When I began traveling over 7+ years ago, I wasn’t focused on my environmental footprint. I usually didn’t consider what stores I shopped at. Nor did I care about drinks served with straws.
But nowadays, with every decision I make, I’m constantly considering my impact.
Being an eco-friendly traveler comes with its own challenges, which is why I want to share some tips on how to be an eco-friendly traveler with you guys today.
For the most part, these tips are quick-fixes to unsustainable habits we’ve grown accustomed to. But making the transition toward sustainable travel is crucial. The earlier, the better!
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If I can make the conscious choice in my travels to be more environmentally-friendly, then so can you! It’s easier than you think. 🙂
Here are some of my 25 best eco-friendly travel tips!
1. Say NO to plastic bags
Plastic bags are pure evil and they do not degrade for 500 years. 500 YEARS! They are disastrously convenient in all the wrong ways. It can even be a pain in the arse sometimes to say no to a plastic bag when you forget to bring your own. But not giving in to the temptation can be the boldest, bravest choice you made all day.
Take your own reusable bags when you go shopping! If you forget easily (like I do), then make the effort to put a reusable shopping bag in each location so you’ll always have one nearby. Put one in your purse or backpack, one in your car, one in your gym bag… and so on.
Already, doing just this makes a world of difference – even if you can’t see it.
Sad to find tons of trash washed onshore even in a small beach town in Mexico. Pick up 2-3 pieces of trash wherever you go!
2. Ask for “No straw, please” at restaurants, cafés, bars, etc.
As a traveler, I often explore new restaurants and cafés, especially because eating out is sometimes cheaper while traveling (depending on the country). And because I’m enjoying the moment, I’m not always thinking about asking for no straw – until it’s too late and I see my drink coming toward me with a bright pink plastic straw floating in it.
(FUN SCARY FACT: 500+ million straws are used in the U.S. each year!)
People love straws. There are so many restaurants still handing out plastic straws like free candy, even if you hadn’t asked for one. It’s definitely the norm in the States, and I’m guilty of doing this exact thing when I used to be a waitress at several restaurants. It’s just normal to hand out straws.
But is it, really?!
Nowadays, with the availability of sustainable straws like bamboo, metal, and even straws made from avocado seeds, there’s no excuse to accept plastic straws from restaurants or other public spaces.
I still forget to ask on occasion, and I even forget to bring my own metal straw.
So just like you, I’m learning. But I do know this: refusing a straw is one of the easiest ways to become a conscious, eco-friendly traveler.
3. Use bars of soaps and shampoos instead of liquids from plastic bottles
When it comes to products in general, the less packaged it is, the better!! Beauty products are huge polluters, which is why seeking out natural soaps and shampoos while traveling (or in general) is paramount to becoming an eco-friendly consumer.
Since we travel often, we always have to adapt to the place we are in. Sometimes there are better organic or eco-friendly options than others. So you just got to make the most of it.
Seek out local markets and artisanal products first before buying commercial shampoos, conditioners, and soaps that can be found in nearly every convenience store worldwide.
4. Use bamboo toothbrushes, not plastic
So many products exist to make travel convenient. Like mini travel-sized toothbrushes. I know, they’re small and cute and hard to refuse for only .99 cents, but let’s focus on the bigger issue here, please.
Plastic toothbrushes are so much of a norm, it can be hard to see the damage they do.
When you toss out your 4-month old toothbrush, that thing is going to wreak havoc on some poor fish or bird’s innards until it dies a slow death. Or maybe, it’ll break up into thousands of small plastic pieces – aka microplastics – which get consumed by small fish that are eaten by bigger fish, that are consumed by us humans at 4-star seafood restaurants.
Spend the extra $2 to buy a bamboo toothbrush instead! The first time I bought a bamboo toothbrush, I was living in the Netherlands studying for my master’s in humanitarian aid. We spent a Saturday visiting a nearby seal rescue organization with two visiting friends.
After our tour and reading about the seals, I took a peek into their gallery. Lo and behold there was a bamboo toothbrush, for something like €4. I bought it, but only because I insisted. Everyone thought I was ridiculous for spending “so much” on a toothbrush.
But I couldn’t care less about those euros. I was so happy to find a product I knew would biodegrade and not end up in a baby seal’s stomach and contribute to the over pollution of our oceans and landfills.
Sometimes, the extra few bucks are worth it. And in this case, choosing renewable and eco-friendly materials over plastic will always be worth it!
