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Travel the World, Protect the Earth

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Audrey Priscilla, a young traveller and writer, discusses sustainable travel from what she has seen and learnt on her journey through Europe.

Credit: Audrey Priscilla

As a traveller and an eco-warrior, I feel conflicted because I want to see the world but travelling can be very unsustainable. I intend to share with you what I have learnt and how we can become more environmentally mindful in our travel adventures.


After working at a hotel in Tasmania, I met a German friend who I flew to Europe with. I had no plans when I arrived except for a rough idea of what my next two weeks looked like. During my five and a half months of backpacking, this hasn’t changed but regardless of where I am, who I’ve met or what I’m doing, I continue to learn so much about the world, travel and myself. In this article, I hope to give you a general idea of sustainable travel: the why’s, what’s and how’s.


Why should we travel?


A question that is usually left unanswered within the topic of sustainable travel is why should we travel in the first place? For some, this goes without saying but for others, travel can be associated with stress, fear or discomfort. I’m not going to lie, it can be. But, that is life! Life is about experiencing the whole spectrum of emotions. Sure, there may be some downs, some days when you want to be at home in your own bed with familiar faces around you; but the highs you will feel from travelling outweigh the downs every day of the week.


For example, meeting new people, discovering yourself in a new environment, comparing different cultures from your own way of living, breaking the mundane routine with adventure and spontaneity, learning about unique cultural traditions, tasting a food or dish for the first time, seeing Nature like you never have before, gaining independence and resilience as you navigate through challenges and going on life-changing adventures – the ones that you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about one day.


We talk about sustainable travel because I believe travel is not something I can sacrifice. Meat, I can give up. Driving, I can give up. I can even give up hot showers. But, in my opinion, the opportunities that fruit from travelling are too great to let it go. Exploring the world is accessible and possible in the day and age we live in, so we should relish it! However, let’s find ways to do it in order to minimise our environmental footprint! I want there to be a world that our grandchildren can travel around. I want there to be a world worth travelling around. It’s our responsibility to protect the planet so we can make this a possibility.


What are the eco-benefits of travelling?


The Learning Possibilities


While travelling around Europe, I have realised that countries like Australia and the UK have a lot to learn from European environmental policies and attitudes. For example, most countries have four or more bins: food waste, plastic recycling, paper recycling, general waste and/or bottle collection and metal recycling. In Switzerland, there are strict recycling laws that can result in fines.

Credit: Audrey Priscilla

Another aspect of European culture that stuck out to me is their public transport system. Many local friends I met in their 20s and 30s live without a car and bigger families would just have one car or share one with their neighbour. The scale of car sharing in Northern Germany impressed me: there was a whole car park filled with shared cars at the Berlin airport and many are accessible in the streets of Berlin and Hamburg. Most of these cars were electric and drivers could gain credit on their account if they plugged the car into a charging station. These charging stations were at almost every parking lot. Impressive, hey!

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During my travels, I met many people passionate about the environment and I had interesting conversations – learning about different problems or solutions that I’d never heard of. I learnt about revolutionary Finnish politics, termite-infested forests of Sweden due to biome shift and wildfires in Canada. I’ve realised that through travelling, you get to learn about the culture of the country you are in as well as the cultures of all the other travellers you meet. You could stay in a hostel in your own city and become a more global citizen because of it.


Sharing Knowledge and Resources


“Travelling is as much about the places we discover as it is about the people we meet along the way.” (Unknown) As humans, we inspire. Every person has a unique set of passions and interests that can help inspire others. When you travel, you meet a diverse range of people with different thoughts, opinions and hacks. Share your tips along the way to pay the message of environmentalism forward. For example, show some new friends a recipe you can make to reduce food waste or tell them about a particular hostel you stayed in that was eco-friendly. Similarly, ask and listen to advice from other travellers!


As well as meeting people and sharing knowledge, hostels are advantageous as they have communal resources: shared electricity, bathrooms and kitchen facilities. I’ve spent 94 nights in hostels and I always go for the cheapest option which means I stay in 8 bed, 12 bed or even 30 bed dorms. Having 30 people sleeping in one room means that one light is being used over 30 individual lights in 30 rooms. I found the ‘Hostelling International’ chain to be particularly progressive when it came to water and energy conservation. They had signs by the lift saying ‘burn calories not electricity’ and a matrix by the shower explaining how many litres of water is wasted depending on how long your shower is. Hostels consist predominantly of young travellers – a large group of them all in the same place – and I’m pleased to know that many companies are using this platform to raise awareness.

Credit: Audrey Priscilla

Supporting Local Economies


Tourism is a massive, economic sector for many countries and communities. By spending your money in these places, you may be positively impacting their climate resilience and/or putting much needed money into land and wildlife conservation.


Embracing Minimalism


Nothing is as humbling as carrying everything you need to survive on your back. Through travelling, you realise which possessions are essential and which ones are merely clutter. I took a 65L hike pack and a small backpack on my five and a half month trip. I, quickly, got rid of the small backpack and even still felt like I’d overpacked.


All I really need is a pair of jeans, exercise pants, a skirt, 3 t-shirts (one nice, two casual), one jumper, one jacket, undies, socks, one bra, one sports bra, a swimsuit, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, sunscreen, phone, charger, passport, wallet, boots which you will wear and some fancy flip-flops. I use the rubber, one strap Birkenstocks which are multi-purpose for the beach, summer going-out shoes and shower shoes. That’s all! It’s quite liberating to realise this.


For washing, I use a laundromat or for a small wash I hand-wash in a sink and when I’m sick of a piece of clothing I go to a charity store and exchange it for something new (not that the item is new but it’s new to my life!). By exchange, I mean you walk into the shop with the shirt you are sick of, you find another shirt, donate your old shirt and leave the store wearing your purchase. European charity stores blew me away! I basically exchanged my whole wardrobe.


