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How to travel more sustainably – a beginner’s guide

Traveling teaches us to appreciate the world and the wonderful variety in it, but it can also be very polluting. We all need to reduce our carbon emissions and take better care of the planet to make sure we don’t do irreparable damage to our only home. You don’t have to cancel all your international adventures, but next time you’re planning a trip, we challenge you to try out our top tips for traveling more sustainably.

1. Pick your mode of transport

Let’s start with the obvious: Be smart about how you choose to travel. Clearly, flying is faster, more convenient and sometimes even cheaper than taking the train, but it also pumps out a lot more carbon dioxide (which contributes to climate change) and toxic nitrous oxides, than our old friend the locomotive.

You can get pretty much anywhere these days by train, so trade your flight for a scenic rail journey. In regions like Europe, where the rail networks are extensive and fast, electric trains are an excellent lower-carbon option – especially in France, which uses nuclear power to generate around 75% of its electricity, producing far fewer emissions than fossil fuels.

Compare your travel options by using EcoPassenger’s emissions calculator, and you’ll be able to see how much carbon you’d save by taking the train over flying for your trip.

2. Offset your carbon

Not all of us are able to follow in the sea-faring footsteps of climate activist Greta Thunberg, who opted to sail across the Atlantic rather than fly to the US: Sometimes flying is our only option. This is where carbon offsetting comes in. Offsetting involves calculating how much carbon dioxide your journey would produce and paying a scheme elsewhere to absorb or reduce the equivalent carbon in the atmosphere, ‘balancing’ your footprint.

FlyGRN can help you calculate emissions, find lower-carbon flight routes, and can ‘offset’ your carbon. Other offsetting schemes include renewable energy projects certified by Gold Standard, and reforestation programs run by Mossy Earth, who will send you a photo of the trees that you help them plant.

It’s important to remember that there’s no perfect way to calculate your exact emissions. Plus with many offsetting schemes, especially ones which plant trees, the actual ‘balancing’ of carbon doesn’t occur until up to 20 years later when the trees have fully grown. It’s still a good thing to do but, generally, it’s best to limit your emissions in the first place.

3. Engage with communities the right way

Being sustainable isn’t just about reducing your carbon footprint, it’s also about helping the communities you visit to build a sustainable future. You can do this by staying with host families if you study abroad, buying souvenirs that have been made by local artists and creators rather than imported, and choosing to shop in local markets rather than international supermarkets. This way, the money you spend stays in the local community, where it boosts their economy and supports their growth.

“Slow travel, the art of visiting one or two places for a long period of time rather than rushing around to discover many places in one go, is a brilliant way to travel a little more sustainably.”

4. Look out for wildlife

It’s upsetting to learn, but many popular wildlife travel experiences can have very negative effects on the animals involved. EF Education First, for example, is the first education travel company to commit to making their trips wildlife-friendly by partnering with World Animal Protection and implementing new animal welfare guidelines across the company. This means that trips will no longer include animal-related activities which aren’t looking after wildlife properly, like inappropriate elephant-riding or swimming-with-a-dolphin experiences which often come with a hidden layer of animal cruelty. Instead, education and positive human-animal interactions and environmentally-friendly wildlife tourism will be a key focus.

5. Travel slowly

Slow travel, the art of visiting one or two places for a long period of time rather than rushing around to discover many places in one go, is a brilliant way to travel a little more sustainably. By exploring at a snail’s pace, you’ll not only take fewer flights and less lengthy journeys which pump out greenhouse gases, but you’ll also engage with the communities and cities you visit on a much deeper level, making it better for both the planet and for you. We’re not biased, but studying abroad totally counts as slow travel, too.

6. Eat smart

There are two rules for sustainable food shopping: Buy locally, and buy seasonally. Support nearby farmers by eating their produce, and buy whatever is naturally in season at the time: These items will have fewer transport emissions as they haven’t been flown in from abroad. Trying not to eat meat can also help keep your personal carbon footprint low, as the agriculture industry is a huge producer of greenhouse gases. You don’t need to go completely vegan or vegetarian, but cutting down your consumption of animal products is an easy way to make a very big difference.

7. Reduce your plastics

Just a few simple changes to your routine can help you massively reduce your plastic waste. The easiest and fastest one is to invest in a reusable aluminium water bottle: For just a few bucks, you’ll never have to buy a single-use plastic bottle ever again, and you can use apps like Refill and Tap to find your nearest free water refill point. You could also refresh your wash bag with solid natural deodorant bars (a little odd at first but genuinely great) and solid shampoo, conditioner and soap bars, instead of non-recyclable aerosol cans.

8. What’s in your bag?

We all like to shop for outfits we ‘totally need’ before we travel, but do you know the environmental cost of your clothes? The fast fashion industry (ie. all those high-street stores you love) is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gases, some sources say up to 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, and has caused widespread pollution of rivers thanks to unsustainable fabric dyeing and non-organic cotton crop agriculture practices.

But there are some easy ways to make your wardrobe a little greener. Check out vintage stores and charity shops for second-hand items so that you don’t need to feed the ‘new clothes’ beast, and purchase any new items from sustainable retailers like Rapanui, who use only organic cotton and low-waste dyes, and Econyl, who make their swimwear from recycled plastics. Also, pack light! The more luggage you bring on a plane or train, the more fuel it’ll need to travel.

9. Be picky about where you stay

When planning a holiday it’s easy to be seduced by the glossy photos of all-inclusive, high-end hotels. But places like this often have huge water usage thanks to the staggering amounts of laundry required for the sheets and towels, loads of plastic packaging from bathroom ‘minis’ and they’re often internationally owned too, so much of their profits leave the country instead of being reinvested in the local community.

Instead, research smaller locally-owned guesthouses or boutique hotels. Look out for the Rainforest Alliance or Global Sustainable Tourism Council logos on their websites: It’s easy for a hotel to say they’re sustainable, but having these third-party certifications ensures they’re the real deal. Accommodations will have had to prove that they are adopting many sustainable practices, from minimizing their waste and impact on the local environment to celebrating the region’s cultural heritage and supporting conservation initiatives to protect local wildlife.

If you’re staying somewhere for longer – working or studying a language, for example – consider living with a host family or in a shared residence – this ensures you’re using existing resources and sharing them with more people.

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