How to Be a Better Traveler

Travel like you mean it

It’s there, just over the horizon. That first real trip somewhere, anywhere, in a COVID-receding world. After almost a year of enforced hibernation and with vaccines rolling out, we can just about imagine ourselves reaching for that passport. There’s plenty of pent-up demand—a recent survey from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) found that 70 percent of respondents plan to take a trip in 2021 and 99 percent are “eager to travel again.” Travel advisors and members of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council say that bookings and enquiries are way up, too.

But what can we learn from the pandemic? We know what travel can do for relationships; for the mind, body, and soul. We’ve also seen how careless movement, disregarding the needs of the people and places we visit, can leave destinations worse off. How do we travel betterconscientiously, responsibly, sustainably, as AFAR editor in chief Julia Cosgrove puts it? AFAR has believed in travel as a force for good since it started more than a decade ago, and that belief resonates now more than ever.

How can our future roaming improve the lives of the people we meet and the ecosystems they live within? Eric Weiner offered a travel manifesto for AFAR late last year, emphasizing the need to travel selectively, purposefully, slowly, empathetically, and joyfully. Traveling like we mean it is something we can focus on throughout the process, from the booking and planning stage onward, and it can leave us as more informed, empathetic global citizens. —Tim Chester, senior editor, January 2021

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Our 2021 Travel Resolutions

Courtesy of Wisan Panin / Shutterstock

Travel slowly, and with less of an agenda

I tend to over-make resolutions, swept up in a New Year’s zeal for better living. This year, I’d like to narrow the focus to two dovetailing resolutions, a kind of duet I hope will shape future travels. The first is to travel more slowly, for a longer period of time. There were a few years where, in my thirst to see as much as possible, to eat at The Hot New Restaurant, I’d consume places in gulps: a three-day whirlwind weekend in L.A., a 10-day multi-country blitz. These trips were like badges of honors—see how much I can see!—and I convinced myself they were necessary in my role as a travel editor.

Coming out of 2020—the calendar equivalent of getting stuck on the tarmac—I’m eager to get back out there with the new, slower cadence I’ve adopted at home. Instead of 10 days in three countries, why not 10 days in a single region, or even a single city? What might emerge from such attentive travel?

My second, related, resolution was inspired by a (very funny) essay from AFAR contributor Shahnaz Habib about her father's aversion to travel. After years of dutifully checking off the “must-sees,” she decided to adopt her dad’s attitude of skipping the iconic and allowing her interests to drive her trip. “The truth, frightening and liberating, is that nothing in the world is a must-do,” she writes. In 2021, I pledge to follow suit. To release the shoulds and embrace good that comes from humbly, curiously finding your own way. Aislyn Greene, senior editor 

Watch that carbon footprint

I haven’t been on a plane in 18 months, but I’ll be back in the air soon, if only to visit my family in the U.K. That journey alone, from LAX to LHR, will dump some 7,000 lb (or 3,200 kg) of carbon into the atmosphere, according to an online calculator at Terrapass—and after a year that was tied for the hottest ever, that’s harder than ever to ignore.

So I’m pledging to be much more conscious of my carbon footprint during all my travels, whether across the Atlantic or on a weekend getaway. I’m tracking my emissions using the Capture app, which offers several options to offset including tree-planting projects and renewable energy development. (There are others available, including My Climate, Sustainable Travel International, and the newly launched Klima.)

I also signed up for Tomorrow’s Air, a carbon removal collective for travelers that’s affiliated with the Adventure Travel Trade Association in partnership with Climeworks. It costs me $28 a month to clean up 255 kg of carbon a year. What Climeworks does is kind of magic; it literally sucks carbon out of the air and gets rid of it. As Christina Beckmann, founder of Tomorrow’s Air, told me in December, “Conventional carbon offsets do not address the trillions of tons of excess carbon stored in our atmosphere that need to be cleaned up quickly if we are to keep the level of global warming below 1.5 degrees. For that, we need carbon removals which scrub carbon directly from the atmosphere and can store it permanently.”

