In the midst of the excitement of travel, it is easy to forget just how much our trips impact the climate, natural environment, and local communities. While awareness of tourism’s effect on climate change is growing, the scale of the problem can be overwhelming to contemplate.
A 2018 study published in Nature found that tourism accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With tourism’s global gross domestic product expected to grow at 4% annually, tourism’s portion of carbon emissions will only increase.
It is more important than ever to understand our personal carbon footprint when we travel and what we can do to reduce it.
Choosing not to travel would be the obvious answer but staying within a few miles of our homes is unrealistic. Sure, if travelers never fly in airplanes or stay in hotels then they wouldn’t produce the greenhouse gases associated with those activities.
But tourism is a key component of economic growth for many places that can only be easily reached by plane. As we saw during the pandemic, removing air travel as an option is devastating for economies that depend on tourism.
Travel and tourism are vital for our understanding of other cultures, ways of thinking, and alternative ways of living. Travel brings us all together and reminds us that we are fundamentally no different from our neighbors. Just as important, travel opens our eyes to the effects of climate change in other areas of the world, uniting us in efforts to save our planet.
So what next? Making the connection between what we do as individuals and climate change, the increasing sea levels, and catastrophic weather events can be difficult.
As travelers, we need simple steps we each can take to battle the climate crisis endangering our homes and the destinations we love.
This article aims to show you the many things you can do to make your trips more sustainable and help save our planet.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided for general information purposes only. It is not meant to represent legal, financial, medical, or other professional advice. Deskless Nomad makes no representations, warranties, or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete, or up to date. Please see the full Deskless Nomad Disclaimer.
Educate yourself about mass tourism’s environmental impact and carbon footprint
Your environmental impact when you travel isn’t determined by a single factor. Responsible tourism is not just about the mode of transport you choose but is instead a combination of all the choices you make when you travel.
One way to quantify your environmental impact when traveling is through what is known as a carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint when you travel is the sum of all the greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, released into the atmosphere in order for your trip to take place.
Your carbon footprint when you travel includes your modes of transportation, where you stay, what you eat, what you buy, and what you do during your trip. Responsible travel means learning the environmentally friendly alternatives for each of these.
Calculate your proposed trip’s carbon footprint
To quantify how your different travel choices add up you can calculate your trip’s carbon footprint. There are several online calculators that can help (although there can be some variations between the calculations depending on the parameters they use). These calculators can help you determine your air travel carbon footprint as well as that of your hotel and other trip activities.
Conservation.org has an easy-to-use calculator for your trip that incorporates your flight, miles driven, and nights in a hotel.
The Environmental Defense Fund calculator has parameters best used for trips within the United States and incorporates your flights, cabin class, rental car type, rail travel, and hotel stays.
If you have multiple plane flights with varying cabin classes, the ICAO calculator accounts for all of those details.
Sustainable Travel has a very comprehensive calculator allowing you to incorporate multiple flights and cabin classes, various types of rental cars, and even travel by boat.
Learn about carbon offsets and how can they help reduce your carbon footprint
Carbon offsetting is a way to compensate for carbon emissions produced during certain activities like travel.
After you have calculated the carbon emissions of your trip you can purchase carbon offsets. The carbon offset credits can then be donated to projects that are working to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These projects may be focused on reforestation, constructing renewable energy utilities like wind turbines, methane capture projects, or protecting habitats that function as carbon sinks.
While offsetting your trip’s carbon emissions is a good idea, it is even better if you can avoid producing carbon in the first place by following the sustainable travel tips in this article.
Purchase carbon offsets directly through the airline you’re flying
The aviation industry has capped international civil air travel emissions at 2019 levels and is committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. To achieve these goals, airlines are purchasing carbon offsets and investing in fuel-efficient planes and sustainable fuels.
