How to Travel More Sustainably Without Harming Destinations

  • Traveling sustainably is about making intentional choices to serve your destination and planet well.
  • We asked experts how to make these choices when planning a trip to be as sustainable as possible. 
  • This article is part of “Better Me,” a series about improving your lifestyle and helping society through sustainable efforts and eco-consciousness.

Sustainable travel can feel like an oxymoron — as Justin Francis, the cofounder and CEO of Responsible Travel, a UK-based travel company that evaluates trips and vacation providers, told Insider.

The travel industry can create jobs, or it can lead to over-tourism that lowers residents’ quality of life. Flights emit harmful emissions, but transport travelers to destinations where they can support local economies and participate in positive, nature-based tourism. Lodging accommodations can boost the local economy, or price residents out of their homes.

But Francis believes people can travel “in a way that not only reduces harm but actively maximizes the benefits, for both planet and people.”

Five other sustainable travel experts who spoke with Insider agree and say there are actions travelers can take to lower their negative impact, support the destinations they’re visiting, and have an overall better trip. They suggest considering every aspect of your trip — from where you go to how you get there — as you plan to travel more sustainably.

Kelley Louise, the executive director and founder of Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit centered on informing travelers to help improve the world, told Insider that traveling sustainably takes practice and being an imperfect traveler is better than not trying.

As Louise said, “It’s about asking, ‘How can you make little decisions that add up over time and have a positive impact on the world?'”

If you’re looking for a place to start, here’s what the experts Insider spoke with recommend.

How to travel more sustainably without harming destinations: choose destination

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Go off the beaten path

Some of the experts Insider spoke with suggest skipping top tourist destinations and opting for under-the-radar spots.

“By seeking out the less-visited destinations, you will be helping to spread the economic benefits of tourism more widely and helping to avoid the negative impacts that over-tourism has on local residents,” Georgina Davies — the communications manager for The Travel Foundation, a group that advocates for sustainable tourism — told Insider.

Paloma Zapata agrees. The CEO of Sustainable Travel International — an organization that works with local governments, businesses, and nonprofits to provide sustainable travel opportunities — also recommends visiting a hidden gem. If you’re going to Greece, for instance, you could skip Mykonos and head to an island like Anafi or Ios with fewer tourists.

Once you’ve picked your destination, Davies encourages travelers to visit the region’s national parks and protected areas. Often these places have entrance fees, which support conservation efforts.

Choose a destination that embraces sustainability

Jessica Blotter, CEO and cofounder of public benefit corporation Kind Travel, told Insider she looks for destinations with tourism boards that have a dedicated sustainable travel section on their website.

She recommends avoiding areas where sustainable transportation and lodging are hard to find, and “where access to nature and the outdoors is limited.”

Vacation during shoulder season

Tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain without hordes of people around or exploring Niagara Falls in the winter isn’t just beneficial to travelers; experts say it also supports sustainability.

Visiting destinations during shoulder seasons “spreads the benefits of tourism locally across the year and lightens the burden of over-tourism in popular destinations,” Francis said. His company, Responsible Travel, has a guide that outlines the best time to visit certain destinations

Zapata added that you’re also more likely to have a stress-free and special vacation if you’re visiting when there are fewer crowds. “It could be even more enriching,” she said. “When you’re on a beach or on a sailboat and it’s just surrounded by masses of people, maybe that’s not the best experience.”

Visit fewer places for longer

One way to travel more responsibly is to visit fewer places for longer periods of time. For example, instead of spending a week in four European countries, plan a 10-day trip to one or two.

“Fewer but longer trips mean fewer air miles, more money in local hands, and you’ll have a more relaxing trip, too,” Francis said. “If you can, keep shorter trips close to home or travel by land or sea.” He added that these modes of travel can be an adventure in themselves, and allow you to “see so much more of a destination.”

If you must travel a long distance, Blotter recommends stretching the trip as much as possible to maximize your experience. “Booking multiple, long-haul trips per year is not sustainable or carbon-friendly,” she said.

How to travel more sustainably without harming destinations: How you're getting there

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Evaluate the distance for the most sustainable way to get there

The first step in deciding how to responsibly get to your destination is considering the number of people traveling and the distance you’re going.

Besides biking and walking, trains are typically one of the most sustainable ways to travel, Zapata said. If your destination is accessible by train, consider that.

