A few tips for more sustainable travel
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Last week I wrote about the impact travelling (especially mass tourism) has on the environment and local communities. The general conclusion was rather pessimistic, so today I’d like to write in a more positive tone. Yes, travelling contributes to many environmental problems, but surely there are a few things we can do to minimize our negative impact. Below I share a few ideas that I’ve been trying to implement for some time (I don’t claim to be 100% successful, though). I hope that in the nearest future I will be able to further expand my knowledge on sustainable travel.
Choose your transport
Obviously, in many cases (especially when it comes to intercontinental travel), it would be rather difficult to replace plane with another means of transport. However, if you are not travelling that far, perhaps you can consider choosing another form of public transport, such as coach bus or train. Personally, I consider train to be the ultimate means of transport. Not only does it emit much less pollution than a plane, but it is also simply more comfortable (so much more space to stretch your legs). If you would like to compare how much carbon dioxide and other environmentally unfriendly emissions will be generated if you travel on the same route respectively by train, car or plane, I recommend you visit the website EcoPassenger.
If you choose rail as your form of transport, you will usually travel from one city centre to another. It will help you avoid extra time spent on travelling to and from airports (which are often located in suburban areas). This is why last year, when travelling to Berlin, I chose to go by train rather than by plane (even though there are quite a few airlines offering direct flights from Poland to Germany). Considering the time that I usually spend at the airport before and after I take a flight, my train trip was only minimally longer than if I had taken a plane. Thanks to this, I spared myself all the stress generated by check-in and airport controls. Instead, I could simply chill on the train, reading books, sleeping and watching landscapes out of the train window.
A zero waste kit
When I travel, I try to remember to bring a few accessories that help me minimize the amount of waste generated during the trip. These zero waste accessories are:
- Reusable water bottle
In many places, tap water is safe to drink. If we carry a reusable water bottle with us, we can avoid buying water in plastic bottles. In some cities, you can also find public water fountains – I saw them for example in Barcelona and Budapest. I consider them as very useful elements of urban infrastructure. I appreciate them especially when I’m visiting a city on a hot summer day and suddenly realize I have just run out of water.
- A few cotton or linen bags (different sizes)
They are handy, when you want to buy some bulk, package-free products, such as fresh and dried fruits or nuts. These are great, healthy snacks that I always try to carry with me when visiting a city or hiking. Before you go on a trip to a place that you don’t know very well, it is good to find out where you can shop for package-free products. Just check the city map and look for market places or zero waste stores.
- A keep cup
It does not take much space in my luggage, yet helps me avoid using disposable cups with a plastic cap on top. At present, a lot of cafés are happy to fill beverages they sell in reusable cups or mugs brought by the customer. Some of them even offer discounts if you bring your own cup, to incentivize your eco-friendly attitude. When travelling by plane or train, you can also ask the staff to fill coffee or tea in your personal keep cup – I have asked for it on several occasions already and it has worked. Of course, there is no guarantee the staff will always be happy to do it for you. It is worth trying, though.
- A sandwich box or a reusable wax wrap
These items will allow you to pack your homemade sandwiches and avoid buying ready-made ones, sold in plastic packaging.
Optionally, you can also bring a thermos for hot beverages (if travelling in winter for example) or multiple-use straws (metal or glass) for your summer drinks.
Travel with Happy Cow
A few years ago I discovered Happy Cow – a website and a free mobile app that allows you to search for vegan and vegetarian restaurants and shops near you. I very often rely on Happy Cow as my source of reference, when I go on a trip to a place I don’t know very well.
Of course, when travelling most of people like to taste dishes typical for the local cuisine. Using Happy Cow doesn’t make it impossible – quite the contrary. Thanks to the app, I have already visited a number of amazing restaurants serving plant-based versions of regional specialties. Very often you can find real gems, managed by people who are really passionate about cooking.
One example of such spot I have had a chance to visit thanks to Happy Cow is Vida Vegan Bistro in Cusco (Peru). This is a tiny restaurant, with only two tables available for guests, but it has a great vibe and delicious food. The only employee of the bistro is its owner who is at the same time a very creative and talented chef. During the few days spent in Cusco, I visited his restaurant several times. I tried a number of different dishes, each of them being a vegan version of either a Peruvian or fusion specialty. I also had a chance to taste a vegan interpretation of the traditional Peruvian alcoholic beverage – pisco sour (much better than traditional version where one of the ingredients is egg white). Unfortunately, the chef did not reveal the full recipe, I only know the egg white was probably replaced by a mysterious fruit.