Airlines with carbon offset purchase programs include:
- Air Canada
- Air New Zealand
- American Airlines
- British Airways
- Emirates (automatically offsets the carbon emissions incurred by their flights)
- Virgin Australia
Purchase carbon offsets from a reputable carbon offset program
Instead of purchasing carbon offsets through the airline, you can go to an independent carbon offset organization that allows you to more thoroughly vet the offset program. You’ll want to make sure the offsets you purchase are verified by a third party like Gold Standard, Green-e, Climate Action Reserve, or the Verified Carbon Standard developed by Verra.
You can also find Ecowatch’s picks for the best carbon offset programs of 2022 here.
Travel locally to reduce your carbon footprint
Many of us experienced the unexpected joys of vacationing locally when air travel and global travel were discouraged or not even possible during the pandemic. Because air travel generates so many greenhouse gases, traveling to places you can reach by car, bus, or better yet by train, can significantly reduce your carbon dioxide emissions.
As a general rule, the shorter the distance you travel from home, the lower your trip’s carbon footprint and the more environmentally friendly it is. Avoiding just one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight saves 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s as much carbon dioxide as the average citizen of India emits all year, according to a 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters.
Lower your travel carbon footprint by finding local adventures in your city or state. Explore new corners of your town by walking or taking a bike ride. Visit local museums, zoos, aquariums, and theme parks.
If you want to venture further than your city or neighborhood, think about other ways to explore your region. Try out alternative modes of getting from one place to another that minimize fossil fuel consumption like:
- Hiking and trekking
- Kayaking or canoeing
- River rafting
- Bike riding
- Horseback trips
Many of these types of adventures can be found locally and may become some of the most memorable of your life.
Work remotely or become a digital nomad and experience the joys of slow travel
Slow travel is a type of sustainable travel where you spend more time in fewer places to experience them in a deeper way. Rather than just running between major tourist attractions, you get to know an area and local community as if living there temporarily. Choosing slow travel is one of the most underrated sustainable travel tips.
With slow travel, you consume fewer fossil fuels than you would by traveling between numerous places in a short period of time. Most slow travelers also choose short-term rentals over resort hotels, further reducing their fossil fuel consumption.
You can slow travel by taking one long vacation each year instead of multiple shorter trips. This way you limit the number of flights you would otherwise have taken. Or you can combine business travel with your vacation travel and stay in a place after your business commitments are over.
Did you know digital nomads also practice a form of slow travel? Why not become a digital nomad for a month or more? Consider asking your boss to go remote and work from your destination. If you have a remote job or are self-employed you can take advantage of long tourist visas or apply for a digital nomad visa to stay abroad longer. Make sure to learn about the pros and cons of digital nomad visas before applying.
Use eco-friendly search engines to plan your trip
When planning your trip, try search engines that partner with organizations planting trees or seagrass meadows to trap and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Ecosia donates 80% of its income from search queries to non-profit organizations dedicated to reforestation and climate action.
Ekoru partners with non-profit organizations to clean plastic from the ocean and replant seagrass meadows that trap carbon dioxide.
Choose travel companies committed to sustainable tourism
There are many travel companies that specialize in climate-friendly tours and sustainable tourism. Travelers who want to reduce their carbon footprint should get to know these leaders in sustainable travel.
Since the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, more than 500 companies have signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, which commits them to reduce carbon emissions for tourism operations. Companies must also commit to restoring, protecting, and sustaining ecosystems and cultural resources. You can find a list of the companies here.
Intrepid Travel is the world’s largest carbon-neutral travel company and an example of a travel company committed to sustainable travel. They follow a 7-point commitment plan that supports their Climate Emergency declaration which includes things like measuring their emissions, offsetting emissions, transitioning to renewable energy, and investing in research and innovative solutions.
The adventure travel company Explore Worldwide measures emissions from all of its trips with the goal of cutting emissions by 50% by 2030. They consider the most eco-friendly routing and transportation type when planning tours. They also include carbon offsets in the cost of each trip.
Byway Travel offers 100% flight-free travel packages around Europe using only trains, bikes, buses, and ferries.
If you travel independently without a tour company you can still plan your trip around sustainable transportation, accommodation, and activities just like an eco-friendly tour company by following the sustainable travel tips below.
