9 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Sustainable Traveler

Lists: Do you really need that "Omaha" coffee mug made in China? Eric Lucas thinks not.

04.22.10 | 11:40 AM ET

Photo by zaqi, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The hotel concierge was aghast.

“No, you cannot walk all the way down to Wall Street,” he said. “Sir, let me call you a cab.”

He looked at me as if I had proposed rowing from New York to London—a whim requiring herculean effort and exposing me to incalculable danger.

Nonetheless I asked for a map. I was in Midtown Manhattan, and the distance from there to Wall Street, where I had a lunch appointment, was three miles or so. If I can’t walk three miles, it’s time to set me on a rock in the woods and send me off to the next incarnation. It was 10 a.m., plenty of leeway. I shouldered my day pack and set off, concierge wide-eyed in my wake.

Thus I had a very enjoyable stroll through Manhattan, on a fine spring day. My route took me through the Garment District, where workers still careen up and down the street hauling buggy-racks of fur coats. Who knew?

I was also practicing one of the key principles of sustainable travel, a philosophy now sweeping the world’s biggest industry. More than 1 billion people will travel this year, around the globe, and today’s 40th anniversary of Earth Day is a good occasion to make our journeys more thoughtful. I preach this gospel often, and the key concepts I emphasize are:

The following nine ways to make a difference as a sustainable traveler are also good choices for everyday living, of course. But we tend to overlook unnecessary practices when we’re on the road, and were all 1 billion travelers to choose differently this year, the positive effect on the world’s environment and economy would be huge. If we keep things as they are, our grandchildren will be learning the joys of trash tourism.

1) Walk

It’s not only good for the environment and your budget, it’s good for you. Traveling is often disastrous to exercise routines; the opportunity to walk to meetings, attractions, restaurants and activities is almost universal in major cities. It saves money, spares pollution, helps you live longer, and is by far the best way to experience any locale.

2) Ride public transportation

When walking isn’t practical public transit is the next best option. Buses, trams, trains and the like are available and convenient in hundreds of the world’s major cities. Often they are an intrinsic part of the experience: If you haven’t ridden the Tube, you haven’t been to London.

3) Recreate

Recreation is a broad term ranging from simple strolling to activities that burn more fossil fuel than Army tanks. Use your own two hands and feet—pedal, paddle, hike, glide, ski, skate and swing your way around the world’s playgrounds.

4) Don’t fly your food

The old axiom that you are what you eat is better expressed as, we are what we eat. Virtually everyone dines three times a day; making sure that your menu selections favor local ingredients spares the environment, supports local producers, yields better and more healthy food, and exposes you to another crucial part of local culture. Having lobster in Louisville is silly. So is papaya in Portland. Both those places have local specialties that are much better choices.

5) Don’t buy flying souvenirs

Chotchkes are often made in China, even if the coffee mug says “Omaha.” Supporting local artisans helps local economies—a key facet of sustainability—spares pollution and transport cost, and provides something genuine to take home. If you want souvenirs made in China, please go to China.

6) Reuse your towels

Seems like most of the world’s hotel rooms now offer guests the choice of reusing towels and linens. Take this option. There are more than 4.5 million hotel rooms in the United States, so let’s do the math: Two towels, 365 days, 4.5 million hotel rooms: hotels could be washing and drying 3.6 trillion towels. Let’s not.

7) Take short showers

Not only does hot water use energy, a large portion of the world’s resorts are in areas where water is scarce, such as California, Colorado, Mexico, Hawaii and Arizona. Hotels don’t always point this out, under the impression customers will resent environmental reminders. Even locales often considered “wet,” such as Seattle and Portland, are reaching their water supply limits.

8) Use glass, not plastic

Oh, those plastic bottles—6 percent of earth’s hydrocarbon consumption is for beverage bottles. It’s millions of bottles per hour in North America and Europe, while billions of people around the world would do anything for the simple gift of clean tap water. Use a glass. Leave the $4 bottle on the mini-bar—see, we’re saving money again.

9) Recycle, reuse, reduce

The three linchpins of environmental sustainability are just as valid on the road as at home. If there isn’t a recycle bin in your hotel room, ask the staff. Look for them in the airport. Pass your morning paper on to another traveler. I carry my own shopping bags, which add a whopping 2 percent to the weight and volume in my luggage. I carry my own coffee cup, too, which is not only sustainable, it keeps my coffee warm longer than a paper cup.

