How to Travel Sustainably on a Budget

A train going through Alaska
Chanokporn Sudthinon / EyeEm / Getty Images

It’s time to rethink travel with a lighter footstep in mind, which is why TripSavvy has partnered with Treehugger, a modern sustainability site that reaches more than 120 million readers each year, to identify the people, places, and things that are leading the charge in eco-friendly travel. Check out the 2021 Best of Green Awards for Sustainable Travel here.

When the term “sustainable tourism” was first beginning to make its rounds around the travel community, somehow the myth arose that sustainable also meant expensive. True, there are plenty of luxe ecotourism lodges spread throughout the world promising environmentally-friendly accommodations and low impact tours, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sustainable travel is all about establishing a balance between the environmental, social, and economic aspects of tourism. That means highlighting local experiences, supporting goals that protect the environment, minimizing waste, expanding economic development in the communities most affected by tourism, and preserving resources.

Contrary to popular belief, sustainable travel doesn’t have to be synonymous with luxury; in fact, traveling sustainably is often cheaper. Supporting your host economy can provide a much more enriching experience and provide long-term employment for locals, while saving ecological resources ensures that more travelers can enjoy them in the future. Plus, sustainable travel approaches can be applied pretty much anywhere, whether you’re traveling across the world or down the street. Here are 10 simple ways to save money and practice sustainable travel.

Opt for Locally-Owned Accommodations

With few exceptions, high-end resorts are almost always more expensive and tend to be more wasteful. Instead, put your money directly into local pockets by booking rooms inside smaller, family-owned accommodations such as B&Bs or even campgrounds. Don’t be afraid to look into hostels, either, which are more likely to be owned by locals and where you’re less likely to be forced to shell out money on expensive resort fees. Just as you should do your research on the safety and quality of a hostel or local accommodation ahead of time, take some time to look into their responsible tourism strategies as well.

Shop at Farmers Markets

Local farmers markets are a sustainable traveler’s dream. In one stop, you’re supporting family farms and the local economy, eating healthier, and often saving money all at the same time. One of the indirect benefits of buying at a farmers market comes in the form of protecting the environment since transporting food over long distances emits more CO2. When you buy your own ingredients at a farmers market to make a couple of meals, you’re saving a ton of money by not eating out.

Choose Public Transportation Over Car Rentals

Car rentals account for some of the largest expenses during a vacation, and airport car rental desk costs are by far the worst. Tack on those hidden fees and insurance costs, and you’re looking at a pretty hefty chunk taken from your travel budget. There are definitely places where renting a car is necessary, but sustainable travelers should always look for pollution-saving opportunities by using public transportation, bike rentals, or walking instead of driving. Another option is to only rent the car for a portion of your trip to save on money, gas, and parking fees. Do some research ahead of time about your destination’s public transportation and how to get around so you’re prepared.

Travel During Shoulder Season

We’ve all heard of high season and low season when it comes to travel destinations, but what about the time in between? Turns out, the shoulder season after the busiest time of year and before the slowest has a lot of hidden perks. A destination’s slow season usually coincides with its worst weather while the busy season brings large crowds and subsequently higher prices to meet demand. Shoulder seasons give travelers the best of both worlds since the weather often hasn’t turned completely and organizations are beginning to offer better deals. Economically speaking, you’ll be saving money while supporting local companies during a less lucrative time of year and not adding to overcrowding or strained resources during busy seasons.

Opt Out of Flying

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air travel accounts for three percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to grow as the tourism industry rebounds and expands. Choose other modes of transportation other than flying when possible, such as trains or buses to get from point A to point B. Especially in places like Europe with well-organized train systems, traveling by rail is almost always cheaper (and much more pleasant) than flying. If you have your heart set on a spot that is only accessible by plane, look into purchasing carbon offsets to reduce emissions in other places. No matter which transport you choose, try to pack as lightly as possible to avoid baggage fees and lighten the load.

Support Natural Conservation Areas

National parks and nature reserves have so many sustainable perks. Apart from offering a low-impact attraction that minimizes negative effects on the environment, admission to natural conservation areas is inexpensive (and many have package deals for yearly passes). By paying the entrance fee, you’re supporting the organization’s conservation efforts and playing a part in its continued protection. For animals, be sure to single out legitimate wildlife sanctuaries that work to rescue, rehabilitate, and release wildlife back into the wild. For zoos and aquariums, check to see if they’re accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Visit Museums

Museums hold an important role in a destination’s heritage and history, so they’re often sponsored by government grants or private donations to help keep admission costs low or free. Adding a museum to your travel itinerary promotes a greater understanding of that destination’s culture and supports local jobs. Similarly, there are a ton of tourism agencies that organize cultural demonstrations for cheap or free, helping to foster cultural preservation and providing support to local performers.

Stay in the Same Place for Longer

Slow travel refers to when visitors take more time in a single destination, rather than hopping from place to place as quickly as possible. The latter option may mean checking more must-see attractions off your bucket list, but it may not be as rewarding of a travel experience. Often, when travelers focus on seeing as much as possible in a short amount of time, it can lead to overtourism and overcrowding in popular tourist destinations. They can end up spending extra money on transportation and end up supporting multinational chain companies to save time. On the other hand, travelers who stay in the same place are more likely to venture outside of the bustling tourist-dense spots and explore smaller locally-owned businesses, reinvesting money back into the community.

Stay Close to Home

Consider sticking closer to home for your next travel adventure, since domestic travel accounts for lower emissions than international. Additionally, international trips are expensive, so much so that we typically spend months or years planning and saving up for them. Instead, visit a nearby small town or a local attraction you’ve always wanted to see; it’s amazing what local treasures we overlook in favor of big international trips. It’s affordable, takes up less time, supports neighboring communities, and won’t require passports or expensive visas. Perhaps best of all, you might just find a new hidden gem.

Don’t Forget Your Reusables 

Any regular traveler will tell you that they’ve been forced to buy a $5 bottle of water at the airport at one point or another. Reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, portable utensils, and fabric tote bags come in handy while shopping or eating out while also saving you from pricey single-use items while traveling. Purchasing a refillable, reusable travel-sized container for cosmetics, beauty products, and bathroom essentials is a great investment for sustainable travelers as well. Plus, you won’t have to spend extra money on those single-use travel-size bottles that contribute to plastic pollution.

Article Sources
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  1. Environmental Protection Agency. "Control of Air Pollution from Airplanes and Airplane Engines: GHG Emission Standards and Test Procedures - Final Ruling." 2020