This is my comprehensive guide on how to be a responsible traveller, including tips to travel smarter and more sustainable and leave the world a better place.
This year I only had one New Year’s Resolution; less excuses, more climate action.
I had watched enough news clips about the enormous amounts of trash worldwide, read enough articles about how plastic is killing our oceans and marine life and listened to enough radio shows about how some animals are almost extinct because we take away their lands for our own purposes.
I want to do something and I want to do what I can for the climate. But I must admit that I’m not going to be able to give up my travels, though I’m ready to change the way in which I travel.
“Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.”
– Sir David Attenborough
I’m a firm believer that each and every one of us can make a difference. Maybe not on the great scale – we need to rely on the politicians for that – but on a smaller scale that nonetheless matters.
This post is my comprehensive guide on how to be a responsible traveller. It contains 32 travel tips that I’ve discovered on my travels and that I try my best to live by both when I’m at home and when I’m on the go. I hope they will be of inspiration to you and that you will consider at least some of them next time you are visiting a new place.
What is responsible travel and why should you care?
It is estimated that by 2020 more than 1.5 billion people will travel each year. In many ways, travel is a climate killer, which is why it’s more important than ever before to travel responsibly. But what is responsible travel and why should you care?
Responsible travel (and its counterparts; sustainable travel, eco-friendly travel, ethical travel etc.) simply means being aware of the affect your travels have on the places you visit, the people you meet, the animals you see and the nature you explore and try to make that affect a positive one. It concerns dozens of ethical issues and requires you to consider your own impact and make responsible, sustainable and ethical choices regarding every aspect of your travels – from the places you visit, the transport you use, the people you interact with, the travel providers you choose, the governments you support… You get it!
Imagine if only a fragment of the 1.5 billion people made small, positive changes on their travels. It could leave the world a better place!
Responsible travel: Before you go
1/ Choose your destinations wisely
The first step in becoming a more responsible traveller is to choose your destinations wisely.
Transport (especially air transport) is a climate killer, so travelling shorter and staying longer is one of the most effective ways of becoming a responsible traveller. Pick countries located closer to where you live and explore them to the fullest instead of only seeing the highlights.
In addition, choose destinations that do efforts into protecting their lands and locals. Familiarise yourself with current events and consider going to less popular places if they’re at risk of suffering from over-tourism.
When searching for destinations, use Ecosia instead of Google. Ecosia is a search engine that uses at least 80 % of its profits to plant trees around the world. Isn’t it awesome!? It’s not as good as Google (of course), but in most cases it works fine.
2/ Leave your home in the greenest way possible
You can do something good for the climate and save a few bucks by leaving your home in a green way before going on any travels.
The most obvious one is to turn off the light in all rooms. However, you should also remove plugs from the sockets (except for fridge and freezer) and turn off the heat/air conditioner.
In addition, consider doing a little tech cleaning and get rid of your old photos, files and emails. You may not be aware that all the files you upload to any cloud-based storage provider need to be physically stored on a server somewhere. This means that there are giant servers constantly backing up your uploads that use crazy amounts of electricity.
3/ Pack your bags in the most efficient and sustainable way
I’ve had a tendency to pack way too much on my travels. I had clothes for many days and any occasion, and every time I was on the go I used the same clothes over and over again. I’ve now learned to pack light and bring stuff with multiple functions instead – both because it’s more environmentally friendly but also because it’s way nicer not to have to carry too many kilos around.
Responsible travel: How to travel more sustainably
4/ Fly less and think about how you fly
Air travel contributes to around 2 % of the total CO2 emissions in the world and is by far the most polluting way to travel. So the best way to minimise your personal CO2 emission is to stop travelling completely or at least stop or minimise your flights.
If you are like me and love to travel and want to see the world, avoiding air transport is really tough. I don’t want to give up seeing half of the world because I can’t reach it, and I don’t want to give up flying completely – but I do want to fly less and fly more responsibly!
First of all, this means taking direct flights when possible. The more layovers you have, the more fuel you use – according to a report from NASA, around 25 % of air emission comes from takeoff and landing.
Different airlines have different CSR politics, and how they act according to the climate varies a lot. A good rule of thumb is to always fly with one of the IATA member airlines that invest in CO2 reduction projects. You should also consider flying with airlines that have newer aeroplanes as these emit less and flying with airlines that use biofuel.
