Approachable tips for making any kind of travel (not just “eco-travel”) more sustainable through small mindset changes and knowing what to look for.
Let’s play a game: What do you picture in your mind when you read the words “eco-travel,” or “sustainable travel”?
Does it involve gorillas, kayaks, or thatched roofs?
Maybe a tree house in the jungle in Costa Rica? With a composting toilet somewhere down a dark path from your un-airconditioned hut?
Are there blisters on your feet yet?
If you love that kind of travel, great. But are those ideas anything like what you see in your mind when you just read the word “travel”?
The way I see it, that’s the problem with a lot of sustainable travel advice. It tends to point travelers toward just two options:
Either outdoorsy “eco-travel,” or really expensive, though sustainable, luxury resorts.
Both are great. But sometimes we don’t want either.
And that creates the misconception that eco-friendly, responsible and – my least favorite of these terms – “conscious” travel have to be something other than “fun.”
Then there’s the other camp of bad advice about sustainable travel: Nuggets like “travel locally!”
Well, yeah, good tip. But if I wanted to stay local, I wouldn’t be looking for travel advice. As every travel writer and blogger has told us throughout the pandemic, there’s so much to explore in your own backyard!
It’s true, but we all know it’s not the same category. And does that advice mean the rest of your travel – when you do eventually go outside your home state – can’t be done more sustainably?
I think not. Because traveling better – with less environmental impact, and more positive social impact for local communities – doesn’t have to be difficult. It doesn’t have to be stuffy, and it definitely doesn’t have to involve a kayak.
So I think we need a different way of thinking about sustainable travel: These are a few really simple ideas for how to do any kind of trip in a greener way.
1. Keep it simple.
Deciding between Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for a week on the beach? Choose the one that has a direct flight from wherever you are.
Am I just saying “travel local” in another way? No! I’m saying, let the simplest, most direct destination be the tie-breaker, and that will help you minimize the flights you take.
Simplicity is a basic principle of sustainability in so many areas. Simpler packaging, more direct travel routes, buying less stuff. It’s all part of the most basic tip to live more sustainably: We’ve gotten used to overconsumption and over-complication, and we have to break that habit. Travel is part of that.
(That’s why I also recommend train travel in Italy, and taking ferries instead of flying whenever possible. Not only is this kind of travel less stressful and simpler to organize, it’ll minimize the carbon emissions of your trip.)
2. Try new things.
When I was a kid, my mother had a pair of patterned capri pants with little pink flamingoes all over them. They were her “travel pants” – something she loved the idea of, but that just felt too out of the ordinary to fit into her routine at home.
That’s one of the great things about traveling – it relieves you of your habits.
You get out of the context of your daily life and having a chance to try something new, with none of the pressures of routine, habit or tradition.
At home, maybe you’re in the habit of cooking chicken for dinner. You know you like it. you know how to cook it. It’s easy, and you’re always too tired at the end of the day to search for something else.
But when you’re traveling, you have no routine, and everything is new! So instead of ordering the chicken, why not try the veggie option?
That’s just one example. But my point is this: We all have to find our sustainable pink flamingo travel pants. AKA, those sustainable choices that you like the idea of trying, but never get around to at home.
Other ideas: Try being a minimalist and wearing the same outfit for multiple days on your trip. It might feel weird at first, but maybe you’ll find you like the simplicity and don’t need to keep buying as many new clothes, or pack a carry-on. (Travel gets so much simpler with less stuff in tow!) Try walking more and automatically hopping in a cab less. Maybe you’ll like what you see!
‘Cause after all, travel is part of life. We think of it as this totally different activity, but a lot of travel – eating, washing your face, getting from place to place, buying stuff – is just doing life in another location. Build a sustainable lifestyle to take on the road and you’ve won half the battle.
3. Know a few basic sustainability certifications to look for (and a few good companies to travel with).
Looking for sustainability certifications really is the lazy shortcut to finding sustainable travel businesses, because certifications only just scratch the surface.
