The Complete Guide To More Sustainable Travel

Shark Fin Cove, Davenport, CA; July 2019.
Photo by: CS Sherin

Simple And Easy Sustainable Travel Tips

by CS Sherin

The value of traveling is immense. Through the choice to leave the familiar for adventures into the unknown, we are able to become more aware of the many layered realities around the world in a more direct and tangible way (sometimes disturbing, some wondrous, and everything in between) — we learn, grow, change, and become more than we were before.

Whether there are hiccups, challenges, unexpected stress, and/or unparalleled bliss while traveling — leaving, experiencing, and coming back again is a transformation of self and being that potentially makes each of us enriched, refreshed, and wiser.

Yet, if we don’t heed the dire warnings of climate change, devastating loss of species, forests, marine life, and dangerous levels of pollution and degradation, what will there be to travel to?

Sustainability, for travelers, is a foundational concern. A keen awareness of the many urgent crises we currently face related to environment, climate, communities, and health requires every traveler’s attention and proactive commitment.

Travel, at its worst, can be parasitic, entitled, rude, blind, degrading, and polluting — in a word: harmful.

We aren’t here to be that person.

We are here to outsmart some of the sustainability roadblocks, and to be a welcome guest wherever we travel — one who seeks to impart a thoughtful and positive impact. It is never too late to begin. And it is important to remember that there is no perfection of human action and choice in this very human world. Even the “perfect sustainable traveler” (mythical creature) may fall from grace, like when a sustainable toothbrush accidentally and abruptly falls in the toilet. Eek! Or when there isn’t enough money to buy the right product, and it wouldn’t fit in the backpack, or was forgotten. Or when sustainable choices aren’t available in the location we travel to. Accepting that things will not always be ideal, and still committing to being as sustainable as possible, is key.

This is real life after all, not a seamless commercialized depiction of it. Seriously though, it may not always look commercially pretty, but sustainable action saves money, resources, and builds positive esteem by the step and mile.

Let’s get right to the heart of this. Being rigid doesn’t really work well while traveling. However, do you know what does work well while traveling?

Sustainable Travel is best accomplished through
being prepared and adaptable.

Adaptability, courage, and number one: being prepared is the way to find more success in sustainable ways to travel. Yes. Whether you are packing a backpack or are going to have a suitcase on rollers and other bags, being prepared for the what, when, where, how, and the unforeseen possibilities is what brings grace, relief, and sustainability to any traveler.

It is really difficult to be more sustainable in word, action, and choices without thinking things through, researching, planning, and being prepared. In this way, sustainable travel is made more do-able and easy.

So, how can we balance and maintain the importance of traveling, while also truly attending to the dire need for each of us to increase our overall sustainability for the long haul?

First, we need to keep in mind the possible impact and demand we will have upon resources (air, water, soil, food, local communities, businesses, populations; animals/species, ecosystems, health, etc.) while we travel. We also need to keep in mind the specific needs, challenges, gifts, and strengths of the areas we travel to so that we can make informed decisions. The awareness from these needs to be incorporated into planning and researching for the trip from day one.

Me and my musically gifted life partner, having a blissful time. One of the many state beaches we visited on our once a year family vacation this month. Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by: Samara Sherin

To begin, here are some simple, easy tips to keep in mind while planning for more sustainable travel:

DESTINATION

  • Local and regional. Traveling to and exploring local and regional locations eliminates pollution and Greenhouse Gas emissions from long distance travel, and supports your local economy. 
  • State and county parks and beaches. Spending time and money supporting state, county and national parks removes consumerism (except gift shops) and connects us with nature and organizations that protect it.
  • Long distance: over 500 miles. Traveling out of state and out of country can complicate sustainability. Fossil fuels (used for planes, cars, boats, and most other industries) are the number one cause of the current climate crisis, harm to resources, health, and ecosystems via pollution, emissions, waste, and deforestation. See the next section for long distance travel tips. 
  • Longer and fewer vacations or trips. Just like slow food is better for health and environment than fast food, longer and fewer trips/vacations each year are also a more sustainable choice.
Litter we found and gathered on a state beach after we were done staying there, in Santa Cruz, California this July.
Where we put the litter from the beach. These are located right at the entrance to the beach.