Last but not least, travel in economy class. In business class and first class, seats are bigger, meaning that fewer people are being moved by the same amount of fuel. According to a study from the World Bank, flying in business has a CO2 footprint about three times bigger than if flying in economy.
5/ Consider carbon offsetting
A method in which you can counteract your CO2 footprint is to offset your emissions.
You can either do that by calculating your carbon emissions and make a donation to a climate-friendly project aimed at reducing CO2 from the atmosphere – for example tree planting projects. You can also do it directly on most airlines’ websites. However, the pages you need are often hidden and figuring out how to do it is rarely straight forward.
I plan to write a comprehensive guide on carbon offsetting soon, so stay tuned!
6/ Use public transport as much as possible
This one is probably obvious, but using public transport is much more climate-friendly than getting from A to B by car.
When I travel I like taking the train, the bus, the metro or even a tuk-tuk. It’s often the best places to meet locals and the best opportunity to get to know them a little better. In addition, it’s always much cheaper than using other kinds of transport to get around.
7/ Rent a car the responsible way
Nothing beats a good road trip, right? Cruising around at your own pace is the ultimate feeling of freedom but unfortunately, cars are pollutive.
To travel by car the most responsible way, you should ideally opt for an electric or hybrid car. More and more rentals offer these types of cars, but be aware they aren’t the best choice in every situation. It all depends on where you go and the distances you are going to travel. Electric cars don’t have the same mileage as regular cars, and not all destinations have many charging opportunities.
Alternatively, choose a high-mileage car.
8/ Explore on foot or by bike
In my humble opinion, the best way to explore a city is on foot or by bike.
Wandering the streets give you the opportunity to discover every little detail of an area at your own pace and in an eco-friendly way.
Riding a bike is the perfect transport alternative. You get a new perspective of a city, you work out and you avoid leaving any CO2 footprints.
9/ Stay in sustainable/eco-friendly accommodation
As the tourism industry evolves and climate change becomes more crucial for more and more people than ever before, it’s getting easier to choose sustainable and eco-friendly accommodation on your travels.
The key here is to do your research, and the easiest way is to look for one or more of the environmental certificates such as Green Globe and Green Key etc. Alternatively, you need to look up the accommodation and familiarise yourself with their environmental and CSR politics.
I can highly recommend using bookdifferent.com when booking your accommodation online. Bookdifferent.com is powered by booking.com and lists hotels based on how green and sustainable they are through a carbon footprint rating. Smart, right?
10/ Conserve water and energy
Who doesn’t like a long, warm shower? I certainly do! But I’m aware that water is a scarce and precious commodity that we should no longer take for granted. So try to conserve water; stick to five-minute showers, don’t let the water run while you brush your teeth etc.
The same applies to energy; only have the light turned on in the room you are in, switch off electronics you aren’t using etc.
11/ Choose responsible tour operators
You should always do your research before going on any tour and only choose companies that reflect your personal values and beliefs; what destinations do the companies visit? What attractions do they offer? Do they support local communities? Do they have any green certificates? Do they condone cruel practices? etc. The tricky part is to figure out if the companies actually live by these rules!
Responsibletravel.com is a great source to find sustainable and ethical tours worldwide.
12/ Leave no traces
It can have a huge impact when we explore nature and don’t take care of it. But with a few leave no traces principles, we can ensure that flora and fauna aren’t damaged due to human activities:
Remember to walk on the beaten path
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimise campfire impacts
Be considerate of other visitors.
13/ Eat less meat
The consumption of meat and especially beef is one of the worst climate killers. While I don’t want to point fingers at anyone who eats meat (I occasionally do it myself), it might be worth considering cutting down or stopping completely.
According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), livestock accounts for 14,5 % of global carbon emissions where cattle make up for around two-thirds of this. If you cut down your weekly 200 grams beef steak you can save the planet of up to 210 kilos of greenhouse gases, which in a year is equivalent to the emission from 2,3 ordinary cars driven for 365 days!
Reducing our meat consumption is the number one way in which we as single individuals can have a positive impact on the environment.
14/ Drink water from the tap when possible
In many places around the world the water from the tap is so clean that you can drink it. It’s an easy way to use less plastic and save a few bucks. In addition, it’s said that tap water often is of better quality than bottled water.
