What is sustainable travel? The essentials you need to know

The tourism industry is constantly evolving and new trends always emerging as more people take to exploring the world every year. Sustainable travel is one of the many new terms to enter the travel lexicon in recent years.

Given the environmental issues our planet is facing though, it’s also a term here to stay – and it’s the way we should be traveling anyway! But I digress.

I want to break down the basics of sustainable travel and why we need to make it the norm. When you’re done with this post, you’ll have all the foundations of sustainable travel covered!

But if you’re ready to learn more and start planning your first eco-trip, I can’t blame you. And I’ll help you get started if that’s the case.

Walking carefully through the sunflower field leaving all the flowers in place to make sure I'm engaging in sustainable travel photography.
Walking carefully through the sunflower field leaving all the flowers in place to make sure I’m engaging in sustainable travel photography.

Defining sustainable travel

There are a lot of definitions going around, but let me start with the dictionary definition of “sustainable”.

Sustainable Travel

(adjective)

1. capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2. pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to overfishing.

3. able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries.

4. able to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision.

able to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.

Dictionary.com

Broadly, sustainable travel means traveling in a way that doesn’t harm the people, culture, or environment of the places we visit. For tourism providers, it means providing tourism opportunities for travelers to do just that.

Is eco-travel the same as sustainable travel?

I don’t think eco-travel and sustainable travel are the same thing, necessarily. Eco-travel or environmental tourism implies being outdoors in nature but the terms don’t necessarily imply being sustainable or ethical about it.

Sustainable travel does, of course, refer to the physical impact of our travel on the planet, like environmental degradation, carbon emissions, and animal extinction. It also goes beyond the eco-aspect to include a consideration of the people we come across when we travel; ethical engagement with locals, other tourists.

And of course, sustainable travel involves what we buy. The clothes and travel gear we pack before we leave. The hotels, tours, meals, and souvenirs we purchase along the way. What we do with all our travel mementos when we return home.

A popular framework to think of sustainable travel is to break it into 3 main tenants, which people label a variety of ways. I like to label them as such:

  1. Sustainable consumption
  2. Eco-friendly habits
  3. Ethical engagement

You might also see this as “people, planet, profit,” or other similar variations. There is a ton of overlap between sustainable consumption and eco-friendly habits! Really, the goal is that sustainable consumption and ethical engagement become your habits, alongside the things you usually do to protect the planet everyday.

Before we dive into what these all really mean, let’s consider why sustainable travel is necessary in the first place.

Why sustainable travel is necessary

The tourism industry is massive. In 2015, there were an estimated 1.19 billion international arrivals, or tourists visiting other countries. And that was years ago! Until COVID put a major pause on travel in 2020, remote work capabilities and access to information on travel has grown annually, year after year.

I’ll spare you the lecture on climate change and assume you know climate change is a real threat to our planet. 8 billion people have an enormous impact on our celestial home.

Have you considered how that impact grows larger when we travel?

It’s more important than ever to ensure the travel industry is one that protects the planet rather than harms it. If we don’t, the consequences will be dire affecting us far beyond ruining the beauty of the places we aim to observe in the first place.

My philosophy is to identify the ways in which you can impact the sustainability of a trip and do your best to minimize that impact. We don’t have control over everything, in travel or in life, and we all have unique situations and limitations only we can really know.

I’m not here to tell you what to do. What I AM here to do is show you that planning and executing a sustainable trip is easier than you think!

From here on out, I’ll break down the three tenants of sustainable travel and share some simple tips on how to incorporate sustainability into your travels, before, during, and after your trip.

SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION

Most of the decisions about what and how much we’ll consume on vacation happen in the planning stages, before we even leave the house. Booking our flights or hotel rooms, buying new outfits or gear, reserving tours. Even scouting out where you’re going to have your meals.

So how do we consume more sustainably?

As I mentioned, making the most sustainable choice will look different for every location and for every person. We’ll look at transportation, accommodations, tours, shopping, and dining to see what the most sustainable options are, generally speaking.

Transportation

I’m sure you know about carbon emissions and their impact on the planet, but if you need a quick refresher, read this article by Earth Hero.

Most of the human impact of global warming comes from fossil fuel use which typically falls into either electricity/heat, transportation, and industrial processes. Global aviation makes up about 11% of the transportation part of carbon emissions, but creates more of the pollution than other forms of transport so the impact is disproportionately damaging.

