches told me they often use Go to Gate as a resource, which we have used before and is a reliable flight booking site.
9. Avoid pricey airport food and drinks
If you've ever been on a flight, chances are you've seen the attendants come by with a garbage bag. Most airlines do not sort recycling and that extremely overpriced water bottle you bought at the airport will be thrown straight in the trash. It's much cheaper to bring your own reusable bottle and fill it up when you are past security. In recent years, I've seen many airports install water bottle filling stations. Forgot your bottle? You can always carry the trash off the plane with you and recycle it inside the airport. As for food, we all know airport food is extremely expensive (and usually not very good). You can bring most things from home but it is a good idea to check what food items are allowed past security and onto an airplane. Most importantly, always finish your food before you reach your destination or you could be slapped with a heavy illegal import fine. For long haul flights where food is included it's a little trickier. Airlines need to use individual wrapping to prevent contamination. To save your meal being prepared and loaded onto the plane, you'll have to call the airline beforehand and tell them you don't want it. We have not tried this yet but we've often asked for seconds. If it's going to be thrown out anyway, why not reduce waste!
10. Make money or volunteer on your road trip
Planning a road trip and got some empty space in your vehicle? Why not make some money or volunteer and help the environment. There are a number of ride share or car pooling app's like Trees for Cars, which aim to unite passengers and drivers in the hopes of reducing C02 emissions. This is not to be confused with car for hire services like Uber or traditional taxis, which have the same environmental impact as driving your own vehicle. GAFFL is another service for people looking for others to join them on their travels. It's a great way to make new friends and minimize the number of vehicles on the road. Businesses or individuals will also pay to have goods transported with organizations like Roadie. Additionally, there are volunteer driver's needed to transport animals and other goods for charities. For example, Freedom Driver's organizes volunteer transport for rescue animals across Ontario and Quebec. If the journey is going to be made irrespective, try to make the most of it and save a taxi being ordered or extra shipments being made.
11. Skip the cruise ship holiday
A paper published in 2014 on the environmental impacts of cruise ships found a large number of environmental problems associated with this type of tourism. A study that found although cruise ships make up only about 2% of the global shipping sector, they contributed 24% of the waste for the industry. One of the main components of this is the "grey water", untreated waste from sinks and showers that has not come into contact with toilet water, that is released. A paper produced by the WWF outlines the environmental consequences of cruise ships discharging this waste into Arctic Waters. Cruise ship waste disposal and pollutants can cause eutrophication, hypoxia and bioaccumalation of minerals, amongst other environmental hazards. Not only are cruises extremely expensive, the excursion prices are astronomical (up to $700 per person). This combined with the environmental impact makes cruises the least sustainable and least budget-friendly choice for travelers.
12. Use public transportation
You're planning your holiday, you've booked the main transport and accommodation, now it's time to consider how to get from A to B in the city. Always consider using public transportation first. It's far cheaper than a cab and you don't have to worry about getting overcharged. There are often trains or buses from the airport to the city center and day or weekly passes available for a deal. Same goes for visiting attractions or neighbouring towns. Public transportation takes cars off the road, which in turn reduces emissions and improves air quality. Public transportation is a win win for the budget and sustainability minded traveler.
13. Be a slow traveler
Slow travel is characterized as spending more time in fewer destinations. It focuses heavily on becoming a part of local life and exploring more than just the major attractions. We have done a lot of fast travel, especially because flights are so cheap in Europe, where we would hit one city for 2-3 days and then fly on to the next destination. However, staying in one area for a week or more has really opened our eyes. You get a lot more from the experience when you interact with locals and in turn you'll learn whats worth seeing as well as how to bypass overpriced tourist traps. Long haul flights are expensive, time consuming and one of the worst polluters. If you can get time off for a longer trip, it will feel more worthwhile and you'll see more places (even if they are closer together). Plus, many accommodations will offer deals to those staying a week or more. Same goes for money-saving public transportation passes. If you want to save even more, we've found countless hidden gems by walking. We made a rule that anything under 30 minutes (from one attraction to the next) we would walk. Which brings me to my next point...
14. Do a walk or bike tour
Sustainable travel is sort of an oxymoron. Travel uses resources from jet fuel all of the way down to the manufacturing process of your bicycle. We will never be able to make travel and tourism totally sustainable but we can make it better. This article shows how walking and cycling are the top two modes of sustainable transportation. Whether it's just for the day or a multi-week trip, walk and bike tours are a great way to travel. You'll save money on transportation, it's great exercise and better for the environment. Last summer, we walked from Viking Bay beach to Botany Bay in southeast England at low tide. It was only a day trip but I loved it and we got to explore more of the local area. My friend Amy, founder of AimOutside, has cycled across Canada and New Zealand as well as walked the Camino trail in Spain. Check out her website to see the how to and rewards of this kind of travel!