PACKING

  • Hydration. An empty reusable water bottle (glass, double lined glass or stainless steel) to fill as needed during the trip.
  • Safe water. A filter or water purifier tablets for drinking water.
  • Food on the go. Snacks/food from home, stored in safe, resealable, reusable containers. Exception: always follow any food and liquid restrictions according to transportation and country. 
  • Reusable containers. Reusable containers for any toiletries that can be filled from larger containers at home. 
  • Reusable bags. Reusable bags for shopping/groceries.
  • Sustainable toothbrush. Two bamboo or wooden toothbrushes. Two, in case one falls in a toilet, or something.
  • Sustainable makeup remover. Oil to remove makeup in a small glass jar or bottle and a washcloth to remove makeup. It is possible to find biodegradable, Fair Trade ingredient wipes too, but they come in single-use plastic.    
  • Sustainable utensils. Reusable utensils (bamboo, stainless steel, wooden, or compostable) when plastic is the only option. 
  • Sustainable drinking straw. Reusable drinking straw (paper, stainless steel, bamboo).
  • A reusable razor.
  • Sustainable toiletries. Toiletries free of harmful chemicals and single-use plastics.
  • Bar of soap. Naked or paper wrapped bar of soap that is toxin and cruelty free; with Fair Trade ingredients and/or locally made.
  • Dry shampoo (arrowroot powder or ground oat flour). An alternative when washing with shampoo and conditioner isn’t an option, or you want to conserve water. 
  • Safe Sunscreen that won’t bleach and kill corals and aquatic life. It needs to be both oxybenzone and oxtinoxate free. Mineral sunscreen needs to be non-nano (nano mineral particles are problematic and cause harm). Avoid these ingredients in other toiletries as well, like creams, lotions and makeup.
Me and Jeff at Muir Woods National Park in Mill Valley, CA. I am clearly trying to soak in all that ancient wisdom! It is beyond words to stand with trees that are 2,000+ years old. What a gift that they are still here and accessible to the public! Photo by: Samara Sherin
Information on the redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument (Park) in Mill Valley, California.

TRANSPORTATION

  • Human powered: bicycles and walking. The most sustainable means of transportation are bicycles and walking. 
  • Hybrid/electric vehicles. The second most sustainable means of transportation are hybrid and/or electric vehicles.
  • Public transportation and carpooling. The third most sustainable means of transportation are public transportation (bus, train, high speed rail) and carpooling. Lyft, another public transportation option, is carbon neutral and has a bikes and scooters program. BlaBlaCar, another option, is a carpool app in Europe. Some high speed rail and buses are being run or have plans to be run by electricity and other sustainable means like solar power. It is good to note, full buses and carpooling, while usually the most sustainable, are not more sustainable than an economy flight for a distance of 1,000 miles or more
  • Driving. Driving across the United States in the average car is about the same as flying when it comes to emissions and pollution. To make driving long distance more sustainable, 2-3 people need to be in the car. The best option is a hybrid and/or electric car. Driving 500 miles or more is made much more sustainable with 2+ people in the car. A great option is to rent a hybrid/electric car via car-sharing companies like car2go, Turo, or Zipcar. 
  • Flying. The first way to make flying more sustainable is to make flying a rare occurrence. Fly less, fly only for long distance, or don’t fly at all. However, sometimes flying is more sustainable than driving long distance (1,000+ miles). If you must fly, do the following to be more sustainable: fly on planes that are fuel efficient, 80% or more full with passengers, choose the economy section, pack light, and choose direct flights (no layovers). More energy is used and more waste is created by traveling first-class; economy is more sustainable. Packing light eliminates weight that would cause the plane to use more fuel. Direct flights are important because they eliminate the extra taking off and landing, which is responsible for much of the fossil fuel atmospheric air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Cruise ships (avoid). Cruise ships, in most cases, are more harmful than flying. Marine transportation triples our carbon footprint. Cruise ships produce 15 gallons of hazardous waste every day. In addition, they emit 1,000 metric tons of ballast water pollution; air pollution, noise pollution, grey water pollution, sewage pollution, and bilge oil pollution (sulfur and heavy metals). Cruise ships use 150 tons of heavy fossil fuels each day. (Sources: MarineInsight, Ship-Technology). If you still aren’t convinced, check out: Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Report Card for detailed information on specific cruise lines and their environmental impact. In all fairness, there is one cruise line in that report that could be considered acceptable. 
A gorgeous view of the Bay in San Francisco on Land’s End trail, July 2019.
Photo by CS Sherin.

