Environmental Awareness for the Avid Traveler

In honor of National Tourism Day, we’re going to delve into one of the biggest issues in travel right now: carbon emissions.

A year ago, I was on a long-haul flight to Hawaii and feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was thrilled to be going to Hawaii. (I mean, who wouldn’t?) On the other hand, I knew I was increasing my carbon emissions by being on that flight. According to a New York Times article, a round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco “creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year…” If we do the math, that one trip accounts for 10% to 15% of the average American’s yearly emissions. That’s a lot.

Despite knowing that I need to make more sustainable travel choices, I haven’t been entirely sure what those choices should be. And I’m certainly not alone. According to a National Geographic survey, “… while 42 percent of U.S. travelers would be willing to prioritize sustainable travel in the future, only 15 percent of these travelers are sufficiently familiar with what sustainable travel actually means.”

If you’re in both of those categories, willing to prioritize sustainability in your travel but unsure of what that actually entails, this post is for you. Below are key strategies for lowering your carbon footprint while exploring the world.

Before You Book


My family and I live about two hours away from Chattanooga, TN, which has become a favorite mini-vacation of ours. I got to meet the Chattanooga Lookouts mascot last time we went!

Consider taking a stay-cation. I know this post is about traveling more sustainably, but don’t discount the option of staying home and playing tourist in your own city or someplace nearby. You’ll support the local economy and might even discover a new favorite activity!

Pack light. Heavy luggage means more fuel usage. It may seem like a few pounds shouldn’t make a difference, but imagine if everyone packed lighter. Then it definitely adds up.

Purchase second-hand clothing. If you need some clothes for your trip, try to find what you need at second-hand stores. The fast-fashion industry requires overproduction of textiles and thereby results in the overuse of resources and increased waste production. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 16.9 million tons of textiles were generated in 2017 and only about 15% of those textiles were recycled. While research is still ongoing, it’s generally accepted that reusing garments can significantly reduce the environmental impact of clothing production. For example, research by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that extending the life of half of the clothing in the United Kingdom by just 9 months would save 8% carbon, 10% water, and 4% waste per ton of clothing produced. This means that consumers like you and me can minimize our resource usage by keeping garments active and purchasing them second-hand.

chart (1)
Graph of textiles produced, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and placed in landfills from 1960 to 2017 in the United States. Source: Textiles: Material-Specific Data. (2019, October 30). The United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data


Purchase sustainably sourced clothing and luggage. If you decide you need to purchase something new, select an eco-friendly brand. However, make sure you do your homework since many brands taut sustainable practices, but fail in implementation. I personally like to give my business to Patagonia as its reputation stands up to scrutiny. Their products are sustainably sourced, are made with high-quality materials, can be traded in if lightly worn, or repaired if damaged. I haven’t purchased luggage since high school, so I can’t make any recommendations, but check out this Mashable article for some eco-friendly luggage suggestions.


Booking Travel


Travel by train or bus whenever possible. These modes of transportation generally add far less carbon to the atmosphere than planes, so consider skipping air-travel altogether and opt for ground transportation. See the figure below for a visual comparison.

BBC emissions
Figure showing the relative emissions per passenger per km for various modes of travel. Source: Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? (2019, August 24). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566


If flying, book a direct flight. According to a 2011 NASA report, taxiing, take-off, and landing constitute 25% of the emissions associated with flight. So if you only take one flight to your destination instead of two, that can significantly reduce the carbon emissions of your trip.

Select an airline that has a carbon offset program. Carbon offset programs allow you to invest in projects designed to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, such as tree planting initiatives and carbon capture. Many airlines allow you to calculate the carbon emissions associated with your flight and contribute to a program accordingly. However, not all carbon offset programs are effective, so verify a program before you contribute. Look for those that are authenticated by a neutral-party such as Verified Carbon Standard, Green-e, and Gold Standard. In addition to carbon offset programs, some airlines are working to become carbon neutral, like JetBlue (see this CNBC article) so consider giving them your business.

Book economy. Mathematically, a larger seat accounts for a larger portion of the flight’s emissions. According to the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), “For long haul flights, carbon emissions per passenger per kilometre travelled are about three times higher for business class and four times higher for first class.” So you can minimize your emissions by passing up the larger (and yes, more comfortable) seats in business and first-class.

