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How To Travel Sustainably

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There has been some travel-shaming going on in some of the travel groups I belong to online. With COVID raging out of control in the U.S., should we be going anywhere right now? 

 

Then, there’s the negative global impact travel has on the environment. According to Sustainable Travel International, “Tourism is responsible for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.”

 

One of the blessings that have come out of the recent lockdowns (and reduction in travel resultant from this pandemic) is the positive impact it has had on the environment. According to the US Library of National Medicine, air and water quality have improved in many parts of the world. 

 

You may have seen headlines like this one: “Venice canals clearer after lockdown,” with pictures of clear, blue waters teeming with fish as the traffic of tourism has disappeared. 

 

There is an undeniable carbon footprint of tourism. Mother nature needs a break from all of us. So, does this mean we should stop traveling?

 

While it’s easy to judge the effects of travel on the climate, one thing the coronavirus pandemic has helped illustrate is just how dependent the world is on tourism. From small mom-and-pop operations to big corporations that employ tens of thousands of people, businesses worldwide have suffered tremendously. 

 

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel industry expects to see a loss of upwards of 75 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in revenue. America’s travel industry is among the hardest hit. President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, Roger Dow, says, “the impact on travel is six or seven times greater than the 9/11 attacks. All of this means many are struggling to put food on the table for their families.”  

 

To travel or not to travel isn’t a cut-and-dry issue with a simple answer. So do we give up travel altogether, or is there a way to travel wiser, more responsibly and sustainably, so that the benefits of travel outweigh the costs? 

 

A World Without Travel?

Let’s play this out. Imagine a world where nobody traveled, where nobody left their home country or even their home state. In this scenario, all of our learning about other people, places, and cultures took place only in books, google searches, and online classes. 

 

Imagine how two-dimensional that would be and how compartmentalized we could, potentially, become. It would be easy for our perspectives to narrow, for us to start seeing our way as the only way, the “right” way, and the rest of the world as the “alien other.” 

 

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine an “us” versus “them” mentality cementing itself in our minds. Some would argue that there is already evidence of this isolationism in our politics. 

 

As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

 

According to William Chalmers, author of America's Vacation Deficit Disorder, only 5% of Americans have ever been overseas. In fact, according to a recent survey published in Forbes Magazine, a whopping 11% of Americans have never even traveled outside of their home state! 

 

This lack of world experience could help explain the differences in attitude and the lack of tolerance many seem to have of the world.

 

Travel For World Peace?

On the other hand, what if we stopped limiting ourselves based on country of origin and even the state in which we were born? What if, instead, we considered ourselves citizens of the world, and traveling to other countries felt as natural as traveling out of state?

 

Now, this is where it gets tricky. Traveling, especially by plane, has the most significant carbon footprint and the most negative impact on the environment of all travel types, except for automobiles coming in at a close second. 

 

Ocean cruises aren’t the solution, as they’re also known for their environmental impact. As reported by NPR in 2019, “The cruise line giant Carnival Corporation and its Princess subsidiary have agreed to pay a criminal penalty of $20 million for environmental violations such as dumping plastic waste into the ocean. Princess Cruise Lines has already paid $40 million over other deliberate acts of pollution.”

 

Travel is having a significant, negative impact on the environment. But does that mean we should stop traveling altogether? Or is there a way for us to mitigate the damage? Is there a way for us to travel responsibly, sustainably, and ethically? 

 

Responsible Travel

Responsible travel allows us to ensure our wanderlust contributes well to the world. Like the time we visited a school in Cambodia and had the opportunity to sit down with the children, teach them English, and donate school supplies. 

 

Or the time I volunteered at an alternative hospital high up in the mountains of the Philippines, teaching yoga in the community and guiding meditations for cancer patients.

 

If giving up travel altogether doesn’t seem sustainable to you, how can you ensure your trips leave as tiny a carbon footprint as possible? How do we balance the travel equation, so we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

 

1. Choose the most efficient mode of transportation possible. 

When you do travel, consider the most efficient and sustainable way to do so. As the below chart by Sustainable Travel International illustrates, traveling by ferry, train or bus is the most efficient way to get around

 

Travel by train

Planes and cars generate the most CO2 per mile, much more than buses, ferries, and trains. Can you get there by train? Even if it takes a little longer, it’s a super relaxing way to get around, and you can enjoy the views from your cabin. 