CARBON OFFSETS

  • Buying carbon offsets. Buying carbon offsets doesn’t change what you have chosen and contributed to in the past or present. Donating voluntarily to offset your carbon footprint can support causes that build infrastructure that is solar and wind powered, and other sustainable projects.  Be sure to purchase carbon offsets after you have researched the nature of each program. Questions to ask yourself: Is the carbon offset program for profit or non-profit? Is this a tangible and direct enough action for me? Does this feel right? 
  • Less driving at home. If you have multiple cars at home, consider making a change. Making your lifestyle at home more sustainable offsets flying and driving during travel in bigger ways, and for the long term — which is what real sustainability is all about. Consider reducing to one hybrid/electric car. If you can’t afford a new car, find a used one. Or, let go of all cars, if you are in a metro area and can depend on public transportation (if it is affordable in your locale). 
  • Invest in and support sustainable organizations. Support local and traveled-to non-profit agencies that preserve, protect, conserve, and lobby for the protection of sacred sites, natural resources, sustainable practices, ecosystems, species, water and ocean, etc. 
  • Change your daily life relationship with fossil fuels and related causes of environmental emergencies. Becoming more sustainable in all aspects of your daily life contributes to a better future and deeply offsets past travels that may not have been sustainable at all. It is never too late to make a difference! 
We rented a little place in Oakland CA, from a local woman entrepreneur, for the week. There was a great woman-owned organic and bulk grocery store just blocks from this area. We appreciated seeing all aspects of the area, and visiting with locals.

LODGING AMENITIES

If you are in a group or family, it is often easier to rent a suite, house, apartment or cabin to save money and make more sustainable choices. For it to be worth it, I recommend a place that has laundry facilities and a full kitchen. That way, you are able to stay and live much like a local — getting groceries from local businesses, cooking, using public transit, walking around, and so on. Sometimes a luxury stay at a specialty lodging, which is completely sustainable can be the right move too. Or something in between.

Here are some of the most helpful sustainability-type amenities to be looking for in lodging, in general:

  • Reusable, eco-friendly toiletries (shampoo/conditioner, soap, toilet and toilet paper)
  • Reusable coffee maker and tea kettle (not single-use)
  • Free from: harsh chemicals, single-use plastics, pesticides
  • Limited washing of bedding, towels, etc. and/or laundry facility is on-site and self-serve
  • Grey water systems
  • Solar power
  • Support of local farmers/farmers markets, artisans, and small/local businesses
  • Preservation of wildlife and ecosystems on site and locally
  • Energy saving appliances and practices
  • Waste reduction, composting, and recycling
  • Provides bicycles or near bicycle rental
  • Near public transportation
San Francisco Ferry Terminal. We walked from downtown to the Ferry Terminal and found that not only was there an indoor farmers market, there was a Saturday afternoon farmers market outside (where we found and ate the best peaches ever), as well as a little festival for Bastille day, July 2019. Photo by CS Sherin.

LODGING OPTIONS

The best sustainable lodging options usually support the local economy and community, conserve water and other resources, protect and respect wildlife, nature, and local culture. We are not going to find, in most cases, commercial luxury venues that fit the sustainability bill. They tend to waste and over-consume energy and resources.

Here are some solid starting points to explore for more sustainable lodging options:

A recycling, garbage, and compost station along with reusable utensils nearby at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal’s indoor farmers market.

MORE SUSTAINABLE ACTION TIPS DURING TRAVEL

  • If you need to buy water, buy it or mineral water in large glass bottles. 
  • Unplug appliances you aren’t using.
  • Turn off or turn down (to a higher temperature setting) the air conditioner. 
  • Conserve water and energy use.
  • Avoid single-use plastics and food waste.
  • Choose to eat and shop at places that provide organic, Fair Trade and local options.
  • Choose more plant-based meals, and at locally owned businesses whenever possible.
  • Pick up litter and dispose of it appropriately, whenever you can. 
  • Respect and protect sacred sites, wildlife, local culture and communities, whenever possible. 
  • Find community events and be a part of them. 
  • Avoid over-touristy sites and venues.
  • Avoid exploitation of people, nature, wildlife and other animals for “entertainment”, convenience, novelty, curiosity or for self aggrandizement/social influence. Instead, support and connect with places that are nature and wildlife preserves, sanctuaries, and rehabilitation centers for injured wildlife.

All in all, do the best you can with all of this, and keep practicing. Not all situations, locations, choices, and unexpected needs or upsets during travel are completely ideal or sustainable. Do as much as you can, and never give up!

That is all for now. I hope you have found this guide for more sustainable travel both helpful and fun. I begin smiling just thinking of packing well and light and heading out to the unknown on an adventure (after having planned and researched, of course)! May your travels be uplifting, kind, and enlightening.


Guest blogger Chandra Sherin

CS Sherin, MA, is a freelance writer who creates inspirational and educational content, and provides editing, research, and proofreading services. CS is author of “Recipe For A Green Life” and is an artist, poet, and astrologer — providing in-depth reports and consultations. You will find unique, inclusive, and canny Creative Expertise at WildClover.org, CS’s online polestar.


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