Three Capes Scenic Loop, Oregon - View from the road

Sustainable Travel Practices That Work For Us

We’ve practiced relatively sustainable travel for years, long before it even had a name. At least our habits during travel (and at home) followed a no-waste (or very little-waste), common-sense policy. I still feel as if we can do more, and each year we try to do better, as new choices become available.

We’ve done little things like bringing our own bags for shopping and buying groceries instead of eating out every day during our trips; We try to stay in locally owned, small hotels and generally try to use fewer resources. In the recent years I noticed more and more people doing the same.

But is it enough? Is that what sustainable travel is about? And can we really do it, or is it just something we try to make ourselves feel less guilty about traveling?

When travel stopped in 2020 during the pandemic, it had a positive effect on the environment. As I am thinking about future travel, I wonder what sustainable travel is really about, and if we can still do better.

What Is Sustainable Travel?

Sustainable travel means visiting new places without negatively impacting them. Ideally, our travels should be beneficial to the places we visit. And I’m not thinking only about the environment.

Sustainable travel is about valuing the environment and nature, but also the native cultures, local people and businesses. It is about minimizing the negative impact on the environment and trying to have a positive impact on it and on local communities and economies.

Is Sustainable Travel Even Possible?

We know we pollute the air we breathe when we travel, be it by plane, car, train, or ship.

We all know that air travel has a large carbon footprint. But feeling guilty about getting on a plane doesn’t help. Instead, we can try to offset it. On the other hand, it might help to research the facts. When I did, I realized that as bad as it is, pollution from air travel accounts for only 2.4 percent of fossil fuel emissions globally. So, maybe we don’t need to stop flying.

Turns out that what’s much worse is global livestock production. It is responsible for over 14 percent of greenhouse emissions, as much as all transportation – including planes, cars, ships, and trains – altogether. Seems like it isn’t travel that we need to change the most.

On the other hand, overtourism is a real problem and a threat to cultures and places around the world. When everyone talks about the same places, when the tourism industry caters to visitors to popular destinations, the local economy suffers. Rent prices skyrocket in these places, pushing out locals. Narrow roads that were perfect for locals become jammed with tourist vehicles. Wildlife is scared away by the crowds, fragile ecosystems become degraded.

However, as travelers, we don’t need to cater to the large tourism industry.

The biggest problem for overtourism and pollution are large cruise ships. From what I can tell, they are still allowed to burn a cheap and polluting fuel that keeps their costs down. They bring thousands of passengers to designated port cities, where these people spend a day, overcrowding the place.

This is an area we can help though. We can avoid cruise ships, which should eventually make them disappear. If no people sign up for them, they will eventually go out of business. When they stopped during the pandemic, their absence had a positive impact on the ocean and its inhabitants.

We all want to travel. But we don’t want to add to the problem. So is there anything we can do?

We Can All Practice (Relatively) Sustainable Travel

Sustainable travel has become a huge thing in the past few years. I read about it, I hear about it everywhere I go. And I am happy to see this trend. While in the past I felt “weird”, out of place with our habits, now it’s becoming mainstream. And I have hopes for the future of travel, for the future of our planet, and our kids.

It also makes me think about our own habits, and see if we can improve them. The thing about trends is that they make people notice them, even if they choose not to follow. They make us take stock of our habits, and see if they align with our ideas.

The following examples are from several of our trips we took before the pandemic. Since we started traveling again, we have only been on road trips, making sustainable travel a little easier.

A Trip to Mexico

We traveled through Mexico in January.

We flew, so that was not great for sustainability. But we didn’t check in any bags. As always, we traveled light, each of us with a backpack. And we brought a few reusable bags with us for our shopping. We also brought water bottles.

As soon as we arrived, we went shopping at a local store. We walked out with enough snacks for a few days, pastries and fruit, and a large water container we later used to fill up our water bottles. When I realized they had a small food court in the store, we had dinner there.

