6 Ways to Be an Eco-Conscious Traveler
Finding sustainable ways to travel doesn’t need to be burdensome. Sustainable travel is easier than you may think, whether you start by supporting local businesses or taking small steps to reduce your carbon footprint. One of the simplest things you can do is fly less, but there are so many different ways to be more intentional and responsible as you traverse the globe. This guide – with plenty of tips from U.S. News travel editors and sustainable travel experts – will help you make your future travels more sustainable and meaningful.
What is sustainable travel?
Traveling to new and exciting destinations, whether a stone’s throw from home or on the other side of the world, can be a deeply rewarding experience. You have the opportunity to soak in new cultures and landscapes as you learn about the world around you – but you’ll also want to consider how your visit may affect the places you go and the people who live there.
Sustainable travel means not only minimizing harm to the environment but also respecting and supporting local communities and economies. “It’s not exploitative or degenerative to the host’s culture, community, wildlife, ecosystem or economy,” says Nora Livingstone, co-founder of Animal Experience International, a certified B Corporation that provides travelers with ethical animal-related experiences. “From the root of its name, it sustains.”
Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager at Intrepid Travel (an adventure travel company and certified B Corp), believes that great travel goes hand in hand with great responsibility. “Sustainable tourism is all about making simple choices to lessen your negative impact on a given destination,” she explains. “It stresses the importance of reducing your carbon footprint and encourages travelers to step off the worn path and linger longer, respect cultural differences and invest in communities, reconnect with nature, and support organizations that are protecting the planet.”
Why is sustainable travel important?
Sustainability matters just as much for travelers as it does for their host destinations. When you commit to more mindful travel, you help preserve awe-inspiring natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, not only for local citizens but also for future travelers.
“You may also have a more meaningful experience knowing that your impact on the place and people was a positive one,” says Lindsey Lyons, director of sustainability learning at Dickinson College’s Center for Sustainability Education.
Plus, it’s important to consider sustainability as a way to protect attractions, scenic areas and destinations so that others may experience them in the decades ahead.
“Without a shift in focus to sustainable tourism, there would be little left of the places we want to visit,” says Corey Determan, owner of the Bella Rose Travel agency, who has a master’s degree in environmental education and 13 years of experience in ecotourism. “Implementing sustainable tourism practices ensures the survival of sensitive tourist destinations so that travelers may enjoy them for generations to come.”
The choices you make while traveling have lasting effects. Opting to fly a short distance rather than take a train, for example, may save you a little bit of time – but perhaps not enough to make it worth the extra carbon emissions.
Traveling sustainably requires a balance of many factors, from your budget to the time you spend in transit. With even just a little extra planning, you can figure out what sustainable practices work best for you and how to incorporate them into your travels.
This guide will take you through tips for every step of the process, from choosing a destination to deciding what to pack.
Most trip planning begins with deciding where to go. There are many ways you can think sustainably at this step – examples include finding destinations focused on responsible tourism or exploring somewhere closer to home. Get ready to unearth some wonderful off-the-beaten-path locations.
Find places that promote sustainable tourism
One way to pick your travel destination is by consulting the Global Destination Sustainability Index rankings, which gives cities a sustainability score based on factors such as carbon emissions and public transport. Many Western European cities top the list, but there are places all over the world that focus on sustainability.
“The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago, has preserved 92% of the islands as green space and has a strong focus on renewable energy,” says Elizabeth Von Tersch, a senior travel editor at U.S. News. “Victoria, British Columbia, is the first designated urban biosphere reserve in the U.S. or Canada and is going beyond net-zero emissions to become climate positive. Bhutan, the world’s first carbon-negative country, enforces a sustainable development fee to preserve not only the environment but also Bhutan’s people and culture.”
As you’re researching potential green destinations, look for signs that a place is committed to sustainability. “If a destination is focused on sustainable tourism, chances are this will be obvious in their marketing,” Von Tersch advises. “But to avoid being a victim of deceptive greenwashing, make sure sustainability claims are supported with data and look for certifications from reputable groups like EarthCheck, Responsible Tourism Institute and Blue Flag (for beaches), among others.”
