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Sustainable travel swaps: 9 ways to reduce your impact

Sustainable travel swaps: 9 ways to reduce your impact

Sustainable tourism is a real buzzword at the moment, but what does it really mean? Sustainability is all about looking at the positive and negative impacts that come from tourism, not just now but in the future too, to help safeguard places in the long-term. And it’s not just about the environment but also the social and economic impacts tourism has on the lives of the people who live in the places we visit. So not at all complicated then! But if you’re looking to travel more sustainably and reduce the impact of your travels, where do you start?

I’ve rounded up nine sustainable travel swaps we can make, starting with easy swaps which don’t take much effort and going right up to big lifestyle changes. Although I’ve become much more aware of how I travel, I’m nowhere near perfect – I fly too much, I’m always forgetting my water bottle and I’m going on a cruise this summer – and there’s a lot more I could do. But the idea isn’t to get one person doing it perfectly, but everyone mucking in and doing it imperfectly so those little changes add up. So which sustainable travel swaps can you make?

Read more: The traveller’s guide to carbon offsetting your flights

Nine sustainable travel swaps

A sustainable travel stay at Log House Holidays in the Cotswolds

An eco-friendly stay at Log House Holidays in the Cotswolds

Swap single-use plastics for reusable alternatives

Single-use plastics are the environmental Big Bad Wolf at the moment. Around 150 million tons of disposable plastics are produced each year and less than 12% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfill where it breaks down into microplastics, which leach toxic chemicals and end up in the oceans. And the only way to stop it happening at the moment is to use less plastic.

Over the last few years there have been campaigns to reduce single-use plastics by banning straws and taxing plastic bags. And the good news is this means there’s now a huge range of reusable alternatives available. One easy swap is to get yourself a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water (I have this metal one* which keeps water nice and cold). There are apps like Refill, Tap and Find Water which show you where to find nearby refill points. Or you can get a bottle* which has a built-in filter if the local tap water isn’t safe to drink.

Plastic pollution on the beach with sea bird

Plastic pollution on the beach

You can also reduce your takeaway waste by investing in a refillable coffee cup, a set of reusable cutlery and a Tupperware or metal food box so you can say no to the polystyrene trays and plastic cups. And if you want to use a straw there are metal, bamboo and paper versions. It does take a bit more organisation (and luggage space) to remember to pack your own kit as well as costing a bit more up-front, but once you have them they can be used for years.

Other easy sustainable travel swaps include packing a reusable shopping bag instead of plastic bags. And there are lots of plastic-free alternative products available, like bamboo toothbrushes, washable face wipes, and reusable menstrual cups or period underwear for female travellers, instead of buying tampons or pads, which both contain and are packed in plastic.

Eco friendly bamboo toothbrush

Bamboo toothrushes

Swap liquid toiletries for bars

Another simple swap is to exchange liquid toiletries for solid versions. Those tiny toiletry bottles you get in hotel rooms are another big source of plastic waste. A 140-room hotel can easily through 23,000 mini bottles a year. And if you don’t use them all up they often still get dumped. US hotel chains Marriott and InterContinental have already stopped using mini bottles and replaced them with wall-mounted dispensers for soap, shower gel and shampoo.

But if your hotel is still supplying them – or if you’re staying in a rental – you’re better off taking your own. Using solid bar versions instead of liquids means less plastic, they’re easier to transport (no danger of a suitcase shampoo explosion), they last longer and they’re easier if you’re flying hand luggage only. As well as soap you can get other toiletries like shampoo and conditioner in bar form – Lush have a good selection with tins to store them in.

Handmade soap bars

Handmade soap

Swap chemical sunscreen for reef-safe sunscreen

Everyone knows the importance of wearing sunscreen to protect our skin from cancer. But what’s not so well known is the environmental problems caused when it washes off your skin into the ocean. Coral bleaching is already a threat as sea temperatures rise. But sunscreen causes coral to bleach at lower temperatures, as well as damaging other ocean life.

