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The 9 Most Environmentally Harmful Things about Travel—and What to Do Instead

One of the greatest things about travel is getting to see the planet; unfortunately, there are some aspects of travel that can harm the very thing we’re going out to explore. Carbon emissions, animal exploitation, water waste—there are a lot of eco-unfriendly factors that you could be contributing to without even realizing it. Here are nine common travel eco blunders…and how to fix them so that you really do only leave footprints behind.

1. Buying Travel-Sized Toiletries
Yes, we know they’re convenient, but those little pre-packaged travel-sized bottles of shampoo and moisturizer add up to a lot of unnecessary packaging. Ideally, all those bottles are getting recycled; but unfortunately, that’s often not the case. In destinations where recycling options aren’t easily accessible, they’re likely to get tossed in the trash once they’re empty. A better option is to invest in re-usable travel bottles that you can fill up with your favorite products every time you go on a trip. Not only will you cut down on plastic waste, but you’ll also save some cash, too—those mini bottles can add up to not-so-mini prices over time.

2. Drinking Bottled Water
Drinking tap water is simply not an option for many travelers. Filtration systems might not be up to the standards your body is used to at home, or local water might not be filtered at all—causing those dreaded tummy issues that no one wants to experience. But all those used water bottles have a significant environmental impact. For one, bottles often end up in landfills rather than in recycling plants—and once they’re there, they’re staying. The plastic in water bottles can take hundreds of years to decompose and, in the meantime, break down into toxic-absorbing fragments. Not to mention all the fuel that’s used from bottling and transporting that water. Instead of relying on plastic bottles, travel with a portable filter and re-usable bottle combo, which can purify your water wherever you go.

3. Taking Taxis Everywhere
No question, public transportation is the clear winner when it comes to reducing emissions. But when we’re in a foreign city, it’s often easier to just jump in a taxi rather than trying to navigate the public transit system—especially when you’re disoriented and dragging luggage after a long flight. But once you’ve settled in to a place, make the most of the public transit system rather than taking cabs all over the city. Not only will you be doing the environment a favor, but you’ll also get a more authentic experience of local life. And even if you do get lost while trying to read a bus map or manage the metro, well, sometimes that just leads to new adventures!

4. Sending Hotel Linens through the Wash
Here’s the thing: unless you specify otherwise, the default for most hotels is to wash your linens and towels every day. Think of how many rooms are in a single hotel, then how many hotels are around the world, and you’ve got a lot of water waste from unnecessary washing. Thankfully, many hotels have put policies in place to reduce the amount of laundry going through their system; generally, hanging a towel back on the rack means that you plan to re-use it. As well, there may be a card provided for you to leave out if you’d like your sheets to be changed. If you’re not sure, ask at the front desk about washing policies. Or, if in doubt, you could always just leave up your “Do Not Disturb” sign—sure, it means your room won’t be scrubbed down that afternoon, but are you really such a messy guest that you need a daily sweep?

5. Navigating with Paper Maps
We admit this is tough, because we love nothing more than a gorgeous map. But let’s face it, a lot of those paper maps and flyers you pick up from tourism offices and hotel desks are basic, not to scale, and cluttered with ads. And then, once you’ve toured the city or learned your way around, the map gets chucked into the bin. Opt for a digital map instead that you can access on your phone. Many travel apps, and even Google Maps, can be downloaded for offline use, so you won’t need to worry about finding wifi. (Ahem, not to brag, but we’ve got a few you could use!) And don’t forget that a digital map means you’ll look less like a tourist—looking up directions to your hostel will just look like you’re just checking Facebook.

6. Visiting Zoos and Aquariums with Questionable Practices
Not all animal parks are bad. There are sanctuaries for animals that can’t survive on their own in the wild and reserves that help to preserve endangered populations. But there are also plenty of parks and zoos with some pretty uncool practices, including poaching animals from their environments and mistreating them once they’re in captivity. Before you head out to see the animals, make sure it’s a park that supports wildlife preservation and protection. As well, watch for signs of animal neglect or abuse. Some of the top offenders: parks that let you pet and cuddle with tigers or lions (typically, these animals have been drugged into submission), elephant rides (not only are the elephants often shackled when not performing, but the number of elephants being poached from the wild has increased to fuel tourism demand), and orca or dolphin shows (tanks are often too small and conditions inappropriate for housing marine life).

7. Buying Bad Souvenirs
Souvenirs are great. Buy one for yourself and you’ve got a reminder of all the fun you had on a trip; buy them for a loved one, and they have a symbol that you were thinking about them while you were away. But souvenir shopping can be surprisingly risky if you don’t pay attention to what you’re buying. It’s not uncommon to find souvenirs made from illegal or endangered materials such as ivory, coral, animal skin or bone, or archaeological artifacts. In some cases, these factors may even be part of the upsell: You can buy something exotic and rare that no one at home will ever have. As pretty as the piece may be, don’t do it—you’ll be sending a message to poachers and thieves to continue robbing nature for the almighty tourist dollar.

8. Not Knowing Who You’re Travelling With
If you’re booking an organized tour, do some research before you book. Does the company you’re travelling with have responsible tourism practices? Do they have policies in place to ensure that your participation won’t harm the environment or culture around you? With so many operators out there offering everything from snorkeling excursions to safaris, it can be easy to just book the first tour that crosses your path. But remember that not all tours are created equal, and there are plenty of sketchy operators out there ready to jump on tourism dollars no matter the ethical or environmental cost. Find a company whose beliefs you support, so your trip of a lifetime won’t reduce a destination’s lifespan.

9. Flying
Okay, so there’s no way around this one. If you’re traveling and don’t have months free to do a land-sea journey, you’re going to have to head to the skies. The problem is that air travel releases a huge amount of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. While there’s no way to avoid producing emissions on your flight, you can pay it back to the planet through carbon offsetting. There are several organizations that will help you calculate how much CO2 you’ve released, and will translate that into an equivalent dollar donation. Proceeds from these programs go to various environmental protection efforts—anything from forest restoration projects to recycling programs. Several airlines have partnered with carbon offsetting organizations; if you don’t want to seek out an organization on your own, check with your airline whether you can donate directly through them.

Tammy Burns is a Toronto-based writer, editor, traveller, magazine lover, craft beer taster, and armchair Everest expert. She is the content marketing specialist for Urban Adventures.

Photo by Kenny Louie/Flickr