Surrounded only by locals, we needed to communicate in Spanish, but even with our basic language skills, we managed to order. The checkout clerks also understood we didn’t want reusable plastic bags, so we walked out of there without any. This was at the beginning of 2019. By the end of the year I heard, they stopped using them in stores in Mexico altogether.

We stayed in tiny hotels, owned by locals, consisting of no more than a room in their backyard. For dinner, we had two choices, chicken or chicken breast, with vegetables, all made local style. We ate the chicken they raised in their yard and fruits and veggies they grew in the garden.

Cabana des Jaguares, a room in a Maya family's back yard seemed a sustainable way to spend a night.
Cabana des Jaguares

When searching for the Maya site of Rio Bec, we found a local guide who not only took us to the ruins but introduced us to his family, who treated us like one of their own.

Rio Bec, ancient structure in the jungles of Yucatan
An ancient structure, partially covered by the jungle, in Rio Bec.

No matter where we went, we tried to speak to the locals in their own language, or at least in Spanish, the official language of the country. I learned a few Maya phrases in the process and practiced my basic, broken Spanish.

When I had an opportunity, I bought a handmade huipil (Maya traditional dress) from a Maya lady who actually made it. Not necessarily because I will ever wear it, but I love the design, and I wanted to contribute to the local economy. I started a collection of these dresses a few years ago. Mostly because these purchases allow me to meet local Maya ladies, and learn about their life and culture (even if I need to use hand gestures to help with the communication).

A Roadtrip through the Southwest

Our next trip was relatively close by. This time we drove, which was a sustainability win compared to flying.

On our road trip through the Four Corners area we revisited Mesa Verde, where we stayed at the Farview Lodge. Being part of a National Park, the lodge is as sustainable as any hotel can be. The meals we had at the Metate Room were all made on-site from locally grown ingredients.

Overlook - Little Ruins Canyon. Hovenweep
View from the Overlook of Little Ruins Canyon. Hovenweep.

On our way to the Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep, we stopped at Cortez. There, we found a farm-to-table restaurant, with all their meals made from ingredients grown and harvested on-site.

Traveling through the Pacific Northwest

During our trip through Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, we stayed in a small house we rented for the week. We made most of our meals from ingredients we bought at a local farmers market and fresh seafood from a small fish market. We also rented a hybrid car, so we polluted less when we drove.

Oceanside, Oregon beach
The beach we walked to…

Air Travel

My daughters and I did take a long flight across the Atlantic to visit my family. Flying and sustainability don’t really match, that was my worst polluting trip of 2019. But I do need to visit my family from time to time, and since I moved across the ocean, I have no other way of doing it.

But even on that long flight and for a three-week stay, we only took carry-ons, as always.

We also took our own water bottles. In the past, we always bought at least a few plastic bottles at the airport. We thought we had to. You can’t get dehydrated, and can’t take any liquids past security, right? But with our own reusable bottles, we took them empty through security and filled them up as often as we needed at water fountains by the gate. In some airports (including Phoenix) they even have stations to fill up these water bottles now.

We used these same water bottles on the plane, refusing the plastic cups. Every bit counts, right? But what I started noticing is not that three plastic cup we refused made a difference, but others looking at us realized that they could do the same. Suddenly it’s more than three people.

On long trips layovers are inevitable. And eating at the airport doesn’t seem to give us many choices to be sustainable. But we try to choose places to eat with the least amount of plastic packaging. We don’t use straws even if we buy a drink on occasion (though mostly drink water from our own bottle).

Traveling through Transylvania

Once off the plane(s) in Transylvania, Romania, we stayed with family.

We visited places close to Ludus and Brasov, driving relatively short distances. We revisited both the Turda Gorge and Turda Salt Mines on the same day and got back home for dinner.

The River in Turda Gorge
The River in Turda Gorge

Just like when I was growing up, we got our groceries daily from town. We bought honey and fresh fruit from a local farmer and beekeeper we know. On Tuesday, like every Tuesday since I was a kid, we shopped at the Farmers Market, where farmers and artisans from town and from the neighboring villages sold their fare.