Choose your destination
In my life so far, I have visited quite a few very touristy destinations. One example of such spot is Machu Picchu in Peru. As much as I appreciate to have had a chance to see this very unique place, I more and more often notice that visiting overcrowded tourist spots makes me tired and does not bring me as much satisfaction as I would expect. Now I think that it makes more sense to look for places that do not necessarily appear on popular “must see lists”. Actually, when you think about it, what does a “must see” mean? In fact, everyone can have a different view on this question. Personally, I think it is best to find something we are genuinely interested in, rather than blindly following the crowds, only to tick a place off the list.
When it comes to the choice of destination or things to do during my holiday, I try to organize everything from scratch, contacting directly my future host. Whenever it is possible, I choose small pensions, hostels or rural guest houses. I believe that by avoiding intermediaries between myself and my host, I also eliminate the risk of unpurposely contributing to different kinds of abuses that happen on a daily basis in mass tourism industry (for example infringing on employees rights).
When I travel, I also try to stick to the “buy local” rule. When I spend my money, I want it to support small local entrepreneurs rather than huge international business networks.
Some links that can inspire you to choose alternative travel destinations
- Some time ago, I interviewed Andreea and Justin Lotak, authors of the blog Conservation Atlas. In the interview, they explain why it is important to visit newly created natural reserves and national parks. And how, by visiting such places, we can contribute to protection of endangered species of animals and plants.
- If you have a lot of time and energy and you are not afraid of challenges, perhaps you would consider taking part in an international volunteering project? You can visit beautiful, untouristy places and at the same time do something good for yourself and others. But please beware of agencies acting as intermediaries in such situations and asking you to pay to participate in a volunteering project. In other words, it means asking you to pay to be able to do unpaid work. This is completely absurd. So if you feel tempted by such adventure, I would recommend you make an effort and organize it on your own. In order to do this, you can contact directly the organization you would like to support. Those interested will find some tips in my previous posts, based on my experience in volunteering in France and Argentina.
Both when travelling and at home, I try to apply the same rule: buy only things that I really need and that I will use for a long time. Souvenirs do not belong to such category, therefore in most cases I don’t buy them. If I bring anything from my travels, it is always something that I will for sure use – food and drinks. If I buy something for my family or friends, it is usually a bottle of wine, local sweets or spices. The only exception are the situations, when someone specifically asks for another souvenir.
No matter if we buy for ourselves or for other people – it is always good to look for something that matches our or their taste. The best way to go is to support local businesses and small entrepreneurs or craftsmen. Especially the ones who care about the planet and who make their products out of upcycled materials. Here are some examples of what I consider as a good idea for a travel souvenir:
- an interesting poster, postcard or a minimalist piece of wall art or art print (subtly alluding to tradition or culture of the place visited)
- handmade jewellery or a ceramic dish (coloristically and stylistically matching the interior of our home – or the home of the person we buy the gift for)
- an item of clothing or an accessory from a fair trade and ethical local brand
- a good book (can be a vintage one from a street antiquarian)
I believe all the above to be much better souvenirs than a shiny key ring, a cheesy miniature Eiffel Tower or an ugly mug with a name of the visited city on it (all these probably made in China, under dubious working conditions).
Additional tips for travelling in Europe
If in the nearest future you are planning a trip to Berlin, Dublin, Budapest or Lisbon, maybe you can have a look at my previous posts. I have listed quite a few addresses of places serving vegan cuisine, zero waste stores or businesses ran by local designers or craftsmen selling goods made of upcycled materials.
To sum up – all the above steps towards more sustainable travelling certainly require a bit of preparation, planning and in some cases – thorough research. However, they are definitely not unfeasible.What’s more, if you manage to implement these solutions, you will quickly realize that being a responsible traveller brings a lot of satisfaction. Also note that some of the above ideas are interesting not only from environmental, but also economical perspective – they help you save some money and time.