30 Ways to Travel with a Lighter Footprint

From the flight you book to the toiletries you pack, every travel decision you make affects the environment. Here’s how to reduce your footprint as you trot the globe.

Sarah Engler
Airbnb Magazine


Illustration by Celia Jacobs

It’s easy to opt for convenience when traveling. But sometimes the easiest choices end up being the most costly in terms of their environmental impact. Whether it’s single-use plastic water bottles or taking flights with multiple legs, the choices we make add up. Here are some simple yet mindful tweaks for planning, packing, and sightseeing that are kindest for the planet.

Before You Go: Put Your House in Sleep Mode

Run through this checklist and you’ll make a big dent in the energy being used at home while you’re away.

1. Adjust the thermostat. The U. S. Department of Energy suggests raising the temperature to 85°F in summer and lowering it to 50°F in winter to avoid cooling or heating an empty house.

2. Unplug electronics and appliances. Even turned off, TVs, computers, and coffeemakers are consuming energy.

3. Use your water heater’s “vacation” setting. Keeping that tank hot can account for up to 25 percent of your home’s energy load.

4. Close the curtains. This will help to keep drafts out during the winter and the sun from heating up your home during the summer.

To Fly or to Drive?

This depends mostly on how many people you’re traveling with, says Peter Miller, director of the Western region for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. “In general, the fuel efficiency of a passenger mile of a car is about the same as that of a seat mile on a plane,” he says, explaining that when you’re on a plane, you’re sharing the impact with many others to offset the plane’s higher fuel consumption. So flying is typically the less impactful mode if traveling solo. A report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that driving may be a better choice if you have three or more people in your car — so long as you’re not piling into a gas-guzzler. If you do book that plane ticket, make your trip as eco-friendly as possible by…

…flying coach. On twin-aisle aircraft, a first-class seat is six times worse than one in coach, while business class is three times worse.

…picking a direct flight. Takeoff, landing, and taxiing account for 25 percent of a plane’s carbon pollution, reports NASA.

…packing light. The less weight you bring onto a plane, the less fuel required to keep it aloft.

Use the carbon footprint calculator at myclimate.org to figure out if flying or driving is greener for your trip.

Leave No Trace

Follow Kaitlyn Brajcich’s tips for making sure the only impact you make is a positive one, wherever you go.

At the Coast

  • Use reef-safe sunscreen.Some chemicals in SPFs can cause coral bleaching. Avoid oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate or 4-methylbenzylideine camphor.
  • Pack up your trash. Especially plastics. Every year millions of tons of plastic — bags, straws, bottles, fishing line — wind up in the oceans and can be lethal to marine life.

In a National Park

  • Skip peak season. When too many visitors flock to a park at one time, they put tremendous strain on its landscape and infrastructure.
  • Stay on the trail. You’ll avoid causing unintentional damage to the vegetation and be less likely to interfere or endanger the wildlife that call the park home.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the places we love, and as travelers we also contribute to the problem. We should use this as a motivation to change the way we travel.”

— Kaitlyn Brajcich, Sustainable Travel International

In a City

  • Go car-free. Try to use public transportation, your own two feet, or a bike to get around. If you must rent a car, ask the agency for a fuel-efficient or an electric model.
  • Favor local businesses. Opt for that farm-to-table restaurant or mom-and-pop diner over a national chain, and artisan wares over mass-produced souvenirs.

Fly on a Fuel-Efficient Airline

Jet fuel is the biggest contributor to a plane’s carbon emissions, says Miller. Luckily airlines are constantly looking for ways to use less of it to lower costs and make planes lighter. Which domestic airlines offer the most fuel efficiency? Alaska, Frontier, and Spirit, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Norwegian Air Shuttle is best for crossing the Atlantic, while Hainan Airlines and All Nippon Airways are tied for first place in the transpacific rankings.

Pack Smarter

“In general, tourists tend to consume more than locals,” says Kaitlyn Brajcich, senior manager of communications and training for Sustainable Travel International. Bring these four items and you’ll buck that trend.

Reusable toiletry containers

Resist drugstore travel sizes and decant your favorite products into TSA-­approved vessels you can reuse. (Try: MyTube 3-ounce silicone travel bottle, $7; containerstore.com)

Collapsible water bottle

Travel with a silicone bottle that you can expand to nearly twice its size and you’ll hydrate on the go without generating any trash. (Try: que Bottle, from $20)

Lightweight tote

Stash a nylon bag in your purse or pocket (it tucks into a tiny pouch) and you can just say no to that plastic shopping bag. (Try: reusable tote, $15; flipandtumble.com)

Foldable straw

Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day. Take yourself out of that equation by investing in a stainless-steel straw that collapses down to fit into a palm-size carrying case. (Try: Final Straw, $25.)

Carbon Offsets 101

Buying offsets to counteract travel-related carbon emissions may curb some green guilt. An offset is an investment in an action — like capturing methane from a farm — that pulls the same amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that you’re putting into it. For example, you can offset the impact of a Seattle-to-Boston flight with a $10.82 donation to protect a Peruvian rainforest. However, Miller warns that you’ll need to do your homework: “By and large, voluntary offsets are unregulated.”

Be sure any program you’re buying into ticks these boxes.

1. Offered by a reputable seller. The organization should guarantee that the emissions reductions are quantifiable and enforceable. Offset programs provided by major airlines are usually legit.

2. Transparent. The offset seller should be able to tell you exactly what you’re buying and allow you to direct your money toward a project of your choice.

3. Verified by a third party. Look for an endorsement by Climate Action Reserve (of which Miller is a board member), the American Carbon Registry, or the Verified Carbon Standard.

About the author: Sarah Engler is the senior director of content for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She has also written about eco-friendly living for multiple print and digital outlets, including Martha Stewart Living, Natural Health, Food 52, and O, The Oprah Magazine.