8 Easy Sustainable Travel Tips For Families

October 22, 2020

As a family of travel lovers, we’re always looking for ways we can travel more sustainably. I like seeking out sustainable travel tips, and also sharing with others the tips I’ve picked up along the way.

The world is now more globally connected than ever. And as destinations slowly begin to open up, with safety protocols and socially distancing in place, it’s a good time to think about how we can adjust our travel practices in a more sustainable way. As more families travel, it becomes increasingly important for them to travel in a way that allows future generations to travel as well.

Our travels through North America, Central America, Europe, and Asia these last few years have shown us so many sustainable tourism examples. We’ve changed the way we plan our travels, the items we pack, and the activities that we do to be more sustainably-minded when we travel. And now we want to share our sustainable travel tips to help other families do the same.

This post was updated on June 30, 2021.

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Walking past a mural in Hanoi, Vietnam (March 2020)

What is sustainable travel?

What exactly is sustainable and responsible tourism? At its most basic, sustainable travel is traveling in a way that helps preserve the environment and cultures for the future. For travelers, this means making as minimal an impact as possible on the places we visit. This also means doing activities that focus on supporting the local economy and preserving local traditions and customs.

In the last few years, we’ve been trying to put this travel philosophy into practice. We’re not always successful at it. But the thing about sustainable travel is that there’s not always a clear cut answer. Some locally run businesses are unfortunately not that good at being environmentally friendly. Or you could be taking a cultural tour, only to find out that it’s owned and operated by foreigners. 

There is a lot of gray area in trying to travel responsibly, and many of the articles sharing sustainable travel tips forget to mention that. At the end of the day, we all do what we can to make sure that the things we do as travelers today can still be enjoyed by future travelers tomorrow.

Catamaran boats on a beach in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, part of a locally run tour to help travelers practice sustainable travel tips
Boats in Puerto Princesa, Philippines (February 2020)

Why families should aim for sustainable travel

For families, traveling sustainably is even more important. Since we are raising future travelers, we can instill in them good habits for the future. We really can have an impact on the future of travel!

Family travel is a multi-billion dollar industry, just in the United States alone! According to U.S. Census estimates, 34 million families reside in the United States. Travel research estimates that families spend on average $4,000-5,000 a year on travel. When you calculate the total of travel spending by American families, that amounts to $136-170 billion. Imagine the impact you can make on host-country businesses!

Sustainable travel with your kids requires a shift in thinking about travel. It’s about viewing travel as a learning experience rather than simply as an escape. Whether you're taking a vacation to a resort like Disneyland or backing through ancient cities in Europe, you can make any trip enriching.

By traveling, we allow our kids to learn about different cultures and about their impact in the world. And by sharing our sustainable travel tips with them, we are giving them the tools to make travel more meaningful for them.

Learn more about how families can incorporate more learning opportunities into their travels here.

Learning about traditional farming in Indonesia (October 2019)

Sustainable travel tips for families

The good thing is, getting started on sustainable travel isn’t too hard. I’ve offered several sustainable tourism examples in past posts. In fact, it’s actually easy to change just a few of your travel habits and have a more positive impact on the world. Here are some of the basic sustainable travel tips you can start doing today.

A man and boy walking along a wall in an alley in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, practicing sustainable travel tips
Walking through an alley in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (August 2019)

1. Be mindful of your carbon footprint

Air travel is a big producer of CO2 emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector makes up 28% of the country’s greenhouse gases.

One of my sustainable travel tips for long distance travel is to think about what method of travel is the most energy efficient, rather than just what’s easiest or cheapest. And factor that into what you think is best for your family. (For example, a 16 hour train ride may not be suitable for a child who gets overstimulated easily, compared to a three hour plane ride, even if the train is the more environmentally friendly option.)

A way to minimize your carbon footprint is by offsetting it. Jet-set Offset is a company that allows you to donate one cent to an environmentally-focused nonprofit for every mile you travel. While it will add up for families doing overseas trips, it is a simple way for traveling families to be more mindful of the miles they’re building up when they travel.

