Can the Rewards of Travel Outweigh the Planetary Costs?

Although normally a full-time student at the University of Virginia, I’ve decided to be a traveler for the semester and study abroad at the National University of Ireland at Galway.

I’ve scoured my Lonely Planet guide and created endless itineraries of places to explore during my getaway. (“Cultural immersion” will be my primary mode of learning during these four months; I’ll save the heavy book work for home.) But while marveling at the inexpensive flights from Ireland to continental Europe—London for 14 Euro! Barcelona for 30!—I’m beginning to contemplate the environmental repercussions of my wanderlust.

More than a billion travelers traverse the globe every year, and the implications can be tremendously detrimental to the environment. These potential negative effects are both local and global: oceanfront hotels contribute to beach erosion in Hawaii, rising numbers of visitors threaten the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, and carbon dioxide emissions from planes are a growing contributor to global warming everywhere.

But despite these repercussions, traveling also makes one appreciate the Earth; seeing the natural beauty of the landscape has the potential to turn anyone into an ardent environmentalist. So don’t neglect the Seven Wonders of the World—just think about how to view them with the least amount of environmental impact.

Some tips to consider

Although the term is often co-opted, “ecotourism” in its purest form encompasses travel that respects the natural and cultural environment of the places you visit. That means conserving plants, wildlife, and other resources; respecting local cultures and ways of life; and contributing positively to local communities. Read one group’s take on the 12 best "ethical" destinations in 2012.

Carefully select a hotel, thinking about its commitment to sustainability. Ask if the hotel is locally owned and operated, staffed by local employees, practices recycling, and contributes to the local community. You don’t need to sacrifice creature comforts or venture into the middle of nowhere to be a green traveler; you can visit big cities or small villages, and stay in small ecolodges or luxury hotels. Learn more about some of the steps that hotels are taking from the Green Hotels Association.

Before leaving home, turn off all lights, unplug electrical equipment, and adjust heating and cooling devices. Don’t purchase mini-travel size packages (they seem tempting but waste a lot of plastic, so try to use reuse small bottles instead), go online to book non-stop flights if available (take-off and landing are the most fuel-intensive parts of air travel), and identify public transit options at your destination. Once you arrive, shop at local stores rather than large chains to support the local economy, and respect the various amenities provided by the hotel. Just because you’re not paying the electric bill, it doesn’t mean you should leave the lights on all day.

While you’re away, think about activities that are both culturally stimulating and environmentally healthy. Appreciation of natural landmarks through outdoor activities, including hiking and camping, can provide unforgettable memories. Check out National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations for useful travel resources (and lovely photography).

Before feeling guilty about the environmental implications of your travels, imagine for a moment traveling with me to this serene Swiss Whitepod resort.* We’ll use carbon offsetting to account for our emissions releases and feast on local cheese and wine. An environmentally friendly ice igloo tucked into the Alps? I might just attempt to study abroad every semester.

* For a more budget-friendly option, consider renting a yurt in Vermont, Michigan, Colorado, or numerous other locations across the United States.

Amy Curtis is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and an intern at the Center for a New American Dream.

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Recently over spring break I traveled to Paris and Barcelona and had to take a plane to fly across the Atlantic. On the plane I felt horrible about flying and wondered what is going to happen when aviation fuel doesn’t exist anymore? Peak oil has come and gone and let’s be honest gas for a plane is not the unleaded low grade i put in my car! Experiencing the culture of a new place was amazing and the sustainable practices of these European cities was definitely inspiring, but on the way home I couldn’t help but thinking how long this trip would take on a boat.

Posted by Jim at March 28, 2012 at 8:58pm

As far as i know you only live once and some amount of exploration of the world can really change ones perspective and understanding. It my seem less important to travel now with the vast availability of information that can be found in everyone’s home on their computer but i still believe that all the words and pictures in the world can never come close to the actual experience.

Posted by Ethan Benoit at March 28, 2012 at 3:20pm

When we surround ourselves with the same kind of people for too long, we lose perspective. Traveling allows us to gain someone else’s perspective in a sense, and forces us to be strangers in a new land. When we have to learn things over from the beginning we take new lessons home with us.

