A short guide to sustainability if you want to travel the world responsibly

With travelling being more accessible to people, travelling responsibly has never been so important. Because of the current pandemic, it isn’t possible to travel at the moment as much as we would, and many people are looking forward to going back to “normality” to be able to visit new places. In this context, it is important to understand and prepare to be more sustainable when travelling for when borders open up again.

Working in the environmental communication field and being a travel lover isn’t always easy. On one hand, I love the idea of travelling to new places and discover every corner of the world, but on the other hand most of the time I feel guilty about the environmental impact this could have.

Being 100% sustainable when travelling might not always be possible – just think about the carbon emissions that come from flying! – but there are some steps we can take to become a more responsible traveller. But what does that even mean?

A person snorkelling

To me, being sustainable is doing my best to leave a place better than the way I found it, making sure that not only my visit doesn’t cause any damage to both the environment and the local community, but that it also – when possible – has a positive impact and brings some value and support instead. It also means doing all I can to reduce my carbon footprint. So being a responsible tourist means making responsible choices both at the environmental and community level.

Because of my job in the sustainability area, I am constantly learning about new ways to be sustainable in my everyday life, and so I decided to apply these tips to travelling and came up with a list of 13 ways to become more sustainable when exploring other places in the world that I hope could be useful if, like me, you are trying to do your bit for the planet.

1.Flying “sustainably”

Let’s get the big one out of the way! Flying can never be 100% sustainable, so when time and budget allow, it’s always possible to choose alternative transport, such as trains.

However, there are some locations that we can only reach by flying. So when we book a flight we should always make sure we check for companies that have lower emissions or companies that have a set budget for carbon offset initiatives.

When possible book direct flights and also travel as light as possible to cut down on the weight of the airplane and save fuel (which will also mean you’ll save money on your extra luggage charge!)

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

Travelling in economy class will reduce emissions too. There is a World Bank study that shows how flying first-class creates up to five times the carbon emissions per person than flying in economy.

Finally – when possible – you can also choose to fly into an airport that is doing their bit to be greener. Living in Ireland, I get to use the Dublin Airport quite a lot and, in recent years I noticed a few positive changes that made me look into it more. For example, they have water refillers everywhere across the airport and in most places they swap plastic water bottles with aluminium cans. When I looked into it, I found out that in the last 10 years they have reduced their energy consumption by 33%, use sustainable energy, reduced emissions of fleet vehicles, and have a lot of other green initiatives, so Dublin Airport has achieved a status of Carbon Neutrality from Airport Carbon Accreditation of the ACI (Airport Council International) in 2019.

But just like Dublin Airport, a lot of airports around the world are going green. Here is a link to the world’s most environmentally friendly airports!

2. Choose an eco-friendly accommodation

Where stay is also very important if we want to travel green. There are so many things you can look at to see if your accommodation is sustainable, from the energy they use, waste management, where they get their water from, what they bring to their local community and more. With more and more attention being drawn to sustainability, most accommodation will have a section dedicated to this on their website, so make sure you check it out.

I’ll be sharing a full post on how to pick a sustainable accommodation with lots of tips, but in the meantime, here’s a cool trick I recently found out about. Booking.com has a new (very well hidden) section on sustainable initiatives that you can see if you scroll all the way down the page, where they tell you about all the sustainable initiatives of the place you are looking at, as well as if they have a sustainability certification.

3. Choose a responsible travel agency

Even if, like me, you prefer to travel independently, there are always times when you can’t avoid using a travel agency and, in this case, it’s important to choose a responsible one. A responsible travel operator is one committed to support the local community and minimise the impact they have on the planet.

A responsible travel agency would support the local community, rather than damaging it and they would take steps to minimise their carbon footprint, by, for example, providing alternatives to plastics on their tour or try to minimise waste. They should also support eco-accommodation and avoid attractions that entail animal exploitation.

In one of my previous posts, I shared six tips to choose a responsible travel agency, have you read it?

Two people in a jeep car

4. Pack your reusables

This is such an easy thing to do, so no excuses here. Before leaving, pack your reusable basics, like a cup, bottle and lunch box, to avoid single-use plastic. In some places, it isn’t safe to drink tap water, but where it is, make sure you use your bottle.

If you are a reusable pro, then why not bring this to the next level? Switch to solid toiletries and reusable period products and face pads.

If you are looking for motivation on why you should switch to solid toiletries, click on the button below.

5. Pick the right sunscreen

Among the things that can ruin a holiday is getting a bad sunburn. So using sunscreen is important to protect yourself. However, not all sunscreens are the same and some of them contain certain ingredients, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, that are highly toxic for marine wildlife and the environment. They have been proven to cause also significant damage to coral reefs, so much that some countries, like Hawaii, want to impose a ban on them.

Wondering what to look for when buying an eco-friendly sunscreen? Simply try to avoid the ones that contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and similar, and opt for reef-friendly ingredients like non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide.

A person sea swimming at sunset

6. Opt for an eco-friendly mosquito repellent

Same as for sunscreen, a mosquito repellent is needed when visiting some parts of the world. Not all natural mosquito sprays on the market are actually “green”, so make sure you pick one that is not harmful to the wildlife (and for yourself).

While it might seem impossible to find a repellent that is eco-friendly and also works, try to go with products that contain citronella or lemon eucalyptus and avoid DEET at all cost. A more sustainable alternative to DEET is picaridin.

In addition, you can opt for pump sprays, as aerosol releases harmful chemicals.

7. Take nothing but pictures

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” is a phrase that you probably have heard before.