15/ Use reef safe sunscreen
It’s not long ago scientists realised that regular sunscreen causes serious harms to the corals on our reefs around the world. In regular sunscreen, there are some chemicals that can awaken coral viruses, which in most cases end fatally.
You can avoid causing any harm to the corals (and other marine life) by using biodegradable and sustainable reef safe sunscreen. This type of sunscreen differs by not containing these chemicals; petrolatum (mineral oil), lots of titanium dioxide, oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Responsible travel: How to use less plastic
16/ Limit your consumption of plastic
More than 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide each year, and every year the number rises. We use plastic like never before, but the sad thing is that 50 % of it is single-use plastic and more than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year and pose a great threat to our marine life. While a plastic product only has an average lifetime of 12 minutes, it usually takes more than 450 years to degrade it!
We need to reconsider our consumption of plastic, and the easiest way is to say no – at least to the single-use plastic with little or no purpose at all. Plastic bags, plastic beverage cups, straws etc. either aren’t necessary or can easily be substituted with more sustainable alternatives.
The good thing is that more companies than ever before now produce sustainable and eco-friendly products, making it easier for each and every one of us to find great alternatives to (single-use) plastic. The bamboo toothbrush, the refillable water bottle, the refillable coffee cup, the reusable canvas bag and the menstrual cup are just some of them.
17/ Recycle when possible
Recycling is a brilliant way to reduce the enormous amounts of waste we produce – especially plastic waste.
Recycling literally means reusing the items that have already been used once, and if we do it the right way it’s a great resource. Food waste, plastic, paper and cardboard and rubber, leather and textiles, for example, can easily be recycled and reused, which will both benefit us and the environment.
In terms of recycling, I’m proud of coming from Denmark. Here we have containers for several types of waste, making it easy to divide what can and can’t be recycled and making sure it ends up in the right place. In addition, we use a deposit system on our plastic bottles.
18/ Be aware of what to flush
There is only one golden rule that applies when it comes to what to flush; the three P’s – pee, poo and paper! You should never flush anything else such as cotton pads, cotton buds, tampons, cleaning wipes etc. It might cause blockage or what is worse – end up in the oceans.
Some places you aren’t allowed to flush paper, which of course should always be respected.
Responsible travel: How to respect foreign cultures and be among people
19/ Remember that you are a visitor
When visiting foreign countries it’s important to remember that you are a visitor, a guest. Things might be different than what you are used to from home, and that’s okay.
Have respect for the people and places around you. Don’t wear shorts and t-shirts if it’s not suitable, don’t take photos of people if they haven’t agreed to it, don’t be loud around religious places if it’s not acceptable etc. In general, behave the way you would like others to behave when they visit you.
Maybe you don’t agree with how locals do things or feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar with their customs, but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. Observe and ask questions, but don’t judge.
To me experiencing other cultures, religions and ways in which people live their lives is one of the most beautiful parts of travelling.
20/ Respect the dress code
Around the world, there are certain dress codes. Different countries, cultures and religions have different dress etiquettes that are signified by for example gender, social status, occupation, ethnic or religious affiliation. As a responsible traveller, it’s important to never disrespect any locals by the way you dress – especially around religious sights.
In most cases, you don’t have to dress the same way as the locals or for example show as little skin as they do, but respect their dress codes and at least follow their minimum requirements.
21/ Seek and enjoy cultural experiences
Delving into different cultures is one of the main reasons why I love to travel so much. While I like to lay by the pool for a few days once in a while, I absolutely love exploring a country to the fullest and getting under the skin of its people, and that is how I spend most of my days when travelling.
Seeing a destination with the eyes of a local, listening to their stories and learning about the way in which they live their lives are the best ways to make travels more unique and memorable.
Seeking and enjoying cultural experiences might include eating local food, going on cultural tours, wearing national costumes, walking or taking public transport, buying the locals’ souvenirs and accommodating at homestays.
22/ Support ethical non-profit organisations
If there are non-profit projects you find and really care about either before or on your travels, consider supporting them. There are thousands of great initiatives that make a huge difference throughout the world, and all of them appreciate a donation or an extra hand depending on the organisation. However, make sure to do your research before offering anything and only support organisations that are ethical.
23/ Learn the basics of the local language
If you find yourself in any other country but Denmark, the absolute best way to leave a positive impression on locals is to know a few key phrases of their language. In Denmark, the majority speaks English and most Danes don’t want people to bother trying to speak Danish.