Beyond that, I plan to choose airlines that have the most proactive approach to carbon offsets and tour companies like Intrepid Travel, which announced it was working toward becoming climate positive last summer. With the right choices and investments, hopefully I’ll become a climate positive traveler myself. —Tim Chester, senior editor

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Shop local—and tip aggressively

I’ll admit: I’m an Amazon Primer. My husband used to work for Amazon so it’s long been the “family business.” But following this holiday season, and after witnessing the debilitating effects of COVID on the businesses in my Brooklyn neighborhood and the U.S. towns we passed through in 2020, I’m now fully committed to shopping local. My 2021 resolution, in addition to shopping small, is to spend money with greater awareness.

I want to know how a company treats its employees; if a hotel gives back to its community; that a restaurant sources its food sustainably when it can. I want to tip 50 percent on my daily coffee (because I can, thankfully) at the nearby café, where the baristas are like friends. May we all find ways to lift each other up and keep neighborhoods around the world complex, colorful, and full of soul. Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director

Seek out new guides to better understand a place

In a conversation with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton last year, he told me he doesn’t believe we will travel again as we had been. We shouldn’t. We should ask more questions, both of ourselves and of the places we’re visiting. “Just traveling to see the world is not enough,” he said. “But to travel to become changed by the world? That’s everything we need.” It is a fitting resolution for 2021. And for me, it will start closer to my current home.

Growing up in Germany, Indonesia, and Japan, I never did much traveling in the United States. Prepandemic, as an adult who has lived in New York City for nearly a decade, I jetted outside North American borders the first chance I got: Singapore, Slovenia, St. Kitts. I lived in the United States. I knew it. Why would I want to vacation there? But this summer, on a drive with my brother from the East Coast to my parents’ cabin in Minnesota, I saw the potential of all I’d been missing; yes, this country.

In 2021, I want to see more of the U.S., whose real history I don’t know as well as I want to. (As Cherokee writer Rebecca Nagle noted for AFAR in February 2020, “If you are traveling in the United States, you are on Native land.”) I don’t believe this learning is something I can best do alone, nor am I naïve enough to think there will be all beauty and no bumps. But truly seeing a place requires responsibility—and to act accordingly, with intent and mindfulness. For this reason, I’m turning to teachers: the first people on this land, who are stewards of its natural beauty, history, and culture. Luckily for me, opportunities to learn from Indigenous voices abound—I need only seek them out. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

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Spend quality time with loved ones

Before COVID I'd go out of my way to go on one big solo trip a year—10 days in the Republic of Georgia, a week in Paris—so I could do whatever I wanted whenever I felt like it. After spending most of 2020 (and now 2021) alone, I can say that I look forward to traveling with my friends and family again and will have so much more patience to go along with the group. I realize now what a privilege it is to be in their physical presence.

Rather than focusing on experiencing new destinations, eating at new restaurants, or exploring museums I've never been to, all I care about is spending quality time with my loved ones after a long year apart. A few of my group text chains already are plotting out which large Airbnbs we can rent once we're all vaccinated so we can spend some IRL face time together. My friends in New York are eyeing cabins in the Hudson River Valley, while another group might book this New Orleans converted firehouse that made it onto Airbnb's list of the most wish-listed properties in the U.S. Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor

Be able to laugh at travel’s inconveniences

To be a better traveler in the future, I pledge:

-To not sigh dramatically when someone ahead of me in line is so absorbed in their smartphone, they fail to notice it’s their turn to remove their lace-up shoes

-To ignore armrest hogs and be grateful that contact with a stranger’s elbow does not involve transmission of a deadly disease

-To not complain when my bag ends up in Kuala Lumpur while I land in Dublin

-To smile even if I’m sitting in the middle of the back row, next to the toilets, holding my winter coat in my lap because the overhead bins are full

I so pledge because travel is a privilege, not a right. And if I keep my pledge as faithfully as I have kept New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be cranky before I even reach the airport. —Pat Tompkins, digital copy editor

10 Golden Rules of Travel

Courtesy of Sean Xu / Shutterstock

Rules to live by

Back in October, Laura Dannen Redman hosted a WRLDCTY panel on “How Travelers Can Help Remake Cities Post-COVID,” joined by AFAR cofounder Joe Diaz; Elizabeth Becker, an award-winning former New York Times reporter and author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism; and Ruzwana Bashir, CEO and founder of Peek.com, a $50M experiences booking site.

