email a friend iconprinter friendly iconUltimate Guide to Sustainable Travel
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1. Pack Your Environmental Ethic

A 2007 survey commissioned by ELEMENT Hotels—an eco-friendly, extended-stay brand that Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide launched in early 2008—found that most people ignore their normal environmental habits when traveling, including turning off lights and using less water.

According to the telephone survey of 1,041 travelers conducted by the research firm STUDYLOGIC, 60 percent reported that they are more likely to leave the light on when they leave a hotel room compared to when they leave home. And while 70 percent say that they attempt to conserve water at home "as much as possible," less than 20 percent practice water conservation when traveling.

"Why?" asks Catherine A. Wilt, director of policy with the University of Tennessee's Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, "Maybe because there is no financial impact for using the seemingly unending hot water, or because those little bottles of shampoo can be so enticing."

When traveling, Wilt says, remember to walk your talk, no matter where you are staying. She adds, "Come on, how many of us wash sheets and towels after one use at home? Be mindful of the global impacts of resource use, and avail yourself of the local hotel or community environmental programs."

2. Unplug Your Home or Office

Responsible traveling begins at home. Before you head out, unplug any appliance that won't be in use while you're away such as computers, chargers, televisions, video game players, and microwaves.

"As much as 10 percent of the electricity used in your home is wasted energy burned by adaptors, chargers, computers, and other appliances that we leave plugged in when we're not using them," says Thomas Kostigen, co-author of The Green Book (2007). "When we do that across the planet, you start to see how much of an effect that has on energy consumption."

According to Kostigen's research published in The Green Book, if every U.S. household unplugged cell phone chargers and computers when not in use, "collectively we'd save $100 million—enough to provide free health care to every low-income child under the age of five in the state of California."

For more simple ways to save energy in your home or office (whether you're there or not), visit

3. Go Paperless

Use online resources to plan and book your trip, and then, when necessary, print out maps and other materials at home on recycled paper.

"Heading straight for the e-ticket is such a no-brainer these days," says Kostigen. "Taking that one simple step saves paper, saves waste, saves the airlines money, and allows you to go straight to the security checkpoint without a lot of hassle."

For many travelers, e-tickets soon may be the only option. As of June 1, 2008, all the tickets issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents over 230 airlines and comprises more than 90 percent of international scheduled air traffic, will be electronic. According to the IATA, the switch to total e-ticketing will save the equivalent of 50,000 mature trees each year or about three square miles (five square kilometers) of forest.

4. Consider Dates Carefully

Traveling to some destinations during the market-induced high season can increase your overall negative impact, so planning a month earlier or later can be beneficial. However, an off season can also provide "just enough time for a destination area to rejuvenate itself" reminds Stuart Cottrell, professor of natural resources and tourism at Colorado State University.

To lessen the negative impact of your travels—and help ensure the optimum positive impact—thoroughly research your destination before you book. Online and print travel resources such as National Geographic Traveler Online, National Geographic Traveler guidebooks, and the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet series highlight sustainable places, helping you determine when and where to visit.

5. Visit During a Festival

Scheduling trips in conjunction with vibrant, local celebrations provides a window into the culture and helps support traditional crafts and customs.

"By attending authentic festivals, travelers support the living culture because they spend money on food, lodging, and possibly locally made crafts," says Jim Kane, founder of Culture Xplorers, an immersive cultural adventure tour firm focused on the people and living traditions of Latin America. "The challenge for visitors is to support the culture without inadvertently trampling it by being there."

To illustrate, Kane points to a Peruvian festival called the Virgin of Carmen, which celebrates ancient traditions and attracts international visitors.

"During this festival, I've seen well-intentioned travelers who juggle fire in the main square or find other ways to participate that have nothing to do with the intent of this festival," says Kane. "Unwittingly, perhaps, they are putting their imprint on this authentic tradition and changing the event and the culture in a negative way."

The key to supporting festivals without creating a negative impact is education, says Kane. Before you travel, research the history and traditions of the festival and the area you will be visiting. Resources such as National Geographic Traveler's Places of a Lifetime series offer quick insider information on local festivals, cultural norms, and other suggestions designed to lessen your impact on a culture when traveling.

6. Sign the "Responsible Traveler" Pledge

Sign the Friends of World Heritage online Responsible Travel Pledge, and help preserve the natural and cultural attributes that make places you visit unique.

"Often times the best souvenirs are the things we leave behind," says Erika Harms, executive director of Sustainable Development at the United Nations Foundation. "When traveling to fragile and irreplaceable places such as the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the American Grand Canyon, it's important that visitors take steps to lighten their ecological footprint. By signing the Responsible Traveler Pledge, travelers can take small but important steps to preserve areas like the more than 850 places that the international community has recognized as World Heritage sites, and help ensure that these natural and cultural treasures remain for generations to come."

The Responsible Travel Pledge challenges travelers to incorporate three basic tenets when planning a trip and when traveling to a World Heritage site:

1. Discover the natural and cultural beauty of World Heritage sites by learning about the history, customs, folklore, and biodiversity that make them so special.

2. Share their commitment to these sites with hotels, tour operators, and other travel-related entities.

3. Preserve the natural and cultural values of World Heritage sites by following designated trails, respecting local rules and customs, and not removing archaeological or biological treasures.

Visit Friends of World Heritage to learn more about World Heritage sites and to sign the Responsible Traveler Pledge.

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