If you’re debating whether it’s more sustainable to fly or drive, Zapata said it comes down to the distance.

“A lot of times trains are going to be more energy and carbon efficient,” she said. “But when it comes to a car, there comes a moment when flying is actually more carbon efficient than driving when you’re talking about very long distances.”

Calculators like the ones offered by the International Civil Aviation Organization and Environmental Defense Fund can help travelers map out the least carbon-intensive way to get from A to B.

If you need to fly, opt for nonstop routes and travel in economy

Flying will likely be the most unsustainable aspect of your trip. Aviation makes up about 2% of global carbon emissions and 80% of a vacation’s carbon footprint comes from the flight, according to National Geographic.

Experts suggest thinking about how much you should fly in a year. For example, maybe you take one international flight a year and prioritize having the rest of your trips close to home, Louise said. 

But no matter where you jet off to, experts recommend flying nonstop in economy.

“When booking long-distance plane travel, always choose a direct flight with no layovers,” Blotter said. “Direct flights use less carbon dioxide than connecting flights.”

Additionally, by flying in economy, as some of the experts Insider spoke with pointed out, you maximize the number of people a flight can carry by taking up less space.

Ultimately, though, the best thing you can do is reduce your carbon footprint during your trip.

Experts like Louise and Gregory Miller, the executive director of the international nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel, agree that carbon offsets act more like a Band-Aid than a solution to sustainable travel. But if they do decide to purchase carbon offsets, which reduce or remove emissions to compensate for those made during a trip, Miller suggests purchasing through a reliable, vetted program. Groups like Zapata’s Sustainable Travel say they invest people’s money into carbon-reducing projects centered on clean energy and biodiversity. 

How to travel more sustainably without harming destinations: How to pack

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Pack light

The simplest advice when it comes to being a sustainable packer is to pack less, Zapata said. “Travel light,” she said.
“You don’t need 20 shoes to travel.”

Blotter agrees and says that by packing lighter, you’ll reduce carbon emissions. That’s because the lighter the aircraft, train, car, or boat, the less energy is needed. 

Louise added that by packing fewer items and using a carry-on, you’ll get through security faster and avoid the hassle of checking a bag.

Pack reusable items

Francis suggests adding the items you use at home to your packing list. That might include a reusable water bottle, a bag for shopping, and utensils to avoid plastic cutlery.  

Louise acknowledges that it might not be feasible for every traveler to carry a reusable water bottle, so she urges travelers to consider what other meaningful swaps they could make. For example, Louise said she swapped liquid shampoo and conditioner for shampoo and conditioner bars a few vacations back. The bars are lighter than liquid soaps, which means they save carbon emissions during transportation. Plus, many are packaged in recyclable paper instead of plastic.  

The switch became permanent in Louise’s daily life, she said, adding that it made traveling easier since she didn’t have to worry about leaks or liquids at airport security. “It’s a cool example of how we can look for more sustainable experiences that are also better travel experiences,” she said. “Plus it opens our eyes to new habits that can help us become more conscious consumers as well.”

Pack brands you support

If you’re doing some pre-vacation shopping, Louise recommends buying from brands that place sustainability at the forefront of their business.

“If you’re supporting corporations and brands that are working on sustainability as well, then that’s going to move the needle and create change a lot quicker than we could as individuals,” she said.

For tropical getaways, pack reef-safe sunscreen

If you’re heading to Aruba or planning a diving trip in Belize, experts say travelers should ensure reef-safe sunscreen is on their packing lists.

“Sunscreen can be very damaging to the environment and not everybody knows,” Zapata said. 

Ingredients in everyday sunscreen can harm both coral reefs and local wildlife, according to the National Ocean Service. Look for a reef-safe sunscreen that lacks harmful ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, nano titanium dioxide, and nano zinc oxide.

How to travel more sustainably without harming destinations: Where to stay

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Look into a hotel’s claims about sustainability 

Between countless certification programs and eco-friendly branding, experts agree that it can be tricky trying to evaluate whether or not a hotel is actually contributing to a destination. 

When researching different accommodations, look for specifics beyond being “eco-friendly” and giving up plastic straws, Miller says. He suggests looking for hotels with written policies about how they work with local communities, prevent food waste, and help environmental initiatives like reforestation and supporting local dive sites.