And it’s taking place on a huge scale – up to 6000 tons of sunscreen are estimated to wash into coral reefs around the world each year, much of it in busy protected areas like National Parks. The main culprits are two ingredients which block UV rays – oxybenzone and octinoxate. They’ve been banned in Hawaii and some companies are pledging to cut them out. But a lot of brands still contain them, as well as other damaging ingredients like octocrylene.

Coral reef with two clownfish

A healthy coral reef

So what can you do instead? No sunscreen is 100% safe for marine environments and there’s no legal definition of what ‘reef-safe’ means, but among top recommended brands are Badger, Thinksport and Raw Elements*. Look for mineral sunscreens which contain non-nano (which means larger particles) zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – they form a barrier on your skin rather than being absorbed. And choose water resistant versions so less washes off your skin.

It’s also a good idea to avoid spray sunscreens, because a lot more of the product goes into the air and the environment with a spray than if you’re rubbing in a lotion. Or the easiest, safest way to reduce your sunscreen use is to cover up with a t-shirt in the ocean instead.

Seychelles beaches

Serious SPF needed in the Seychelles

Swap animal activities for animal watching

From cuddling tigers to elephant rides and swimming with dolphins, animal encounters are a big part of what makes people want to travel, and social media is adding fuel to the fire with the quest for the perfect animal selfie. But an article by National Geographic Traveller highlighted just how cruel most of these activities can be. And even things which seem low-impact like whale-watching can have negative affects on animal health and behaviour.

It’s hard to know which activities are ethical and which aren’t, and it’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t have all the facts – I rode an elephant in Thailand years ago and had no idea I was doing anything wrong. Even places which market themselves as sanctuaries can have just as bad a record in how they treat their animals. So how do you know which animal activities to avoid?

Bear in Great Bear Rainforest Canada

A grizzly bear in the wild in Canada

A basic rule of thumb is to steer clear of places where animals are in captivity for any reason other than conservation. So that includes places where you can have photos taken with animals, cuddle them or get up close, or where animals are made to perform, as well as most zoos and wildlife parks. There is a need for sanctuaries to look after injured and abandoned animals, but if it’s a real sanctuary then contact with humans will be kept to a minimum.

The animal charity Born Free has created a reporting scheme where you can register any animal suffering you see on your travels. Refusing to take part in these unethical animal encounters helps reduce demand and stop these businesses from operating. And if you do want to see animals when you travel, the best way is in the wild, which helps conserve their habitats too – like gorilla trekking in Uganda, where income from permits helps with conservation.

Zebra in Kruger National Park

On safari in Kruger National Park

Swap big chains for local businesses

In some destinations, it’s the big international companies who get all the financial benefits from tourism, but the local communities who have to deal with the problems it brings, like litter, noise and changes to their culture. All-inclusives get a particularly bad rap – everything’s provided and paid for on site, so visitors don’t need to spend any money locally, and they’re often owned by big multinational companies so the profits get sent out of the country.

But even in traditional all-inclusive hubs like the Caribbean or the Maldives, there’s a growing range of other accommodation options like locally owned hotels, rentals and homestays. By staying, eating and shopping with local businesses, you minimise economic leakage so the money you spend stays local. And the benefits spread wider than just the businesses involved in tourism – if they make more profit the owners have more to spend in other businesses.

It can be easier to go with what you know (who hasn’t been tempted by a Maccy D’s after a long travel day?) but buying local helps get a better insight into the places you’re visiting too. If you’re shopping for crafts and souvenirs, look out for cooperatives or buy direct from the person who makes it so they get more of the money (and it’s often cheaper too). Not all big businesses are the same, and if you are staying in a chain then look at how involved they are in the local community – do they hire local staff, buy their food locally and invest in the area?