In the course of the conversation, the panelists rattled off 10 very actionable ways to be better travelers—we like to think of them as our new “golden rules.” In no particular order...

1. Be (better) prepared

Sometimes it’s fun to show up at a new destination with zero knowledge or research (our whole Spin the Globe series was made on the premise of visiting places without preconceptions). Generally speaking, it’s better to do a little legwork before getting on the plane or train. Read a book. Read two books. Fiction or nonfiction. Get educated in the culture, history, and language of a place before you go. It’ll pay off, we promise.

2. Make a friend

The best trips usually involve connections to locals; however fleeting, those chance encounters give you deeper insight into a place than any plaque or guidebook. And there are lots of ways to meet people on your travels.

In Tokyo you can rent a friend. Many hotels have programs that foster great connections to the local community. We profiled half a dozen in 2020, in Tanzania, Chile, Mauritius, Oman, Mongolia, and Hawaii. The Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection, has a resident kahu hanai, or knowledge keeper, who leads a team of locals bringing Hawaiian culture alive for guests.

You can also make connections before you depart. Dive into local forums and social media sites like LinkedIn to introduce yourself before you go. And always talk to the taxi driver.

3. Learn the language

Of course it helps if you can communicate. The basic pleasantries and gesticulations are a good starting point—a teşekkür ederim for that Turkish coffee—but possession of a dozen extra phrases beyond can unlock real conversations and more mutual understanding. Don’t stress over getting it just right; pidgin is as good as perfect (and often funnier for both sides).

4. Show respect

Adhering to rules and respective local customs is second nature to AFARians, but in the lingering age of COVID, there’s even more to consider. Mask mandates, social distancing, and lashings of hand sanitizer all help keep you and your hosts safe. Taking a moment to consider the health of the locals, their economy, and their environment is an excellent habit we can all continue once things stabilize.

5. Travel closer to home

If the pandemic taught us anything about travel, it’s that there’s a wealth of opportunities closer to home. Save on time, expenses, and carbon emissions by narrowing your radius. Try that Greek restaurant you’ve always driven by. Make for the mountain town that’s an hour off a well-trod route. Get a taste of Europe across the U.S., with Cape Cod standing in for Cornwall and Sonoma scratching that Gallic itch, or visit one of our favorite lesser-known cities across America, including Buffalo, New York, and Kentucky’s Bowling Green.

6. Make every flight count

Flygskam was causing people to #StayOnTheGround long before the pandemic forced us all off airplanes. Will our knowledge of the dent in emissions that a reduction in flying can bring, and our newfound appreciation of road trips, lead to fewer, more meaningful flights? Here’s hoping.

7. Go off season

It’s hard to imagine after a year of shuttered shops, empty streets, and a cleaner, quieter Venice, but it wasn’t that long ago that overtourism was the biggest problem facing the travel industry. As well as eschewing tourist traps for lesser-known spots, we’re looking forward to visiting places during the off season: those shoulder-season months postsummer; during the  January lull; just after Easter; and outside school holidays. We’re talking Iceland in December, Spain just after New Year’s Day, and ski resorts between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

8. Shop local

That local businesses have suffered during lockdowns and a dearth of travel is an understatement. While we’re waiting to get back out there, many small businesses are offering their wares for delivery online and on Etsy. In the future, let’s consider setting aside a shopping budget on our trips, to bring home hyper-local souvenirs while diverting funds to the makers, artisans, and entrepreneurs who need them.

9. Tip aggressively

Another essential for the travel budget where you can afford it. Hospitality staff everywhere have endured almost a year of uncertainty, worry, furloughs, and change. So let’s give generously—to the coffee shop barista, the restaurant waiter, hotel staff, drivers—wherever we interact with people who make our travel experiences better.

10. Pursue values-led travel

From the booking stage to the last shopping trip before the flight home, let’s ask ourselves if our presence, our money, and our attention are having a positive impact on the place we’re visiting. Does our chosen tour company invest in local community projects? How sustainable is their operation? Is that ocean dive operator working to protect the reefs it’s visiting? There are myriad ways travel can sustain local communities and wildlife—and as travelers we “vote” with our dollars.

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