So, what can we do about carbon emissions in regards to transportation? Basically, try to use more of the the most sustainable types of transportation, and use less of the fossil-fuel guzzling methods.

Check out the graphic to compare how much carbon is emitted from different types of transportation.

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566

Travel inherently means movement and movement typically requires transportation. There’s no way around that. The best we can do is try to minimize the carb emissions we make.

If you have to fly, you have to fly. But not all flights are created equal, which is good news! There are some major things you can do to minimize your impact, even as you’re flying.

  • fly with airlines who are doing the most to limit their environmental impact (check out Million Mile Secrets’s article for a chart of the most eco-friendly US airlines and their chosen offsetting charities)
  • try minimize the number of flights (and legs of your flight) that you can by taking direct, non-stop flights whenever possible (the biggest chunk of carbon usage comes from takeoff and landing a plane, so the fewer times you have to do this the better)
  • pack light – lighter luggage = less carbon used to drag us and our stuff to our final destination
  • consider offsetting your carbon emissions (Girl vs Globe has a great article about the best carbon-offset programs that I recommend reading)

What about transportation on land or sea?

There are some steps you can take here too. Here are some guidelines for how to make your transportation as sustainable as possible:

  • take advantage of public transportation available in major cities (trams, metros, bike rentals, trains)
  • slow down your itinerary to allow time for walking or using public transit to get to your destinations
  • look for accommodations near where you’ll be doing most of your sight seeing, or near public transportation, so you don’t need as many ubers or taxis
  • pack light (same rules apply here as they did on flights)
  • when possible, choose electric or hybrid busses, metros, bikes, scooters, or even boats over vehicles which strictly require fossil fuels
  • if you have to take a taxi, uber, or other small vehicle, see if there are options to ride share with other people going the same place or direction as you
I wouldn't have seen this beautiful sight if I'd been using less sustainable travel methods and taken a bus, but since I got lost and was walking for miles, I stumble across this gem and had a chance to take a picture!
I wouldn’t have seen this beautiful sight if I’d been using less sustainable travel methods and taken a bus, but since I got lost and was walking for miles, I stumble across this gem and had a chance to take a picture!

This is perhaps one the biggest examples of choosing the most sustainable travel method possible for your situation. Walking, biking, scootering, skateboarding – these rank at the top of sustainable options since they don’t need any fuel to get you around. But there are only so many instances where those are legitimate options for getting you from point A to point B.

Trains beat planes for long distance travel plus give you a chance to see some incredible sights like on my Oslo to Bergen trip you’d miss from the sky. Trams and metros tend to beat busses, which are more sustainable still than driving alone. And if you do drive, carpools are better than solo taxis and ubers.

Like I said, assess your own situation, look at what the options are, and make your best choice from there.

Accommodations

Accommodations are usually the second largest chunk of your “travel footprint”.

I wrote a whole post on how to find eco-friendly accommodations, but here are some of the takeaways:

  • Look for locally run accommodations when possible to support the local ecomony
  • A bed and breakfast run by locals will probably provide a more cultural experience than your Holiday Inn or Marriot
  • AirBNB is a wonderful option to stay alongside locals or get out of the hotel life, but it is straight up illegal in some cities, and causing serious issues in others like Venice or Barcelona
  • Look for evidence of recycling programs, plant-based mattresses or other furniture or supplies made from sustainable materials, locally-sourced food options, souvenirs, etc, energy efficient lightbulbs, water saving technology
  • Know that not all “eco-lodges” or “eco-resorts” are sustainable or eco-friendly in the slightest

Tours

Tours vary greatly in terms of their impact on the environment and local culture depending on what you’re doing.

From an environmental standpoint, there are some amazing companies out there who run tours that are zero emissions, carbon-neutral, plastic free, or otherwise ahead of the game in sustainability. You want to make sure any tour company you book is doing their absolute utmost to protect the places they’re showing you.

From a cultural perspective, you want to ensure any tour you take respects the locals, at a bare minimum. Nearly everywhere in the world, there are local experts offering high quality tours of their home country. When possible, support the local economy by choosing one of these.

*It’s worth noting that locally-led tours do not necessarily mean locally-owned tour groups.

If you’re keen to leave the work of trip planning to someone else, here’s a few tour groups I’d recommend. These companies are major, and offer a wide variety of trips around the world.

I can’t begin to list all of the locally owned tour operators, but I assure you there are thousands of local tour guides with infinite wisdom if you do some research in your specific areas.