For shorter cycling excursions, a great example near my hometown, in Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario, are the extremely popular winery bike tours. Another idea we hear a lot about from other travelers are British walking pub tours. This is where you walk as a part of a group and stay as well as eat at local pubs. We've heard it's a fantastic way to see the culture, countryside and make friends. If it's anything like the beach walk we took in Kent, it's well worth doing!
15. Visit places close to home
I've traveled to a lot of local attractions in the last few years because Nick and I are an international couple. Things and places I've never considered are exciting and new to him. Same goes for when we are in England. We've both realized that there are really interesting places right on our door step. Sure, I'd been to the local attractions as a child but you'd be surprised how different the experience is as an adult. Try looking at the tourism website for your state, province or county. The best part is, because you live near by you can bypass the peak seasons and save money. You can also ask people you know whats worth seeing and what to skip. Many times in the past few years we have searched 'Things to do in [local area]' and found great places to see that we had no idea even existed. A good example of this would be finding out about The Oare Marshes near Nick's hometown, where we enjoyed a walk along the coast and spotted many rare bird species.
16. Consider staying at a locally owned hotel, hostel, B&B or private room Airbnb
It's no secret that hotel chains waste a lot. Many hotels have reduced their everyday towel washing in recent years (YAY!) but according to a report published by UK charity Tourism Concern, tourists at a luxury hotel use up to 16 times more water per person than locals in developing countries. There has also been concerns over the waste incurred from single-use plastic and those little shampoo bottles on offer at most hotel chains. Some international hotel chains import a majority of their goods and services. This results in tourism leakage, whereby international businesses take a large portion of the money generated out of the country. Because of this, we try to stay in locally owned hotels, hostels or B&B's on our travels. We find the employees are happier to have your business and usually offer great rates instead of a standardized one. Don't forget to bring your own toiletries and put the do not enter sign on your door to reduce the number of towels and sheets being washed and replaced.
Airbnb has been getting into trouble lately for causing housing problems for locals. It started as a great way for people to make some extra cash with a rarely used office or get more use out of a holiday home. And it was great for the customer too. Homeowners realized they could make more money from Airbnb than from renters and as a result, it became a worldwide issue. I still think Airbnb can be a great way to travel and give locals an extra source of income. We have used Airbnb for years and we've always stayed in private rooms within a home. They don't have travel-sized toiletries and we use our own towels that we take to the next destination. Some have kitchen access where you can cook locally purchased food and it will save you money too. But we don't want to raise housing prices or ruin local economies so have moved towards local hostels if the price is similar. If you love Airbnb but want to be more environmentally and budget friendly, in general, stay away from whole apartment or home rentals.
17. Have shorter, cooler showers
Did you know heating water in the UK accounts for around 5% of it's total C02 emissions and 20% of California's electricity use is put towards transporting water? Cutting down on water usage has a significant affect on emissions. In general, having a shower saves more water than a bath but it all depends on how long you shower for and the shower head used. We can't exactly ask reception the water pressure stats or how energy-efficient a shower head in the hotel is! So if you want a benchmark, Ofwat UK says a 5 minute shower uses approximately 40 L of water, about half that of a bath. This can be very budget friendly if you take it from your travels into your everyday life!
In general, we avoid buying fish or seafood products while we travel. It is difficult to truly know what species is in your food or how it was caught. A recent BBC article highlighted how at risk sharks were being served to UK diners unawares. If you love eating fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed an app and website called Seafood Watch that can help you determine if the fish on the menu is at risk in the area and whether it's sustainably caught. For other wild animals, if it's threatened or we don't know if it's conservation status, we avoid it. There have been many articles in the last several years documenting how consuming beef products is bad for the environment. If you're willing to give it a go or do it already, it definitely helps lessen your environmental impact! Be warned that in some countries, vegetarian or vegan options are very difficult to find. It's something worth looking up when you plan your trip.
19. Go paperless
Back when Nick and I started traveling, you needed to have your boarding passes printed out no earlier than 24 hours before your flight (when online check in was available) and budget airlines (Ryanair *cough*) would charge you a very large fee for printing your boarding pass at the airport. Cue running around the city on our holiday looking for a place to print our passes which wasted time and money. Nowadays, you can almost always show an electronic ticket on your phone or tablet for transportation, accommodation and attractions. It saves paper and you don't need to remember to get all of the paperwork together or pay for printing. Plus, receipts and boarding passes are usually not recyclable.
