Sustainable travel is about making smarter choices in every aspect of the trip. It starts at the beginning, when booking transport and accommodation, and comes into play when seeking out local experiences and being conscious of where you're investing your tourist dollars.

But that doesn't mean you need to totally overhaul your vacation. We've put together a list of practical tips that will help you along the way, even if you're just getting started on your sustainable travel journey. 

A woman and man shop at a stall in historic Venice.
Swap crowds for cooler weather in an off-season trip to Venice © LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

1. Travel off-peak or off-beat

In recent years, the global phenomenon of overtourism has begun straining infrastructure and ecosystems, and pricing locals out of communities. For a time it appeared that this trend wasn't slowing down, but then the pandemic hit and holiday hotspots suddenly went from overtourism to no tourism.

As travel rebounds, many people are rethinking how they explore. Taking the road less traveled and visiting under-the-radar spots to avoid crowds is one way to be responsible.

But if you can't resist the lure of the big tourist districts, Justin Francis, CEO of activist travel company Responsible Travel, says you should travel off-peak. "If you really want to see the canals of Venice, or La Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, then consider traveling outside of summer or school holiday," he advises. "There will be far fewer people around, and the money you spend will help businesses that can struggle outside peak season."

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Smiling woman using smart phone on station
A new generation of green travelers are embracing slow travel © kiszon pascal / Getty Images

2. Go by road or rail

Trains, planes and automobiles. Which one is best? Air travel is the natural enemy of sustainable travel because it wreaks havoc on the environment. The Swedes have even coined a new phrase, 'flygskam’ or ‘flight shame,’ to refer to the feeling of environmental guilt travelers have over flying. Unfortunately though, sometimes flying is non-negotiable. If you live in New York and need to visit Shanghai, you're not going to take the slow boat to China. So the best solution is to fly less.

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"Instead of taking three or four short city breaks by air each year, aim to take one, longer trip by plane and a few ‘staycations’ or trips where you go by road or rail," recommends Francis. He notes that travelers should always choose economy class (as first class can have a much higher carbon footprint) and fly direct where possible. "You can also look into which airlines have the lowest emissions per passenger mile. And wherever you can, travel overland in a destination instead of taking domestic flights."

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A triangular wooden structure, with a glass wall, is shown in the middle of a field, Inside, a pair of armchairs are visible.
Zero Island is a carbon-neutral island in Sweden © Fanny Haga

3. Opt for eco-conscious accommodation

Eco-conscious accommodation has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, thanks to changing attitudes among consumers. Now the industry knows what's good for the planet is good for profit and hotels are starting to rack up serious eco-credentials. There are CO2-neutral stays on offer in places like The Brando in Tahiti, the Olakira Camp in the Serengeti, Vienna's Boutiquehotel Stadthalle and Hotel Kong Arthur in Copenhagen, part of Arthur Hotels, which was the world's first carbon-neutral hotel group. You can even try Zero Island, a tourist-friendly island in Sweden that managed to go carbon neutral in one year.

When it comes to plastic waste, the Angama Mara in Kenya follows a strict plastic-free policy and EDITION Hotels launched the "Stay Plastic Free" campaign to remove single-use plastics from the hospitality industry. Companies are also giving back, like AccorHotels who are financing smart-tree planting schemes for local farms. In 2016, the international hotel group planted nearly 17,000 trees in the UK as part of its global Plant for the Planet program, financed by the £233,000 saved by guests reusing towels rather than sending them to the laundry.

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4. Pack reusable items

The best way to reduce your waste output is to produce less. Vicky Ellmore from Reusable Nation says pack light and purposeful. "Stick to the basics and take reusables like a water bottle, coffee cup, steel or bamboo straw, food container (collapsible ones are great for traveling) and bamboo cutlery or a spork so you can avoid single-use plastics," she advises. "Take a reusable shopping bag and produce bags so you can shop plastic-free, and take zero waste toiletries, such as shampoo bars, deodorant paste and tooth tablets. You'll create a lot less waste and you won't have to worry about liquids and aerosols."

Bea Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home recommends repurposing everyday items you use at home for vacation use. "I bring my own earbuds and a peshtemal, which I use as a towel at the beach, a picnic blanket in a park or a scarf when it gets cold, but also a blanket on the plane, so I don't have to use those provided by the airlines which are wrapped in plastic."

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A male and female traveller hold chapatis while posing with a woman leading a cooking course
The social enterprise tour company I Like Local connects travelers with local experiences © I Like Local

5. Spend your money locally

If you choose locally-owned accommodation, eat at independent restaurants, buy locally made products and choose local experiences you can make a positive impact. Travel social enterprises such as I Like Local use tourist dollars to create sustainable incomes for local guides and hosts in 19 countries across Asia and Africa. Founder Sanne Meijboom tells Lonely Planet, "As many local people in Asia and Africa are not benefiting from tourism in their country and more travelers are looking for authentic travel experiences, we connect the dots. A traveler like you can join local life and the local person earns 100% of the money he asks for the experience."

Colombian tour company Impulse also has a social enterprise mission and harnesses the power of tourism to generate a market-driven peace movement. "We do this by creating experiences travelers love and which actively involve local communities thriving for peace in the business. This generates economic and cultural empowerment that supports social transformation and helps break material and psychological poverty cycles within the communities," says Impulse's Nikola Kelch. "Our passion is to help communities get back on their feet, one tour at a time."

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Travelers taking pictures with elephants at a Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Travelers taking selfies with elephants at a Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai © Fotos593 / Shutterstock

6. Choose your animal experiences carefully

Even 'harmless' selfies can be threatening to wildlife. According to the charity World Animal Protection (WPA), animals in the Amazon “are being torn from the wild so tourists can take selfies for Instagram and other social media”.

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Animals shouldn't be used for human entertainment and they need to live as free from human interference as possible. If you are keen to see wild animals in their natural habitat, choose places that offer ethical and sustainable animal interactions such as elephant sanctuaries and marine conservation volunteer projects. Elephant rides should always be given a miss and avoid all experiences where animals are behaving unnaturally.

The best way to travel sustainably is to be more mindful. As Responsible Travel's Justin Francis sums it up, "There is just one key point to keep in mind: respect the fact that you’re holidaying in someone else’s home, and think about how you can make a positive impact while you’re there."

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You might also like:
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This article was first published June 2019 and updated April 2022

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