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The Right Way to Travel, According to Environmental Experts

If you've never thought about your carbon footprint while traveling, it's time to start. Adopting even one of these eco-friendly suggestions can make a big difference for our planet—and future generations.

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Closeup of a hand holding a little paper boat on a globe on white background.Jan Kvita/Shutterstock

Tread lightly while traveling

We all need to do our part to help protect the planet, but for those suffering from wanderlust, the practicality of that goal can seem a bit daunting. After all, aircraft account for 12 percent of all U.S. transportation greenhouse gas emissions. It's no wonder Time's Person of the Year, teenage Swedish climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg, sailed across the Atlantic to a United Nations climate conference in New York on an emissions-free yacht rather than fly. Of course, if you don't have an extra 15 vacation days to spare in order to sail to Europe or access to a yacht, it doesn't mean you have to stay home. There are more than a dozen steps you can take to help reduce or offset your carbon footprint that will still allow you to scratch your travel itch.

"We humans are adventurous and curious," says Diana Chaplin, canopy director of One Tree Planted, a nonprofit fighting against global deforestation. "It's a wonderful thing to travel and experience different landscapes and cultures. That's where being conscientious makes all the difference! Tread lightly wherever you roam, give back to the environment near and far, and take daily actions toward sustainability in all the little decisions you make." Read on to discover what steps you can take on your next vacation or business trip to do just that. And if you're planning to book a flight, make sure you also know these ways air travel will change in 2020.

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Stay closer to home

If you tend to take shorter and more frequent trips, it's better for the environment to stay closer to home, says Jim Sano, vice president of tourism, travel, and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "You don't have to seek out iconic destinations, like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, when there are 419 national park sites in the United States," he says. "There's plenty to explore and marvelous experiences to be had within a half-day car, train, or boat ride." In fact, these are the practically secret national parks you'll want to visit. One might even be in your own backyard!

A beautiful hipster asian woman travelling on the train. Sitting on the black leather cozy comfort seat in the business class boky of the train in Europe. Tourist travel concept.CRAFT24/Shutterstock

Seek out trains and other forms of mass transit

"Traveling by train typically has far fewer emissions per passenger than traveling by plane," says John Oppermann, executive director of the Earth Day Initiative. "So if you're somewhere that has train options, that's a good way to cut your environmental footprint." If you do a little research, you'll even find some trains—like Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and those found in several European countries—run on electricity. Start your next adventure by choosing one of these most scenic train rides across America. And if you're headed to Europe, know that the carbon dioxide emission on an average Eurail trip is about three times less per person than traveling the same route by car and four times less than traveling by plane. Plus, trains are often the fastest and least expensive ways to move from country to country.

Natural color eco bag with reusable metal water bottle, glass jar and straw. Zero waste concept. No Plastic. Igisheva Maria/Shutterstock

Bring your own bottle

Travelers are subjected to countless single-use items, from plastic water bottles and disposable dishware to tiny hotel toiletries and food packaging at the airport. While some of these things can be recycled, Court Whelan, PhD, director of sustainability and conservation for Natural Habitat Adventures, says it's always best to avoid creating waste and recyclables in the first place, especially since recycling is hard to come by in foreign countries. "To abate this issue, bringing along a reusable water bottle and coffee mug are key," he explains. "In the U.S., it's very easy to fill up water from almost anywhere. While abroad, especially in developing countries, get in the habit of bringing your water bottle into restaurants and filling up from their purified water source. It takes a little extra work to remember, but it's infinitely healthier for the planet versus increasing plastic waste."

If there's any chance your travels will take you to a place where you won't have access to a trusted water source, pack a LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle, since its carbon straw filters water to remove 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria and parasites. Coffee drinkers should bring a mug or thermos, as hot beverages are often served in plastic and Styrofoam cups (and disposable coffee cups, because they're often wax-lined to make them water-tight, are not recyclable at all). The LifeStraw is also one of these carry-on items that could save your life in an emergency.

Orange Travel Toiletry Bag with Travel ToiletriesKris Black/Shutterstock

Pack to avoid single-use items

As mentioned above, hotel-room toiletries are another big contributor to the waste stream. Instead of cracking open a new plastic tube of shampoo, soap, and conditioner each night, Whelan suggests buying reusable containers and filling them from your own home before travel. "Consider taking it a step further by bringing a set of bamboo or recycled plastic utensils with you for to-go meals or when dining in cafés with disposable flatware," he says. "I prefer a multi-purpose spork, which is just one utensil that does it all." And those plastic laundry bags in hotel rooms? First, read what it's like to go plastic-free, and then pack your own reusable mesh bag instead.

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Shop smart

When perusing local markets and retailers, you may not realize that some of the products that catch your eye are made from protected animals or plants and may be illegal to export or import, warns Sano. In order to make an informed choice, the WWF suggests asking questions before making a purchase, such as, "What is this product made of?" and "Does the country I'm visiting allow the sale and export of this product?" Never buy raw or carved ivory, tiger or rhino products, or sea turtle souvenirs. And when in doubt, stick with homemade arts and crafts purchased directly from local artisans.

Tree plantingAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Offset carbon emissions

Did you know you can offset your travel emissions by helping to fund projects that reduce greenhouse-gas pollution, such as planting trees, building windmills, or installing solar panels? And no, you don't have to do the labor yourself. "Many travel companies are now offsetting emissions for you, or at least giving you an opt-in when paying," explains Whelan. "However, if your travel company doesn't, or you're planning independently, consider making a quick calculation on a site like SouthPole.com and paying a few dollars to completely carbon-offset your trip."