Be mindful of overtourism
The world’s most popular attractions are tourist hot spots for good reason – but too many visitors flocking to the same spot at the same time can strain fragile cultural sites and create an unpleasant experience for locals and travelers alike.
“Many popular destinations are also putting caps on the number of visitors, including Venice, Bora Bora and several U.S. national parks,” Von Tersch says. “While this may require an extra layer of planning for travelers, it’s an important step in preventing overtourism to make sure these beloved places stick around for years to come.”
You can also help prevent the negative effects of overtourism. Choosing unique destinations that aren’t heavily trafficked can be a good option, but if iconic attractions like the Taj Mahal or the Colosseum are next on your bucket list, consider visiting outside of the peak season – or at least at off-peak times during the day.
If you have your sights set on visiting awe-inspiring natural wonders, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, it’s important to be prepared so you can avoid doing anything that will harm the environment. Even something small – such as wearing sunscreen that isn’t reef safe on a snorkeling excursion – can damage an imperiled landscape.
Look close to home
Far-flung destinations may seem glamorous, but the truth is that travelers don’t have to go far to find incredible experiences.
“Focus on local travel and exploring the areas domestically – whether it is in your state, county or region,” says David Perkins, assistant professor of geography and sustainable tourism at Missouri State University. “There are so many things to explore just in our own backyards if one simply looks. This will enhance connections within your own community, increasing social sustainability all while satisfying desires to explore.”
With so much potential for adventures near home, you can enjoy all the wonders of traveling while saving on transportation costs and decreasing your ecological footprint.
(Courtesy of The Brando)
Another critical component of your trip is where you’ll lay your head at night. Depending on your budget and the type of experience you seek, options range from eco-conscious luxury hotel rooms and vacation rentals to communal hostel bunks and campsites.
Choose your hotel or resort carefully
Evaluating various hotel options is an important part of being a sustainably conscious traveler. Hervé Houdré, founder of H2 Sustainability, has a few recommendations for travelers to consider.
“Before booking, check if the hotel has received any environmental certifications or participates in any programs,” Houdré recommends. “If not, some of the initiatives a hotel should undertake and communicate are: no single-use plastic (bottles, straws and stirrers), housekeeping linen program, energy-efficient practices, EV car chargers and locally sourced produce on the menus.” He also suggests looking for hotels that participate in local not-for-profit environmental and community initiatives.
Hotels and resorts around the globe are finding innovative ways to help protect the environment. At The Brando in French Polynesia, for example, solar power strips made from recycled materials help to power the resort. In addition, the Sea Water Air Conditioning system was developed at The Brando and uses ocean water to help reduce the property’s energy consumption needs.
If you’re looking for more of a city-oriented escape, ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas receives 90% of its daytime power from a solar array, is focused on going paperless when possible and has an advanced back-of-the-house recycling program. What’s more, the property partners with a local food bank to freeze and store unserved food from events and provide it to those in need.
You’ll find multiple hotel brands throughout the world focused on sustainability. All of the 1 Hotels properties are LEED certified, and its U.S. locations are 100% carbon neutral. The hotel and resort teams at Aman use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to create the brand’s sustainability strategies, as well as its four pillars: local heritage, local culture, environment protection and social responsibility. Soneva resorts combine luxury with sustainability: The company’s foundation invests in initiatives designed to offset direct and indirect carbon emissions, along with other programs focused on a positive environmental impact.
Here are some things to look for when selecting a hotel:
- A sustainability policy that focuses on energy, waste and water processes, and may include certifications and accreditations such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings, EarthCheck and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council
- Commitment to the environment with eco-friendly initiatives like an on-site garden, beehives, or energy- and water-conserving technologies
- Local involvement to empower members of the community through hiring local staff, promoting tours that support regional culture, and using local suppliers for its food and beverage programs
Consider other accommodation options
Short-term rentals and homestays: With Airbnb, Homestay.com and other online marketplaces, short-term rentals and homestays have become a popular option for travelers who want a unique experience – or simply a nice place to stay without the high price tag of a hotel room. Home sharing has certain environmental benefits too: According to Airbnb, its listings waste less and consume less water and energy compared to traditional hotel accommodations.