Shopping sustainably at Castries market in Saint Lucia

Shopping local at Castries market in St Lucia

Swap new gear for second-hand

It seems like every hobby comes with a load of must-have kit, and travel is no exception. From luggage sets and packing cubes to special pillows and travel wallets – even the eco-friendly products mentioned above – I’ve got a wardrobe full. But as well as costing money to buy, they use up a lot of resources and power to make. Which is fine if it’s something you’ll get a lot of use out of like a suitcase, but not so good if it’s going to be used once then gather dust.

For some trips you do need special equipment – like goggles and ski jackets for winter sports trips or mozzie nets and zoom lenses for a safari. But a lot of the time you probably won’t use it more than once or twice, and chances are there’s someone else out there who’s done the same and you could get the gear you need second-hand. There are a ton of second-hand shopping options, from eBay, Depop and Facebook Marketplace to charity shops and places you can hire more expensive kit, all of which will save you money as well as saving resources.

Sustainable travel swap to second-hand ski gear in Les Gets, French Alps

My second-hand ski gear

Swap overtouristed destinations for quieter spots

Overtourism is another hot topic in sustainable travel, with destinations from Amsterdam to the Isle of Skye suffering the side effects of too many visitors. When there are queues of people waiting to summit Mount Everest you know there’s an overtourism problem! Cheap flights, mass tourism and unchecked promotion have all helped get us to a place where tourist numbers are now rising so rapidly that some destinations are using quotas and demarketing.

Overtourism can have major negative impacts on the people who live in these destinations, and there have been protests by locals in Barcelona. So does that mean we shouldn’t visit popular places? Not necessarily, but if you fancy a weekend in Venice it might be better to go off-season rather than in summer when it’s packed with cruise ship crowds. The weather may not be as good but it’ll be quieter, cheaper and you’ll reduce the pressure on local resources.

Overtourism only affects a small number of destinations, and there are tons of places where tourists are wanted and welcome, and you often don’t have to go far off the beaten track. Even staying in a different city neighbourhood can help avoid the crowds. Social media has turned certain places – like Iceland or Santorini – into ‘must-see’ hotspots, but there’s usually somewhere just as beautiful, charming or interesting not far away waiting to be discovered.

White domed church in Santorini, Greece

That classic Santorini shot

Swap Airbnb – sometimes

The rapid rise in AirBnB’s popularity often gets mentioned alongside overtourism. And having a huge influx of unregulated places to stay into a destination can definitely contribute to overcrowding, as well as pushing up prices for local residents who want to rent long-term. But AirBnB is so diverse that it’s a bit too simple to just say we should stop using it.

At one end of the scale you’ve got companies who buy up tens or hundreds of properties in a popular city and rent them out at inflated prices, pushing locals out of certain areas as they can’t afford the rents. But on the other you’ve got people who rent out a spare room or others who let their house for a few weeks each year – like the family house I stayed in in Lapland earlier this year. For them it’s an extra income without having a big impact on the area.

AirBnB can also be a low-cost way for new areas to open themselves up to tourism. If you want to stay somewhere a bit different, there’s far more likely to be a room to rent through AirBnB than a hotel. And if you live somewhere without any tourism infrastructure, it’s a good way to test the waters and see if people are interested in visiting without a big investment. So it’s a case of looking at places individually to see whether they’re legal (some cities regulate AirBnB rentals), who owns them, whether they’re let full-time and again concentrating on less popular spots.

A more sustainable travel AirBnB rental house in Rovaniemi, Finland

Our Lapland AirBnB rental

Swap the plane for… anything else!

Flying is the fastest growing contributor to climate change, and it’s estimated passenger numbers could double in the next 20 years. Although there are a few things you can do to reduce your impact – from carbon offsetting to choosing the most efficient route and airline – the truth is that for most of us flying is still the biggest impact we have on the environment. One Transatlantic return flight produces a third of the CO2 most people use in a year.