A favorite example I saw was a local street art tour run by homeless men and women in Berlin. I’d imagine that they know the streets better than anyone else probably could, and your financial support would be much more impactful for them than booking through a major tour company.

For some examples, read this next: 8 Environmentally Friendly Adventures to Have Around the World

My Global Directory has recommended resources for every country. I highly suggest checking out some of the itineraries to see suggested tour guides specific to where you’re traveling.

Dining

Sustainable dining abroad really isn’t much different from sustainable dining at home. Here are my tips:

Skip the chain restaurants and look for mom-and-pop shops or local diners

(I know, I know. Sometimes it’s just a fact that Starbucks has the most reliable wifi, and when you have a virtual work meeting, it’s the only choice. But when you’re not taking a call, consider trying a local coffee shop instead.)

Visit a local farmer’s markets and grocery store & cook for yourself when you can

It can be an amazing experience in itself when abroad! You’ll get a sense of the local produce, find great snacks you’d never discover otherwise, and get a better pulse on what daily life is like than you can from a restaurant. Cooking for yourself is almost always cheaper than dining out for every meal too.

This delicious veggie tray is vegan, scrumptious, and making a teeny impact on the environment.
This delicious veggie tray is vegan, scrumptious, and making a teeny impact on the environment.

Consider the environmental impact of your dining choices

I won’t tell you what to eat, but a plant-based diet usually has the smallest impact on the environment. More and more these days, vegan or vegetarian food is accessible in nearly every global cuisine.

Still, there may be times when eating vegan would require far more resources than eating locally. My 9-day road-trip in Mongolia comes to mind. Lamb is a staple in the cuisine, and readily available as most nomadic families have livestock. Tofu and tempeh are hundreds of miles away. Pursuing a vegan diet would likely result in a much higher footprint than eating the local animal products.

A general rule of thumb is to try and eat foods that were grown or sourced as close to you as possible, eat more plants whenever possible, and skip foods which are endangered or come with a high environmental pricetag, like exotic or endangered animals.

Shopping

We shop for clothes and gear before we take a vacation, and we buy souvenirs or gifts for friends and family when we’re actually on the trip.

All of those purchases are opportunities for us to make a more sustainable choice.

Ask yourself these questions when buying something:

  1. It this a need or a want?
  2. Is this something I will use after my trip, or something I’ll only use on this vacation?
  3. Can I borrow this item from someone?
  4. If I need to buy this item, can I buy it secondhand, from an ethical business I trust, or from a local source?
  5. What is the environmental impact of this purchase?
  6. How will I get rid of this item at the end of its life cycle?

Put this list of questions next to your packing list so when you start curating a shopping list you can pump the breaks and proceed with caution.

ETHICAL ENGAGEMENT

I believe we have an obligation to respect and protect the places and people we visit when we travel. To be completely straight with you, this will most likely translate to some extra effort and research before you travel.

If we choose to disregard our responsibilities, we threaten the culture and the sites that we want to visit, leaving them in worse shape for those who haven’t had a chance to explore and learn from the places we’ve been. Leaving them in worse shape for the locals. And ruining them for ourselves.

Here are some important issues to consider when planning a trip:

Animal Tourism

Animal tourism is a sticky topic that gets people very heated. Some people think any type of animal tourism should be avoided, while others think it’s okay in the right ways. And of course, there are those who just don’t care about the impact at all.

Like any issue, people disagree about what constitutes an appropriate animal encounter. As in other areas of travel, I think the only solution is to do as much research as you can and make your own choice. Each animal encounter will have its own set of questions to ask, and different red flags to look out for when deciding on whether or not to take part.

Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • Google – a simple “are dolphin animal encounters ethical” or whatever you’re wanting to see will provide you with a host of articles, research, and opinion pieces to start
  • Check the Trip Advisor reviews, or reviews of whatever else you can find – and thoroughly. Make sure there aren’t any reviews that indicate it’s a tourist trap rather than an ethical encounter
  • Do some basic research into the animals’ habits – what do they eat, are they social creatures, what is their natural environment like; make sure the animal encounter isn’t offering experiences counter to this research
  • Don’t feed wild animals
  • Avoid purchasing animal souvenirs of any kind (ivory, rabbits foot, fur products, etc)
  • Look for reputable eco-friendly tours and organizations who have a history of respecting and caring for the animals
  • Ask what you’re NOT allowed to do – every organization allowing animal encounters should have a list which protects the animals

Respect the holy and historical sites

This should be a simple one, but yet so many people don’t consider it when they’re traveling. I’m speaking from experience.

