While arguably staying at home and going on local day trips on bike, on foot or public transport is going to be the greenest holiday option, some of us have a hankering for getting further away, perhaps even leaving the country, and would like to know how to make our trips more sustainable. This is a complex subject and we cannot possibly do it justice in the space here, but here are a few thoughts to get you started.

Getting There

Tourism is thought to account for about 8 % of global carbon emissions, with transport making up nearly half of that, so that is an obvious place to begin. Between 2005 and 2016 tourism related transport emissions increased by about 60 %.

jet cloud landing aircraft
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s start with flying. Until the pandemic, tourist flights were increasing by 3 -4% a year globally. With the aviation industry only accounting for 2% of annual global carbon emissions, just why is flying so bad? Simply put, flying generates a lot of emissions in a very short space of time and the ozone and contrails produced by flying at high altitudes (long flights) contribute significantly to climate change. It has been calculated that just one long-haul flight generates the same amount of carbon dioxide as an average European generates in almost 4 months.

Initially it was thought that planting trees to absorb carbon emissions (carbon offsetting) was an easy solution to this but scientists are now realising that it may take 100 years to achieve this, which is just too slow considering the rate of global warming. There are different types of tree planting schemes, some are better than others, plus other types of carbon offsetting which focus on energy projects and blue carbon projects which may prove to be more beneficial, but, for the moment, carbon offsetting remains controversial. This article explores carbon offsetting in much more detail https://www.vox.com/2020/2/27/20994118/carbon-offset-climate-change-net-zero-neutral-emissions

The take home message really does seem to be …Fly less. In addition, if you are choosing to fly, scientists recommend that we

  • Avoid flying in winter – planes produce more contrails in colder temperatures and high humidity
  • Avoid flying at night – the warming effect of contrails is doubled at night because they trap heat from the earth but don’t reflect the sun’s rays back into space as they do during the day
  • Avoid flying first or business class – each passenger takes up more space thus significantly increasing carbon emissions

Is there an alternative way to travel?

indoor train station with few people waiting for the train
Photo by Leslie Toh on Pexels.com

Most people agree that walking, cycling, train-travel, buses/coaches and motorbikes, roughly in that order, are the greenest ways to travel, though we must not forget sailing boats! Taking the Eurostar from London to Paris, for example, compared to flying or driving works out 15 kg of carbon by train, 48 kg by car and 122 kg by plane. If we are driving, then electric cars will bring our carbon footprint down, as does a full car of passengers rather than a solo driver.

What about accommodation?

abandoned house
Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

Unsurprisingly, resorts and hotels which offer a wide range of services from air-con to multiple swimming pools have a much higher carbon footprint than simpler hotels, villas and guest houses. But whatever the type or size of our accommodation here are some questions to consider. 

  • Is the company involved in supporting local communities or non-profit organisations? 
  • Has the local environment been taken into consideration at the building stage? For instance, in some tropical areas mangrove forests, which act as vital carbon sinks, are being torn up to make way for resorts and hotels. 
  • Does the accommodation make use of local building materials?  
  • Does it use renewable energy, low-consumption illumination and try to minimise water usage and waste? 

Large hotels, especially the chains, should have sustainability reports that we can ask to see, or at the very least, state their initiatives clearly on their websites. Some hotels have or are moving towards reputable environmental accreditation so we can look out for B Corp, Earthcheck, LEED and Green Globe Certification among others. Smaller places, including villas and guest houses may not be able to afford expensive environmental reports but should still be able to provide some information about their environmental commitments. This article looks at the issue in more detail  https://www.afar.com/magazine/how-to-tell-if-a-hotel-is-actually-sustainable-or-ecofriendly

person holding a stack of white towels
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Be aware of green-washing – while washing towels and bedding less has definite environmental impact, if that’s the only thing a company is doing while making a big noise about it on their website, the chances are they are not really engaging with sustainability issues. The same goes for providing things like organic toiletries for guests – if they are still giving out small, single use plastic bottles it’s not really very helpful.


assorted cooked foods inside food warmers
Photo by Naim Benjelloun on Pexels.com

Food accounts for a quarter of all carbon emissions and, sadly, many hotels import much of their food to cater to foreign visitors so look out for ones that use local produce where possible and are committed to reducing food waste. The consumer-serving industry, including hotels, is estimated to account for nearly 40% of all food waste. According to Forbes magazine, breakfast buffets are one of the most important factors that consumers consider when booking a hotel. However, buffets are believed to be some of the worst waste culprits, with nearly half of the food being thrown away on a daily basis.

Sustainable travel companies

If this all seems too overwhelming, a number of reputable travel companies and websites have grown up which are trying to make it easier to navigate our way through all the options. Some claim to combine eco-friendly tourism with projects designed to help local communities and conservation in the host countries.  Some offer plastic-free holidays, rewilding holidays or hotels that use renewable energy among many other initiatives.  Some of the best are https://www.responsibletravel.com, http://www.steppestravel.com, http://www.audleytravel.com, http://www.kynder.net, http://www.europeansafaricompany.com and http://www.muchbetteradventures.com, the last two particularly focus on Europe.

Accommodation only websites

Check out these two: http://www.greenglobe.com provides a searchable global database of hotels with varying levels of green certification; http://www.Bookdifferent.com is a social enterprise company that has partnered with Booking.com to add additional filters to show you how different accommodation performs on sustainability, using the familiar search options, but it tends to focus on larger cities at the moment and doesn’t yet cover all countries.

close up photo of plastic bottle
Photo by Catherine Sheila on Pexels.com

And finally, here are 5 small steps that we can take wherever we travel to reduce our carbon footprint

  • Drink tap water , if it’s safe to do so and bring our own re-usable water bottles
  • Turn down the heating/air-con when out
  • Recycle our own waste outside the premises if the accommodation doesn’t do so routinely
  • Bring our own toiletries in small re-usable containers 
  • Choose local produce including drinks, and seek out local businesses rather than big chains

What do you think? Should we stop flying altogether? Are stay-cations the only eco-friendly holiday option? What are your holiday eco-tips? Do let us know in the comments section below and share your sustainable travel ideas too.