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Guide to green travel: Planning and financing a sustainable vacation

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As we get back to traveling, many of us aren’t only concerned with where we want to go and how to get there. With climate change worsening and local economies still under stress from the pandemic, we know it’s important that our travel choices preserve the environment, protect cultures and intentionally contribute to the local communities we’re exploring.

Sustainable and responsible travel has been on the rise with environmental and socially conscious travelers for years. And now, this desire to travel more intentionally has reached the mainstream travel market. According to a 2020 study by Booking.com, more than 53 percent of travelers express that traveling more sustainably in the future is a priority to them. And half of global travelers say they are willing to pay more for travel products that demonstrate environmental responsibility, according to research from Skift.

Yet, while we might be willing to pay more to protect the environment, choosing responsible travel doesn’t have to break the budget. There are many ways to travel more sustainably, no matter your budget or travel style. You can even make green travel choices when funding your trips with credit card rewards points.

Planning your trip

Planning more sustainable travel is a process of making one intentional decision at a time. Consider the actions that minimize negative impacts on destinations, communities and the environment.

Begin with this motto: Go local, stay longer and mind your environmental impact. What’s the best place for you to go where your presence and tourist dollars will have a positive impact? When to go? How to get there? Where to stay?

Finding a destination

When choosing your destination, there are a few principles you’ll want to keep in mind:

  1. The shorter the distance you travel, the lower your environmental impact.
  2. Stay longer in one-off destinations rather than hopping between locations.
  3. When you can, avoid the crowded hotspots and opt for locations with smaller crowds.

If you do decide to visit a popular destination, make your travel plans outside of the location’s busiest months.

“The best, easiest thing you can do is to book your trip during the shoulder season. It’s almost always a better experience as a traveler, and you’ll be much less likely to strain local resources and ecosystems during your visit,” says Jon Paul Bowles of Oregon-based Destination Management Advisors.

Bowles also recommends visiting places that need your support. “It’s great to plan a trip to an area that’s recovering from a natural disaster, like the wildfires here in Oregon,” he explains. “Give destinations a year or two to recover, then go have fun, spend money and volunteer. But don’t go in right away. You and your dollars will be especially appreciated as the tourism economy starts to rebuild.”

Pillars of sustainable travel

Once you’ve chosen your destination, you’ll want to follow four environmentally friendly travel planning tips from Anne de Jong, co-founder of the Good Tourism Institute.

Book nonstop flights

Direct and nonstop travel to your destination isn’t only convenient; it’s also the more environmentally friendly flight choice for sustainable travelers. Nonstop flights require less fuel than itineraries with multiple legs. And since planes release the most carbon during take-off and landing, it’s better to book one long flight rather than multiple shorter flights so that you only take off and land once.

Find sustainable lodging

Sustainable lodging isn’t all about fancy eco-lodges. Many hotels, boutique resorts and even some larger hotel chains are now taking sustainability seriously. You may even consider cutting out the hotel altogether and booking your accommodation through a local homestay.

To offset your carbon footprint, “look for certified hotels (often larger chains or lodges), or consider those that are small-scale, are locally owned or work with local communities,” de Jong recommends.

Whatever your price point, consider hotels that highlight community engagement and environmental practices. For example, are you considering a trip to Thailand? Look beyond the touristy resorts of Phuket and choose lodging like The Sarojin resort in neighboring Khao Lak, which offers opportunities for guests to volunteer alongside the local hotel team and community to help restore the area’s vital mangrove ecosystem.

By working closely with locals, the hotel not only provides a sustainable income to the community but also ensures a personal connection between the guide and the guests

— Kate Kempowner of The Sarojin

If you prefer to stay in familiar chain hotels, look for properties with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or Green Key Eco-Rating certification. Kimpton, for example, is one hotel brand that prides itself on its company-wide commitment to sustainability. I recently visited the Kimpton Seafire on Grand Cayman’s busy Seven Mile Beach. I was impressed by the resort’s careful attention to conservation detail—from the lightbulb choices and water catchment systems to turtle-friendly outdoor lighting.

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Try bookdifferent.com to search for sustainable lodging options.

Another way to keep it green is to cut out the hotel altogether and stay with a local. Websites like homestay.com connect you to a family with a spare room who you pay to host you. In addition to being a green choice, homestays provide a unique outlet to meet local people and experience the culture that only happens in a home.

“Staying in a homestay is one of the best ways to get to know local people and their culture while also helping to support local families,” Michelle Chang of Intentional Travelers said.

