Sustainable travel planning – a better way to see the world

sustainable local travel

Sustainable travel has been a popular topic in the past couple of years. But what does it actually mean? If you’re confused by it, you’re not alone. Traveling sustainably doesn’t only mean choosing greener initiatives and supporting good businesses while you’re abroad.

Travel changes you, and the way you travel changes the world.”

Dara Herr, travel expert and planner behind Walk Herr Earth

When exploring distant lands, you need to make sure you’re thinking about all three aspects of sustainable travel, as they’re all equally important. The way you spend your money abroad can hugely impact not only the ecological situation of the country but also the economic development. These aspects are:

  • ecological – choosing experiences and places that work towards conserving the environment of your destination
  • economic – choosing local businesses (both product and service based) to support
  • social – making sure the local community is not disregarded in any way

Let’s explore these aspects through practical examples.

Practical advise for lowering your impact while traveling

Start with small steps. And remember each of the steps counts.

Pack better. Pack less.

By packing lighter, you will improve fuel efficiency. For every 50kg you add to your luggage, fuel efficiency drops by 2 percent. By choosing the essentials, you will make additional space for the things you really need, like rechargeable batteries, reusable water bottle, and a solar torch.

Avoid plastic packaging

Some countries like Uganda placed a nationwide ban on plastic bags. Their customs go through your luggage when you enter the country to make sure you have no plastic wrapping of any kind. Kenya joined its neighbor with a similar ban. When I was living in Cameroon, the national authorities also prohibited the distribution of plastic bags. I wished I knew about packing what I know now. Instead, I had to deal with alternatives, carrying packages wrapped in newspaper under both of my arms.

When packing, don’t forget to bring a tote bag you can use when shopping for groceries, packing dirty clothes or carrying your essentials when exploring the area. You will be able to reuse this bag as many times for different purposes instead of buying a plastic one.

If you’re a female, you can reconsider the alternatives to your current hygienic habits when on a period.

Say no to the straw.

They end up in oceans and they often get stuck in turtles’ nostrils, or end up eaten by larger marine mammals. After watching a video of a vet taking a plastic straw out of a turtle’s nostril, I promised myself never to buy one again.

Next time you’re buying that smoothie, or coconut water, make sure to skip the straw. You can always turn to more eco-friendly solutions like bamboo or metal straws.

What about water?

Use a refillable water bottle. In some countries, you’ll be able to find public water fountains, or ask for a refill at local cafes, like in Portugal. In some, you’ll be able to pay to refill the bottle from a purified water station like in Indonesia or Thailand. And in some, you better buy a LifeStraw or a UV water purifier. I bought my AQUA in Singapore last year, as I was planning to visit East Timor. It lasts for 3000 activations of 1L treatments.

Choose means of transport with lower impact

As we all know by now, choosing a train ride over a plane ride can cut your carbon footprint almost 30 times. Plane ride affects the ozone layer and might cause the formation of cirrus clouds and contrails that greatly add to climate change.

But when talking about traveling to alleviate climate change, we’re forgetting the other aspects of sustainable travel other the ecological.

If you’re in a country fighting for social development, you’re bound to support good initiatives. When I was living in Italy, I found out about the movement against mafia and its racketeering practices. It’s a grassroots movement established in Sicily and it’s called Addiopizzo. Their motto is: “Pago chi non paga” translated “I pay those who don’t pay”, referring to paying those who say no to the racket.

By supporting businesses that promise not to pay the racket, you support both economic and social aspect of sustainable travel in Italy.

You can check out the network this movement formed over the years and find companies that are certified with Addiopizzo label:

Dealing with food waste

A couple of years ago, I was staying at a cute, small hostel in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The hostel staff organized a kitchen shelf where everyone checking out could leave the remaining food they didn’t get to finish. Everyone checking in could use the same food free of charge. This little local initiative saved kilograms of food from waste every year. I found a whole bread and pasta sauce. In the same manner, when I left, I stocked the shelf with my remaining snacks. You can ask the hostel you’re staying at to organize a similar initiative.

Choosing guided tours

When choosing experiences you want to support, make sure they’re organized by locals. Not only they’ll give you the best insights about a place, but you will, in return, support local business development.

When choosing experiences you’ll have abroad, make sure you support tours that aren’t involved in wildlife trafficking or fueling cruelty. Be responsible when choosing orangutan or gorilla watching tours.

If you’re too lazy or to busy to plan your own perfect sustainable gateway, think about supporting agencies that do it.

Good business project: Sustainable travel itineraries

A good business project focusing on sustainable travel comes from the USA and it’s called Walk Herr Earth. It’s a sustainable and ethical travel planning company recently started by an avid world traveler, Dara.

Dara grew up in New Jersey. Since she was a child, travel has been an important part of her life. Her parents often took her traveling. Shile she was growing up, she got to see Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and many places around the States.