But sometimes, when you’re trying to plan a trip to a place you’ve never been to before, where people speak another language, and it’s not going to be feasible to hand-pick every individual sustainable hotel, for example, without relying on some sort of stamp of approval, those certifications can be a big help.
Remember, this is meant to be a lazy guide – and while they’re not perfect, certifications can be wonderfully simple.
General Sustainability Certifications:
- Certified B Corps
The B Corp certification is a well-rounded one that considers both the social and environmental practices of a company. Intrepid Travel is a great example of a small-group tour company that’s a Certified B Corp, along with being carbon-neutral.
- 1% For The Planet and Climate Neutral are two other stamps of approval I look for, but they’re not very common in the travel industry.
(Being a member of 1% For The Planet means a company donates at least 1% of their sales to environmental non-profits, and there are a few travel companies on the list. Climate Neutral checks and certifies companies’ carbon-neutrality claims. Others good organizations that do same include Carbon Fund and My Climate.)
Tip: Companies almost always include these logos in the footer of their website if they have any of these certifications, making it easy to check.
Sustainable Travel Certifications & Organizations:
Several solid organizations and certifiers are advancing sustainability in the travel industry by sharing best-practices among businesses, and educating travelers. (Many of these have hosted sustainable travel conferences that I’ve attended, with leading academics giving talks, so they’re clearly legit.)
You can look to these organizations for more information (or – the lazy option – check a travel company’s About Page to see if they’re a member of any of them).
- Sustainable Travel International – Since 2002, STI has been a thought leader and cheerleader for sustainable travel. Their website is great resource for travelers and businesses.
- Center For Responsible Travel (CREST) – Another thought-leader and research organization that publishes case studies of sustainable travel businesses, and organizes conferences to help destinations and businesses improve.
- Global Sustainable Tourism Council – Think of the GSTC as the organization that “accredits” the certifiers. (“Certifies” the certifiers is how I think about it, but that’s not quite the right term.) They provide criteria for sustainability certifications used for destinations, hotels and tour operators. You’ll notice this logo on GSTC accredited certifications, including the next one:
- Green Destinations – A certification that’s accredited by the GSTC. They help destinations become more sustainable and promote those that are leading the pack with awards and marketing help.
- Impact Travel Alliance – Compared with the others, ITA is more focused on the social side of sustainable tourism, diversity, and spreading the profits of tourism more equitably.
- The Future of Tourism Coalition – A coalition of most of the above organizations that works to put destinations in control of tourism (instead of leaving locals at the whims of foreign travel companies and tourists).
- Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency – A community of travel companies (including Tilted Map!) that have publicly declared a climate emergency, and are implementing plans to cut their carbon emissions to 55% below 2017 levels by 2030.
Even easier: These travel companies are leaders in sustainability:
These are the tour companies that I see again and again at those sustainable travel events. Some have lots of sustainability certifications, some don’t, but all of them are leading innovation in improving the way we travel.
- Intrepid Travel – A small group travel company that will take on a huge variety of unique themed adventures around the world. A few other travel companies are Certified B Corps, but Intrepid is the biggest of them. They also have science-based emissions reduction targets (the first in the travel industry to do so) to become compatible with limiting climate change to 1.5°C.
- G Adventures – Similar to Intrepid, G Adventures offers community-focused, small-group tours around the world. Their unique “Ripple Score” shows how much of the cost of your trip stays in the local community you’re visiting.
- Natural Habitat Adventures – A conservation- and wildlife-focused tour company that works with World Wildlife Fund to take travelers to particularly remote destinations. They also donate 1% of gross sales to WWF. In 2007 they became the first carbon-neutral travel company, and are leaders in reducing plastic use (no straws, plastic bottles, or other single-use plastics on their trips).
I first learned about Natural Habitat Adventures at another online sustainable travel conference this year. That’s where I virtually “met” Court Whelan, the company’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel. He has a PhD in Ecotourism (aka “Conservation Travel,” to use the current buzz word) & Entomology.