If you're curious about more things you can do beyond buying carbon credits, read this post: Responsible Travel Tips For Families (Beyond Carbon Credits And Voluntourism)

Riding a ferry boat to the island of Lombok in Indonesia (November 2019)

2. Choose local businesses over chains

When possible, support the local economy of the places you visit. This is one of my most important sustainable travel tips. Eat at locally owned restaurants. And find locally owned accommodations, rather than staying at a Marriott or a Hilton. Or if you must stay at a chain, use the dollar equivalent of the points you would have earned to support a local business.

When we travel, we like to seek out locally owned business. In 2019, when we were driving through France, for example, we made an intentional effort to visit small towns and support locally owned businesses.

Whether it’s for lodging, food, transportation, or activities, spending our tourism dollars on companies owned by people who live and come from the destinations we visit helps make tourism a more sustainable industry in that destination. And it makes for a more local connection too! 

Dive deeper into the topic of responsible travel for families here.

horseback riding in mexico
Riding horses with a local company in Mexico (December 2018)

Ready for a change? Take the first step to living a life of full time travel.

3. Sustainable travel tips to reduce your reliance on single-use plastic

Humans rely on plastic so much. We use it to carry our groceries, we use it to eat, and we use it to drink. We even use it to store our stuff. And during travel, we often don’t think twice about using a plastic bag to carry our souvenirs, or purchasing a plastic bottle of water from the store.

While plastic is useful in many ways, it can do much harm to the environment. During our Amed Bali snorkeling excursions, we swam through bunches of plastic trash, floating above the coral. Plastic straws often get caught in sea animals’ stomachs, prohibiting them from eating or getting proper nutrients. And not all plastics are biodegradable, which means they will stay in the environment longer.

When possible, try to limit your reliance on single-use plastic. Instead of buying bottled water, purchase a GRAYL bottle that lets you filter and purify your water wherever you go. Additionally, bring reusable straws so that you don’t have to use plastic straws. We like carrying stainless steel straws when we travel.

There are a number of eco friendly travel products you can buy these days that don't use plastic. And many of them are quite affordable.

A green reusable plastic water bottle (an example of sustainable travel tips) sitting on rocks, with a Mexican pyramid in the background
Using our GRAYL bottle in Mexico (November 2018)

4. Spread your tourism dollars

The travel and tourism industry supports many destinations around the world. But the economic benefits are not always evenly distributed. While destinations like Bali in Indonesia, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, or Venice in Italy often get attention and love from tourists, other destinations in those countries are largely ignored.

What travelers often forget is that there is more to a country than just its most popular destination. Rather than spending all your time in Bali, why not take a boat to another island like Lombok or Flores? When visiting Italy, explore the charm of a city like Parma instead of Venice. And for travelers to Mexico, venture out to other cities, like Puerto Escondido, Guadalajara, or Guanajuato.

Spreading your tourism dollars when you travel helps to prevent both over-tourism to popular destinations and under-tourism to lesser known destinations. It also exposes you to a different part of the culture. And it gives you a more rounded view of that country.

Take a look at this kid-friendly Italy itinerary for an example of how to spread your tourism dollars throughout a country.

Learning about food culture in Parma, Italy (June 2019)

5. Sustainable travel tips for slowing down your travels

Something I’ve learned from this pandemic is the importance of slow travel. Traveling quickly from destination to destination is not only a good way to burn through cash, it’s also a good way to spread illnesses. Additionally, fast travel uses more natural resources (think of all the carbon emissions!) and hinders you from really getting to know a destination.

One of the sustainable travel tips I like to offer to families is to slow down. With many families working and schooling remotely these days, it’s not so hard to embrace slow tourism.

Rather than cramming everything into a two week vacation, extend your travel to a month or so. Rent a vacation rental, or better yet, try house sitting with your kids. Find ways to work and school from home, and enjoy the destination on your off-work and off-school days.  