Eric Lucas writes for the Los Angeles Times, Michelin Travel Guides and many other publications. He lives in Seattle.

12 Comments for 9 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Sustainable Traveler

Global Granny 04.23.10 | 3:01 AM ET

Great set of 9 sustainable travel notions!

But you forgot to mention one of the most simple yet hugely effective ways to reduce the blight of all those gazillions of plastic water bottles now recklessly demanded and discarded in every blessed corner of the Planet. So utterly irresponsible.



Surely anyone who can afford to purchase an airline ticket, can jolly well pop for a $50 REUSABLE portable water purifier bottle - and NEVER HAVE TO PURCHASE ANOTHER PLASTIC WATER BOTTLE EVER AGAIN.

Ellen Barone 04.23.10 | 12:19 PM ET

Sage advice that’s easy to follow. I’ve already passed it along to many.

As always, Eric, love reading your perspective on how to get out there and enjoy our amazing blue planet.

Thanks for sharing,


Jody Overstreet 04.23.10 | 2:27 PM ET

Nine wonderful suggestions Eric, may I add one more?  Bike!  An increasing number of destinations are offering pre-booked bike rental options for commuter types (with hotel delivery), and more cities are becoming bike-friendly.  Of course, an increasing number of users, whether local or visitor, will support the continued development this earth-friendly trend.  Check out http://www.rentabikenow.com/


Grizzly Bear Mom 04.23.10 | 5:51 PM ET

Purchase for life.  Looking for a frying pan?  Try cast iron.  Aren’t planning on keeping that Obama cup forever?  Don’t purchase it.

Robbie @ Going Green Mama 04.23.10 | 11:44 PM ET

I’m going to sound incredibly cheap, but why buy souveniers at all? Do you need another T-shirt? Towel? Mug? If you *must* buy something for the family, make it unique, and local. Take home some of the local specialty - good bbq sauce from KC, or even fish from Seattle can be taken home on your flight. Or support a local artisian.

pete 04.27.10 | 7:20 AM ET

I’ve been in big cities where I’ve been with colleagues who are obsessed about the need to use the Hotel’s gym.

Get out and take a run around the city, it is a great way of seeing it.

Heres a hint, buy some new music on iTunes and listen to it while you run. Forever, when you hear that music you will remember that run around the different city you are in.

Ecomind 04.29.10 | 7:23 AM ET

Philosophy behind sustainable travel is quite straightforward and simple.
Limit the amount of waste you produce daily. Become someone who preaches and encourages other that being “green” can be beneficial to global population. Small changes are the one which can make the big difference.

Accommodation providers should follow some of the best practices implemented by top environmentally aware accommodation providers.

I was amazed how effective can a 430 m deep energy well be for water consumption efficiency.

Nathan 05.02.10 | 7:35 PM ET

When I can, I cook food on my engine block. Wrap it in tinfoil, fasten to the hood with a wire, and by the time you pull over next, you’ve got a lot of hot, soft veggies. It’s a great way of conserving propane and optimizing the energy I burn to run the vehicle.

Stay in Kumaon 05.17.10 | 3:59 AM ET

wow. thanks for the re use of the towel tip. cant imagine the math :(  its scary. i always carry my own glass cup to use, but end up washing it each time and waste a bit of water. :D

Odysseus 05.20.10 | 9:57 AM ET

I really liked this article, It is really informative and providing with practical solutions to many environmental issues. I am very concerned about the water problems (you can check my blog). I have realised that there is a great lack of drinkable water in many countries such us Egypt, India, Hungry ect.  I think that the access in clear drinkable water will be soon an issue that the globe will have to deal with.  You can check some videos that I have posted on my blog about this problem. I deal with my hydration needs during my explorations in and out of city by using a gear that a friend suggested me. I am talking about the Aquapure Traveller the filtration bottle. I stopped buying bottled water, having always clean water from any possible source. I think we all should find out alternatives like this in order to deal with the plastics wastes, and the limited access in clean drinkable water.

Sydney 05.26.10 | 8:55 AM ET

Great stuff.
I just wish people following these tips weren’t treated by so many other as “eccentric” !

Laurie 05.30.10 | 5:56 PM ET

Sustainable tourism is also about helping the local economies. Stay at locally owned hotels, shop at local stores, and by souvenirs from local shops. Make sure your money goes to the people that really need it.

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