So what do we do about it? If you’re feeling brave you can join the Flight Free 2020 campaign, which is trying to get 100,000 people to pledge not to fly for the whole of next year to raise the profile of flying’s impact on climate change. I’ve signed up to join in (bit of a challenge for a travel blogger I know!), so instead of heading off on long-haul adventures in 2020 I’ll be seeing how far I can get from the UK by train as well as exploring places close to home.

Giving up flying is too big an ask for most people – and if we all did it then there are places like the Maldives that would suffer as they’re so dependent on tourism. But could you cut down? Take the train instead of the plane sometimes? Resist jetting off for the weekend on one of those Ryanair bargain flight deals and spend it somewhere closer instead? Combine a few short trips into one longer one so you don’t have to take so many flights? Even a small change can make a big difference to our overall carbon emissions if enough people join in.

Plane flying above skyscrapers

Plane overhead

So which sustainable travel swaps could you make?

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Daria Castellanos
    June 19, 2019 at 7:23 pm

    A lot to think about here – thank you Lucy!
    I feel that it’s becoming harder and harder to make right choices because quite frequently something affects both sides (for example stop using something can be good for environment but bad for local economy) at the same time, but I do like your overall approach of everyone doing little things instead of trying to do it perfectly for selective few, while the rest think since they can’t commit to the whole thing, they shouldn’t do it all together…)
    On the side note – I noticed I tend to enjoy most places off season rather more anyway, instead of battling crowds during peak seasons, so that one came as a natural choice to me.
    Thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks Daria, yes it’s unfortunately often not just black and white and there’s so much more to think about. I’m with you on the off-season trips though, it’s so much nicer to see places without hordes of other people.

  • Reply
    Emmalene
    June 19, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    So many great tips here Lucy and plenty that I’m going to try and work into my travel routine. Hope you don’t mind but I’ve shared over on my Facebook page ☺️

    Emmalene

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks Emmalene – and thanks so much for sharing!

  • Reply
    Johanna Bradley
    June 19, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Lots of great information here, Lucy. I had no idea about sunscreens, and checking your links they’re reasonably priced too. Not sure about postage to Portugal but I’ll check it out. Thanks a lot! 🙂 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:43 pm

      I only found out about the sunscreens recently too – it definitely needs to be more widely known. Hope the postage isn’t too bad to Portugal, you’ve got a lot of sun to protect yourself from there!

  • Reply
    Mark
    June 19, 2019 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for highlighting the sunscreens: that’s news to me, too. As you’ll realise, I’ve long advocated rail travel (last flew over 20 years ago, but obviously I don’t get as far as if I had!). I don’t drive much, either, but have to sometimes. I now have a metal water bottle and reusable coffee cup. Getting there! Helpful post, thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      Rail travel is such a great way to see the world. I’ve been guilty of taking too many flights for work but am determined to cut it right down (helps that I don’t even like doing it!).

      • Reply
        Mark Warrick
        June 20, 2019 at 2:37 pm

        I certainly don’t like large airports or large aircraft. But long overseas trips do need them, unfortunately. I don’t expect to fly to continental Europe again, though.

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    June 20, 2019 at 2:51 am

    Great tips. I especially like talking about AirBnb. Most don’t even realize the effect it’s having on local housing. We can all do more. Thanks for breaking it into easy swaps!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks Alison, AirBnB is a really complicated one and the effect it’s had on some areas is terrible.

  • Reply
    Kathryn Burrington
    June 20, 2019 at 8:47 am

    I’ve been feeling very guilty, the last few days in particular, about the about of flying I’ve been doing and encouraging others to do, through my blog. I too have been thinking where can I travel by train from the UK but also by ferry. Do you know how the average ferry crossing compares environmentally to flying?

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm

      Ferries can be quite high CO2 emitters too but are better than planes, and the train or coach are lower. It is tough to balance that desire to see the world and share it with the damage we can do though.