Choose eco-friendly destinations
It can be challenging to figure out which destinations are committed to sustainability initiatives. While Costa Rica’s focus on ecotourism is well known, there are many other lesser-known destinations dedicated to sustainable travel. You can find lists of eco-friendly destinations on Sustainable Tourism’s website and Book Different’s website.
One such example is Slovenia which was among the first countries to develop a national sustainability certification program. Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, was also voted Europe’s greenest city in 2016, thanks to its pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes, public transport, wastewater management, and protection of green spaces.
If you’re planning a coastal trip, choose one with a Marine Protected Area where the local community is committed to protecting marine ecosystems. Acting with your wallet and your feet will encourage other destinations to promote sustainability as a core pillar of tourism development.
Another way to choose an eco-friendly destination is to select one using green energy sources. For example, Sweden has a very green electricity mix with about 70% coming from renewable sources.
Choose bike- and pedestrian-friendly destinations
Overall, the most eco-friendly ways to travel are man-powered modes like walking, bicycling, and paddling.
Imagine a vacation where you hike through the Italian fishing villages of the Cinque Terre coast or walk hut to hut through the wild landscapes of New Zealand’s great walks. Or how about hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc in the Alps? Or trekking through the Atlas mountains of Morocco? There are plenty of low-carbon adventures awaiting you.
If you prefer a city escape, traveling sustainably is easy in bike and pedestrian-friendly destinations like Copenhagen or New York City.
There are several famous destinations where you can’t even take a car including:
- Giethoorn, Netherlands
- Zermatt, Switzerland
- Isla Holbox, Mexico
- Hydra, Greece
- Mackinac Island, Michigan
- Catalina Island, California
Or instead of biking or walking how about kayaking the Norwegian fjords or the islands and coastal inlets of British Columbia?
Take a train, bus, or ferry to get to your destination
Choose an alternative to air travel for destinations that can be reached by public transport such as train, bus, or ferry to reduce your carbon footprint.
As a general rule, trains are the most climate-friendly form of travel, no matter whether electric or diesel-powered. Train travel happens to be one of the most relaxing and scenic modes of transportation and an excellent way to experience slow travel. You can admire the landscapes and not worry about keeping your eyes on the road while driving. Or you can take a nap and arrive at your destination well-rested and ready to explore. Overnight sleeper trains allow you to travel long distances while you sleep and even save you money on nightly accommodation.
As a foot passenger on a ferry, you also can cut your carbon footprint by more than 90 percent on an average journey compared to traveling by plane. For longer distances, there are also sleeper ferries like the ones from Croatia to Italy or between the Greek islands.
When comparing emissions for various transport modes you can refer to this graphic from Our World in Data. Domestic flights produce 255 grams per passenger per kilometer. If two people travel the same distance in a car then they only produce 96 grams per passenger per kilometer. Taking a local train would reduce that to 41! The faster Eurostar international trains only produce 6 grams per passenger per kilometer or just 2.5% of the carbon dioxide as compared to a domestic flight!
Use Skyscanner or Google Flights to find more eco-friendly flights
If you do have to travel by air, Skyscanner makes it easy to find the most eco-friendly flights. Their “greener choices” label shows you which flights will emit less carbon dioxide.
Google flights will also show you which flights emit more or less carbon dioxide.
Book non-stop flights for more responsible travel
When you are planning global travel and have to travel by plane, you can reduce your emissions by booking non-stop flights whenever possible. Non-stop flights take the most direct route to the destination, requiring less fuel than itineraries with multiple legs. If you can’t find a non-stop flight, choose the itinerary with the most direct route and the least number of stops for the smallest environmental footprint.
In addition to the shorter distance, non-stop flights use less fuel because taxiing on the runway, plane take-offs, and approaches consume a huge amount of fuel – between 10 to 25% of the fuel needed for the entire flight.
Layovers also add even more carbon emissions to your trip through the consumption of fuel required to support airport operations and services during your stay at an extra airport.
Fly economy for more responsible travel
As an air passenger, your carbon emissions are determined by the amount of space you take up on the plane. The more space your seat takes up, the larger your portion of emissions and the greater your environmental footprint.
