A Practical Guide to Traveling Sustainably on a Budget

How do you reduce your impact on a destination, and how can you do it without spending big on luxury ecolodges or expensive gear?

In the wake of climate change and overtourism, travelers are more concerned than ever about their footprint when they hit the road (or sky). Traveling sustainably has become a buzz phrase, but it can be a nebulous concept; how do you reduce your impact on a destination, and how can you do it without spending big on luxury ecolodges or expensive gear?

Minimize waste while traveling

Perhaps the most obvious way to begin shifting your travel habits is to invest in travel gear that reduces the amount of trash you produce. These purchases don’t have to break the bank, and they can be used on multiple trips.

Drinking clean

If you’re traveling where water isn’t potable, avoid plastic bottle waste by investing in a personal water filter; Lifestraw makes products for varying budgets, and all keep your water bacteria- and chemical-free.

Bye-bye airline minis

If you’re committed to that carry-on-only life and regularly buy tiny airplane toiletry bottles, replace them with solid soaps and shampoos that last multiple washes and are easily stored in tins. The same goes for toothpaste – opt for toothpaste tablets instead of tubes for clean teeth on the go. Concerned about price? Airplane minis are generally more expensive per ounce than full size options anyway, so going sustainable will save you money in the long run. Companies like Lush and GoodFill are good places to start looking for eco-friendly travel toiletries.

Plastic forks no more

Eating on the go also produces its own fair share of waste, particularly when you’re looking for something quick and portable. Replace ubiquitous plastic cutlery with the bamboo version, which generally will only set you back the price of a fancy cocktail.

Shop smart

When buying travel gear, cheap items on Amazon are often tempting, but quality can range wildly. Instead, buy from brands offering lifelong warranties or free or low-cost repair on their items; these products may seem more expensive at first, but they are ultimately budget-friendly, since you won’t have to replace them every few trips (and hooray for less waste!). Brands like Osprey, Patagonia and Cotopaxi all have great warranty and repair policies.

Be conscious about voluntourism

While “travelling sustainably” often evokes conversations about the environment, it also has a cultural element to it – traveling sustainably means minimizing our negative impacts on people’s daily lives in the destinations we are visiting and refraining from playing into exploitative situations that wear the guise of charitable causes.

Some main pointers: Only volunteer for positions for which you are uniquely qualified; teaching English when one is not certified to do so, for example, is probably not the best way to make a positive impact. Avoid short-term volunteering with children, as it has been proven to be harmful to their development, and some “orphanages” are run to attract tourists and turn a profit at the children’s expense. Instead, opt for participating in a local beach clean-up or tree-planting initiative to help keep your destination looking (and feeling) its best.

Travel during off season

Want to avoid contributing to overtourism and save some cash? Research visiting destinations outside of their peak seasons for a less-crowded, more affordable vacation. While some low seasons are low for a reason (looking at you, rainforest rainy seasons), even booking during shoulder season will benefit the destination and travelers alike; prices on airfare and lodging generally drop significantly, and you’ll be bringing in travel dollars during a time when it is needed.

Be thoughtful about transport

Planes, trains and automobiles

As we start to be more mindful of our environmental impacts, the biggest question has to do with our methods of travel. Which is worst? How can we still travel and keep the world’s climate intact? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – environmental impact is measured by a number of factors including distance, length of stay and a vehicle’s fuel type and carrying capacity.

The overall score can be affected by how many people you have in your car and which seat you have in a plane. For example, business class seats have a higher emission footprint than coach seats, as they take up more space on a plane, and a sparsely populated flight has more of a negative environmental impact than a full one. Similarly, driving long distances in a car alone (especially in traffic) has a much more significant carbon footprint than if you were to make the trip along with three friends or if you were going a short distance. Luckily for the budget conscious, flying coach and carpooling is also better for your wallet – all the more incentive to take part.

In most studies, trains come out on top as the most environmentally friendly mode of transport per passenger; in areas with good train infrastructure, this can also be a solid budget option.

To cruise or not to cruise?

Cruising is an immensely popular mode of travel around the world, with cruise lines building bigger and bigger vessels every year. However, these megaships are notorious for their pollution output, and many big-name brands have faced criminal charges for dumping fuel waste, sewage and other pollutants into the water. From a socially sustainable standpoint, cruises can exacerbate problems with overtourism at port cities, with tourist dollars largely going to the cruise companies rather than local businesses.

Sustainable-minded folks should probably avoid large cruise ships with long itineraries in favor of small, regional boats. These do not create (or expel) as much waste and, they support local businesses at their ports of call. Check out these scores before booking your cruise vacation.

Stay close

The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to explore areas nearby; instead of traveling across the country to that big national park, check out your nearby state parks. Try your hand at cycling routes or multi-day hikes instead of expansive road trips. Traveling slow and local can also reduce the bills flying out of your pocket thanks to reduced fuel and lodging costs.

Resist the call of the all-inclusive

All-inclusive hotels are popular, valued for making vacation planning easier and presumably being a more budget-friendly way to travel. While package deals undoubtedly can offer appealing prices, the negative social impact of these large resorts can be significant. Some questions to ask before booking: is this hotel locally owned? Do they pay their employees a fair wage? Are there nearby local communities I could be supporting with my business instead?

Opt for smaller, locally owned hotels, bed-and-breakfasts or hostels – where there might be an increase in room rate, compensate by self-catering from farmers markets, trying budget-friendly restaurants and/or sampling street food options.

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