A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Travel

Almost a year ago, I started making moves to get my carbon footprint under control. I took a critical look at the waste I was creating, reduced plastic in my lifestyle, leveled up to composting, and was feeling pretty good about the work I was doing for mama Earth.

That is, until I completed this carbon footprint calculator and realized that despite my efforts my carbon footprint was still far above average.

The culprit? I was flying about every other month. Round trip, that’s a dozen flights a year. According to The New York Times, the carbon impact of taking just one round trip coast to coast flight is 20 percent of the carbon emissions the average person makes from their car in an entire year. Turns out saying “no straw, thanks” and bringing my own grocery bag didn’t move the needle much when I was emitting roughly 500 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) on every round trip flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia.

I know I’m not alone in how much I fly. If you travel for work or have long distance friends and family, staying home might not be an option. Plus, with so many amazing travel destinations, how can you resist?

Rather than feeling defeated and giving up on all your eco-friendly endeavors, add travel to the list and work on adopting eco-friendly travel habits. Seeing the world and saving it don’t have to be mutually exclusive, here’s the sustainable travel guide to help you get that carbon footprint in check.

Fly less

I know I just said you don’t have to give up flying – you don’t (and probably can’t). That said, depending on the length of the trip consider your alternatives. For short flights that are under two hours (think NYC to Boston, Chicago to St. Louis, or LA to Vegas) assess how much time you’re really saving by flying. Between getting to the airport early, security, boarding, taxiing, deplaning, baggage claim, and ground transport to your final destination, a bus, train, or car may get you door to door just as quickly and save you some cash. According to a study by NASA, 25 percent of a plane’s carbon emissions come from take-off and landing, so even cutting out short flights can make a big impact.

Along similar lines, if you can afford to do so, take direct flights whenever possible. Limiting take-off and landing while flying will drastically reduce your carbon footprint from travel, so choosing to opt for the direct flight will always be the more eco-friendly choice. Next time you’re deciding whether to splurge on a slightly more expensive, direct flight, consider this your excuse (you’re welcome).

Plan ahead for eco-friendly travel

Planning ahead should go without saying when traveling, but if you’re anything like me, you wait to pack until a few hours before your flight. In addition to reducing travel related stress, planning (and packing) ahead of time can reduce your carbon footprint. 

When I pack at the last minute all I can do is make sure I have the absolute essentials like clothes, toiletries, medications, and all my chargers. All of my plastic free habits go out the window in favor of convenience when I pack this way and I find myself at the airport paying steep upcharges for things like plastic water bottles and a second copy of magazines I subscribe to but forgot at home. When you plan ahead you can make sure you have everything you need and anticipate and avoid potential waste.

Offset emissions

If you do fly and you can afford to, consider buying carbon offsets when you purchase your plane ticket. Never heard of carbon offsets? Carbon offsets refer to money you can put towards sustainable initiatives to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions you’re causing by hopping on a flight.

Flights can be pricey, so you may be running in the opposite direction at the thought of spending any more than you already are on travel, but carbon offsets are actually pretty affordable. Consider that round trip flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia that caused me to produce 500 pounds of CO2. Sites like Terrapass sell carbon offsets for $5 for every 1000 pounds of CO2. For an extra $5, I could offset more than my share of CO2 for that flight. Some airlines even give you the option to purchase offsets directly through their sites when you book your flight. But if they don’t, Green-E provides a list of certified carbon offsets that you can buy and know they aren’t scams.

Consider making other eco-friendly and money saving tips throughout your trip like bringing a reusable water bottle to the airport or choosing public transportation instead of hopping in a cab when you arrive and you’ll easily free up enough of your budget to offset your carbon emissions from flying.

Eco-friendly travel when you arrive

You’ve arrived at your destination in the most sustainable way possible. You’ve taken a train or a direct flight and purchased carbon offsets, now what? I can’t be alone in letting all of my good habits go out the window while traveling. I don’t have my kitchen and all of its reusable supplies, I don’t like feeling weighed down with a bag full of reusable gear, and I’m in a new city with unfamiliar recycling policies. 

It’s okay to make mistakes while traveling and the fact that you’re even considering the impact of your choices is a step in the right direction. Be mindful of your choices and do your best. A quick Google search for your location and its recycling policies might provide you with some guidelines. Bring a bigger day bag so you can carry around a few reusable bottles and utensils. Hang a do not disturb sign on your hotel door to cut down on some of the water used by your hotel’s laundry program. Do what you can to make the best of your circumstances and enjoy your trip knowing you’re doing your part to help our planet through eco-friendly travel.

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About Kira Schreiber

Kira grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is passionate about mental health, healthy eating, and sustainability. After spending the first part of her career working for a non profit mental health agency in Southern California, she transitioned to pursue a career in her passion for cooking. Now back in Chicago, Kira spends her days developing healthy recipes for a food tech start up. When not in the kitchen or on her laptop she loves spending time outdoors, hitting up a spin class, or watching home decor DIYs on YouTube.

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