Career choices

As she got older, she decided to study filmmaking. She tried herself in its different fields. Dara was planning to be a writer-director and during her studies, she was searching for ways to get there. The more time she spent in the field, the less she liked it. It was a toxic environment and it didn’t make her happy. On movie sets, they’d be spending $80,000 or more. It didn’t make sense to her that a single movie would consume such a big budget.

She realized what she always thought she wanted wasn’t really what she wanted to do. The world she was so desperately trying to be a part of wasn’t the world she thought it was. Disappointed in life choices, she turned to another passion of hers: travel. She’d work all the time and never leave the house to be able to save as much as she could to go out and travel.

Storytelling and sustainable travel

Every time she’d turn on the TV, climate change news would make her feel disheartened. At some point, the latest news in the NY Times started causing her anxiety attacks. Dara didn’t have a background in science, and she didn’t feel there was anything she could do about it.
She felt helpless and hopeless.

Share your passion to know your blessings

One day, she was trying to understand if she could take an active role and be a part of the solution. She was doing a lot of documentary work and supporting local female businesses in the tristate area. An idea crossed her mind. Dara realized she could do this while traveling. She could highlight women businesses in the places she’s visiting. From there the idea expanded onto eco-friendly businesses that are making a difference in local communities globally.

Dara quickly realized she missed telling stories through film, but while traveling she found a new purpose – telling stories from the road that matter. She found a way to do both things she loved: to tell stories and promote sustainable ways of travel.

Because of her reputation of a passionate traveler, Dara has had many requests to plan trips for friends and family over the years. She became that person in her social circles. Dara was already using free time to think about travel and plan for future trips. When she’d have a break at work, she’d be researching places to go to next, and daydreaming about all those trips she couldn’t take at the moment.

Sustainable travel as a business idea

As she was reading about sustainable travel and trying to make her own travel choices better for the planet and the local community, she realized many travelers might want to do the same, but they might not know where to start. That’s when it struck her. She could do that. She could show them how.

And this is how she turned her biggest passion into a business. Dara now makes personalized travel itineraries for others based on their budget and interests. You can fill out a detailed questionnaire on her website that lets her understand your needs. Then she makes day by day plan for you, and the itinerary contains things to do, suggestions of activities, restaurants, and logistical information how to get from one place to another.

All the businesses she recommends are eco-friendly, and owned by locals. By choosing to work with her, you choose ethical and sustainable travel and support the environment and the local community.

traveling Thailand on a bike
Photo by Dara Herr

Reasons to choose sustainable travel

“Travel changes us. It can make such a big difference in defining who we are. It’s a privilege to travel. If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel for fun, you need to acknowledge this privilege and be able to use it to make sure the places you visit are better off for it as opposed to worse.”

“Being aware of sustainability is great. But what travelers sometimes forget about is to look at the intersection between sustainability and local culture. “

“A good example of this is the unsustainable fishing practice. Generally, when the local community is engaging in some sort of activity that is harmful to the environment, they’re doing so to support themselves, not because they’re malicious or want to destroy. That’s how they’re feeding their families and they might not have other options.”

Exploring the ocean's depth
Exploring the ocean. Photo by Dara Herr.

“It’s important to find other solutions and find ways to take the people into consideration as well. Instead of criticizing, we should ask ourselves why it’s happening and how our choices influence the change in those practices so that the locals are living a better life that’s not harmful to the environment at the same time.” That’s why Dara lists local businesses alongside with eco-friendly businesses.

Her itineraries offer personalized experience. They are a good fit for museum lovers as well as those who want to explore the nightlife. They are tailored to nature loves who seek adventures off the beaten path, as well as those who want to experience regular tourist destinations they’ve seen on Instagram.

Entrepreneurial struggles

Dara struggles the most when she gets a location that’s isolated. When a place is in the middle of nowhere, it’s usually not well covered by travel blogs and travel tips. If it’s a place she hasn’t visited before, she tries to find locals or travelers who’ve visited to ask them for local tips. She tries to see it as a challenge. The most satisfying part is to realize that even in these locations, there are people who care about the environment and businesses that do good.

Entrepreneurial take-away

Her entrepreneurial journey made her feel more in control. It made her understand the importance of taking action, being patient and open. Things might get pretty bad, but you can always do something about it.

“One of the biggest problems is people not knowing to humanize each other and blaming locals instead. Through stories, you learn to understand the other. You establish a connection.”

If you want to be a better traveler, choose to explore foreign lands in a sustainable, ethical manner. Check out Dara’s travel tips on Instagram and get a personalized travel itinerary on her website.

Explore cities like a local

If you prefer places recommended by locals, check out USE-IT Europe, an initiative that develops must-see locals tips into beautifully illustrated maps. The maps are free and up to date and if you’re not a fan of the paper version, you can use them digitally.

Download apps for iPhone or Android.

I used them to explore a couple of Belgian cities and they turn sightseeing into an adventure resembling a treasure hunt!

What are your practical tips for sustainable travel? 

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