 

I remember getting on a night train in London and waking up in the morning in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve even taking the Amtrak train from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale and back to visit family, comfortably reclining with my feet up in a leather chair while getting work done on my laptop. It was cheaper, more relaxing, and much better for the environment than it would’ve been for me to drive. 

 

Travel by boat

Next to train travel, ferries are one of the most efficient modes of travel. Need to do some island hopping? When I took my yoga group island hopping in Greece, we took a ferry from Santorini to Mykonos. That was another fun way to travel. 

 

Consider a river cruise. On my group yoga cruise I hosted on the Danube River, we covered five countries in one week. Not only did we do this from the comfort of a floating luxury hotel, never having to pack and repack to head to our next destination. We didn’t waste time driving to an airport, checking in and embarking, disembarking at the other end, and collecting our bags. Nor did we have to find transportation at the other end to take us to another hotel for another check-in to another room where we’d have to unpack again. Not only is that a waste of a full day, but it also has a much more significant negative impact on the environment. 

 

I’m a big fan of river cruises. Again, they are not all created equally. The popular ones most known due to their advertising budget aren’t necessarily the best. Contact me if you’re interested, I’m just a little bit obsessed with river cruises, and I can help you pick the right one for you.

 

Some people avoid oceans cruises altogether. If you are going to cruise, choose an ethical company. Of them all, I have been most impressed with Celebrity Cruise Line's sustainability practices.

 

Take the bus

It takes more effort to figure out bus routes and stops than whipping out your cell phone and calling for an Uber, but buses are a much more sustainable way of getting around than cars or motorcycles. 

 

If you must fly

When it comes to crossing oceans, your options are limited. So, if flying is your only viable option, how can you do it as responsibly and sustainably as possible?

 

  • Fly economy. Each air passenger’s emissions are determined based on the space they take up on the plane. Business-class is usually twice the carbon footprint of a person flying economy. 

 

  • Pack light. The heavier your luggage, the more fuel required to transport it, whether by plane, bus, car, or train. Bring clothes you can wear multiple times. If you lighten your luggage by 15 pounds, you decrease your emissions by about 80 pounds on a ten-hour flight. Multiply that by 200 passengers, and you’ve just eliminated 16,000 pounds of CO2. 

 

  • Fly direct. One way to reduce your travel carbon footprint is to take non-stop, direct flights whenever possible, even if it costs a little more. Planes release the most carbon during take-off and landing, and non-stop flights require less fuel. 

 

  • Slow it down. Also, stay longer and soak in the place you’re visiting. Instead of making three separate trips to Europe, for example, to explore three different areas, try to take a month and explore by train. 

 

I realize some people are already thinking, “how am I supposed to get a month off of work?” Unfortunately, that’s a sad reality here in the United States. According to Travel Channel's analysis of 11 Countries That Use The Most Vacation Days (a list United States did not make), many countries enjoy 25-30 vacation days a year. According to Expedia.com’s last annual Vacation Deprivation study, U.S. workers only took an average of 10 vacation days in 2018. 

 

That same study revealed that 25% of Americans said they couldn’t find the time to travel, while 3/4 of the respondents said they’d like to travel more than they do.

 

However, according to Hostelworld, travel costs were the number one reason Americans stayed home, with 71% saying they couldn't afford to leave the country.

 

Bearing all of this in mind, I’m a firm believer that if we wrap our minds around a concept, we can make almost anything happen. 

 

2. Consider Carbon Off-Sets

At Sustainable Travel International, you can calculate your travel footprint by plugging in the details of your trip, like your flight distance in miles, and they’ll tell you exactly how many pounds of CO2 that trip will emit, as well as the cost to offset that footprint.  

 

So, for example, my round-trip flight from Orlando to Peru will be just under 2,795 pounds of CO2, which costs $15.97 per person to offset. You can do this by donating Sustainable Travel International, which will invest your credits in certified carbon reduction projects worldwide, such as a wind farm that generates clean energy or planting trees to absorb carbon. Some of these projects go beyond carbon reduction, like protecting forests and helping local communities improve their livelihoods and health.  

 

3. Be energy conscious.

As indicated by the chart below, air conditioning and electricity are responsible for the bulk of energy usage in hotels. Turn off the A/C, or turn it down as low as you comfortably can; turn off the lights, the television, and even unplug the refrigerator if you’re not using it. Take shorter showers, and consider packing clothing that you can re-wear, wash by hand and hang to dry.