If you need receipts for reinbursement, consider getting a Prepaid Travel Card or using a mobile pay app (eg. WeChat pay is one of the most popular methods in China). Same goes for those paper maps offered at hotels and hostels. We download our destination on Google Maps before we leave. You won't get lost on the way to your hotel or for the rest of your trip and it saves you money on roaming charges or those coffees for "free" WiFi. Google has a handy guide on how to do this. The only downside to all of this is you must have your phone charged. One of the travel accessories I think is worth the money is a portable battery charger for your mobile. We use these all of the time and not just when we are traveling.
20. Bring back memories and photos
We've all seen the tourist shops beside major attractions and thought about bringing stuff back for ourselves and loved ones. But is it something we really need? Taking photos is a great way to remember your trip and in our digital age, has little impact on the environment. I used to send my mom postcards; now I send her emails with pictures detailing what I've done. It keeps her up to date, I can write in more detail and it saves money, time and resources to deliver it. If you are looking for something a little more, try to make it a necessary buy that has longevity. Look for quality over quantity; locally made clothes are a great option. And always avoid products made from wildlife. Not only is it expensive to buy things like seashells, fur clothes and skins, you do not know the story behind the product or if you are contributing to the market in endangered species.
21. Look, don't touch when it comes to wildlife
Everyone wants to get that perfect photo of a majestic wild animal either within phone camera range or in your arms. However, this is never good for wildlife or sustainability. Support biodiversity by visiting National Parks rather than animal photo op tourist attractions, keep your distance from wild animals and never feed them. Parks Canada advises you to stay at least 30 meters away from large animals and at least 100 meters away from medium to large carnivores like wolves and bears. This is to keep you and the animals safe. It is also a good idea to read up on what to do if you encounter each species in the area you're visiting. For example, WildSafeBC has information on how to react if you see cougar, bear and other animals in British Columbia. In addition, feeding animals seems like a good thing at first glance but habituation to humans will more than likely end up in their death.
Other options include visiting a rehabilitation center or conservation-minded zoo. There is a lot of press regarding "sanctuaries" that are not ethical and simply want to make money off the rise in sustainable travel. There are helpful guides online on how to tell if a sanctuary is legitimate, but the basic idea is you should never be allowed to ride, hold or touch the animals. There are also animal care accreditations a sanctuary can hold such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Same goes for zoos, consider visiting an AZA-accredited zoo (full list here) which have the highest standards of animal care and give millions to conservation.
In terms of budget, National Parks often offer passes that will get you into multiple locations for a deal. The fines for harassing or feeding wildlife can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars and some people have ended up with large medical bills (always have travel insurance!) or vehicle damage by getting to close to wildlife. There could also be online deals, for example, Howlett's Animal Park outside Canterbury offers a 20% discount when you buy your tickets on their website.
If you really love animals and want to get up close and personal with them, consider volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center near your home. Many of these places are vastly underfunded and cannot function without volunteers. You'll get an amazing wildlife experience for free, discover the species in your own backyard, aid conservation and it will look great on your resume! Just be prepared there is a lot more cleaning involved than wildlife handling.
We used to be quite casual about walking off the trails, however, I've learnt that vital plant species are put at risk and erosion can occur when you walk off the trail. Since then, we never leave the trail and keep wild places wild.
23. Research companies before you go
This one makes many people sigh, me included. It takes a lot of effort to organize a budget holiday and now we have to weed through companies on the internet without actually seeing them in person. Lonely Planet came out with a great article last year about how to choose a responsible travel operator. In general, opt for family run accommodation and local tour guides. A large portion of wildlife conflict, including poaching, comes from local people who are underpaid and in desperate need of sustainable income. Responsible or ethical tourism which supports the local economy has been shown to improve the state of biodiversity and ecosystem health of the area. There are also companies like Clean Travel that will connect you with an ethical tour operator on the other side of the world.
There are also a number of accreditations that sustainability minded tourist businesses can obtain. Look for Global Sustainable Tourism Council certifications but as the Lonely Planet article above states, you shouldn't rule out small businesses that are trying their best but do not have the certifications which can prove costly and require extensive changes before any incentives are realized.
Tourism sustains many economies and supports countless jobs. Everyone has different interests and ways in which they are willing to help with sustainability. I think it's fantastic many people consider and are willing to learn about sustainability when planning their holidays. We are driving the demand for sustainable tourism. I hope this information was helpful and that it cuts out some of the complexity of the topic. Unfortunately, sustainability is still a complicated subject and there is no one-size-fits-all especially when it encompasses the whole world of travel and tourism, but with a little research, we can find people and companies doing good things all over the world. In the words of Sustainable Tourism: tourism will never be sustainable, as every industry has impacts, but we can take steps to make it better.
What do you do to help the environment on your travels? Did I miss something? Please comment and let me know below!
About the Author: Caitlin recently graduated with a Master's in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England and lives in British Columbia, Canada. She's previously worked in wildlife rehabilitation and has written blog posts for wildlife conservation non-profits.RSS Feed