Once You’re There


Walk, bike, or use public transportation. Once you’ve arrived in your super exciting location, take that excitement and use it to power your feet! You can keep your carbon emissions low by walking, biking, or riding public transit instead of taking a taxi/Uber/Lyft/car rental. My boyfriend and I went to Paris during the December 2019 transportation strike. While it was a little hard on the feet, I enjoyed walking everywhere because it allowed us to slow down and take in the streets of Paris. So remember that alternative modes of transportation can help you appreciate your surroundings as well as limit your carbon emissions.

I made a quick stop to appreciate the Parisian architecture while walking to Musée d’Orsay.

Avoid hotels and resorts. Book a hostel, B&B, Airbnb (preferably with a local host), or even go camping if that’s possible! These alternative accommodations will help you avoid using unnecessary resources and as an added bonus, they’re generally the cheaper option!

Buy local food. Trust me, I get the appeal of eating out to try new cuisines and I certainly wouldn’t tell you to cut that out of your trip completely. But consider not eating out for every meal. Instead, try shopping for food at a local market or grocery store and cook for yourself a few times. You’ll save money, which you could put aside for dinner at a nice restaurant or a cool activity, and lower your carbon output.

Make it a long trip. I know not everyone’s professional life will allow for this, but consider getting more bang for your carbon buck by booking a longer trip. You can significantly reduce the number of flight hours you accrue per year by opting for one long trip instead of multiple shorties. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to explore your location of choice in greater depth!

I worked as a marine conservation intern on the Greek island of Lipsi for three months. Because I was there for a while, I was able to enjoy multiple wine tastings at this wonderful local winery run by the kindest couple. Check out their Instagram here! https://www.instagram.com/lipsiwinery/?hl=en


Be ethical. If you’re booking an ecosystem or animal-focused tour, research the company. Tours such as diving and snorkeling outings, safaris, whale watching excursions, animal encounters, etc. can negatively impact local species if not operated correctly. When people get particularly close to an animal, it can make the animal very stressed, cause it to alter its natural behavior, and possibly expose it to fatal diseases. To find an ethical company, don’t book the cheapest tour option, look for reviews of the tour company, and reach out to ask questions about their procedures. Check out this Washington Post article to read more.

I saw this beautiful green sea turtle when snorkeling in the Bahamas. This is as close as I would get to make sure I didn’t affect its behavior. (Honestly, even this is a tiny bit close for my taste.)

Support the local economy. When you eat out, eat at a local restaurant. Purchase souvenirs from local artisans. Give local organizations your patronage. And back to the subject of tours, supporting ethical tours often goes hand in hand with supporting the community. By focusing on local goods and services, you’re positively impacting the regional economy and making a comparatively low-carbon purchase.


If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, that’s ok. I certainly haven’t been perfect when it comes to prioritizing the environment when I travel, but I’m taking steps in the right direction and you can, too.

We’re currently quarantining for COVID-19, so no one should be traveling for leisure at the moment. But the good news is, while we may not be able to travel, we can take advantage of this time to prepare an exciting, eco-friendly itinerary for the next adventure.




British Broadcasting Corporation. (2019, August 24). Climate Change: Should You Fly, Drive or Take the Train? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566

Haas, Dylan. (2020, February 18). Our Top 5 Eco-Friendly Luggage Picks. Mashable. Retrieved from https://mashable.com/roundup/best-eco-friendly-luggage/

Holmes, Bob. (2018, November 24). Why Our Close Encounters With Wildlife Are so Risky for the Animals. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/why-close-human-encounters-with-wildlife-are-so-risky-for-the-animals/2018/11/23/f0bcdf2e-e461-11e8-8f5f-a55347f48762_story.html

Jung, Yoon. (2010, September 9). Fuel Consumption and Emissions from Airport Taxi Operations. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved from https://flight.nasa.gov/pdf/18_jung_green_aviation_summit.pdf

Peach, Sara. (2019, May 20). Are Carbon Offsets a Scam? Retrieved from https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/05/are-carbon-offsets-a-scam/

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. (2013, January 26). Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/the-biggest-carbon-sin-air-travel.html?ref=oembed

Schlossberg, Tatiana. (2017, July 27). Flying Is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/climate/airplane-pollution-global-warming.html

Stone, George W. (2019, September 27). For travelers, sustainability is the word-but there are many definitions of it. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/what-sustainable-tourism-means/

Tabuchi, Hiroko. (2019, September 19). ‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/climate/air-travel-emissions.html?ref=oembed

The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2019, October 30). Textiles: Material-Specific Data. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data

WRAP. (2017, July). Valuing Our Clothes: The Cost of UK Fashion. Retrieved from http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/valuing-our-clothes-the-cost-of-uk-fashion_WRAP.pdf#page=4

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