From Brasov, we drove to visit a bear sanctuary nearby and a few castles, including Fagaras and Sighisoara among others. No matter what we did there though, it wasn’t a struggle to practice sustainability.

Swans in the moat around the fortress of Fagaras
Swans in the moat of the fortress of Fagaras

Once again I realized that Europe, including my old country, is ahead of the US when it comes to sustainability. In a way, it must’ve been an easier transition, at least when it came to the single-use plastic. Since it was never a habit there, it was easier to skip that step of “civilization”. People either bring their own bag, shop without a bag, or buy one at the checkout. And after buying it, they reuse it. Generally, I have seen less plastic around than at home.

Sustainable Living

It’s not only when we travel that we try to practice sustainability. At home, we try even harder.

For years, I’ve been making my own household cleaners, using baking soda, vinegar, and essential oils, storing them in reusable containers (and reusing the containers for each new batch).

I’ve been making chapsticks for my family and reusing the containers for each new one. I use essential oils for most of our household needs; I even started making my own shampoo (I’m still working on perfecting that one).

When we shop, we always use our own bags, including produce bags. At some point my daughter and I made a game out of grocery shopping, trying to only buy things that are not sold in plastic. We never fully succeeded since most things in the US are sold in plastic, or at least have some plastic packaging, but we get closer and closer every time.

My daughter gave up Oreos and many other goodies, when she found out they use palm oil (and she got her friends to do the same). We got in the habit of checking the ingredients on everything we buy. It makes shopping a lot longer, and we seem to have no food in the house, but what we have is generally healthier and coming from more sustainable places.

Mostly. At least we’re trying. I’m the first one to admit that it is hard. And no, we don’t succeed every time. Occasionally we go shopping and get a bunch of junk food without checking labels, just because we miss it, and it’s so much easier. Then we feel guilty about it, and decide that it wasn’t worth it. Giving up convenience, giving up junk food is a process. But we’re getting there, and it’s getting easier as more and more people do it and more choices become available.

We eat a lot less meat and beef. Our goal is to eventually give it up altogether. In the past year, we stopped buying milk. Although we buy almond milk, which I just found out is just as bad for the environment. So we’re buying less of it. It’s a process, but we’re tying.

We try to buy more local, to avoid shipping that causes pollution. I joined a local farm service where each weekend we pick up a box of their crops in season.

Most of the time we airdry our clothes.

Support Businesses that Practice Sustainability

Still, we can do better. And most importantly, we need to work on improving the big corporations. As my son points out, individual families are not the biggest problem. Corporations, large businesses pollute way more than one family ever does. I know he’s right. Still, every bit counts.

And we can even do something about the corporation and large businesses. In the past, I didn’t think about where I was buying anything. Price and quality were the only criteria.

Now, I look at the company that makes what I want. I look at the store that sells it. And when possible, I choose the one that practices sustainability. We, the consumers, have the power to change the practices of big businesses.

On the road, traveling or at home, we can choose who we buy from. And with that, we can make a difference, too, however small.

Sustainable Travel Goals

In the future, we’ll keep doing all the little things we’ve been doing while traveling, adding a few extra steps. Seeking out local farmer’s markets, locally owned hotels, and restaurants has always been a priority for us. It will continue to be so. We’ve been avoiding big resorts, we’ll keep that trend, also. We’ve never been on a cruise ship, and we don’t plan on doing it, even if they start up again.

We’ll try to fly less, and offset our carbon footprint when we do.

We’ll continue to conserve the places we explore, especially the wild places. Even if we need to pick up trash after others like our kids did years ago.

When possible, we’ll choose destinations that support sustainable travel. For some places, tourism is an asset. Traveling to certain places can help the planet.

I’m sure as time goes by we’ll learn about more ways to practice sustainable travel, and we’ll incorporate them in our future trips. In the meantime, we’ll try to keep our impact on the positive side when we travel. And I’m open to suggestions, please let me know if you have any other habits – while traveling or at home – that I can learn to live more sustainably.

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