Just because you’re allowed to visit a site doesn’t mean you should act as you would at home. People around the world have different customs and traditions, generally with more history and reason behind them than we’ll ever take the time to understand. The quicker we travel the truer this becomes. So how do we respect the local heritage?

I visited the beautiful, turquoise Hermitage Museum and was dismayed to see people were not practicing responsible tourism and were TOUCHING the ancient artifacts and paintings! Don't do it!
I visited the beautiful, turquoise Hermitage Museum and was dismayed to see people were not practicing responsible tourism and were TOUCHING the ancient artifacts and paintings! Don’t do it!

If the holy site you’re visiting requires certain dress, wear it.

If they don’t allow photos, DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS. People will believe you went there, I promise. I’ve accidentally done this when I did not notice a “no photos” sign at a temple and was met with a lot of glares that were rightfully earned.

Be silent where silence is requested. Don’t laugh or joke about the way things are done while you’re visiting, even if it seems a bit funny to you. Generally, just don’t be an asshole and it will all be fine!

Respecting Customs

There are always exceptions, but unless your health requires it (turning down an alcoholic offering from a host, or avoiding an allergen in a food you’ve been offered) respect the customs of the places you’re visiting.

I’m not on board with dressing however you like at a temple because you disagree with women being told what to wear. I love the freedom to dress as I like too, but if you can’t respect the customs then don’t visit the sites or culture.

Your brief visit to another country is not the time to dismantle the patriarchy or try to convince an entire country to turn vegan, even if you believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s neither the time nor place, and I can guarantee your well-intentioned acts will not be received in a productive way.

Learn the Language Basics

This can be really difficult, especially if you’re visiting a lot of countries quickly. Another benefit of slow-travel is having the time to master some basics. Still, I think learning “sorry, I don’t speak ___ well” or whatever language applies, “please” and “thank you” go a long way.

When I was in Russia, I felt like a lot of locals were initially frustrated with my lack of language abilities, but when we finish the conversation (of body language) and I said “thank you” in Russian, it usually elicited a smile. Or a laugh. Which for my self-esteem I will interpret as “aw how cute, she’s trying”.

Yes, no, cash/card, bathroom, water, and help are also some good words to memorize.

Learn the Basic History

Go a step further and learn the basic history of the place you’re visiting. It will work wonders to enrich your experience of the sites you’re seeing, and your trip in general.

You don’t have to memorize dates and names, but having a general concept of the trials and tribulations a country and its people have experienced can help you be more respectful, too.

Two Dusty Travelers and How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch do a great job with this, noting the Native American tribe that used to occupy the land (before they were forcibly kicked out by white Americans) as they travel through the US.

Respecting Individuals 

It’s doing the bare minimum to respect the people who live where we’re visiting, for aforementioned reasons. We’re leaving an impact when we go someplace, like it or not, and it’s better for everyone (locals, tourists, future tourists) if we’re respectful visitors.

One thing you can do right away is make sure to ask permission if taking photos of locals. Especially if you plan on sharing it. Some people might not want their photo taken and in some cultures, being photographed is culturally inappropriate or taboo. It might be awkward at first, but asking is always polite and can open up the door for some great conversations too!

When possible, support the locals over foreign industries, whether we’re talking souvenirs, restaurants, tours, or accommodations. And be considerate about haggling over prices with locals – in many instances what might be insignificant to you as a traveller might be hugely significant to the artisan, tour guide, restauranteur, host, or whoever else with whom you interact.

Voluntourism

The last topic I’ll discuss is voluntourism – when you travel specifically to volunteer. Why is this an issue, you ask? After all, isn’t all help good help?

In a nutshell, no. Especially when that help is done by people who are unqualified, or is unrequested.

  1. Voluntourism often funnels a lot of money into the tourism industry under the guise of helping locals, when the people doing the help don’t really know what they’re doing.

2. In some not-as-harmless situations, such as visiting an orphanage, you can do real damage to those you’re “helping”. In the case of orphanage tours, the likelihood of contributing to abandonment issues, or even perpetuating a system which exploits children for income, is pretty high.

