How to practice more sustainable travel this holiday season

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In case you somehow managed to miss it, there was a big brouhaha this year over the fact that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — everyday champions of sustainability — were using private jets for some of their personal vacations and, occasionally, travel required for their royal responsibilities. And when they were called out for being hypocrites where practicing sustainability is concerned, it made us think, “Wait, should we be doing more to offset our own travel?”

Maybe the thought crossed your mind, too. Or maybe reading this is giving you pause. But here’s the point – vacation travel actually takes a larger toll on our environment than you may realize.


Air travel, in particular, produces high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Although airlines argue that flying is only responsible for 2 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from air travel, hotels, food and sundries), you have to unpack that figure in context to how many people are traveling.

Or, more pointedly, how many more people are traveling. The International Air Transport Association’s annual report on travel statistics for 2017 revealed that a record-breaking 4.1 billion passengers flew on scheduled airline services for the year – that was a 280 million increase compared to 2016. Per the most recent figures from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 1 billion U.S. passengers alone are flown yearly. By 2037, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts a rise to 8.2 billion global air passengers.

Now, bearing all of that in mind, consider that reportedly only 3 percent of the world’s populationflew last year . Since that figure is clearly growing at an unprecedented pace, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with air travel have the potential to be staggering. Speaking to DW, Stefan Gössling — a professor at Sweden’s Lund and Linnaeus universities and co-editor of the book Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions — didn’t mince words about this impact. “On an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy-intensive.”

So, where a domestic flight can result in as much as 254g of CO2 emissionsper passenger per km traveled (per the BBC) that emission rate for a car is 171g for one passenger, 104g for a bus, 43g for a car with four passengers, and only 6g for a Eurostar train.

Why does all of this matter? When greenhouse gases are out of balance, as they are now, they cause climate change. And in case you haven’t alarmed yourself lately over the detrimental effects climate change has on the environment, National Geographic offers a great explainer.

Let’s get to the tips on how you can make less of a travel footprint.

Tip 1: Choose closer destinations

Granted, if you’re traveling to see family, you have to go where they live. But if you’re just taking a holiday vacation independent of anyone else, try to choose a destination that isn’t so far away to minimize your environmental footprint. If you do travel overseas, consider locales that are known to be pedestrian and bike-friendly so you don’t have to rent a car while visiting. If you do fly, you can always look into carbon-offsetting to (you guessed it) offset the carbon footprint created by your air travel.

According to How Stuff Works, carbon offsetting is “a concentrated effort to produce less waste and use more renewable energy.’ So, basically, if you’re causing a carbon footprint you don’t feel great about, you can help fund new projects that are working to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. You can learn more about carbon offsets, what your carbon footprint actually is and projects you can fund here.

More: How a full-time RV family celebrates the holidays

Tip 2: Embrace the “slow travel” trend

Per The Art of Slow Travel, “Slow travel is a mindset that rejects traditional ideas of tourism and encourages you to soak in your environments and keep yourself open to new experiences.” Although slow travel is more of a mindset than any one mode of transportation, it certainly lends itself well to train travel — which, bonus, is more environmentally friendly than flying or even renting a car.

To practice slow travel, skip the itinerary-making step. Travelers often pack their days with museum tours, dinner reservations and historical site visits before they even arrive at their destination. Slow travelers revel in spontaneity – they wake up each day in their new locale and see where unplanned exploration takes them. Sounds romantic, right?

Tip 3: Steer clear of tourist-degraded destinations

Traveling sustainably isn’t just about minimizing your carbon footprint. In addition to not harming the natural environment, sustainable travel is about not harming the cultural environment of the place you’re visiting. And, while it might not be what you want to hear, that means you should avoid traveling to certain popular destinations that have been affected by overtourism. Do a little digging online and in travel forums to gauge how the locals feel about their quality of life. Even Paris and Rome are developing a reputation for becoming travel-degraded, so consider alternatives — like, for example, Arles, France, or Matera, Italy.

More: Greenwashing: What it is & how to pinpoint brands that do it

Tip 4: Minimize your plastic usage

This can never be said enough (because we need the daily reminder, too): Avoid single-use plastic like the plague during your travels. A disheartening 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually ends up in the ocean. Need a visual? That’s a garbage truck of plastic in the ocean every minute, according to Unless you’re able to confirm ahead of your trip that the destination you’re visiting has excellent recycling programs, come prepared. When out to eat, ask for locally purified water in glass cups, or buy a recycled glass bottle to bring to restaurants. Pack cloth tote bags in your luggage that you can bring while souvenir shopping at local markets. Make small swaps whenever you get the chance. It might seem insignificant, but it’s better than doing nothing and contributing to the problem even more.

More: The truth about bioplastics & their impact on the environment

Tip 5: Choose sustainable travel groups and tour guides

So, you planned a big holiday trip for your family to a new and exciting destination. You want to take some sort of cool local tour, right? Hey, since many economies are tourist-driven, it’s generally a good thing to patronize these local companies. However, if you want to be a more sustainable traveler, you’ll need to do your homework upfront. Can the travel group or tour guide tell you some of their environmentally friendly practices? Are the guides local, and are they employed with a living wage? How do they protect and support wildlife? This is especially important on any tours involving animals, as, sadly, wildlife tourism is typically not ethical or responsible.

Tip 6: Be a vacation homebody

If you’re going to visit family or friends this holiday season, maybe you can “slow travel” by train to your destination. If not, though, you can still embrace the principle of slow travel by being a vacation homebody. As in, get where you’re going and then keep your travel footprints tight. Hunker down at home with the people you came to visit, as opposed to hopping in the car and driving all over the place. Bonus? Not only will you be minimizing your carbon footprint once you reach your destination, but you’ll also be more present with the people you love.

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