If they don’t have that information, Louise urges travelers to ask questions: “If they are authentically sustainable, they’ll be excited to answer them.”

Blotter encourages travelers to choose accommodation options that are upfront about their environmental efforts.

“Hotels that are truly eco-friendly should have a sustainability statement and clearly stated initiatives visible on their website,” Blotter said. “While sustainability certifications are great and make it easier for travelers to identify sustainable lodging, not all hotels embracing eco-friendly practices will boast such certifications.”

Blotter said to look for certifications from organizations that look into the foundation and practices of locations, businesses, and facilities to see if they meet their standards for sustainability and environmentalism. Some of these include the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Certified B Corporation, and Green Globe, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and WELL Building Standard.

Although some certifications indicate a hotel is sustainable, Zapata and Miller said guests shouldn’t book solely based on certifications since they can be costly for smaller resorts and hotels to acquire. “If they’ve made a commitment to the communities, to the destination, and they understand that they’re part of the community that is what’s important,” Miller said. 

Once you arrive, Zapata said guests should look for evidence that their accommodation is following the claims it makes. Speak to housekeeping staff, check in with chefs about the food they’re serving, and see if you get new towels each morning — if you do, you could help save water by skipping this service.

Stay at mom-and-pop hotels and inns

Picking a locally owned bed-and-breakfast over an Airbnb or big hotel is going to have a more positive impact on the local community, some of the experts Insider spoke with said.

“Short-term Airbnb-type holiday rentals might feel convenient, but they’re having a devastating impact on some popular destinations — pricing people out of their homes and wiping out whole communities,” Francis said. “Consider opting instead for a local homestay, B&B or local-owned hotel.”

How to travel more sustainably without harming destinations: What you do

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Use public transportation

If possible, experts suggest skipping a rental car. Instead, turn to the destination’s public transportation. 

“Don’t discount your travel in the destination,” Francis said. “Try and avoid internal flights, and consider ditching the private car or tour bus. There are loads of great human-powered, local-guided tours around — by foot, bike, or even kayak.”

Eat local foods

Besides the flight to your destination, food waste will likely be the second-largest contributor to your vacation’s carbon footprint, according to National Geographic.

“We traditionally don’t think of sustainable tourism as something like, ‘Oh, I can lay on the beach and have a cocktail, and that could have a positive impact on the world,'” Louise said. But if you think about where your food comes from and the story behind that, it can have a positive impact, she added.

That means seeking ingredients that are grown nearby instead of shipped across the country and checking to make sure restaurants are hiring locals and paying them fair wages. By evaluating restaurants on these items, you’ll likely get “fresher and better foods that are unique to that destination,” Louise said.

Seek off-the-beaten-path activities

Most experts agree that when it comes to exploring a destination, it’s worth turning to locals for advice. That might mean joining a local Facebook group, sparking a conversation on a public bus, or finding a community-based tourism program. 

“Look for ways to seek out local voices and to understand how they want their destination seen,” Louise said. By talking to locals, you’re likely to avoid contributing to over-tourism and have a more unique experience, she added. 

Another way you can approach activities is by centering your plans around a cause you and your group care about, such as ocean conservation or LGBTQ rights, Louise said.

Once you’ve settled on a topic, look at how your actions and the activities you choose can support that cause. For example, you might eat at restaurants owned by diverse staff or seek voluntourism opportunities to protect a nearby beach. 

Blotter recommends avoiding experiences that use animals as entertainment like elephant rides, and looking for charity-run activities instead.

When you’re back from the activity, whether it was a volunteer job or a locally-recommended hike, Miller said travelers should “brag about it.” He encourages people who are traveling responsibly to post about their experience and use word-of-mouth to inspire others. 

Buy local

Pass on the manufactured magnets, mass-produced T-shirts, and generic keychains. Instead, Zapata said travelers should search for items that are unique and crafted by locals. 

“If you’re going to buy a memento, buy something that’s actually made there,” she said. That way you ensure the money spent on the souvenir is directly supporting the community.  

While all of these decisions you make as an individual matter, Miller says that ultimately “the solution to everything is to get governments and major corporations to change and reduce their emissions period.”

According to Miller, that’s something travelers can do in the voting booth that can go a long way.

Better Me tips for sustainable living

Slide through the following cards to read more expert advice on sustainable living. Then check out the rest of the stories from Insider’s Better Me series.