Family vacations can be fun, relaxing and educational. They can also take their toll on destinations, communities and the environment.
But there are ways to reduce your impact on climate change, pollution, wildlife, and exploitation.
Meghan Aftosmis, a spokesperson for Impact Travel Alliance, a non-profit that helps educate travelers on how to explore the world in a way that has a positive impact, says sustainable travel starts with families shifting their mindset and changing their habits.
“It’s not simply about opting to stay in an eco-lodge, it’s about the choices you make and how you spend your money when you travel,” she says.
Everything from where you go, to the flights and hotels you stay, to the food you eat, and what you do while you’re there can help reduce your impact on the planet. Here are 10 tips to get you started.
Think Twice About Where You’re Going
When too many people visit the same tourist destination at the same time, it can have a wide-ranging impact, whether beaches get clogged with litter or locals get pushed out by vacation rentals. Venice hit the headlines before the pandemic after being swamped with daytrippers, while Big Major Cay Island in the Bahamas was overrun with visitors wanting to swim with their legendary pigs.
Overtourism is exacerbated by big cruise ships, low-cost flying, and social media. Instead of going to a top 10 city, cultural attraction, or beach spot, opt for somewhere less well-known or more remote that might offer a more fulfilling experience. Think twice about taking a cruise. And consider going off-season when a destination will be less crowded.
CO2 emissions are a major factor in climate change. Almost any form of transport you use to travel—plane, train, car, or ferry—contributes to the problem. Air travel is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, and short-haul flights are particularly polluting.
The easiest way to reduce flying emissions is…well, not to fly. But you can also fly smarter. Check out our guide to greener flying here.
Choose More Sustainable Lodging
When it comes to booking your accommodation, camping, or staying in a rental property or guest house are great options for reducing your footprint. If you decide on a hotel, look for those committed to having a positive impact on the community, environment, and destination. This could mean they offer fair wages for employees, ban plastic bottles and straws, or use locally-sourced produce. Another suggestion is to opt for locally owned hotels instead of big international chains, which keeps your tourism dollars within the community.
Use a Responsible Tour Company
Global Family Travels is a leading tour operator for sustainable travel. Intrepid Travel, a small group adventure travel company that focuses on responsible travel and Urban Adventures, also part of the Intrepid Group, which organizes day trips, are also good options.
Minimize Single-Use Plastics
The amount of single-use plastic we use is staggering. It pollutes the environment and has a devastating effect on wildlife, with eight million tons of it ending up in the ocean every year. You can help by carrying reusable water bottles, bags, and cutlery sets, and avoiding plastic packaging, straws, and more.
Buy Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Many sunscreens contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate that can damage coral reefs; and they’re not that good for your skin either according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Opt for sunscreens by brands such as Thinksport or Blue Lizard that don’t contain these ingredients.
Don’t Climate Control
When you arrive at your hotel, there are some simple things to minimize your impact on the environment, such as turning off the air conditioning when you leave your room, which is an unnecessary waste of electricity. While figures vary, studies say it can account for upwards of 35% of a hotel’s total energy consumption—and uses cooling agents that harm the ozone layer and add to global warming.
Get Around Greener
Walking, biking, or even taking public transport such as the bus or train have less impact on the environment than hiring a gas-guzzling rental car. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cars and trucks account for 58% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US transport sector. These other forms of getting around use less energy and produce less pollution overall than a private vehicle. You and your family will also have a way more fulfilling experience as you can interact more with locals, and you’ll get to see more of the destination. If you want to take a taxi, consider ride-sharing, which is better for the environment.
Aftosmis suggests dining at locally-owned restaurants and eating locally sourced, seasonal produce as much as possible, which are better for the local economy and your carbon footprint. It means doing your research online or asking at your hotel. “Go to farmer’s markets and try local specialties or do a family cooking class, which is a great way to engage kids of all ages,” she recommends.
Opt for Ethical Wildlife Experiences
Elephant rides, selfies with tigers, and swimming with captive dolphins may seem exotic and exciting. But too often, companies exploit the animals they’re showcasing for human entertainment, whether it’s by drugging them to make them docile enough for a snap, harming them physically, or keeping them in tiny cages.
It is important to choose reputable companies that provide experiences where you engage with animals in their natural habitat or organizations committed to conservation or animal rescue. However, it can be hard to identify ethical experiences as there’s a lot of greenwashing–where companies market themselves as “ethical” when they’re not–out there. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to do your research. Read online reviews, look out for certification by organizations such as Fair Trade Tourism or accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and watch out for red flags such as the promise of feeding animals in the wild.