Sometimes we love a place so much that we want to bring back something that will make us remember our experience forever. So, when you are on a hike or walking on the beach and take rocks or a few seashells, it seems like something so innocent and harmless to do…After all, it’s only one shell or a couple and there are plenty of them in the sea, right?

But imagine if each person visiting the beach took a couple of things away, it would have a huge impact on the ecosystem, the environment and all the wildlife that relies on them.

Travelling sustainably and making sure the natural environment is preserved, is very important to allow future generation to discover and enjoy the beauty of our planet.

8. Pick up litter

The first rule for when you are enjoying the outdoors, not only when travelling but also back home, is to dispose of your waste properly. Actually, the first rule would be not to create any waste when possible, by switching to reusables and buying loose food. However, if we do have waste we need to make sure we bin it.

Sometimes, when you are on a hike or in a more remote place, it could be hard to find a bin. Or again, in very crowded places bins could be already full. This is no excuse for litter or to place your litter beside the already full bin: always carry a bag, to make sure you can bring your waste home with you if necessary.

Picking up litter – not just your own, but also litter other people left behind – is one of the best ways to leave a place better than how you found it.

Picking up litter is a great way to spend time outdoors, exercise, do something for the planet and feel good! For this reason, I always put a bag and a pair of gloves in my backpack when I’m going for a walk, a hike or a swim.

9. Volunteer

Like I said at the start, being a responsible tourist to me means bringing something positive to the place I’m visiting. Particularly when backpacking for a longer period of time, volunteering is the perfect way to do something for the local community, get to know the culture better and save money too!

As a matter of fact, when I was backpacking through Latin America for a full year, the volunteering experiences I had are some of my best memories. To find them, I mainly used Workaway.info. While a lot of the projects on this platform would be helping in hostels in exchange for food and accommodation, you can also look for projects that have the Sustainable Development Goals logo at the top, which are “sustainable projects”. When you click into the, you will see which one of the SDGs they fall under.

10. Support local businesses

While most of the points in this post are about environmental sustainability, being a responsible tourist doesn’t just mean protecting the natural environment, but also supporting the local community and culture. And one of the best and most immediate ways to do this is by supporting local businesses.

This ranges from picking an accommodation owned by local people to choosing a tour agency owned by local people but that also use part of their profits to improve the community they are in. For example, if you choose to stay in an international chain of hotels, what you are paying is basically leaving the country and cannot help the local community to develop and do better. To go back to point number 2, making changes in order to make an accommodation more green and getting a sustainability certification can be an expensive process, so staying in a locally owned and managed accommodation can help them achieve these goals. The same applies to tour agencies.

Other ways to support local businesses entail simple things, from buying souvenirs from local artisans to eating at local restaurants and bars instead of international chains.

A market

11. What you eat is important too!

Speaking of “local”, eating local food when travelling is not only a way to try new things and getting to know better a culture, but also another way to be a greener traveller. After all, why would you go to a place so far away to eat food you could find back home…to then say it’s not as good as back home? Now, having backpacked for over a year, I do understand the occasional craving for food from home you are really missing (mine is usually pizza, what’s yours?), but when travelling for shorter periods of time we have no excuse!

When you ask for food that isn’t from the country you are in, not only you are not supporting local businesses, but you are also contributing to creating more emissions for the food to arrive there. On top of this, you are contributing to creating more waste: food that comes from far away will normally need to be either processed or heavily packaged to survive all the transportation stages. This means that then the country you are in will have the burden to dispose of this packaging and waste, which can be hard in some places. An interesting documentary where they show this is Eating up Easter by Sergio Rapu.

A plate with food

12. Take shorter showers and reuse your towels

When I’m staying in hostels, particularly in more remote places, I often see signs asking people to take shorter showers as some of these places are struggling with water shortages. Water conservation, when taking a shower, washing our hands, brushing our teeth, etc.. is so important to go green. But this is also something we should do at home!

And speaking of showers, one of the easiest things we can do to help the environment is reusing their towels more than once, saving the water needed to wash them. If you already do this and what to take the extra step, put up the “Do not disturb” sign on your door: this way, you will not only save water but also save the energy used to hoover the floor, soaps and their chemicals going down the drain and stuff like that.

13. Be mindful of wildlife

One of my favourite parts about travelling is seeing the wildlife. It’s such a magical experience seeing animals that would only normally see in a documentary!

A rhino in a field with a bird on the back

However, it’s important to enjoy the wildlife in an ethical way. Unfortunately, there are still agencies around the world that exploit wildlife to make a profit, so before booking anything just do a quick search.

Try to avoid agencies that let you ride elephants or swim with captive fish just to get the perfect photo for Instagram. Here you can find an example of a bad experience I had in Peru.

Amazonian animals are being torn from the wild so tourists can take selfies for social media.(…)Amongst the 34 billion images posted by 700 million people on Instagram, our initial investigation shows there are tens of thousands of selfies taken with wild animals. These photos capture a moment of shareable joy for people, but for many of them, the animals’ stress and suffering is left out of the frame. 

World Animal Protection

We personally heard that some agencies that organise tours in the Amazon forest keep monkeys captive so that tourists can hold them and take pictures with them. For this reason, the World Animal Protection created the Wildlife Selfie Code.

Don't take a wildlife selfie if I'm being held, higged or restrained, You are baiting me with food, I could harm you. DO take a wildlife selfie if you keep a safe distance, I'm in my natural home and I'm not captive

Wildlife Selfie Code

Do you have any other tips to share?


5 thoughts on “13 tips to be a more sustainable traveller”

  1. I liked the point that involves using less of your own things, like you had mentioned here – Take shorter shower and reuse the towels. Also, using less of vehicles and more of going by foot to nearer distances would be good fit too in becoming a sustainable traveler.

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