Since business class seats take up on average twice as much space as those in economy class, a business class passenger’s carbon footprint is double that of a traveler in economy class. The carbon footprint of a first-class seat is as much as 9 times that of an economy seat according to a 2009 World Bank study.
Choose airlines with eco-friendly initiatives
You can choose to support airlines with sustainability initiatives to reduce plastic waste. For example, Alaska Airlines has traded single-use plastic water bottles and plastic cups for recyclable paper cups on all of its flights. Qantas celebrated the first-ever fully trash-free flight.
Choose airlines that invest in renewable biofuels
Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technologies to decarbonize air travel as we do for trains and cars that are now available as electric.
The good news is that many companies are investing in research and new design concepts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Airbus hopes to have the first zero-emission aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2035.
For now, airlines are primarily relying on more fuel-efficient planes and fuels. To decrease your carbon footprint you can choose to use airlines investing in research and development of more fuel-efficient jets and fuel sources. Renewable biofuels, like the ones made from things like plant oils, agricultural waste, and wood chips, can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%.
Airlines that have used these types of biofuels for their commercial flights include:
- Azul Airlines
- British Airways
- Scandinavian Airlines
- Virgin Australia
- Virgin Atlantic
Choose fuel-efficient airline carriers
The International Council on Clean Transportation runs periodic reports on airline carrier fuel efficiency. The difference between the most efficient domestic US airline and the least efficient is 26 percent of emissions. Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Hawaiian airlines scored the top 3 spots for fuel efficiency in North America.
For transatlantic flights, Norwegian was the most fuel-efficient and the gap between the most and least fuel-efficient transatlantic airlines was a whopping 63%! You’ll definitely want to keep fuel efficiency in mind if you are planning on purchasing a round-the-world airline ticket.
Skip the cruise for more responsible travel
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, cruises are even worse for the climate than flying. Cruise ships usually burn the lowest-quality fuel which creates a higher level of carbon emissions.
The most efficient cruise ships still emit up to 4 times more carbon dioxide per passenger, per kilometer than an airplane. Even when you account for emissions from an equivalent-night hotel stay, cruise passengers emit 2 times more CO2 than someone who flies and stays at a hotel.
The large waves cruise ships create also have the additional negative environmental impact of eroding sensitive coastal areas.
Pack light to reduce greenhouse gases
The heavier your luggage, the more fuel it takes to transport it, no matter what the mode of transportation. Keep your bags as light as possible to reduce your carbon emissions and travel green. Plus, the less you take, the less you risk losing if the airline misplaces your bags. And you can avoid paying airline overweight baggage fees.
Choose a lightweight suitcase and think carefully about what you pack. Bring clothing items that mix and match well and can be layered. Only take clothing you can wear multiple times and easily wash and dry to wear again. Put your toiletries into small, lightweight reusable containers.
Pack environmental friendly biodegradable products
Reduce your negative impact on the local environment by only bringing sustainable products like biodegradable shampoos, soaps, and laundry detergents. Dr. Bronner’s is a great all-purpose biodegradable soap you can use to wash your body, hair, dishes, sports gear, and clothing.
Another important green tip is to choose biodegradable sunscreens with fewer chemicals to lessen your impact on local coral reefs.
Rent your sports gear on location rather than transporting it from home
If you are planning on participating in sports activities while traveling, consider renting your equipment locally when you arrive. Heavy items like skis, surfboards, golf club bags, and camping gear add unnecessary carbon emissions to your trip.
Choose electric vehicles for your rental car
If you need to rent a car at your destination, opt for an electric or hybrid car. Electric vehicles are nearly always lower-carbon than gas or diesel cars, especially in countries that use renewable energy sources.
According to Our World in Data, choosing an electric vehicle for your rental car will produce 53 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger per kilometer as opposed to a whopping 192 grams per passenger per limiter for a gas (petrol) fueled car. And for every person in the electric vehicle, the per-passenger emissions decrease even further.