Shop locally or from the source! These are handmade mochila bags from local Wayuu women in La Guajira desert, Colombia.
5. Shop locally and responsibly – Don’t buy on a whim
With #fastfashion stores like H&M, Zara, Forever 21, etc., and Instagram influencers changing their outfits for every shot, it’s no surprise we’re polluting our planet in ways we cannot imagine by just dressing up.
The fashion industry is extremely irresponsible, which is why we – the consumers – must make the conscious choice to buy from sustainable manufacturers and businesses.
When you travel, shop local – that goes for clothes too! Locally-made clothes from small, artisanal shops are generally way better for the environment. Even if they’re a little more expensive, it’s such a wiser choice.
You’ll not only be helping out the environment by avoiding to buy from huge stores (and also consuming less in general), you’ll also be supporting the local community and a small business owner. You can be way prouder of your purchase when you buy responsibly and locally.
I have gotten pretty good at resisting the temptation to buy on a whim. There are extremely nice clothes out there for cheap, sure, but at what cost?? Practicing this has made me less of a consumer in general.
Now, if I do buy new clothes, my first reaction is to look for the best local or eco-friendly options first, even if it is pricier. I’ll keep that item of clothing 10x longer, anyways, so the investment is worth it even if I didn’t consider the environment in my decision-making process.
6. Eat less meat
The general rule of thumb when it comes to eco-friendly travel is less is better. And that goes for meat, too.
WAIITTTT! I didn’t say you have to be vegetarian or vegan to be eco-friendly. Already, reducing the amount of meat you consume has a huge impact.
I believe it’s extremely hard for people to make the “all or nothing” decision to eating meat. There’s so much pressure to go vegetarian and not look back.
But without going into detail about the health benefits, or the animal rights welfare debate (which I am for entirely), I just want to point out here that eating less meat is better on the environment.
For strictly environmental purposes only – eating less meat is better!
Even if it’s just one less meal with meat while on your travels – that’s already a start. And if you do want to consume meat but struggle because you care for the environment – that’s ok! Then you can choose meats – such as chicken or fish – which have smaller environmental impacts than beef.
You don’t have to privy yourself to be an eco-conscious traveler. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely you’re already practicing doing these sustainable travel tips in your own life.
It’s all about being aware of our choices and choosing the route of less impact.
7. Travel overland instead of by air
One of the biggest contradictions I have about my sustainable travel journey is that I am a frequent flyer!
Each time I fly by plane, I add to my carbon environmental footprint. It’s the same with everything, I know, but in general, traveling by air is much more harmful on the environment than driving.
Flying is inevitable in some cases, but there are ways to improve how we travel. If you do fly, there are 30+ IATA (International Air Transport Association) member airlines who offer carbon offset programs. These programs aim to balance out carbon emissions by funding and supporting reduction projects.
8. Pack light!
Traveling lighter is not only a sustainable way to travel, but it’s also a lot more fun and so liberating! Pack light and you’ll lower your carbon emissions by A LOT.
It can be challenging to fit everything into one bag, but it’s not impossible. It does take practice, but there are a few packing tips that can help you get there faster.
9. Don’t buy single-use plastics – say BYE
Single-use plastics, like water bottles, are already overflowing and polluting nearly every corner of the earth.
Even the most distant, remote islands and coastlines are receiving tons of washed-up plastic bottles (among other plastic monstrosities) in alarming numbers.
Water is such a necessity and commodity that it’s really hard to not buy a bottle when you’re literally parched or dehydrated. Especially while traveling, people tend to consume much more single-use plastics than the average person.
Bali, Indonesia is one of the best and worst examples of this. Bali was filling up so fast with throw-away plastic items (like bottles, straws, etc.) from tourists that the beaches were literally entangled with the crashing waves.
The situation became so extreme that the Indonesian government imposed a single-use plastics ban on the island of Bali. And they are enforcing all businesses and stores to put an immediate stop to selling single-use plastics. Any person or business caught using, buying, or selling single-use plastics might have their business permit revoked (according to this Jakarta Post article from Dec. 2018).
Instead of using water bottles, refill a reusable water bottle and keep it with you at all times. Make carrying it around a habit, so you’re never in a situation where you have to buy plastic water bottles, but can fill up instead.
Support local organizations, associations, and sanctuaries doing things right with animals + the environment in mind – Like this wild hummingbird reserve in Colombia.