So I emailed him to get his take on carbon neutrality certifications in travel and other industries.
Here’s part of what he had to say:
“One of the key things to acknowledge is that just because an organization does not have a certification seal doesn’t mean they aren’t walking the walk.
It’s sort of like the organic farming debate. Lots of the smaller mom and pop outfits can’t afford the auditing fees or other expenses that come with the actual certification. They are already strapped by doing the offsetting in the first place, and they just simply can’t do more.
Thus, I will always side on the “don’t let perfection get in the way of being great” argument here.
Frankly, while it may be controversial to say, and I’m not advocating a complete breakdown of the system, we don’t need a dozen companies doing carbon offsetting perfectly, we need a million doing it imperfectly. If someone can’t get the certification, or heck, can’t do offsetting perfectly, it’s still a great thing to be into it because they are helping perpetuate the momentum on a big, important thing. As more people/companies offset emissions, they are normalizing it, and the impetus is on the bigger companies, governments, and even individuals to enter into the space, too, which is a good thing.”
From my own experience, the adventure travel company UnCruise is a perfect example of what Court’s talking about. UnCruise is a small-ship cruise company that I’ve written about before, and that I’ve been trying to travel with since 2019. (But of course, the pandemic has gotten in the way.)
Over the past 18 months, I’ve had several conversations with their CEO, marketing director, and people involved in creating their farm-to-table supply chains for the meals they serve on some of their trips. They don’t have any of the big sustainability certifications because they just haven’t gone after them – but they’re certainly walking the walk.
All of that brings me to number four:
4. Internalize this idea: Perfect is the enemy of good (and we need a lot of good).
Perfectionism almost certainly limits the amount of positive change we make – after all, if you feel like you have to be perfect to make a difference, who’s even going to try?
To paraphrase what Court said above, we don’t need a few people doing sustainable travel perfectly, we need a lot of people doing it imperfectly.
I used chicken in the example above, about trying new things, because it’s well-known that industrial meat and dairy production have a massive climate impact. (Beef is by far the worst, but all meat is much more polluting than a plant-based diet – at least at the scale on which we now produce it.)
But most people hear that and they shut down, because they think it means they have to stop eating meat entirely. It doesn’t! It means it’s time to start looking for more meatless recipes we enjoy. That’s not being a perfect vegan, but it’s a hell of a lot better than not making any effort at all.
And the report I linked above (and here) describes several different options for diets that have a better climate impact than the average US diet – including “climate carnivore.” The idea is to start somewhere, not to start perfect.
So when you’re traveling, take the opportunity to try something new that you know is better for the planet – even if you’re not going to do it perfectly, or every day for the rest of your life. That’s okay.
5. Do at least a little pre-trip research (and know what to look for).
Looking for famous sustainability certifications I described above is a good place to start, but many small businesses simply won’t have them – yet that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing nothing.
One way to deal with this is to search around a little when planning a trip. Google “sustainable travel in X destination,” and look for local sustainability organizations, business groups, or certifications. Follow their recommendations for local hotels, activity outfitters, restaurants, etc.
Your decision process for which boat company you hire for a snorkeling tour on Maui, or which island to visit in Greece can get a lot easier when you use these organizations to narrow down the options.
Of course, independent certifiers will have varying standards. They won’t always be as organized or strict as the major certifications I mentioned above.
But at the very least, they’re likely to be better than most, and they’re likely to send you to truly local companies, which is a good start.
Because honestly, it’s confusing out there. We see taglines like “eco-lodge” and “green tour company” all the time. But any company making meaningful changes to be more sustainable will be able to tell you about them in detail, even if they don’t have certifications.
Look for a page about sustainability on the business’ website, and pay attention to what they actually say:
Is it all vague, philosophical ideas? (Example: “We strive to do protect the environment.”)
Or do they share specific, measurable actions? (Example: “We’ve partnered with a local NGO to do X,” “we’ve installed rooftop solar panels,” “we pay our employees a living wage,” “we have filtered water refill stations instead of offering single-use plastic water bottles,” etc.)