“We especially look for homestay opportunities in destinations where we don’t already have a local connection. This way, the host family can teach us how to better integrate into the culture and show us around before we start exploring more on our own.”

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Airbnb is another option to find available homestays. Be sure to search for a room in a shared home.

Plan alternative on-the-ground transport

To keep it green once you’re at your destination, choose alternative modes of transport as much as you can. Instead of taking a taxi, look at public transport such as the bus or train. Choose trains over flights for travel between cities. If you must rent a car because of your itinerary, choose hybrid or electric if available, opt for the smallest car that suits your needs and share your ride with other travelers who might be headed to the same sites.

Seek local experiences

Spending your money on local experiences ensures the dollars you spend go back into the local economy and community­—rather than an international tour operator. Plus, you’re nearly guaranteed to have a more authentic adventure!

Finding local tour operators for cultural experiences and excursions is usually straightforward once you’ve arrived at your destination. But if you need to book in advance, ask for personal recommendations on travel forums or from friends who’ve been to the destination before.

For the most negligible impact, “choose carbon-free travel experiences to enjoy the destination to the fullest. For example, canoeing, biking, hiking, sailing or horse riding. Basically anything that does not involve vehicles,” de Jong recommends. “Travelers also play an important role in increasing the demand for sustainable tourism. They can do this specifically by looking for sustainable tour operators, booking their tours and questioning unsustainable practices from tour operators.”

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Airbnb experiences offer links to locals offering guide services, mini-tours and cooking classes.

Conserve local water and energy sources

As a green traveler, you might follow the guidance of an energy and cost-conscious parent: Turn off the lights, take short showers, re-use your towels, pick up trash and don’t be wasteful.

It is the work of intentional travelers to help preserve the destinations we visit and to leave them in as good—or even better shape than we found them. Be mindful of the resources you consume as if you were a resident in each community you visit.

Financing sustainable travel

Sustainable travel doesn’t have to break the bank; many sustainable practices actually save money. The budget you’ll want to set aside for your vacation will depend on your destination, your style of travel and how long you’ll be on your trip.

While a luxury traveler might opt for an eco-resort like The Sarojin that employs community members and contributes to preserving the destination, a budget traveler might be more comfortable choosing a $20 homestay and going local as much as possible. The difference in budget between these two experiences is easily hundreds of dollars a day.

You can certainly save by choosing to take public transport, shopping in a local market and cooking your own meals or even eating with your host family. But also remember that sustainable travel isn’t all about rock-bottom bargains. Be prepared to pay fairly for local experiences.

Remember that part of sustainable travel is contributing to the communities hosting you. In some places, a local experience might only be $10 to $25, but in other destinations with stronger economies, a tour guide or cooking course might cost $50 to $100 or more. If you aren’t sure what a fair price would be, ask a local you trust.

Maximize rewards

Can you use your credit card travel rewards to pay for sustainable travel experiences and minimize costs? Most definitely.

Use airline points to book the most direct flight possible to your destination. You’ll maximize value by booking through a rewards program that follows regional pricing for awards and will let you choose a nonstop flight over one with many connections without charging extra miles. Look for off-peak award fares, too.

Credit card rewards points can also come in handy for booking your lodging. Many eco-friendly boutique hotels can be booked using flexible rewards points through Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Travel. The Sarojin in Thailand, for example, can be booked using Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card for around 23,000 points per night.

As part of the IHG hotel group, all the Green Key-certified Kimpton resorts can be booked with points earned on the IHG® Rewards Traveler Credit Card*. One night at the turtle-friendly Kimpton Seafire runs about 60,000 IHG points.

If you’re opting for a homestay or budget accommodation, you can cover your travel costs using a cash back statement credit from a card like the Citi® Double Cash Card.

The bottom line

Making sustainable travel choices leads to a better environment and more authentic experiences for travelers. But equally important, it also preserves the place we visit for future generations of travelers.

“If we all focus on maximizing the benefits,” de Jong reminds us, “we’ll create better places to live in and better places to visit.”

*The information about the IHG® Rewards Traveler Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer. The Wells Fargo Platinum card is no longer available.

Written by
Stephanie Zito
Travel Rewards Expert Contributor
Stephanie Zito is a professional traveler, self-employed humanitarian consultant and collector of credit card points. She shares savvy travel tips that she’s learned firsthand circling the globe for more than 25 years. She’s a backpacker, expect and premium traveler who’s visited more than 130 countries and all seven continents. Her life motto is “See the world, change the world, have fun doing it!”, and her mission is to inspire others along the journey.
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