Renting from a local host can give you a more authentic and eco-friendly experience in your destination, but keep an eye out for hosts offering many units for short-term stays without a host. Unlike home sharing, this practice drives up property values for local residents.
Hostels: Hostels are one of the most budget-friendly and sustainable types of lodging. Because most hostel accommodations are dorm-style rooms with bunk beds and shared facilities, they consume far less water and energy than private hotel rooms. Hostels allow travelers to find centrally located lodging in a city without breaking the bank, which will also cut down on the transportation needed to get to all your must-visit sights. To go a step further, seek out hostels that highlight sustainable practices, such as renewable energy and eco-friendly materials. You can search for hostels on Hostelworld.
If safety is your main concern, especially for women traveling solo, be sure to read hostel reviews from travelers like yourself. Many hostels offer dorm rooms designated only for women, but if you’re nervous about sharing a room with strangers, U.S. News senior travel editor Marisa Méndez recommends opting for a smaller room with friends or even a private room in a hostel.
“Is it still more expensive to book a private hostel room? Sure. But it’s less than the cost of a hotel and if you’re a social human, it’s a good way to meet other travelers and get their opinions on things,” she says. “I think hostels are worth it and I felt so much more comfortable sharing one room with everyone I knew. It alleviated some of the stress of being in a place with strangers.”
Campgrounds: Camping is an ideal option for a sustainable vacation. As you immerse yourself in nature and enjoy some outdoor adventure, you’ll be using far less water and energy than you would in hotels or vacation rentals. If the more rustic side of camping isn’t your thing, glamping resorts offer a more luxurious experience that can still minimize your carbon footprint. You can even find camping and glamping sites that actively promote sustainability with initiatives such as renewable energy, recycling facilities and rainwater collection.
Invest in eco-friendly luggage and sustainable products
Looking and feeling your best is always the goal, but travel-size single-use plastics aren’t good for the environment. However, you can minimize your impact with eco-friendly health and beauty products. Begin with a TSA-friendly reusable Stasher silicone quart-sized bag if you’re planning to fly with any liquids.
For clothing, consider garments made from organic cotton and other sustainable materials. Clothing that is classic, durable and designed to work for a variety of situations provides more longevity to your travel capsule wardrobe. Méndez recommends sustainable clothing company Pact, where travel staples like leggings, long sleeve tees and dresses with pockets are carbon neutral, fair trade and constructed with organic cotton. “My favorite thing about this company − aside from the quality − is that everything comes in a set of basic colors, not just fun prints,” Méndez says. “You can easily make a capsule wardrobe for travel.”
Follow these sustainable packing tips:
- Pack light to help reduce fuel needed for the transportation of you and your baggage.
- Use TSA-friendly reusable bags and containers for health and beauty items.
- Bring your own reusable water bottle to reduce waste and stay hydrated. You can add a sticker from each destination as a fun souvenir of your adventures.
- Use items you already own, like your stainless steel water bottle you take to the office, your gym bag that doubles as a personal item or the suitcase you’ve owned for years.
- Ditch the single-use plastic bags and utilize packing cubes to keep travel essentials organized.
Choosing your means of transportation is one of the biggest determinants of the carbon footprint your travel will leave. Slower means of travel – such as by train instead of plane, or bike instead of car – are often more sustainable and can provide a richer travel experience, but your selection will depend on the options available and how much time you have to spare.
It’s no secret that plane travel contributes significantly to carbon emissions. “Air travel today is inherently carbon intensive – fossil fuels account for 99.9% of aviation energy use, and choosing to board a plane is the single most emitting decision many of us will make in our lives,” says Dan Rutherford, program director of marine and aviation at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
That doesn’t mean eco-conscious travelers can never again travel by air, but you should be aware of the consequences of frequent plane travel and take steps to minimize your impact. “I recommend that travelers learn to fly like ‘A NERD,’ with the acronym referring to: Avoiding unnecessary trips, flying on New aircraft, in Economy class, on a Regular-sized plane, and whenever possible choosing a Direct flight,” Rutherford says.