If the idea of planting trees captures your heart—trees are nature's purifiers, after all, and they provide shelter for animals and food for local communities—use the carbon calculator at One Tree Planted to estimate the number of trees you should plant every month based on your carbon emissions. "There's no need to get lost in the numbers, either," says Chaplin. "Focus less on the exact impact and number of trees, and more on what you can afford if you really want to provide a benefit. If you're not contributing to reforestation now, anything is better than nothing. Choose a monthly donation that works with your budget, whether it's 20 trees or 50 trees, and start helping the environment." Planting a tree is just one of 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help the environment.

Wooden bamboo house in the jungle. Sanya Li and Miao Village. Hainan, China.Valery Bocman/Shutterstock

Try ecotourism

Defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education," ecotourism eschews traditional mass tourism in favor of more conscientious and responsible travel styles. For example, in Costa Rica you can sleep at an eco-lodge in the rainforest (some offer solar power, build their furniture from reforested trees, and have on-site organic gardens), and in Norway you can sightsee the way nature intended, by river rafting or dog sledding. Kenya, the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Iceland, and the Amazon Rainforest are also known for their ecotourism efforts. Here are some other places you need to go in 2020, according to travel experts.

beautiful bengal tiger with lush green habitat backgroundAKKHARAT JARUSILAWONG/Shutterstock

Interact with animals responsibly

It may seem exciting to pet a tiger in Thailand, swim with dolphins in the Caribbean, or ride an elephant in India, but these experiences are typically cruel and dangerous to the animals—some are even drugged in order to force cooperation or are chained when they aren't performing. Instead, Joanna Alfaro, PhD, a marine biologist who specializes in working with animals in the Amazon, says there is no need to touch animals. "Observing them from afar is the best way to interact with wildlife," she says. "You should never get close enough to an animal that it will alter its behavior or state and never feed animals or carry food with you while in the field observing wildlife." Do your research and avoid the exploitation of animals for entertainment by supporting organizations that rehabilitate injured wildlife or provide sanctuaries to those in need.

Log cabin in woodland settingRobert Crum/Shutterstock

Support local accommodations

"The best sustainable lodging options usually support the local economy and community, conserve water and other resources, and protect and respect wildlife, nature, and local culture," says C.S. Sherin, a sustainable living expert and author of Recipe for a Green Life. "We are not going to find, in most cases, commercial luxury venues that fit the sustainability bill. They tend to waste and overconsume energy and resources." She recommends choosing vacation rentals, staying in hostels, and looking for sustainability-focused lodging options. Keep in mind that your sustainability efforts aren't just for traveling. Try these 25 simple swaps to reduce your carbon footprint while at home, too.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship Independence of the Seas docked at the private port of Labadee in the Caribbean Island of Haiti on February 26, 2013.NAN728/Shutterstock

Choose cruise lines that care

The negative environmental impact of many large cruise ships is well documented. Each day, they can generate emissions equivalent to 12,000 cars. But some cruise lines are focused on making improvements. For example, Windstar Cruises' three sailing ships are able to power themselves with wind in their billowing sails when the conditions are right (and switch to engine power as needed), which allows the vessels to reduce fuel usage while providing a more scenic and memorable cruise experience for guests.

Coming at sustainability from a different angle, Royal Caribbean's family of brands (including Celebrity Cruises and Azamara) now offers 1,400 sustainable shore excursions through tour operators who are GSTC-certified. GSTC, or the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, is the nonprofit organization that manages the global standards for sustainable travel and tourism. This goal was created to match the 2020 WWF target to offer guests 1,000 tours provided by GSTC-certified operators. Here are another 13 things travel experts think you should know before booking a cruise.

Interior of Colosseum ; tourist group listens guided tour on September 25, 2013 in Rome Italy.saaton/Shutterstock

Select sustainable travel partners

Do you love group travel? Spend your money with travel companies that are determined to protect our planet. For instance, Intrepid Travel, which offers more than 1,000 escorted tours worldwide, set a goal to become the biggest carbon-neutral company in the world—and achieved it in 2010. How? By reducing carbon emissions (by using public transportation, staying in locally-owned accommodations, and eating in locally-owned restaurants) and balancing the remaining emissions by purchasing carbon credits. Similarly, Natural Habitat Adventures became the world's first 100 percent carbon-neutral travel company and is now offsetting all of its guests' flights to and from the starting point of its adventures, thereby increasing the total amount of their carbon offsetting by 300 percent.

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Observe local environmental laws

Just because something is legal where you live, it doesn't mean it'll fly when you travel. "I'm currently packing for a safari trip, and countries like Kenya and Botswana have made it illegal to bring in plastic bags—even resealable zipper bags," says Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, a global network of agencies specializing in experiential travel. That's also how Rwanda became one of the cleanest nations on earth. Be sure to check local laws before you pack your bags to ensure you're in compliance.

Human chain paper on green creeper plant, CSR (coporate social responsibility) or teamwork conceptpatpitchaya/Shutterstock

Ask questions about sustainability practices

Our planet would surely benefit from more inquisitive minds, so don't be afraid to ask questions and find out more before booking your travel. "When you ask your tour operator or travel agent about their sustainability commitment, you're showing them that it matters to you," says Whelan. "And when a number of people do that, it creates a 'market trend.'"

Even if you don't know the right questions to ask hotels, restaurants, and other tourism vendors, simply inquire about what they're doing for sustainability. "The more people in the travel and tourism industry realize that it's important to the customer that they consider the planet's health in their day-to-day operations, the more they'll begin to invest time and money toward sustainability," concludes Whelan. "The more successful sustainable tourism companies are, the more those 'non-sustainable' companies will strive to catch up." For proof, check out these 22 big companies that are getting rid of plastic for good.