If you rent a gas-fueled car, choose the most efficient
If you have to rent a gas-fueled car, choose the smallest vehicle that suits your travel group’s needs instead of an SUV or other large vehicle.
Also, remember that the more people traveling in a vehicle, the lower the carbon footprint. With 4 passengers in a car, the individual footprint is reduced to 48 grams of carbon dioxide per person per kilometer which is pretty close to the per passenger carbon footprint when taking a commuter train.
Use google maps when driving
Google maps automatically shows the most fuel-efficient routes to your destination. You can download a map to use offline and still use the GPS navigation function without using your data while traveling.
Stay at eco-friendly hotels
Hotels contribute about 1% of global carbon emissions. According to the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, the industry standard for hotel emissions is 68.6 lbs of carbon per room per night. Eco-friendly hotels, on the other hand, average just 13 lbs of carbon per room per night.
Most hotels that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint will advertise what they are doing on their website. They may advertise that they:
- Are carbon neutral
- Were built according to LEED certification standards
- Have energy-efficient lights and appliances
- Use renewable energy sources like solar
- Use eco-friendly cleaning products
- Have a water stewardship program
- Have recycling and compositing
- Have sheet and towel reuse initiatives
Some hotels are offering their guests the option to purchase carbon offsets during the booking process. Others state that they automatically purchase carbon offsets when you book. Keep in mind that it is important that hotels do more than just buy carbon offsets. They really should have green initiatives to decrease their greenhouse gas production as well.
Look for accommodations verified for sustainability by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) so you can book with confidence that your accommodations are truly sustainable. There are several websites dedicated to helping travelers find green hotels:
- BookDifferent (this website will even calculate your carbon footprint per night)
- Booking (you can filter by “sustainability”)
Practice sustainable habits during your hotel stay
There are several things you can do during your hotel stay to decrease your carbon footprint.
- Put out the “Do Not Disturb Sign” to avoid unnecessary vacuuming of your room and replacement of toiletries.
- Hang up your towels and ask to only have your sheets changed once a week.
- Conserve energy by turning down the heat and AC. Switch off the lights and electronics when not in use. Unplug or turn off the mini fridge if you aren’t using it.
- Reduce your water usage and avoid extra long hot showers.
- In general, be mindful of local resources and practice energy and water conservation like you would at home.
Stay at an off-the-grid vacation rental
While not all off-grid properties use renewable energy sources, you can start by searching for off-grid accommodations and then read the descriptions to see if they are using solar power or just generators.
Airbnb now lets you filter specifically for off-the-grid vacation rental properties. You can also search the description to see if the building is LEED certified. If you plan to stay at Airbnb, make sure to learn these tips and tricks for saving on your next Airbnb rental.
Instead of staying in hotels, try a homestay for more sustainable travel
Homestays decrease your carbon footprint and are more budget-friendly than hotels. Staying with a local lets you live like a local, get to know local communities, and have a unique cultural experience. Homestays will have more basic amenities that are less carbon-intensive compared to resort hotels with pools, fitness centers, spas, golf courses, meeting rooms, and restaurants.
You can find homestays through:
Instead of hotels do a work exchange program for free accommodation
Work exchange programs are a great way to travel sustainably. You volunteer your skills in exchange for accommodation and meals. By not staying in resort hotels and contributing to mass tourism, you lessen your environmental footprint. With work exchange programs you get to know the locals, can practice your language skills, learn about the local culture, and learn new skills like organic farming techniques.
Often times the work exchange programs are focused on sustainable living. You can work on an organic farm, work on reforesting land, restore ancient village houses or do things like help at a professional dog training center, teach English, pet sit, housesit, help run an arts center, work as an au pair, and so much more.
You can find work exchange programs through:
Explore your destination by bike or foot
There are many benefits to exploring your destination and the local community on foot. You get exercise. You’ll see things you would otherwise have missed in a car. Plus you can access areas not open to vehicles.
Use public transportation, E-bikes, and scooters instead of taxis, ride share or private vehicles
Instead of renting a car opt for public transportation to travel sustainably. Take the metro or subway. Ride stress-free in a bus. Many large cities have electric scooters or electric bikes you can rent.