Many flight booking sites, including Google Flights and Kayak, show you the expected carbon emissions from different options, which allows you to choose flights that emit less, Rutherford says. Etti, of Intrepid Travel, recommends choosing airlines that are committed to using sustainable aviation fuels when possible – and even taking small steps like minimizing your luggage weight, which can have an impact on emissions.
Traveling by train rather than plane helps reduce harmful carbon emissions. That’s why in 2022 France banned short-haul domestic flights that can be replaced by a bus or train ride of less than 2.5 hours. Taking an Amtrak train is 34% more energy efficient than flying domestically and 46% more energy efficient than car travel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Data Book. A study by the European Environment Agency found that apart from walking or cycling, rail transportation is the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.
Think about it this way: A traveler can conserve close to the same amount of carbon dioxide as not running your washing machine for a year, just by choosing to take a train from London to Edinburgh rather than a plane, according to Trainline, a European train booking app. Rail travel also provides a prime opportunity to see the scenery on your route, along with the option to create a multistop itinerary to explore local cultures.
Investing in an electric vehicle is a great way to reduce carbon emissions in your daily life and for travel by road, if you’re able to make the switch. But EVs are not the only way to make car travel a little more sustainable: Another option is to look into carpooling websites such as BlaBlaCar or CarpoolWorld, which allow you to share a ride on long car trips. After all, more passengers means a lower carbon footprint for each individual.
Other ways you can reduce the environmental impact of your road trip a little include packing light, using cruise control on the highway to maximize your fuel, planning the most efficient route and not letting your car idle when you stop.
Boat travel can be more sustainable than flying – climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, takes boat trips whenever possible to travel overseas. This form of transportation also takes much longer. But if you’re hoping to cut down on your carbon footprint by setting sail, keep in mind that not all boats are created equal.
While a sailing boat or a vessel powered in part by wind is a greener form of transportation than a plane, staying on a luxury cruise ship can produce around double the carbon emissions of a flight and hotel stay, according to the ICCT. New technology continues to make cruise ships greener and more efficient, so if your heart is set on a cruise, do your research to see which major cruise lines are publicly committed to sailing sustainably. Newer cruise ships are also a better bet than old vessels, as the majority are now designed with at least some sustainability measures in mind.
Getting around your destination
Upon arrival at your final destination, the most eco-friendly ways to explore are by foot or bike.
“These options offer win/win/win solutions by providing low/no cost transport, health and wellness benefits to the walk(er)/rider, and no emissions and traffic for the community or place of exploration,” Lyons explains. When you walk or bike, you get to truly experience the community while helping the planet.
Public transportation is another good option for getting from place to place in a city that will be especially convenient if you plan to stay near a metro station or a bus stop. Investigate the city’s public transit options in advance so you can find the most efficient routes.
“Not only does traveling on public transport let you swap chuckles with your neighbors in their territory, but it also cuts pollution and carbon emissions,” Etti says. “Zip around on a tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia, climb into the mountains on India’s famous toy train, hire a bike or walk when it’s convenient.”
One way to explore sustainable travel is to enjoy the great outdoors at a national or state park close to you. Hiking, camping and backpacking are a few eco-friendly activities that allow you to connect in and with nature. When participating in any outdoor activity, however, there are a few things to remember in order to best protect the environment.
Leave No Trace (LNT) is a concept designed to put conservation and preservation into practice when it comes to outdoor recreation. Though there are seven principles to LNT, it boils down to one big takeaway: Respect the environment. This means properly disposing of all waste, leaving flora and fauna alone, minimizing campfire impacts, and sticking to trails and designated sites.
To help ensure LNT success, consider purchasing the following products for your next outdoor adventure:
- A camping stove: A stove is essential for minimizing fire impact while still enjoying delicious camping meals. There are a plethora of quality camp stoves on the market, such as Camp Chef stoves. And if you’re backpacking, consider a lightweight Jetboil stove system.
- Binoculars: With wild animals, it’s important to remember that you can be just as damaging and dangerous to them and their environment as they can be to you. It may be tempting to approach wildlife for a closer look, which is why binoculars are the perfect tool for safe viewing from afar. These top-rated Adasion binoculars are waterproof and include a phone adapter for taking photos.
