A few years ago when I first moved abroad and started travelling, sustainable travel tips were the last thing on my mind. Now, I can’t imagine travelling, or moving through life in general, without being more conscious about my choices. This is definitely not to say I’m perfect. Last fall I travelled for 5 weeks in Asia and had an extremely tough time finding food, or anything really, that wasn’t packaged in plastic. It gutted me, but after coming up short on plastic-free options, I chose my hunger and the plastic-wrapped gimbap more times than I’d like to acknowledge. The point here is to do what you can, when you can, and that the small things really do count.
If you’re off on an adventure and wondering how you can travel without harming the planet, here are a few easy sustainable travel tips and tricks that I use while on the road.
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How can you unplug and recharge at the same time? Easy! Before leaving for a trip, make sure to unplug devices, turn off or lower the AC or heat, and turn off all lights. Then, go relax and recharge. This is a small habit that makes a big difference whether you’re off to work, running to the grocery store, or off to explore the world. Your pocket and the earth will thank you.
Always always always pack a scarf! Even when travelling to a warm destination, pack a scarf. For starters, planes are cold and scarves are lightweight, fold a million different ways, and are the perfect simple warm solution. Second, scarves are multi-functional. They can be worn to protect your head in the heat, as a beach wrap, or as a fashion statement. They can also be used as a photo booth backdrop, to cover up during a light rainfall, or as a pillow or blanket. To top it off, using a scarf as a plane pillow or blanket reduces airline plastic waste that covers these items.
Every traveller should include a collapsible tote bag on their packing list. A friend of mine gifted me a bright yellow one with my initials stitched into it a few years back and it’s been indispensable ever since. It’s easy to find and wash, and perfect for just about any use. Similar to scarves, collapsible totes are lightweight, tiny, and extremely handy. Whether you’re going to the beach, doing groceries, heading to a cafe, or bought too many souvenirs to fit in your suitcase, they’re excellent in a pinch and perfect for every day use. Totes with a small inner zippered pouch for storing small or valuable items are a bonus find.
If you’re like me and have a collection of mini hotel shampoos, stop storing them and start using them! These little bottles have come in handy when I’ve run out of my home shampoo and haven’t been able to get to the store, or when I want to change things up and use something different for a few days. They’re also lovely to use for guests, or, you guessed it – for travel! When you’ve finished using the product they came with, refill and reuse the bottles. It’s another easy way to save yourself money by not buying travel-sized toiletry containers, and reducing the amount of plastic being disposed. For the road, my favourite soap to refill these minis with for body wash, shampoo, and even laundry is Dr. Bronner’s. It’s been a game changer.
Nobody needs to have their hotel room cleaned every day…and if they do, well, that’s another issue! Here’s another example of a little bit going a long way. By reusing your towels during your stay (just as you would at home) you’re saving a lot of water and energy. The same thing applies for those mini toiletries we just mentioned. If you use them at the hotel and they aren’t finished, bring them home and use them until they’re empty, otherwise they get thrown out. Or, bring your own minis and leave the hotel shampoo for the next guests.
As a former over-packer, I can truly say I’ve seen the light and reformed my ways. Last year I got the zany idea that I should pack only a carry-on for 5 weeks in Europe. WHAT?! Well friends, I survived, and there’s been no turning back. I only travel with carry-on luggage now and airlines can no longer lose my belongings. If that’s not a travel win, I don’t know what is. The time it takes me to transition from my plane seat to the airport exit has greatly been reduced as well. I waltz off planes, fly through customs, and breeze past baggage carousels. But that’s not all of the good news! Packing light means helping the environment too. A lighter plane load requires less fuel, which results in a smaller carbon footprint.
I don’t know about you, but I think plane food is gross. It’s also full of plastic. From the meal containers, to the cups and utensils, to the packaging for each and every item, plane meals are a disaster for the environment and your health. Instead, what I like to do is bring my own snacks and meals for the plane. Prior to arriving at the airport (to save money and unnecessary plastic), you can fill up your reusable lunch containers with items like sandwiches, wraps, fruit, nuts, veggies, etc… for the plane ride. Don’t forget to research what can and can’t go through customs to avoid items being thrown out. Your body will thank you for the nutrients to fight off jet lag, and the environment will thank you for not using all of that plastic. You’d be surprised how many times the person sitting next to you will make a comment saying they wish they had your food instead!
Find a water bottle that suits your needs. There are a million different options on the market, so it’s safe to safe there’s something for everyone. I’ve used a Vapur collapsible water bottle for the past couple of years and absolutely love it. It’s light weight, portable, foldable (!) and perfect for travel or everyday use. If you’re visiting a place that doesn’t have potable water, there are many water purification options you can use as well. Knowing how many plastic water bottles are diverted from landfills and the ocean each you fill it up will give you the warm fuzzies over and over again. It’s an incredibly easy way to do your part.
Simply put, tampons and pads are the worst. They’re bulky, expensive, and awful for the environment. Luckily there’s an alternative and it is kickass. I’ve been using a menstrual cup for a few years and my only regret is that I didn’t start using one sooner. If you’re new to the menstrual cup world, here’s a video outlining how to choose one that works for your body. The are numerous pros to using a menstrual cup. For example, there’s more space in my luggage for clothing, books (I refuse to buy a Kindle), and whatever else I’d rather pack. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars and will continue to save more. If you’re curious how it works in public spaces or in countries with tougher access to clean water, there are many handy resources online to answer your questions. Continuing with the bathroom theme, one of the best (and most hilarious) travel books I’ve ever read is How to Shit Around the World. Check it out, laugh your ass off, and be ever knowledgeable on how to shit anywhere around the world.
There are some places you can only get to by plane, so fly when you must. However, when you have the option to travel by bus, bike, or train, why not! Often times these options are more eco-friendly than flying and are just as exciting. They are also typically cheaper, allow you to see a location from a different perspective, and provide an opportunity to mingle with the locals. Nobody remembers that mediocre flight they took, but I sure as heck can tell you stories about the sweaty and crowded 16 hour wooden-seat train ride I took from Cambodia to Thailand, or the friends I made last year on an overnight train in Italy!
While we’re on the topic of transit, we can’t forget about the most environmentally-savvy choice of all: walking! There are so many benefits to walking on a trip. To begin with, you can stop and sample every street food vendor along the way without needing to fight for a parking spot. Second, you set the pace. If you decide to spend longer at an exhibit or on the beach, the choice is in your hands…or feet. Third, a little daily exercise will reduce your carbon emissions and bring you in closer contact with the place you’re exploring or relaxing in.
This tip can go two different ways. One is to travel locally, in your own backyard. The other is to buy local while abroad. Whether it’s food, souvenirs, or everyday items, purchasing local items from local businesses is one of the best ways to support the communities you travel to and reside in. By supporting local business you’re empowering individuals to support their family and friends, as well as build a sustainable livelihood. You’re also eating food that’s more nutritious (not to mention fresh), and encouraging local artisans to continue practicing and perfecting unique traditions. I can’t think of a more fun way to be a sustainable traveller.
There you have it – some eco-friendly travel tips to take with you wherever you are in the world. If you’ve got any others, I’d love to hear about them in the comment section below!