How to travel sustainably

I think a lot of people hear "sustainable travel" and immediately think of the eco-friendly practices. Sustainable travel has a lot to do with respecting the environment, but also leaving a positive impact on local communities and economies. Even small things that you do when you travel can make a big impact. Here are nine ways to travel more sustainably:

1. Do your research

This seems obvious, but make sure the companies you are working with and spending money with represent the ideals you believe in. For example, I'm working on planning a honeymoon to Thailand and did a lot of research on elephant sanctuaries before suggesting one. I wanted to make sure I suggested one that truly cares for the animals and employees. Many companies make claims about being environmentally and socially responsible, but I always suggest doing the research for yourself.

I did a lot of research on tour companies for our honeymoon in Mexico, and found an eco-tour that was amazing. We had a traditional lunch cooked in clay pots over an open fire and got to experience Tulum with a local. It inspired us to go back to Tulum this year.

Tulum ruins on our eco-tour

2. Travel with a reusable water bottle

This one is so easy, helps the environment, and can save you money. Plastic is having an enormous impact on the environment, and the ocean in particular. By reducing your use of plastic and refilling your water bottle, you can have a much bigger impact than you think!

We often travel with a reusable tumbler too and if camping, reusable utensils are awesome. We love this set from Recover Brands.

3. Don't use plastic straws

This one is really hard for me. I love a good straw, especially in a fun tropical drink. BUT, the reality is that plastic straws are a huge environmental challenge at the moment, especially in developing countries. There are tons of alternatives to plastic straws that many places are starting to use like paper and stainless steel straws. If that's not an option and you don't want to carry a reusable option with you, ask for your drink without a straw.

Beach clean up in Bali organized by Zanna Van Dikj. Photo credit: Zana Van Dikj

4. Respect local cultures

Do a little research before you go and ask your well-traveled friends about any cultural differences or practices you should be aware of while traveling. For example, when traveling in Europe, it's customary (and required in some cases) for females to cover their shoulders when entering a cathedral. I didn't know this the first time I went, but now always carry a light scarf with me for this purpose.

One of the biggest culture shocks I've had while traveling was my first day teaching in South Africa. For lunch, I went with several program coordinators to grab some street food. The meal of choice was a sheep's head. The main coordinator offered me the sheep's eye. I wasn't sure what to do, but in an effort to not offend anyone, I ate it. I later found out that the sheep's eye is considered to be the best part of the head and that was a gesture of respect for him to offer it to me. I was so glad I ate it, but wished I had done a little more research beforehand! Also, for those that are wondering how it tasted, it wasn't awful.

5. Make an effort with the language

You have no idea how much trying to learn a few phrases in the local language can really pay off. I think we got several things "on the house" in Greece for saying thank you, please, good evening, etc. in Greek. This is a fun activity to do in the airport on the way to your destination and there are tons of apps to help you learn key phrases. Even if you aren't pronouncing something exactly right, people will appreciate that you are making the effort (except maybe in Paris).

6. Hire local guides

If you are wanting to go on a guided tour or want to get a local feel for a place, hire a local. The best places I've found for this are Airbnb Experiences and By exploring a new place with a local, you'll likely get to see more and see different things than you would on your own. You are also helping the local economy by employing local people.

7. Buy locally-made, handcrafted souvenirs

If you are hoping to bring home a souvenir, buy locally-made, handcrafted items rather than mass produced souvenirs for tourists. It's even better when you can buy a souvenir that you've watched someone make and it's a much better story to tell. You can do research before you go on the local craft, but for example, weaving is a popular craft in Peru. We are going next month and really hoping to bring home a piece for our home. We are going to visit a weaving center to learn more about the local tradition and process.

8. Take public transportation or better yet, bike!

When visiting a new place, get around like the locals do. By taking the train, bus or better yet, biking to your destination, you are helping to reduce your carbon footprint and most likely saving money. You may also meet new friends this way that you wouldn't have met otherwise.

9. Pack a lightweight, reusable shopping bag

We always try to carry a reusable bag with us. Whether it's a backpack or a lightweight shopping bag that can also be used as a beach bag, it will come in handy if you need to pick up groceries or do a little shopping. Many places now charge for bags at the store, so this can also help save money.

If you can do all of these things while traveling, that's amazing. But even if you choose one or two from this list, you can have a positive impact on the environment and local communities.

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© 2019 by Sanara Travels, LLC

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