 

4. Be low maintenance. When we stay in hotels, we reuse our towels and our sheets. We usually put the “do not disturb” sign outside the door and only have them come in once or twice a week. If we need fresh towels sooner, we request them, but we do our best to reuse them for at least a couple of days. 

 

5. Buy Locally

Support the little mom and pop shops, not the big stores owned by foreigners taking advantage of the situation, usually with a large carbon footprint to boot as they import the goods to sell.

 

On the same note, rather than stay in the big five-star luxury hotels, consider exploring some of the smaller ones. If you do your homework, you can tell by the reviews if the place is clean, safe, and comfortable. I’m a big fan of TripAdvisor for feedback from other travelers on what they do and don’t like about a travel vendor.

 

6. Work with ethical companies

Do your homework. Make sure that you are working with companies, and engaging in activities, that are ethical. I’m convinced that if people knew what happened to those elephants in Thailand and elsewhere to make them “rideable“ or to get them to paint that painting for them, they would never support that practice. They would never choose to ride an elephant again. You can learn more about "the crush" of the Elephants of Thailand here.

 

7. No plastic bottles. Ever.

Always travel with a reusable water bottle, and refill anytime you’re at a restaurant. Avoid plastic bottles at all costs. I bring my reusable water bottle with me every time I travel. Fill it up at the water fountain AFTER you get through security, and you won’t have to buy bottled water or take one offered to you by the flight attendant. The same goes for straws. If you need one, bring a sustainable, reusable straw with you, like this one.

 

8. Represent your country well. Be an ambassador for your home country. Go out of your way to be friendly, pleasant, patient, and respectful. If you were a business owner, how nice would it be it’s a foreigner/visitor came in and was super-friendly? Wouldn’t you want to go out of your way to help them? 

 

9. Try to speak the local language.

In countries where you don’t speak the language, it goes a long way if you at least try. Learn the basics: hi, bye, excuse me, please, thank you, and where is the bathroom. If you have any food allergies, learn how to say them in the local language. Again, when you encounter a foreigner in your hometown, doesn’t it mean a lot to you that they are at least attempting to speak your language? 

 

10. Do a little research about local customs. Unfortunately, I learned only after a couple of trips to Bali about their local tradition of eating alone in silence. Even when they have big community potlucks (noticeable by the women walking single file with baskets on their heads), everyone eats independently, at their own time. Everyone else leaves them alone while they eat. Don’t be surprised in Bali if you walk up to a shop owner who is eating, and he barely acknowledges you or gives you an abrupt grunt. It’s simply bad form to talk to them when they’re eating. That’s their own personal, quiet, reflective time.  

 

Instead of thinking of pre-trip research as a hassle or a chore, think of it as fun homework preparing you for your trip? 

 

11. Volunteer. Voluntourism is a new and growing trend where you volunteer your time, skills, and energy to an organization, issue, or cause to help make a difference in the communities you visit. Like the time one of my yoga groups spent an entire day caring for rescued elephants in Thailand. Or when we visited a local school in Cambodia, helping the children practice their English, and made donations of school supplies. Or when I offered guided meditations to cancer patients at a hospital in Sagada, a remote mountain village in the Philippines. At International Yoga Travel, I look for opportunities for us to be of service in some way to the local community.

 

12. Make a new friend. Get a pen pal. With the Internet now, it’s easier than ever to expand your network of friends and family. I’m still in communication with people I met in the Philippines over ten years ago, as well as new friends made in Thailand, Cambodia, Bali, and Greece. This way, you get to keep teaching each other. And if you should ever go back for a visit, it feels lovely to see familiar faces.

 

When I plan one of International Yoga Travel’s group yoga trips, I’m consciously curating every aspect of that trip while taking all of these factors into consideration. IYT is also a member of Sustainable Travel International, meaning that a portion of the proceeds of all of our trips goes to STI’s carefully chosen projects for offsetting our carbon footprint. 


I love to travel. One of the promises I made to myself when I was coming to terms with the fact that I could not have children was that I would take full advantage of my freedom. World travel is a big part of that for me. It has also expanded my mind and evolved me more than almost anything else, aside from self-discovery work, yoga and meditation. For me, giving up travel is not an option. However, I am committed to being as responsible a traveler as possible and making sure my footprint on the world is a positive one. 

 

For other ways you can live more sustainably, check out these resources:

www.globalstewards.org

www.goingzerowaste.com

www.thestoryofstuff.com

www.sustainabletravel.org

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