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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Sustainable Travel Guide: Reduce Carbon Emissions on Your Next Trip

Two backpackers walking into a hostel.

(Image: George Pak/Pexels)

“I’d rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff.” It’s a saying a lot of us can relate to, but is it an environmentally responsible take? Tourism produces roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gases, making it an easy target for flight shamers and oil executives looking to shift responsibility onto individual carbon footprints. Fortunately for those who value getting away, there are ways to limit your emissions and environmental impact while maximizing travel experiences. 

Not all travel is created equal

Types of accommodation, modes of transportation, and even the length and frequency of trips all affect the emissions, waste production, resource consumption and environmental impacts of your travels. How we indulge the travel bug will ultimately determine its impact.

Multiple short trips spread throughout the year might allow us to see a broader range of sights, but consolidating that time into a single longer trip will significantly reduce the greenhouse gases we contribute to the atmosphere. Transportation creates nearly half of travel-related emissions — with planes and cars emitting the most carbon per passenger mile — which makes traveling long distances for short periods away the epitome of unsustainable tourism. And while social media may have us believe that luxury cruises and five-star resorts are the gold standard, other forms of travel leave a lighter impact on people and communities and can be an even more fulfilling way to see the world. 

The benefits of branching out from resorts

Where you stay matters, too. Sprawling resorts and hotel grounds are often built at the expense of forests, mangroves, and other ecosystems that provide habitat for wildlife and marine animals while acting as carbon sinks. It’s not just the natural environment that is destroyed to build these places. In tourist hotspots around the world, locals and Indigenous people are being displaced at an alarming rate as well. Resorts and hotels also tend to create substantial plastic and food waste and use more than their fair share of water.

Sustainable alternatives to these options exist, and they offer experiences that are fundamentally more authentic. Hostels produce only a quarter of the carbon per guest that hotels do, according to a study of European hostels by the research and certification company Bureau Veritas and the travel app Hostelworld. That’s because the carbon savings are based on occupancy relative to space. Since hostels board more guests per room and are communal in nature, there is lower demand for electricity to light and air condition rooms, fewer appliances and facilities needed, and less square footage required overall. 

Unlike many resorts and hotels, hostels are often centrally located. This lowers travelers’ dependence on taxis, rental cars and shuttles while providing easier access to public transportation, museums, nightlife and shopping in downtowns. Locally-owned restaurants, food stalls and markets are generally within walking distance, and most hostels have kitchens available for guests to prepare quick meals and store leftovers.

By staying at a locally owned and operated lodging, you’ll also have a more authentic cultural experience. Not only will there be more opportunities to mingle with the locals, but the cuisine is also less likely to be imported, which reduces waste and emissions compared to resorts and foreign-owned hotels. Plus, you’ll learn more about how locals live while contributing to the regional economy instead of padding the pockets of a multinational conglomerate.

Hostels have a reputation for catering to college-age travelers partying their way through a gap year, but in reality, all sorts of people stay in them — from families with small children to retired people in their 70s. While there are plenty of party hostels where it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, rules and atmospheres vary. As with hotels, you’ll want to check the reviews before reserving and consider booking just a couple of nights at first in case you want to switch locations later. 

If you don’t want to stay in a dorm room, most hostels offer small private rooms with shared facilities that are still more sustainable than a resort or hotel. Likewise, staying in a guesthouse is an option that offers a bit more privacy. Eco-resorts can be an alternative for those craving a more luxurious experience, but booking one that truly protects the environment and benefits the local area requires due diligence. Not all certifications are worth the paper they’re printed on, so be sure to research before you stay. 

Try fewer flights and longer trips instead

If you’ve been bitten by the travel bug, you know how tempting it can be to jet off to a new location multiple times per year. Bookend a three-day weekend with a couple of PTO days and you’ve got enough time to make it worth a half-day flight, right? Technically yes, but the carbon cost is another story. Consider using shorter lengths of time off for staycations in your country, state or city, and save the flight for an extended trip. Flying to a specific region and using less carbon-intensive forms of transportation to visit neighboring countries is a more sustainable way to see the world than flying into each separately.

Like hostels, backpacking isn’t just for college kids. I took my first backpacking trip at 36 when I flew into Cancun on a one-way ticket and took a combination of buses and tourist shuttles through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua before flying out of Costa Rica. The two-month adventure was cheaper, less carbon-intensive, and a lot more relaxing than taking five or six individual trips.

Regional travels like this can be made in various places around the world. I hope to visit Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos in the same way.  Much of South America can be traveled by bus and shuttle, and Europe is easily accessible by train. On top of the airfare and emissions savings, eating locally and staying in guesthouses and hotels with shared facilities makes the trip cheaper and less carbon intensive than staying at resorts in each country individually for a week at a time. 

Longer trips come with additional challenges, though. Not all workplaces accommodate extended absences, and it’s easier for single individuals than those with spouses and children, although I've met plenty of couples and families with small children backpacking together.

As with every aspect of modern life, completely carbon-neutral and waste-free travel just isn’t possible at this point, especially when flying is involved, but we can still do the best we can to enjoy the wellness benefits of travel while being as sustainable as possible. 

This article is part of Travel Month in our 2024 Sustainable Living Challenge, where we unpack accessible ways to see new places and get around your hometown with a lighter impact on the planet. Learn more and take the challenge here.

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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