10. Do not pay to see animals in captivity!
The BIG #10!! Eco-friendly travel can also be ethical travel. And I want to highlight an important issue that is still causing lots of damage. Animal activities. Dolphin shows. Petting lion cubs. Elephant tourism.
We are probably all guilty of it, in some way, whether we know it or not, we’ve contributed to this demand to pay to see or be up close to wild animals.
Paying to see wild animals in captivity is stringing along an incredibly harmful side of tourism.
11. Stay at eco-friendly hotels and other accommodation
Environmentally friendly accommodation is popular nowadays. Just look at Tulum, Mexico which is full of “eco-resorts” (which aren’t actually eco-friendly as they run on diesel generators and the waste runs into the below-ground cenotes).
Businesses know people are looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint, which is why you need to be careful when searching for eco-friendly housing.
Truly environmentally-responsible hotels will be willing to talk about their waste management, recycling program, maybe farm to table menu… and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask about their energy consumption; if they use renewable sources such as solar or hydroelectric energy.
12. Choose reputable, eco-friendly tour operators
Environmentally friendly tour operators do exist, you just got to seek them out.
So many tour operators profit from exploiting the natural environment. When you search for travel tours, make sure to look for any links to certified programs, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or other environmental programs.
Chances are, if a tour operator is truly eco-friendly, they’ll go out of their way to prove that to you. In fact, they’ll proudly display it and their actions and demeanor will back up their environmental philosophy.
Look for sustainable development, organizations that give back to the local community, and make every effort not to harm the environment.
In a new city? Rent a bike or go on a bike tour! We did this in Bogota after I lived there for 3 months and it was the best way to show Paul around.
13. Ride the bus or carpool… or bike!
If you are able, consider overland journeys first instead of air travel. Carpooling is a great way to reduce your impact as a traveler. If you can share a ride rather than hire or rent your own vehicle, that’s already huge!
Avoid hiring your own vehicle, especially when you have the option to take the public bus or hitch a ride with someone else.
Or even better, when you’re traveling around a new place, rent a bike!! Exploring by bike is our most favorite way to get around. Leg power!
14. Use reef-friendly sunscreen!!
Going to the beach? Replace harmful, commercial sunscreen with reef-friendly, natural and organic sunscreen alternatives (like this one). They are just as effective and they don’t contribute to the deadening of our precious, exotic reefs and sea life.
15. Follow rules and respect the local environment
Please be mindful of where you are when you travel. If you’re hiking, take out any trash you take in. Don’t wander into blossom fields and off footpaths to take the best Instagram shot. Don’t pick flowers.
And resist the urge to feed the animals, no matter how cute. These types of behaviors, while they may seem innocent, are extremely harmful when multiplied by millions of tourists each year.
And for f***’s sake, throw your cigarette butts in the trash, not on the ground.
Pack out all trash you pack in and visit places where your financial contribution helps to preserve and maintain the area. Follow all local rules, don’t smoke in parks, don’t pick plants, etc, etc.
17. Gift smart souvenirs
Souvenirs are little testaments of our presence in a place. They shout, “Look! I’ve been here!” While some are cute, most are mass-produced and not environmentally-friendly. Moreover, be careful about the kind of souvenirs you buy.
Lots of souvenirs are crafted from animal body parts, like ivory, coral, or tortoise-shell – all either illegal or unethical.
Buy smart souvenirs! Buy from local artisans that sell authentic items specific to that culture or country, instead of buying at souvenir shops.
18. Drink local beer
Drink a local beer at the bar instead of ordering your classic Heineken (unless you’re in the Netherlands, then by all means..).
Honestly, it’s quite silly to travel and be adventurous but trap your taste buds to your regular way of eating and drinking – don’t you think? When you drink a locally brewed beer you will contribute to eco-friendly travel because your beer will have less mileage. The same goes for anything you eat or buy, too.
Eating and drinking local beers and foods is not only environmentally-friendly, but it is also budget-friendly, too as most local beers tend to be cheaper than imported ales.
19. Consider the packaging when you shop
One sneaky tip for becoming an eco-friendly traveler is to look at products’ packaging. It’s often something we dismiss because we see it so often. But once you start to look, you realize just how much we package everything!
Buying fruits & veggies without packaging (no plastic bags, vacuum-packed anything – nada) can be challenging, especially if you shop in supermarkets (Hint: Shop at local outdoor markets instead).
