Traveling provides many benefits including personal growth, time to reflect, greater self-awareness, and a sense of connectedness to a global world. However, travel is also is a significant cause of greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Each person’s carbon footprint put a small amount of pressure on natural resources, and travel has the undeniable result of enlarging our individual carbon footprint.
Despite efforts to make travel more environmentally friendly, the environmental impact of global travel is increasing. In a world still reeling from the pandemic, single-use plastics and disposable materials are used to protect from exposure, but at a cost to the environment. As we travel mindfully with an eye towards the sustainability of travel long term, there is a need to reduce carbon footprint during travel.
Not only travelers, but also governments, hotel chains, and individuals in the international hospitality industry have a responsibility to ensure that the planet doesn’t suffer irreparable damage due to the heavy carbon footprint of international travel.
Hence, this article will focus on ways you can reduce your carbon footprint while traveling.
Seek More Sustainable Transportation
Small adjustments to the way get to our destination and navigate once we’re there can add up. Rule of thumb:
Don’t fly if you can drive, don’t drive if you can take a train, don’t take a train if you can walk.
This goes for getting to your destination and traveling around once you’re there. To travel more eco-friendly, don’t uber from attraction to attraction, instead, take public transportation or, if possible, walk.
Planes are a huge source of carbon footprint. A single flight can produce more carbon emissions than some people produce annually. Although some people think the solution is to avoid flying completely, there are times when you don’t have a choice.
To reduce your carbon footprint, consider where you can travel with a short flight, or even consider booking passage to another continent via a container ship already headed in that direction. This alternate form of travel takes longer, for sure, but provides a unique experience and plenty of time to earn money digitally working while traveling.
Worth noting, air travel is technically a form of public transportation, and a flight may be a more environmentally friendly way to get across the country if you’d otherwise be driving a single passenger car the entire way.
Hint: Google Flights now offers the ability to view, while booking, which air travel option has the lowest carbon footprint.
Travel with a Lower Carbon Footprint by Traveling Direct
If you don’t have a choice but to fly, you can reduce your carbon footprint by booking direct flights rather than 2 flights that get you to your destination by connecting through a third airport. Direct flights save fuel, human energy, and time.
Again, Google Flights makes this easy to lower your carbon footprint during travel. Just select your origin and destination, search, then go to “filters > stops > nonstop only” and check the box.
A shorter distance and faster arrival is not the only reason to opt for direct flights. A less known fact is that planes release the most carbon during take-off and landing. It is better to book a single long flight instead of several shorter flights so that you are only part of one take-off and landing.
Pack as Light as Possible
Heavier luggage requires more fuel to transport it, whether you are traveling by plane, bus, car, or train. Pack your bag as light as possible to lessen fuel use and the amount of carbon emitted- if you travel one bag style you’re already well on your way to leaving a smaller carbon footprint behind your travels. It is best to start by choosing a lightweight suitcase or backpack and carefully select what you put in it.
Take clothes that you can wear more than once and are easy to hand wash in a sink, so you don’t have to run an entire load to wash a few travel garments. Leave large sporting equipment at home, and rent equivalent versions when you get to your destination. (For example, items such as camping gear can easily be rented in camping-friendly destinations like Patagonia).
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Packing List for travel with a smaller carbon footprint:
Disposable products make up a huge part of the hospitality industry’s massive waste problem. Help clean up this dirty business by including on your packing list the following items:
- A leakproof stainless steel bento box (I like this one) or a collapsable silicone container (these are my go to), that can be used as a plate, lunch box, or to go container.
- A spoon, fork, and knife in a sleeve, like this set, to use instead of disposable cutlery.
- A cup. While you probably already pack a reusable water bottle, clipping an alumnium cup to your bag can be an easy way to skip plastic, styrofoam, and papercups and enjoy drinks- even cocktails!- from a reusable cup while eating street food or drinking at festivals.
Use Public Transportation
Traveling to your vacation destination is just one aspect of how we create a carbon footprint during travel. From an environmental standpoint, it’s is best to use public transportation, rather than hiring a driver or renting a car. During your stay, try riding the subway, using a streetcar, or traveling by bus- it can be a fun part of the journey and a way to experience a city more authentically.
Be mindful that the fuel efficiency of public transport modes can change from one destination to another. Although many cities have bus and rail systems powered by cleaner fuels or alternative technologies, others still use diesel or gas-powered engines.
Eat local foods
A major reason people travel is to experience a new adventure and for many people, that includes adventurous eating. From seafood to pasta to regional fruits and vegetables, every destination provides special delicacies and unique cuisine. So take advantage of your visit and try all the local cuisine- generally, local delicacies are cultivated and prepared locally, which means these local dishes can be enjoyed with a smaller carbon footprint than, for example, prepared pizza, burgers, or french fries that were flown in frozen.
Shop at the local farmer’s market and dine at restaurants that use local ingredients for their dishes, in this way you can reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding imported foods transported from distant counties.
Often, travelers can’t resist all the exotic dishes available. I’ll never forget my night in Bari, Italy where, in one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve ever enjoyed, I ordered 3 entrees simply because I was so sad I was leaving the next day and would never be able to eat there again. Of course, I wasted most of the food by becoming too full and not being able to take it with me as leftovers.
These days, I’m more mindful that food production is responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions. Vita forests around the world are cleared to graze cattle and cultivate crops. Food products generate carbon during processing, packaging, and transportation, and when we dispose of leftovers they create methane emissions as they decompose in a landfill.
As you sample local cuisine, ensure you only take what your stomach can accommodate. It is best to ask for a smaller portion or share with a friend instead of eating half of the portion and throwing the rest away later. With your reusable containers, you can put the leftovers inside and take them back to your hotel or hostel- sharing leftovers is always one of the best ways to make friends in a hostel.
We know that at home, recycling is an important way to care for the environment and lessen our carbon footprint, but do you mindfully consider how you are disposing of waste on the road? In many countries, recycling receptacles are not readily available and you may have to intentionally hunt for a place to recycle glass bottles, paper waste, or plastic containers.
If possible, try to carry your trash until you’ve located a recycling bin. It only takes a few minutes to wash and dry recyclables and place them in your backpack, ready to dispose of if you spot a recycling bin during your day’s travels.
Honor Human Energy
This tip for traveling with a smaller carbon footprint is a little less conventional but important. People are the most valuable resource the globe has, and if you travel with an enormous effort to prevent harm to the environment, but harm people in the process, has anything been gained? Read my article on sustainable travel to learn about how you can adopt travel practices and habits that support the people, families, communities, and micro-economies in the places you visit.
Final Thoughts on Traveling with a Smaller Carbon Footprint
The enormous carbon footprint of travel endangers the planet and the generations that will come after us. As people who seek to explore the world, there’s a burden on us to travel in ways that are more environmentally friendly. Through being mindful of our transportation methods, routes, eating habits, and packing list, we can make meaningful steps towards individually reducing our carbon footprint, while collectively creating meaningful change.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com