- A sketchbook or camera: Instead of picking a flower or taking a unique rock home, consider drawing or taking a picture of it instead. A small sketchbook, such as this one on Amazon, is perfect for travel. A sketchbook made of recycled paper is an even more sustainable choice.
- Biodegradable soap and lotion: You can’t go wrong with the Mrs. Meyer’s brand when it comes to biodegradable soap and lotion. (Even with biodegradable products, however, it’s still important to wash at least 200 feet away from all natural water sources to minimize impact.)
Remember to thoroughly research the outdoor area you’ll be exploring or activity you’ll be participating in before you begin your adventure to ensure you’re safe, prepared and well equipped to leave no trace.
Research attractions in advance
Zoos: Some attractions clearly call sustainability into question – zoos and animal-centered activities, for example. Amanda Norcross, content and SEO strategist for travel at U.S. News, recommends looking for accredited institutions that are dedicated to animal welfare, education and conservation efforts. “You can often find this information in an attraction’s mission statement or by researching the programs and experiences they offer,” Norcross says. “Be wary of any attraction that promotes animals as a form of entertainment.” Examples include riding and holding animals as well as animal shows.
Theme and water parks: It can be difficult to find a sustainable theme or water park, but more and more parks are striving to go green. Disney is making large strides toward a sustainable future: One small example is the company composting organic waste from Walt Disney World and using the soil to fertilize on-site plants. Six Flags uses sustainable packaging such as compostable containers, plates and cutlery; two of its parks (Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) use solar panels.
Book with reputable tour providers
Tours are a wonderful way to experience a destination, but it’s important to find a licensed and ethical operator that prioritizes sustainability measures such as responsible waste disposal and employs local staff.
“Look for tour providers that explain on their websites what they’re doing to preserve the environment,” says Méndez, who is a tours expert at U.S. News. “This is particularly important if you’re trying to find a tour in a fragile ecosystem like the swamps of New Orleans or the waters of Maui or Cancún.”
If you’re not sure where to start, consider a walking or biking tour to minimize environmental impact.
As you begin to research for your next trip, be careful of “greenwashing,” which is a tactic companies may use to trick you into thinking their experiences or products are environmentally friendly – without any real proof to back up those claims.
“Misleading labels abound when referencing tourism, sustainability and ‘green impact,’ ” Perkins warns. “The best way to assess whether a company is engaging in greenwashing tactics is to educate yourself on sustainability and take a few extra minutes to see if a company is actually adhering to sustainable principles.”
That may be easier said than done, but there are things you can look for to see if a company is truly committed to sustainability. First and foremost, transparency is key. If a company touts a third-party certification it has received without actually detailing the nature of that certification, you should be wary of its legitimacy, Etti says.
Companies may use buzzwords and make eye-catching claims to win you over but if the information they give is vague or difficult to corroborate, chances are there’s some greenwashing going on, Etti adds. Seek out businesses that actually prioritize sustainability so you can feel good about where your money is going.
Your travel choices can change the industry
There’s no denying that the travel industry has a long way to go to become truly sustainable. “As travelers begin to demand less-polluting options, and reward better carriers with their business, that will change,” Rutherford explains. “The aviation industry is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Government policy will lead but green travelers voting with their dollars will be important, too.”
With every choice you make, from your intended destination to accommodations to transportation, you have the chance to make a difference. For the sake of the planet, you won’t want to waste it.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Rachael Hood is a senior travel editor with a passion for nature and wildlife, especially whales and sea otters. She chooses train travel whenever she can, and seeks to visit environmentally conscious destinations and attractions. For this article, Hood used her personal experience along with research expertise.
Catriona Kendall, an associate editor, cares deeply about finding ways to make awe-inspiring travel experiences more sustainable and affordable. She’ll always pick a long train or bus journey over a short flight. Kendall has stayed in more than 20 hostels around the world and navigated the public transportation options in countless cities. Her own travel experiences as well as advice from experts helped her write this article.
Leilani Osmundson, a digital producer, makes sustainability a focus in her life, from utilizing solar energy and a composter at home to shopping for many of her clothes at thrift stores. Being green extends to her favorite activities as well: backpacking, camping and hiking in the great outdoors. To write this piece, Osmundson used her own experience with adventure travel and sustainable activities along with research.