Not just produce, but anything humans generally buy comes in a package. And if you’re really good at it, you can find the off-brand products that aren’t packaged. Or, compare the packaging of the same product to identify which one is more eco-friendly. Am I the only one that does this? It sounds crazy, but hear me out!
You might find similar products but one has plastic wrap packaging and the other has brown paper bag packaging. Which one are you gonna buy? I know which one I’ll add to my shopping cart. 🙂
20. Reduce energy use whenever possible
Do you really need a hairdryer on your travels? Did you turn the lights and air conditioner off when you left the room?
Years ago, I stayed at a hotel with a friend who said to me bluntly, “Why do you care about turning off the lights, it’s not like you pay for it.” I remember chuckling, while I switched the light off.
But I regret not trying to reach out to her to share about the importance of limiting our energy use – whether we pay for it or not. The environment will ultimately pay, won’t it?
Limiting your energy use, or at least being aware of your energy use, is a big step toward sustainable travel.
Make it a habit to think “eco” first! Use recycled materials before buying brand new, turn off lights, eat more plants, reuse and reduce!
21. Generate electricity from solar (for Overlanders)
If you’re an overlander – traveling overland in a van or camper – generating your own energy via solar is a brilliant eco-friendly way to travel.
Finding creative ways to use renewable energy, such as solar, is a big step in the right direction. There are thousands of travelers who make the PanAm trip from Alaska to Ushuaia, covering thousands of miles, every year. Why not be the one with the awesome solar rooftop that powers your electricity?
22. Pick up 1-3 pieces of trash every time you go to the beach (or anywhere)!
A good way to visibly promote sustainable travel is to pick up trash every time you go to the beach or out in general. It’s a very simple thought, so why doesn’t everyone do this more often?
I have found that whenever I willingly pick up trash, others notice and they either will say something (like thanks) or will do the same.
It’s one tiny act of kindness for our planet that takes literally no time and no money, just a small ounce of effort!
23. Use menstrual cups over pads & tampons
Ladies, one of the best eco-friendly must-haves for travel or otherwise is a menstrual cup! No doubt you’ve heard of them!
Using a cup instead of pads or tampons greatly helps cut down on your environmental footprint and waste. Disposable single-use pads and tampons are terrible for the environment, just like diapers are.
If you want to be even more eco-friendly with your cup, then talk about it with your friends! There are still many girls and women who, due to their culture, are ashamed about periods and often resort to using dirty rags or have to miss out on school because of lack of supplies.
Raising awareness about menstrual cups helps preserve girls’ health and the environment’s health!
24. Do your research
Research is an eco-friendly traveler’s best friend. Doing your research can completely change your vacation, who you book your tour with, what activities you do…
Make sure to consider your impact at every leg of your trip. By planning a little bit in advance, you can more easily discover which shops and businesses offer ethically-made products, or which restaurant sources their produce locally, and so on.
If you make it a habit to research for ethical and eco-friendly businesses during your travels, it will increase the chance you actually end up giving your financial support and business to pro-environment retailers.
Stay at low-impact places. This was in Tayrona National Park where we slept in hammocks, ate on-site, and packed out all trash we packed in. This place we chose in advance for its natural environment! See what planning can do? 😉
25. Review & report!
When you make it back from your vacation, make sure to evaluate your trip. I always try to leave both positive and negative reviews based on my experiences and observations.
I also, via blogging, reflect on what we did while traveling (i.e. activities, food, lodging, choices, etc.) that I could improve on and make even more environmentally friendly for the next trip.
Did I buy water bottles? Did I seek out eco-friendly lodging or buy only products from ethical and sustainable businesses?
If you witness an organization, tour, or hotel, acting or operating in a way that’s detrimental to the environment, make sure to report it. Reviews can either make or break a business, so it’s crucial to spread the word to help other travelers not make the same mistake!
Final Thoughts: 25 Eco-Friendly Travel Tips for The Sustainable Traveler
There’s so much more I could write about eco-friendly travel but at 3,591 words, I better take a break!
I must not be the only one who wants to keep traveling the world but doesn’t want to contribute to its degradation. I believe if everyone could become more aware, already we would see a huge difference in the way we consume and the way we travel.
Let’s share with the world that environmentally-friendly and sustainable travel is possible, with the right open-mindedness and awareness for ourselves, others, and the planet! 🙂
Thanks for reading! Leave me your thoughts and comments below.