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As we plan upcoming travel, many of us are concerned with more than where we want to go and how to get there. With worsening climate change and local economies still under stress from the COVID-19 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 environmentally- and socially-conscious travelers for years. And now, the desire to travel more intentionally has reached the mainstream travel market. According to research by Booking.com, 71 percent of global travelers want to travel more sustainably. And more than half of travelers say they would pay more for more sustainable transportation, activities and lodging, according to research from Expedia Group Media Solutions.
Yet, while many eco travelers 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.
Sustainable travel key insights
- Before the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial flights worldwide produced nearly 1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year (Statista)
- International tourism contributes to roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Sustainability Science)
- 71 percent of global travelers want to travel more sustainably over the next year (Booking.com)
- 40 percent of travelers have stayed in lodging that’s designed to reduce its environmental impact (Hospitality Net)
- Nine out of 10 consumers have said they look for sustainable options when traveling (Hospitality Net)
- 23 percent of travelers have chosen a destination closer to home to reduce their carbon footprint (Booking.com)
How to choose a sustainable destination
When choosing your destination, there are a few principles you’ll want to keep in mind:
- The shorter the distance you travel, the lower your environmental impact.
- It’s better to stay longer in one-off destinations rather than hopping between locations.
- When you can, avoid the crowded hotspots and opt for locations with smaller crowds.
- If you decide to visit a popular destination, make your travel plans outside of the location’s busiest months.
Jon Paul Bowles, of Oregon-based Destination Management Advisors, recommends visiting places that need your support. “It’s great to plan a trip to an area that’s recovering from a natural disaster,” 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.”
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.
— Jon Paul BowlesDestination Management Advisors
But what are some of the most sustainable travel destinations? According to the GDS-Index, the top three most sustainable cities are Gothenburg, Sweden; Bergen, Norway; and Copenhagen, Denmark. These cities made the cut due to their investments in sustainability, including sustainable tourism efforts.
How to plan eco-friendly travel
Once you’ve chosen your destination, you’ll want to follow some sustainability tips for environmentally-friendly travel planning. 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.
Book nonstop flights to your destination
Direct and nonstop travel to your destination is not only convenient, but 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 more 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 larger hotel chains are now taking sustainability seriously. You may even consider cutting out a hotel altogether and booking your accommodation through a local homestay.
Anne de Jong, co-founder of the Good Tourism Institute, recommends that you “look for certified hotels (often larger chains or lodges), or consider those that are small-scale, are locally owned or work with local communities” to offset your carbon footprint.
Whatever your price point, you may want to consider hotels that highlight community engagement and environmental practices. For example, some environmentally-conscious hotels offer opportunities for guests to volunteer alongside the local hotel team and community to help restore the area’s ecosystem.
Or, 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. For example, Kimpton is one hotel brand that prides itself on its commitment to sustainability.
Another way to keep travel green is to cut out the hotel altogether and stay with a local through a homestay. For example, HomeStay.com will connect you with a family that has a spare room, and you’ll pay for them to host you. In addition to being a green choice, homestays provide a unique opportunity for meeting local people and experiencing local culture.
“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 says. “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.”
Plan alternative on-the-ground transport
Cars and airplanes are two of the most inefficient modes of transportation. To keep it green once you’re at your destination, choose alternative modes of transport as much as you can, such as public transportation. Instead of taking a taxi, look for a bus or train. For travel between cities, it’s better to choose trains over flights.
If you must rent a car because of your itinerary, choose hybrid or electric options, if available. You should also choose the smallest car that suits your needs and opt for ridesharing when possible, such as by offering to share your ride with other travelers who might be headed to the same sites.
Seek local experiences
Spending your money on local experiences ensures that your money goes back into the local economy and community — rather than an international tour operator. Plus, you’re nearly guaranteed to have a more authentic adventure.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, finding local tour operators for cultural experiences and excursions is usually straightforward. But if you need to book in advance, ask for personal recommendations on travel forums or from friends who have been to that destination before.
For the most negligible impact, de Jong recommends that travelers “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.” She continues: “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.”
Conserve local water and energy sources
As a green traveler, it would be good to 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’s the job of intentional travelers to help preserve the destinations we visit and to leave them in good — or better — shape than we found them. Be mindful of the resources you consume as if you were a resident in each community you visit.
How to finance sustainable travel
Sustainable travel doesn’t have to break the bank, and many sustainable practices can actually save money. The budget you’ll want to set aside for your vacation will largely depend on your destination, your travel style and how long you’ll be on your trip.
For example, while a luxury traveler might opt for an eco-resort, a budget traveler might be more comfortable choosing a cheap homestay. The difference in budget between these two experiences could easily be hundreds of dollars per day. You can also save money by choosing to take public transportation, shopping in a local market and cooking your own meals (or eating with your host family).
However, remember that sustainable travel isn’t all about rock-bottom bargains. Be prepared to pay a fair price for local experiences. A key component 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, a tour guide or local 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.
Leverage rewards credit cards and programs
Can you use your credit card rewards to pay for sustainable travel experiences and minimize costs? Most definitely.
For instance, you can use airline points and miles 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 lets you choose a nonstop flight over one with many connections without charging extra. Look for off-peak award fares, too.
Credit card rewards programs — like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards — can also come in handy for booking your lodging. Many eco-friendly hotels can be booked through issuer travel portals.
You may also be able to find local, eco-friendly experiences — such as a hiking tour or local cooking class — through your credit card issuer too, and you can typically book them with rewards to save on cash.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card currently offers a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. When redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, your points will be worth 1.25 cents each, making your bonus worth $750 in travel.
If you don’t travel too frequently and a travel credit card doesn’t make sense for your lifestyle, you may want to consider a cash back card like the Citi® Double Cash Card. This card offers 2 percent cash back on all purchases — 1 percent when you make a purchase and 1 percent when you pay off your purchase. Because of this flat rewards rate, this card is a good option if you’re opting for a homestay or budget accommodation.
No travel is completely sustainable. However, once you get to your destination, walking and biking are typically the most sustainable ways to travel. After that, public, on-the-ground transportation is better than flying or driving solo.
Walking and biking are the greenest modes of transportation. After that, train travel is usually the best way to travel green over long distances.
Some of the ways that tourists can be more eco-friendly include using less water and energy (such as when bathing or using A/C), not being wasteful, buying local, choosing sustainable accommodations and modes of transport and opting for local activities (like scuba diving or hiking).
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.”