Travel provides an exciting opportunity to explore different cultures, taste new cuisines and make long-lasting memories. With rising concerns about climate change, however, it’s important to be mindful of the impact our vacations have on the environment.
Travelers are often unaware of the carbon footprint associated with their choices of lodging, activities, transit and more. Throughout a given trip, a combination of big and small decisions can contribute significantly to the total volume of greenhouse gas emissions.
We asked travel and environmental experts to share some common mistakes travelers make that increase their carbon footprints. Read on to learn what they are (along with some advice for offsetting these behaviors).
Taking indirect flights
“Flying will be the main contributor to the carbon footprint from most vacations,” said Tom Hall, vice president of Lonely Planet. “While in a lot of cases there isn’t an alternative, travelers can look to minimize the number of flights they take, use newer, less polluting aircraft and, once in a destination, use cleaner ground transportation such as trains.”
Basically, you want to spend as little time in the air as possible. Flying directly rather than taking connecting flights also means lower emissions, because the rate of fuel usage is higher during takeoff and landing compared to cruising.
“One of the biggest mistakes revolves around not considering the length of travel time when securing airfare,” said Brian Mullis, founder of Sustainable Travel International. “Longer, less convenient, indirect flights are often cheaper but have a larger carbon footprint.”
“A mistake that we often make and aren’t always aware of the consequence is overpacking,” said Paula Espinoza, creative director at Naya Traveler. “This can increase the weight of luggage and, in turn, increase the fuel consumption of transportation. An easy fix is planning your outfits and what will be necessary for your trip ahead of time. This way, you’ll avoid packing unnecessary items.”
Heavier luggage on a flight means the plane consumes more fuel, so try to stick to the essentials. Limiting your load to carry-ons also reduces your luggage’s environmental footprint, as checked bags must undergo a more energy-intensive process with all the conveyer belts and luggage carts.
Flying when trains and buses are options
“Some of the best ways to minimize your footprint go hand-in-hand with enjoying a more authentic experience,” noted Brian McMahon, travel curator at Origin. “The biggest one is avoiding flights whenever possible, so maybe instead of flying all over Europe on your next trip, really get to know one or two countries by train. Not only are you avoiding the huge carbon emissions that come from air travel, but you’re also supporting local communities by spreading the benefits of tourism to lesser-visited destinations.”
Prioritize taking trains and buses when you can. You’ll get the chance to see the countryside and enjoy the scenery along the way.
“One long-haul flight is the same as driving a car for a whole year,” said Rachel Dodds, a sustainable travel expert and professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “If you can avoid flying, then do so ― especially in places like Europe where rail is amazing and it is easy to avoid flying.”
At the same time, there are cases where flying actually isn’t the least efficient option.
“If you are traveling solo, sometimes a long-haul plane flight will give you a lower carbon footprint than driving the same long distance,” said Rebecca Benner, deputy director of the global climate team at the Nature Conservancy. “That said, if you are traveling with more than one to two people, driving is always going to lower your carbon footprint ― and a much lower one if the vehicle is hybrid or electric.”
Try to use public transit to get around once you’re at your destination, as well. If you have to rent a car, aim for a fuel-efficient vehicle.
Not eating or shopping locally
“Being conscious of where you eat when you are traveling can have an impact on one’s carbon footprint and environmental impact in general,” Benner said. “Look for restaurants with locally sourced products ― ideally all locally sourced ― or ‘farm to table’-type restaurants. Eating local means [that] foods don’t have to travel so far ― travel being what usually increases carbon footprint. In addition, buying local supports the local economy.”
Prioritize plant-based delicacies, as the meat industry accounts for a large amount of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“Dining low on the food chain and eating locally available foods are ways to reduce our individual footprint,” said Kelly Bricker, director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Arizona State University. “Rethinking how we can contribute back, purchasing locally, supporting local businesses and utilizing modes of sustainable transportation can all assist in reducing one’s carbon footprint.”
Try to buy locally made souvenirs when possible, rather than mass-produced products that were clearly shipped from far away.
“Be a curious customer,” advised Charlie Cotton, founder of the carbon consultancy Ecollective. “If you are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars with a company, you have a right to ask what is the carbon footprint of what you have bought. It has a massive ripple effect through the company, as they realize they can’t but really should be able to answer it.”