Children walking through Guanajuato, Mexico, experiencing local culture and practice sustainable travel tips
Exploring Guanajuato, Mexico for a month (December 2018)

6. Sustainable travel tips for packing your bags

When it comes to packing for travel, many of my sustainable travel tips revolve around reducing our use on disposable items or plastic. Since masks are an essential travel item these days, we like to use reusable and washable masks, rather than disposable ones.

We also like to bring along foldable tote bags to carry groceries, and drawstring backpacks for our laundry. We throw the tote bag into our day bag, so when we buy something while we’re out and about, we can pull it out instead of using a plastic bag from the store.

Other things we like to use for packing are packing cubes, as well as zipper pouches for carrying clothes and small items. Using packing cubes for family travel helps us keep our clothes organized. And the zipper pouches are a more sustainable alternative to resealable plastic bags.

Read here to see what other must-have travel items you need for traveling with kids.

Carrying our laundry in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (November 2018)

7. Be mindful of where you visit

When possible, choose places that are closer to home. Or if you’re traveling full time, choose destinations that are close to your current location. This decreases your environmental impact and also allows you to support local communities.

Additionally, take some time to learn about the history of the places you visit. As worldschoolers, we like utilizing a world cultures curriculum to supplement our travel experiences. When we travel, we read history books about the places we visit, or we’ll watch videos on YouTube.

Traveling sustainably means being mindful of where you visit. That means understanding the history and context of the destinations you travel to. And it means being respectful the environment, like at Arches National Park or Komodo National Park. It also means understanding what impact traveling to that destination may have on the environment. We love how countries like Costa Rica really focus on sustainability in all their tourism activities.

We also like sites like Deliberate Travel Kids, which provides engaging informational content about countries around the world. These resources allow us to understand better why places are the way they are, and how the cultures have evolved over time.

Children walking through a museum in Costa Rica and learning about Costa Rican history, an example of sustainable travel tips
Learning about the history of Costa Rica (March 2019)

8. Choose your activities wisely

My final section of sustainable travel tips relates to the activities we do when we travel. One of the things we love about travel is the opportunity to try new and exciting things. But as we’re planning these activities, it’s important to do some research beforehand. We want to make sure the company we use and the activities we do are sustainable and responsible.

Research the companies that you’re using, and make sure they are locally owned or that they support the local community. Learn about their environmental and employment practices, to ensure they’re not harming the environment or mistreating their employees.

If you plan to do any volunteering during your travels, avoid activities that would disrupt the local economy, undercut local jobs, or create dependency. Voluntourism is big business these days, and it can sometimes cause more harm than good. Pippa Biddle has a great book about the voluntourism industry called, Ours to Explore.

Similarly, if you’re doing animal activities, make sure you’re viewing animals in the wild, and with minimal physical contact. We had some amazing experiences while we were in Mexico swimming with wild dolphins. It was a much more humane experience than swimming with captive dolphins.

Read more about how to practice sustainable travel with your family.

Dolphins swimming in the wild, an example of sustainable travel tips
Dolphins during an excursion in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (April 2019)

Remembering these sustainable travel tips for your next vacation

The global pandemic has brought a reckoning to the world of travel. When COVID-19 hit, the world collectively stopped traveling, and that pause gave us a moment to reflect on how we have been traveling in the past. In June 2021, Booking.com released a sustainable travel report showing excess waste, threats to wildlife and habitats, and overcrowding of destinations as the top concerns of travelers.

Now, as the world begins to open up, and families start making plans to travel in the coming year, it’s an opportunity to change the way we travel, and use travel as a force for good.

As you’re planning your next trip, remember these sustainable travel tips, and try to incorporate them as best you can. Remember, as families, we’re raising the next generation of travelers. We really do have the power to make travel better!

How are you incorporating sustainable travel into your family travels? What sustainable travel tips do you have to share? Put them in the comments!

Eight Easy Sustainable Travel Tips For Families | The Wandering Daughter

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