The dangers of voluntourism as it relates to orphanage visits is well documented – don’t take my word for it. Read this Global Citizens article to learn more about it. (This is not to guilt trip, but to educate. We also did this on our “mission trip” to Jamaica which I deeply regret.)

3. Finally, voluntourism often contributes to or perpetuates colonialist mindsets whereby a nation’s locals are reduced to people in need of help from a wealthier, whiter nation. It’s usually not the intent of those who want to volunteer, but it’s the reality.

I encourage you to read and learn more about voluntourism as its a super important subject. One book I can’t recommend enough on this topic is Learning Service: What You Need to Know about Studying Abroad. I wrote a book review on Learning Service after reading it because I found it so helpful, and it’s now a staple on my bookshelf to return to when I’m thinking about traveling to give back.

So, is all volunteering bad?

Absolutely not. There are a lot of organizations volunteering the right way and providing help that is needed. Sometimes it does come in the form of manual labor after a natural disaster, where all-hands-on-deck is the approach needed. Sometimes it requires skilled labor in places where there aren’t enough locals to do the task themselves. Ask the organization you want to volunteer with whether they’re utilizing local help, and if not, why that’s the case. There may or may not be a valid reason.

Other times, like through Workaway, locals will ask for specific kinds of help to which you can apply. In these instances, you can be sure that the local needs the help you’re offering and agrees that you’re an appropriate person to do the task.

Again, research is in order to make sure the organization you’re volunteering with is a good one. Go Abroad has a helpful article (and rating system for volunteer organizations) to help you sort through your options.

ECO-FRIENDLY TRAVEL HABITS

All of the topics we’ve discussed so far are specifically travel related. When it comes to eco-friendly habits though, most practices you’ll want to adopt when traveling you’ll also want to practice in your day to day.

It’s really hard to build new habits when you’re traveling, especially if the actions aren’t necessarily more convenient. If you can start to incorporate some of these eco-friendly behaviors into your regular life, you’ll be able to practice them when traveling with far less effort!

These views of the Charles Bridge in Prague would be a lot less enjoyable if the streets were littered with plastic. Practice responsible tourism and reduce, reuse, recycle!
These views of the Charles Bridge in Prague would be a lot less enjoyable if the streets were littered with plastic. Practice responsible tourism and reduce, reuse, recycle!

There are some other travel habits I recommend developing that will make your travels much more sustainable too.

  • Refuse, reduce, repurpose, reuse, recycle, rot, rethink – in that order
  • Buy from local artists rather than mass corporations whenever possible, and seek out opportunities to support marginalized populations in their business endeavors
  • Leave nature alone – don’t bring back all the sand and flowers and rocks that make the place so beautiful in the first place
  • Minimize or eliminate the plastics you use in your daily life or pack for your trip
  • Travel slowly – tThe longer you stay in a destination, the less time you spend getting to and from said destination.
  • Eat vegan or vegetarian as many meals as possible (this will look different for everyone, but even one meal a day without dairy and/or meat can make a big difference)
  • Eat local and avoid chains when possible – your food will travel a shorter distance to get to you AND you’ll get a better taste of the food of the region
  • Save your trash until you find a recycling center, even if it means bringing some of it home
  • Use public transportation as much as possible

My final (and most important) piece of advice

If all of the considerations above seems overwhelming, that’s okay! There is no perfectly sustainable trip. Sustainable travel will look different for everyone. It’s all about doing your best and minimizing your impact as much as you reasonably can.

I encourage you to start small. Pick one area that you think you can improve upon on your next adventure and work toward more sustainable actions there. Slowly, you’ll find these become second nature and you can work on modifying other habits.

If you’re looking for some examples of other travelers doing sustainable travel well, check out my post on 20 sustainable travel bloggers to follow in 2020. I guarantee you’ll be inspired.

LOOKING FOR MORE ON SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL? TRY THESE NEXT:

20 Tips for Sustainable Travel

8 Eco-Friendly Adventures to Discover Around the World

Ethical Travel Mistakes: 5 Things We Wouldn’t Do Again and Their Responsible Alternatives

I’ve also created three freebies to help you plan your next adventure:

  • 50 Practical Travel Tips from Solo Lady Backpackers (a 6-page PDF)
  • 20 Tips for Sustainable Travel (a checklist)
  • and 30 Jobs to See the World.

Sign up for the mailing list and get them all sent to your inbox so you can start your trip planning right away. 

What is sustainable travel? The essentials you need to know

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