If companies say they’re “sustainable,” but can’t be specific, it’s likely because they don’t have much to say.
To find sustainable hotels around the world, here are a few places to start your research:
- EcoHotels.com – Started in April 2020, Copenhagen-based Eco Hotels is a quickly growing network of hotels that all have sustainability certifications accredited by the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council). Compared with other third-party booking sites, this one takes a much lower commission, meaning their prices can be lower for travelers, and more revenue stays with the hotels. They also plant a tree for each booking made! (And I mean the EcoHotels team physically plants each tree; they’re not hiring out a third-party.)
- Book Different – Just as Tilted Map is a Booking.com affiliate, so is Book Different. That means that when I put a link to a hotel on Booking.com and you, dear reader, make a booking through that link, I earn a commission. (Booking pays me part of their commission. The total hotel bill doesn’t go up for you, and the hotel itself doesn’t make any more or less than they make on other reservations made through Booking.) That’s exactly how Book Different works, as well. Any hotel that’s on Booking.com is also on Book Different – they just add a layer of sustainability information, by indicating which hotels have received various certifications. (Including many GSTC-recognized certifications, and some smaller local ones that aren’t accredited.)
- Kind Traveler – a California-based start-up that lets you make donations to local charities by booking sustainable hotels – and in exchange, you get special discounts and perks at those hotels. It’s pretty limited in the number of properties available, but there’s a wide range of prices. The hotels already have sustainability initiatives and connections with local charities they work with, but you get to choose which organization your donation goes to.
- Regenerative Travel – Book “experiences” at a curated selection of upscale resorts around the world, selected for being both unique destinations, and drivers of innovation in environmental and social impact and sustainability. The team personally vets each property, and only accepts those that are committed to continuing improvement. Many of these are “destination hotels,” where once you arrive, you don’t really need to leave because there are abundant activities on-site. (Maybe “destination properties” would be a better term, because they’re often substantial pieces of protected land.) That in itself is a great way to make your trip more sustainable – limiting the transportation you’ll need and staying in one place longer.
6. Remember to refuse the things you always mean to refuse at home.
Ah, the forgotten R: Reduce, reuse, recycle – but first, refuse.
This point is back-to-basics: One of the simplest, cheapest things we can do, as consumers, to make businesses operate more sustainably is also one of the hardest to actually remember. (At least for me.)
That thing is Saying No.
Think about using that fresh perspective that travel grants as an opportunity to be more intentional, and remember to say no to the wasteful things you always mean to avoid:
- Resist the urge to crank the AC. An example: Sustainable Travel International estimates that 48% of energy used in hotels in Barbados is for air conditioning. Plus, the more your body gets used to hot weather, the more comfortable you’ll use without energy-chugging air conditioning, anyway. So use it sparingly.
- Pack a refillable water bottle you’ll actually use, and say no to plastic bottles (even the free ones on the plane). Even in places where you can’t drink the tap water, options like the Grayl filtering water bottle, or the LARQ self-cleaning, UV-sanitizing bottle can keep you from creating a constant stream of plastic trash (and sometimes improve the taste of local water).
- Pack solid toiletries. Apart from making it much easier to get through security and guaranteeing you won’t find a shampoo explosion in your suitcase, solid toiletries don’t require plastic packaging, and they’re concentrated – meaning you add water in your shower, instead of shipping water around the country as part of the formula.
Start with shampoo bars that actually work (my favorites are from The Earthling Co., another Climate Neutral and 1% For The Planet business). Then you won’t even need the free hotel shampoo in the little bottle that will last forever (or will likely get burned in a trash pile if you’re traveling in a developing country). Yes, we love free stuff, but sometimes it’s not worth it.
For items that have to be liquid, find options with minimal plastic packaging. (Check out my entire low-waste travel toiletry routine for inspiration!)
- Bring a light-weight cloth tote or grocery bag, and keep it with you in your daypack or purse to carry anything you buy. If you don’t already have one, here’s a great looking option from Day Owl, a company that makes 100% recycled, circular, zero-waste bags and backpacks.
