I love to travel. I like seeing new places, experiencing new things, and tasting great food. Last year, my husband and I visited 3 continents, explored the wonderful USA and went on a few weekend getaways with our trusty Subaru. From the carbon emission on those plane or car rides to the waste produced waiting at the airport or generated during actual travel, traveling can be a very wasteful activity. Each trip we go on is an opportunity to learn and refine what it means to travel zero waste. Being in a foreign country also adds on to the stress. Despite all of this, it is possible to still travel a little more green each time you venture off into a new and faraway place.
When flying, if you are able to, select a carrier that is committed to improving their overall environmental impact. Buy carbon offsets to balance out your travel. When flying, be conscious of your consumption. Before heading to the airport, consider what you need before, during and after your flight. Don't rely on "I'll just get it there" mentality. Bring snacks/food from home if you can to ensure you have a healthy meal. It will also reduce your craving/desire to buy single, disposable snacks at the airport. Think buying nuts in bulk and bringing those in re-usable containers.
For me, I always bring my own re-usable water bottle to refill at the airport. This has saved me many dollars over the years as airport water is highly overpriced. One note of advice on this though is that if you are coming back to the U.S., most countries have a second security check prior to boarding and I've had many instances where my entire bottle has been dumped. Needless to say, this did not bring a smile to my face, but security is security I guess. When on the airplane, drinks are technically "free" as part of your ticket. Consider if you really need a beverage before wasting a soda or juice and putting one more plastic cup into the landfill. I flew Spirit Airlines for the first time last year and absolutely loved their no frills policy. The airfare was low because you paid for the add-ons on the spot as needed.
My tip also just before you arrive at your destination is ask to have your water bottle filled with ice. My Klean Kanteen is double insulated so it keeps it nice and fresh and I don't have to scramble to find a water fountain upon landing or have to obsess about seeing if the water is OK to drink. Alternatively, heading to a chain like a Starbucks is also a good option for getting your bottle refilled before and after your flight.
Second, always bring a large scarf of a thin multi-purpose blanket. I've been using these Turkish peshtemals for a few years now. They double as a blanket, towel and cover-up. They dry pretty quickly, but absorb as much water as the larger towels.
If you are able to, get your boarding passes through your phone. I've had a hit or miss with this. Most international flights do not have this option so I usually end up with a printed ticket, but for domestic flights, you can use the airline app to load your boarding pass. As a precaution, I always take a screenshot in case my internet gets flaky at the airport.
Things to Refuse on the Flight
- Plastic wrapped blanket (use your own scarf, coat or multi-purpose blanket/towel. My favorite are these Turkish towels called peshtemals that double as everything.
- Plastic wrapped headphones (bring your own)
- Disposable amenity bag (bring your own toothbrush and toiletries to freshen up)
- Single-use cups (bring your own reusable cups or bottles)
- Food that you will not eat (just because they are passing it around, it doesn't mean you have to take it)
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Roadtrips can be so much fun and similar to flying, it can be as wasteful. Along with the advice from the top to bring reusables and reduce one-time use purchases, keep your vehicle in tip top shape to ensure it is running efficiently and burning fuel properly. If you are traveling long distance, make sure your tires are well inflated. This will reduce potential accidents and ensure a smooth ride to wherever the road takes you.
Continue to pack light to reduce weight drag on your vehicle. While the car gives you an opportunity to store things and reduce what you need to buy while out on the road, consider what's really necessary on your trip. If you are in sunny weather, it may be helpful to park under trees and in shades to keep the car temperature from getting too hot to reduce AC use. Having a car is also a good way to perhaps visit local markets as it gives you flexibility and the chance to venture out on your own. This is a great chance to taste some local food. We did this when we were in Vermont and it made for a fun weekend getaway.
Staying in hotels can be so nice. You don't have to make your bed sometimes (I'm guilty of this), you can get fresh towels everyday, you can open new soaps each day, but when you get down to it, many of these actions are very wasteful. Just as when we are at home, we need to be conscious of how we are using resources. Many hotels now ask you to reuse your towels or extend the use of your bed sheets for a few more days. Many hotels now also use the card system to activate the room electricity to reduce having lights and AC on when people are not in the room. Bringing your own toiletries instead of opening a new pack everyday can help reduce waste. If the hotel has a bar, asking them to refill your water bottle can help reduce plastic bottle use. Alternatively, a good friend's house or an Airbnb with reusable supplies is also a great thing.
While On The Trip
Think about what you'll need during your trip. Try to bring things that you already have at home such as hat, a bag, a scarf, etc. Bring items that are also multi-purpose so that you can reuse more than a few items. Using what you have will ensure you spend your money on non duplicate items and more on the experience.
Learn to pack light and efficiently. Unfortunately, a lot of this is honed after years of travel as you learn what you truly need to live comfortably away from home. Learn to create a capsule wardrobe so everything you own can be reused and remain classic and stylish in the photos.
Don't forget that even if you are in a new city or country, your zero waste principles should not stop at the border. Yes, a language barrier or a culture difference may make it harder to refuse or ask for an alternative, but if we all just try a little bit, we can move to change some of the default attitudes about waste. I would also encourage that if you come across a clever way a city or country is dealing with waste, to share it so that others may learn and gain new ideas about how to reduce their own footprint.
Once upon a time, I used to spend a good percent of my vacation time looking for stuff to buy and bring home as gifts. Then people started getting me stuff too and while I loved the generosity, I kinda didn't like a lot of the stuff people gave me. Partly because it was not my style. Partly because I had no idea what it was and partly because I didn't know what to do with it. Now, there were some exceptions. Good chocolate was and continues to be appreciated, but perhaps the other things not so much. Now, I don't mean to be an ingrate here, but it help put some perspective for me. Was I spending time wisely looking and buying gifts for people when really no item could replace the experience I was having?
In the end, I stopped buying individual gifts and instead bought a consumable like candy or chocolate that was unique to the destination. I would bring these to work and leave them at a common table and chat with my co-workers about my trip. Similarly, I did the same thing to family. It gave me a chance to share my experience with others without burdening them with stuff to take care of later. Souvenirs are meant to bring up memories of your travel for YOU and there are so many ways to remember your adventure without needing stuff.
Even if traveling does incur some waste, I do still believe it's the best way to appreciate people, culture and the environment. Without seeing beautiful places or places that are unfortunately not so beautiful, we wouldn't be able to appreciate what we have and desire to make the world a better place. Happy Traveling!