Eat sustainable foods
While traveling locally or globally, try to eat local foods and avoid imported foods that have to be transported long distances and sometimes refrigerated along the way. Buy locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets to support local growers and producers. You’ll be supporting the local economy while experiencing the local food culture.
Try eating vegan or vegetarian meals during your trip. Plant-based diets have a much smaller carbon footprint than those high in meat consumption. More land must be cleared to raise animals and grow feed for them. Livestock also produces methane as they digest food and account for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year.
Eat at restaurants that source their ingredients locally
Paying attention to what you eat while traveling is an important part of reducing your footprint. A quarter of all greenhouse gases emitted each year are a result of what you eat.
Where you choose to eat while traveling also has an impact on the local environment. Seek out restaurants that prepare meals with locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. Talk to your waiter or chef and learn what foods are in season at your destination.
If you eat fish at a restaurant, use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable fish guide to find out if the fish you are choosing is a sustainable choice or if there is a better alternative.
Reduce your food waste for more responsible travel
Did you know food production is responsible for almost 37% of global greenhouse emissions?
When forests are cleared and burned to grow crops and graze livestock, the carbon the trees and plants once stored is released into the air. The production, processing, packaging, shipping, and refrigeration of food all consume huge amounts of carbon. When you waste food it contributes further to greenhouse gasses when it rots and creates methane.
To decrease your carbon footprint, make sure you aren’t wasting food. Order smaller portions or share bigger plates with your travel partners.
Take a reusable food storage container on your trip
Food storage containers are great for taking home leftovers, going on picnics, taking a packed lunch, or taking a snack on the plane (helping you save money on airport food). They are also super convenient for saving leftovers from meals cooked in your vacation rental.
Use renewable water bottles
Nearly all plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic which is produced from crude oil. Both the extraction of crude oil and the production of plastic bottles release greenhouse gases. To make matters worse 80% of the 50 billion plastic water bottles sold every year will then just end up in a landfill.
Using a reusable water bottle is an easy way to reduce your consumption of plastics. You can also get a reusable water bottle with a purifying filter, an important item if you are traveling in a place where the water may not be safe for drinking.
Reduce your consumption of single-use items
In general, you want to reduce your consumption of all single-use items that will just become plastic waste and be thrown away. There are a few essential reusable items you might consider taking on your trip such as :
- Shopping bags
- Reusable straws
- Reusable coffee cup
- A foldable spork
- And of course the reusable water bottle and food storage containers discussed above
Don’t buy souvenirs that you will never use
Be mindful when purchasing souvenirs. Think about whether or not you will actually use a particular souvenir or if it will likely end up in a drawer or closet. Remember, everything that is produced has a carbon footprint.
Global travel is all about experiences so focus on your trip experiences rather than things to buy. You will always have the memory of an unusual experience but that key chain or t-shirt will never be missed.
If you do feel the need to purchase a souvenir, try to buy directly from local artisans or craftspeople so you actually buy something authentic, support the local economy, and decrease the amount of carbon needed for production and shipping.
Take a day or more to volunteer locally for more responsible travel
Think about reserving a day or more of your trip to volunteer locally. If you plan in advance you can find meaningful and truly memorable activities like:
- Archeological digs
- Wild animal rescue
- Wildlife conservation projects
- Reforestation projects
- Building trails
- Beach or river cleanups
- Rebuilding communities after a disaster
Volunteering is a great way to make tourism sustainable and combine travel experiences with environmental and community benefits. It is also a great way to beat loneliness when traveling long-term or as a digital nomad.
I hope I’ve inspired you to think creatively about how you can travel sustainably and reduce your carbon footprint on your next travel adventure.
You don’t have to feel guilty about your dream vacation or cancel it to save the planet. If you are a digital nomad, you don’t have to feel guilty about living the digital nomad lifestyle. There are plenty of ways to lessen your impact on the environment and reduce your carbon emissions when traveling. It takes time to develop sustainable habits but by using the green travel tips we discussed you can become a responsible tourist and help save the planet.