Booking business class
“Many may not realize this, but your cabin class can make a difference on your carbon footprint,” said Per Christiansen, senior vice president for EMEA and APAC marketing at Kayak, a travel search engine and booking site.
Christiansen recommended his site’s CO2 feature, which calculates flight emissions based on factors like travel class, aircraft type, cargo capacity and more.
“It cuts down your flight footprint to book economy, rather than business class seats, which can double a passenger’s air travel footprint since they take up twice as much space,” said Kaitlyn Brajcich, senior manager of communications and training at Sustainable Travel International. “While airlines are starting to transition towards more fuel-efficient aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels, these technologies must be drastically scaled up before they will be able to be widely adopted.”
Choosing hotels that are not eco-friendly
“The place you choose to stay on your trip can also impact your carbon footprint,” Benner said. “There are a growing number of hotels that are focused on using high-efficiency lights and appliances, being thoughtful about how often rooms need to be cleaned and sourcing food from local places. Staying at these hotels will lower your carbon footprint.”
You may have to do some research, but there are certification programs that can help you identify hotels that are more or less eco-friendly. One popular example is the global Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building program.
“A common misconception around carbon is that cute-looking island hotels often have a much higher carbon footprint than you may expect,” Cotton said. “This is because they often need a diesel generator to power their electricity. A classic example is many of the Maldives hotels.”
Seek out accommodations that prioritize renewable energy sources, water conservation and waste reduction.
Requesting daily hotel cleanings
“A surprising contributor to your carbon footprint might be staying at hotels that do clean your room every day,” Benner said. “Washing and drying sheets and vacuuming daily adds quite a lot to your carbon footprint.”
Following the onset of the pandemic, many hotels made daily cleanings optional, and this policy is still in effect at plenty of places. When you check into the hotel, you can ask that your room be skipped, or make use of your “do not disturb” sign.
Leaving the AC on in your room
“One common mistake that travelers make, particularly in hot climates, is leaving on the air conditioning when they leave the room,” Brajcich said. “All day while the AC is cooling an empty room, it is also generating carbon emissions. Turning off the AC every time they leave the room, or turning on the fan instead when they are in the room, is a simple way that travelers can avoid needless emissions.”
If you’re concerned about heat, close the curtains to keep the sun from beaming in all day. Do your best to turn off the lights, TV and other electronics when they aren’t in use to reduce energy consumption. Take shorter showers and reuse your towels.
“Avoid wasting water, particularly in drought-prone areas,” said Anna Decam, environment program manager at the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. “Use a reusable water bottle, engage in local recycling and composting schemes, and protect local habitats from pollution and litter.”
Choosing activities and tour operators that aren’t eco-friendly
“Choosing sustainability-focused accommodations, tour operators, transport providers and dining experiences can also help to minimize our travel emissions,” said writer and sustainable travel expert Sarah Reid.
Avoid engaging in activities that can be harmful to the environment, like trophy hunting, motorized water sports and visits to exploitative animal parks. Instead, focus on hiking, biking and swimming, and try to pursue itinerary items that promote conservation.
“Look out for tourism activities which support local communities and businesses, as well as respecting nature,” Decam said.
Once you arrive at your destination, think outside the box and seek out events and experiences that give back to the Earth while allowing you to explore a new place.
“You can volunteer to do beach or park cleanup, go on a plant medicine walk, go in nature and leave no trace, visit a permaculture farm, exchange seeds and goods in a trade circle, [and] support and commune with botanical gardens that also preserve genetic diversity and heirloom varieties,” suggested Eloisa Lewis, the founder of New Climate Culture.
Spreading your travel across multiple short trips
“Nearly half of tourism’s carbon footprint comes from transportation alone,” Brajcich said. “In general, air travel tends to be the most carbon-intensive mode of travel. One way that travelers can cut down air travel emissions is by taking one longer trip each year, rather than multiple shorter trips.”
In the same vein, consider embracing the “slow travel” approach and spending mindful quality time in a smaller number of destinations, rather than trying to jam-pack your itinerary with as many countries and cities as you can get to.