In any other country, you can come a long way by knowing the words for:
How are you?
Thank you/no thank you
Do you speak English?
Sorry, I don’t understand
As you probably already know, Google Translate is the best app to figure out key phrases in Chinese, German, Spanish etc.
24/ Understand the tipping culture
It’s a good idea to do a little bit of research on a country’s tipping culture before going.
After a long flight, you don’t want to stand in confusing situations when the taxi driver, the bell boy or someone else who has done a service for you wants a little tip, and you have no idea if it’s common to tip or if so, how much to give. A quick search on Google can easily prepare you.
25/ Bargain respectfully
In many countries, bargaining is a big deal, and it can be really fun. Haggling over food, transport and souvenirs are the most common, but there are no rules for what you can and can’t bargain about. As long as you do it respectfully.
What might be a fun game of cutting as much of the price as possible to you, might be the seller’s bread and butter and the difference between having two or three meals per day. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t haggle at all – it’s just about finding a fair price that everyone accepts.
26/ Eat locally
I’m always looking forward to tasting the local cuisine when I travel to new countries. The tacos in Mexico, the rice and curry in Sri Lanka and the fresh spring rolls in Vietnam taste so much better when eaten at local restaurants at their countries of origin.
Not only does local food always taste much better than McDonald’s and other (fast) food you are already familiar with, but you also support the local economy and the local communities when you eat at local restaurants and buy food from street food stands and markets. It’s win-win!
27/ Shop locally
When you are in search of especially gifts and souvenirs, go for the locally produced things.
It’s much more fun to come home with something that has a story and is made by someone who has put all his or her effort into making it instead of purchasing mass produced things at malls or at the airport. By shopping locally you also support the local economies and avoid giving money to companies that already have enough. Another win-win!
28/ Engage with the locals
Engaging with the locals might give you some unique and memorable experiences you wouldn’t ever be able to get in any other way.
In some countries it’s easier than in others, but if it doesn’t come naturally to you to break down the cultural barrier between you and the locals, maybe consider accommodating at homestays, bonding on tours, taking a class or using social media to meet people.
29/ Be an ethical photographer
Like many other people, I absolutely love taking photos on my travels. I find it the absolute best way to document my experiences and make them more memorable. But every time I’m on the go there are some experiences that are only documented in my mind. Why? Because I’m very aware of the unwritten rules of ethical photography.
Ethical photography is actually quite simple and yet I see unethical photographers on all my trips. Ethical photography is about placing yourself in your motive’s shoes and asking yourself if you would like someone else taking your picture in this situation. If yes, interact with the people you want to take photos of and insinuate that you want to photograph them or simply ask for permission before snapping. If not, don’t do it.
Responsible travel: How to act in terms of animal tourism
30/ Don’t support animal tourism
The easiest way to ensure that animals aren’t being harmed, violated, exploited or mistreated is by not supporting any kind of animal tourism, including elephant riding, dolphin swimming, animal shows etc.
Often animal tourist attractions are being disguised as natural and helpful, but sadly that is most often not the case. In many cases, animals suffer from mistreatment and cruel actions in order for the people behind to earn as much money as possible – if humans are involved and there is a profit to be made, it’s not good for the animals.
If you can’t resist the urge of getting close to the wildlife, I encourage you to thoroughly research the attraction and only support the ones that are 100 % open about their actions and are ethical.
31/ Limit your wildlife encounters to the wild
There is nothing better than seeing animals thrive in their natural habitats – orangutans that swing from one treetop to another in Borneo, elephants crossing rivers in Botswana, lions relaxing in the middle of the day in South Africa and giant whales that come to the surface to breathe before disappearing into the dark blue ocean again.
Limit your wildlife encounters to the wild and keep a safe distance to animals to avoid disturbing their natural behaviour.
32/ Don’t feed wild animals
It might be tempting to feed the monkeys in Bali with an apple or give your leftovers to a coati in Brazil, but don’t do it. You risk that the animal can’t tolerate human food and become sick or dies or that they get too used to humans and lose their natural instincts towards us. The animals might congregate in large numbers and end up attacking each other or being killed as “pests.”
Fed wildlife is dead wildlife, always remember that!
These were my 32 tips on how to be a responsible traveller. If you have any other tips you would like to share, please do! I’m always keen to learn new ways to travel more responsibly, sustainably, ethically and more eco-friendly and to share it with my readers.
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