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Eco-Friendly Tips for Sustainable Trips

Eleanor Laise, Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report

When teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg traveled to New York by sailboat last summer, it wasn't just younger generations who were with her in spirit. Globetrotters of all ages are looking to minimize the environmental impact of their travels.

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In fact, when it comes to choosing sustainable travel options, baby boomers are leading the way, according to a recent survey by Booking.com. Boomers are more likely than Gen X, Millennials or Gen Z to choose environmentally friendly accommodations and modes of transport when booking trips, the survey found.

Across all generations, but particularly among boomers, there's "a growing awareness about the urgency and impact of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and just in general, unsustainable practices," says Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel.

The result: strong consumer demand for "sustainable" travel, which aims to not only protect the planet but also celebrate the culture of each destination and support the local economy, says Jessica Hall Upchurch, sustainability ambassador for travel-agency network Virtuoso. "It's a balance between all three."

Sustainable travelers may opt to travel by train rather than plane, book hotels that avoid single-use plastics, and select tour operators that engage with local conservation groups. But the choices aren't always clear-cut. As more travel industry players seek to style themselves as "sustainable," it can be tough for consumers to separate the marketing fluff from the serious sustainability initiatives.

"There's a lot of buzz around travelers wanting to travel sustainably and consciously, but they don't know how to do it," says Jessica Blotter, chief executive officer and co-founder of socially conscious hotel booking platform Kind Traveler. "Hotels, tourist boards, airlines, everyone is scrambling to figure out what sustainable travel looks like for them."

The focus on sustainability comes amid growing concern about overtourism. Due in part to a strong economy and cheap air travel, there were 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals worldwide in 2018, up 6% from a year earlier, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. All that coming and going can lead to environmental damage, overcrowding and overdevelopment.

Some in the industry are skeptical that sustainable travel can completely avoid such consequences. "Sustainable is a nice name for it, but I'm not sure any of it is truly sustainable," says Ged Caddick, president and chief executive officer of Terra Incognita Ecotours. "It's more about how you can minimize the impact."

Here are four key steps that can help travelers tread more lightly.

Avoid the Bucket-List Mentality

Yes, many retirees have worked long and hard to cross every destination off their bucket list--but those who want to travel sustainably should avoid a check-the-box approach to destinations. "Some people just want to go to as many places as they can as fast as they can and take pictures and say 'I've been to x, y and z,' " Miller says. That doesn't leave much time to learn about a destination's social and environmental problems or engage with local communities.

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Some tour operators are launching programs that help travelers slow down and delve deep into a destination's environmental issues. Educational travel provider Road Scholar last year launched a series of "Our Changing Planet" programs that investigate how destinations are confronting climate change. Travelers will "meet with local communities and local experts, and there's a service component to every one of these programs," says Betsy Larkin, environmental program project manager at Road Scholar. In the San Juan Islands of Washington state, for example, travelers can learn how climate change is affecting the orca population and participate in a local beach cleanup. The seven-day trip starts at $2,149, excluding airfare.

Ruth Ann Stacy, 72, a retired university administrator in Ellensburg, Wash., recently signed up for a Road Scholar program focused on sustainable farming in Santa Fe. She's also looking to slow down and soak up local culture when she travels independently. On a journey through Portugal and Spain she has planned for this spring, she says, "I could bike, but I'd rather walk. The slower you take in a culture, the more you absorb."

Seek Out Eco-Friendly Accommodations

A variety of eco-labels aim to help travelers choose greener accommodations. Look for sustainability certifications that are recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, such as Green Globe and Travelife, says Rachel McCaffery, senior adviser for responsible travel at tour operator G Adventures.

But "don't dismiss a good place just because it isn't certified with sustainability criteria," Miller says. Many hotels "don't want to get certified, yet are running excellent operations." Rather than relying on a label, he says, travelers can look for evidence that hotels are contributing to environmental and community projects, using renewable energy, sourcing products locally and avoiding food waste.

Eco-focused hotel booking platforms can help narrow your search. At BookDifferent.com, for example, you can rank search results by the greenest choices and view each hotel's carbon footprint and eco-labels.

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Kind Traveler, launched in 2016, adds another twist to the sustainable hotel hunt: In addition to highlighting greener accommodations, the company encourages travelers to positively impact the destinations they visit. Users get access to special rates--typically 10% to 15% off the hotel's best available rate--when they give $10 to a local charity, Blotter says. A user booking the Farmhouse Inn in Sonoma, Calif., for example, might be encouraged to donate to Redwood Empire Food Bank, a local charity that provides meals to people in need. (Users can also choose to donate to any of the charities on the platform, rather than the suggested local charity, Blotter says.)

Choose More Sustainable Tour Operators

When booking a tour, consider whether the operator is minimizing waste, forming partnerships with local conservation groups, and using local providers for restaurants, transport and accommodations--ensuring that the local community benefits from tourism.

Terra Incognita Ecotours, for example, arranges for travelers to meet the staff of a conservation group in each destination, which "adds a level of appreciation and understanding," Caddick says. Many travelers continue to support those groups when the tour is over, he says.

G Adventures is taking numerous steps to become more sustainable. The company is reducing the use of single-use plastics on its tours, and its nonprofit partner, Planeterra Foundation, supports social enterprises in destination communities, McCaffery says. And in 2018, G Adventures launched the "Ripple Score," which shows travelers how much of the money spent on each tour's accommodations, transport, restaurants and other service components stays in the local communities. The company works to improve these scores by using more local services on its tours, McCaffery says.

Go With Greener Modes of Transport

Growth in air travel means that by 2050, aviation could consume about one-fourth of the world's "carbon budget"--the maximum level of carbon dioxide emissions that could keep global temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels, according to a recent analysis by Carbon Brief.

Yet some in the sustainable travel industry say that air travel is still justified. "An educated traveler--someone who has been and seen the issues facing some of these places--is an offset to the environmental costs of traveling," Caddick says. "I hope it creates activists who fight for the protection and preservation of these places as opposed to just going and exploiting them."

That said, there are ways to reduce the environmental impact of flying. "Always try to find direct flights as opposed to a lot of hedge-hopping," Miller says. "That really reduces your greenhouse gas footprint." Staying for a longer period at your destination can also "make travel count," McCaffery says, and reduce the number of flights you take per year.

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Air travelers can purchase carbon offsets, which support emissions-reducing or sustainable-energy projects. Miller recommends carbon-offset programs that are run by nonprofit organizations, such as Cool Effect or CarbonFund.org.

Another option: Stay closer to home and travel by foot, bike, sailboat or electric vehicle. Stacy does a lot of backpacking around her home state of Washington, and "you can't get much more sustainable than that," she says.

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