Posted by Kyle V at March 27, 2012 at 11:29am

I love to travel but am also an avid environmentalist. I really appreciated this article because it helped to assuage some of my guilt about traveling and gave good suggestions for how to make my travels more earth friendly.

Posted by Lilly Israel at March 26, 2012 at 4:31pm

Travelling is a great way to appreciate the planet. I hope to do a lot of travelling when I finish school. I have always wondered about my carbon footprint when I travel. There are a lot of ways to get around with minimal impact on the environment. For example, you can sail on a sailboat or ride a bicycle on country roads. I would really like to travel around on a sailboat one day!

Posted by Nathaniel Vigneault at March 24, 2012 at 4:14pm

It is too bad that traveling the world has a negative impact on the environment. Traveling is so important for people to become more cultured and understand other ways of life than their own. This article has great tips on staying as green as possible on vacation. I also like the idea of riding a bike around the places you visit, especially if it’s in the country side because it’s so easy! Overall, great article!!

Posted by Claudia at March 24, 2012 at 7:59am

I never thought about how traveling impacted the environment before, I am so glad that there are people working for more sustainable travel and will definitely use some of the services in this article on my next trip

Posted by Rebecca Gilbert at March 23, 2012 at 11:41am

Exploring the world is one of the greater privileges in life, something you need to take advantage of if given the opportunity. But be smart about your travels, and treat the planet with respect, just as you would if at your home. As long as you leave behind as little of a footprint as possible, the experience is well worth the time!

Posted by Ethan at March 20, 2012 at 8:29pm

When you’re away, instead of laying on the nearest beach all day, go for a hike and see the land! This makes us appreciate the wonders of nature even more. Why ride around in a car looking out the window when you could be walking, getting exercise, and helping the environment. Biking or walking through new cultural and natural environments is an experience especially in a totally unfamiliar place.

Posted by Catherine Cossavella at March 18, 2012 at 5:56pm

As much as flying emits so much into our ecosystem, traveling world wide is well worth it. Admiring the beauty of another’s country and the world can be costly but is well worth it for individuals. Once you have a destination, you do not need to drive or bus everywhere, walking and biking works just as well.

Posted by Dana at March 16, 2012 at 11:29am

Thank you for this great article about traveling! There are so many great tips in here that are useful for anyone who doesn’t want to give up trips that require flying. The points you make about turning off all appliances before leaving home and trying to avoid buying travel size packages are simple things that everyone can do to make a big difference. I also like your idea about finding a hotel that has made a commitment to sustainability. It’s definitely something I will keep in mind next time I travel.

Posted by Kevin Magalhaes at March 15, 2012 at 7:53pm

Great post, as always, Miss Curtis.

Don’t forgot the perks of traveling locally, too, though—whether it’s in your own state, or in one of the many amazing National Parks we have right here in the US! : )

Posted by Jen Steinfeld at February 28, 2012 at 7:47pm

Don’t neglect using that bike in the picture to help decrease carbon footprint. Check out for lots of examples of how to go long distances by bike. You see a lot more of the local culture that way!

Posted by Ann Haebig at January 25, 2012 at 6:38pm

Great article! Minimalists may buy less stuff but we seem to travel more than non-minimalists. Glad to see CNAD taking looking at the impact of our horizon-brightening activities and providing some real solutions!

Posted by Joanna at January 24, 2012 at 4:37pm

I like to travel to destinations which offer trains, trolley’s, bicycles and other easy transit which is eco friendly. Amsterdam is great for bicycling and walking and you can’t beat the trains in the Netherlands for efficiency.

Local farmers markets offer fresh food with no packaging except your cloth bag and are an inexpensive way to sample local produce.

I have wrestled with this issue of travel versus the eco cost recently and agree a changing global perspective can make it worthwhile if you plan carefully.

I also buy clothes locally after I arrive (at thrift stores and local made) then donate most upon heading home back to another thrift. The savings in luggage weight also reduces our carbon footprint while stimulating the local economy.

Posted by Ellen Scott Grable at January 24, 2012 at 2:07pm


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