  • Reply
    Jess
    June 20, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    Such good ideas! I love going animal watching wherever I travel to and even got to see Whales in San Francisco.

    xoxo
    Jess
    The Crown Wings | UK Travel & Lifestyle Blog

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 21, 2019 at 6:01 pm

      It’s amazing seeing animals in their natural habitat, definitely the best way to do it!

  • Reply
    Alizon Robertson
    June 23, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Great tips here. I’m using bar shampoo and conditioner and now need to try to change deodorant and toothpaste habits. I will certainly look at sun screen too. I love train travel most of all and next year am going to commit to take one of my journeys between Spain, where I live, the UK , where my family live and Greece, where I spend a lot of the time, on a train. I run an Airbnb in Spain (it’s in my own house) and our small town relies on tourism so I don’t feel bad about that. My guests help the local economy and I have used local tradespeople to restore my house. I do take your point that in some cities local housing is priced out and will be a lot more wary about booking places in these cities.. I also agree with going off season and trying smaller cities or staying in less populous neighbourhoods. It’s all a minefield but we have to try.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 24, 2019 at 8:33 pm

      Thank you – it sounds like you’re doing a lot of good things already! I’ve not found a good toothpaste yet but have a few at our local zero waste shop to try out, will update the post if I find one.

  • Reply
    Victoria@TheBritishBerliner
    June 28, 2019 at 7:47 am

    Brilliant tips.
    Especially over the issue of plastic & packaging. I can’t wait until we can get rid of it completely!
    I live in Berlin so recycling is a big issue over here.

    I tend to travel in March or October. We can’t always guarantee that though as I have a school aged child so the summer holidays is a must however, I enjoy less popular destinations or if in popular destinations which I love to visit as they’re interesting and historical, in seasons that have less of an impact on the local community.

    I don’t use Airbnb out of principle.
    I live in Berlin!

    I prefer travel by train – we took the train from Berlin to Avignon this year and by bus – we took a bus from Berlin to Stockholm – but that was pretty mad! Flying is sometimes the only answer as we’re going to Sardinia in a few weeks, and that’s the quickest way to get there, ‘cos school holiday!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      July 8, 2019 at 5:31 pm

      Thank you! Yes since plastic has started to get more publicity it’s amazing to see how much it’s infiltrated our lives. Berlin’s a great place to be located for train travel, so many places you can get too easily – though yes unfortunately there’s always going to be a few that are difficult and flying’s a necessity, but if we can cut down a bit it all helps.

  • Reply
    Ben Zabulis
    June 30, 2019 at 7:56 am

    Good points all, we haven’t flown for a few years now preferring more local travel by train. A few years ago we ditched long-haul flights and travelled from Hong Kong to Southampton on a French container ship, not totally emission free I know but a great journey nonetheless and a mode of transport worth considering if you have the time.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      July 8, 2019 at 5:38 pm

      Wow that sounds like an epic journey, and definitely a better story than catching a flight!

      • Reply
        Ben Zabulis
        July 20, 2019 at 7:43 am

        You’re right Lucy, and our choice of a French vessel proved a wise one as food and wine were superb, 4-course lunches and dinners certainly up to cruise ship standards though of course we didn’t have the same level of choice – we’re easily pleased so it didn’t matter to us

  • Reply
    Milenka
    July 19, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    So many lovely, helpful ideas! We’ve just returned from the South of France and I feel sick thinking about how many plastic bottles we went through just on our 5 days there 🙁 I definitely need to remember to bring my reusable bottle next time I travel anywhere. I also love staying in smaller local places as opposed to chain hotels as it feels like you are contributing to the local tourism economy more efficiently – especially important in smaller places (and the experience is usually so much nicer and more personal!).

    Milenka
    Blushing Lately

    • Reply
      Lucy
      July 21, 2019 at 9:26 pm

      Ah thank you! Yes water bottles can be a real problem, and I love smaller local places too, there’s usually such a nicer more interesting experience with somewhere individual.

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