- Remember to ask the bartender for no straw (for some reason, this will always be the most difficult one for me).
What difference does it make?
When hotel and restaurant managers realize their storage rooms are filling up with plastic shampoo bottles and plastic straws because people aren’t taking them, they’ll stop ordering them. Saying no is powerful, and it’s free!
7. Go local.
Live as the locals do, and support businesses that are owned or at least managed by locals.
Easier said than done? Kind of. A few tips:
Talk to people! Take public transit, then ask the person next to you on the bus what their favorite restaurant is.
Stay in small hotels. If you’re feeling ambitious, email them ahead of time to ask if they’re managed by local people management (not just how many locals work there). And use the list of sustainable hotel booking sites above to start your search.
Or, one of my favorite methods for longer trips is to only book the first couple of nights at a destination in advance, and then ask around when I get there. Maybe your waiter’s aunt owns a small B&B, and you never would have found it without asking.
To be able to do this, of course, it helps to travel slowly, travel in the off-season so that you’re more likely to find availability on short notice, and spend more time in a single destination instead of packing in a lot of stops on a short trip.
And not every trip is like that. So at the very least, avoid chains! Avoid them like the plague, for one simple reason: Businesses that are managed abroad take their profits abroad.
Who wants to stay in a Marriott in Rome anyway? If you sanitize the destination enough to make it feel like a business trip to anywhere, what’s the point of crossing the ocean?
What does this have to do with environmental sustainability?
We often think of sustainability in travel as 100% environmental – but sustainability isn’t just about pollution and deforestation. It’s also about social impact and economics. Making sure as much of your travel budget as possible stays in the destination you’re visiting helps empower locals and reduce poverty. And this also reflects back to the environmental side.
Why? Because the people most likely to protect an ecosystem are the people who live in it. And not living in poverty means they’ll have the time, energy and budget to dedicate to local environmental protection.
8. Use your voice for change.
Ask where the recycling facilities are at your hotel, and tell someone you’re disappointed if they don’t have them.
Ask your tour company if they offset their emissions, or at least provide an option for guests to do so individually.
Ask the vineyard where you’re doing a wine tasting if they’ve thought about starting any organic production.
I did an Instagram live with another blogger friend recently, and I mentioned this idea. Someone in the comments described it as “like being a Karen for a good cause.”
(If you don’t know, a “Karen” generally means an annoying, complaining white woman whose favorite phrase is, “Can I speak with your supervisor???”)
At first, I laughed. Then I forgot it.
Then the next day I thought, hey wait, that’s actually part of the problem!
The idea that only people of a certain degree of privilege would bother speaking up about things that should be done differently – and that they’ll definitely do it in an obnoxious way – is part of what stops things from changing for the better.
Speaking up is something we have to take back. To me, that means doing so when it matters for a greater good – like lessening our environmental impact, not just when our coffee isn’t hot enough.
And it means BEING POLITE. We have to somehow get back to being able to have conversations and suggest new ideas without being rude and turning people off! If we can’t master that, we’ll never change anything – at least not in a lasting way.
These comments don’t have to be confrontations! Just as conversations about sustainability can spark change with your friends and family, they can spark change in companies.
Remember this: You’re a paying customer, telling the company what you want. You’re doing them a favor by handing them free market research.
Even if you don’t talk to a manager, comments often trickle up. Maybe the employee you talk to is also bothered by her company’s lack of sustainability initiatives, and being able to tell her boss “Guests keep complaining that we don’t have recycling,” would help her bring up the topic.
You just never know what’s going on behind the scenes, and you don’t always know who’s in charge, so it never hurts to ask or politely comment.
With friends and family, don’t just talk about the beautiful hotel you stayed in, tell them about its sustainability practices that were the reason you chose it.
In any case, make your voice heard, and there will be ripples – even if you don’t see them.
What do you think? If you want to share any ideas for how you travel more sustainably, or have any questions, drop them in the comments below.