What are the environmental disadvantages of travelling?


Transport


Richard Hammond, on the Zero to Travel podcast, stated that 70-80% of travel emissions come from the flights. Don’t underestimate the carbon emissions of long-haul flight. It can be hard to comprehend the detrimental impact of flying due to their accessibility and affordability in today’s society.


Accommodation and Activities


Accommodation has a negative impact on pollution and carbon emissions. There are lights that are never turned off in the reception, entrances, and hallways, there are inorganic cleaning chemicals used between guests as well as the huge amount of bed linen washed everyday.


From tour buses to skydiving, many tourist activities have high carbon footprints. Even a simple hike through a national park can contribute to erosion and pollution of the landscape. Despite the opportunities of economic growth in Nepal, tourism imposes an array of environmental damage on the Himalayas. These mountains have a low carrying capacity (which means they are not built to support a large number of people) and yet there were over 1 million tourists visiting Nepal in 2019. The constant foot traffic destroys vegetation, undermines soil, which destabilises the fragile ecosystem, making it vulnerable to avalanche and run-off. Clearly, environments like these are not physically capable of supporting the increasing influx of tourists and many governments are too focused on the economic benefits to enforce any environmental laws and regulations.


Food


When travelling from place to place, there isn’t always access to a fridge or storage cupboard which tends to result in eating out or wasting food. Food from supermarkets is always packaged in larger portions than I need as a solo traveller making one or two dinners at a time. For example, if I wanted to buy mayonnaise for a pasta salad I would need to buy 400mL and I would use less than 100mL before I’m on the road again. Of course, I don’t want to throw out ingredients but sometimes I’m left with no choice if they can’t fit in my backpack or if they will go off if they aren’t kept cool. This is why, sometimes eating out can reduce waste since they prepare a perfect portion size for one meal. However, restaurants are one of the highest producers of food waste since they can’t predict what or how much of their dishes customers will order, not to mention restaurants tend to opt for cheaper options, such as imported and inorganic ingredients.


How can we take steps to lessen the environmental harm?


Transport


If you aren’t familiar with the flexitarian diet, refer to this article. Basically, it is an approach to reduce meat consumption without ruling it out of your life completely. You can apply this approach to flights. Try your best to avoid flying but permit yourself to do it if you have to. Europe is very connected with bus, train and ferry connections – as I will explain below – so if you are getting around within Europe, assess these options before jumping on a plane. But of course, travelling between continents by boat would be a long journey and in this case, taking a flight is the best option.


When you must fly, compare plane companies’ emissions. Just like comparing cost, distance and time, you can now compare carbon emissions. Apps like Skyscanner and Google Flights allow you to do this. You can also opt to offset your flight in the checkout, which can range from $2 to $30. Come on, this isn’t a lot of money! However, beware of greenwashing. Some companies’ offset strategies are uncertified and in this case, select NOT to offset your flight and instead donate a small amount of money to an environmental charity like Greenpeace or Conservation International.


In the past few years, Europe has invested a great deal of money into rail infrastructure, implementing more high speed trains, overnight trains and improving accessibility. At any age, I recommended the Interrail/Eurail pass but I highly recommend it for those of you under 26 because of the discounts they offer.


You can choose a range of affordable options for your European journey. The most popular is the 7 travel days within one month and the best priced pass is the 10 travel days within 2 months. Using this pass, you can get any train on a particular travel day so it works out to be approximately 35 euro per travel day. You can also buy a pass with unlimited travel days within a specific time period which allows you to be as spontaneous as you like!


Another, cheaper option is bus: flixbus has the most connections around Europe and most trips under 12 hours are about 25 euro. Unlike most trains, with flixbus you do not need a seat reservation, however, they usually have a longer travel time compared to a train. Either way, travelling overland is an experience in itself. Some of the prettiest views I’ve seen are from the window of a bus! With this way of travel “you’re being a part of the change you’re witnessing rather than just being plopped down somewhere” (Richard Hammond). Other advantages of bus and train travel over flights is that there is no weight restriction, you can be much more spontaneous and you don’t need to arrive 2/3 hours early, wading through border security. Additionally, on train or bus you arrive in the city centre, therefore saving money on taxi or airbus fares. I know Ryanair and EasyJet tickets can be tempting with their quick, low price connections but please consider the environment before pursuing this option.


Accommodation and Activities


I would say, 9 out of 10 times you can find a green alternative to your original plan, whether it be where you stay, what you do or where you choose to eat. In terms of hostels and hotels, look out for 3rd party verification from an eco-label, which reassures you that you are investing in a business committed to protecting the environment. You can also hear about sustainable places on Facebook pages, trip-advisor reviews or word of mouth.

Credit: Audrey Priscilla

When you are travelling around a city, you can choose low impact activities such as a free walking tour, a bike trail with wineries along the way or perhaps buying some local ingredients for a sunset picnic. You can see a lot more on foot than you can in a taxi. When walking the streets of Florence, my friends and I unexpectedly came across the most magnificent church that had no tourist attention. Likewise, you can smell the flowers, peek into shops and hear the sounds of the city that you would miss in a taxi. Another easy swap you can make is to eat at a local restaurant or café with local, seasonal produce rather than a trans-national cooperation like Starbucks or KFC.


Food


How can I reduce food waste on my travels when I’m constantly on the move? I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not easy. For this reason, you’ve got to be strategic. Plan your meals and make a list before going to the supermarket. What I do is I pick one carb (pasta, rice, cous cous, rice noodles) and I plan my meals around that.

For example, if I picked rice, I could make curry one night, fried rice the next night and poké bowl another night. For my veg, I could get a packet of frozen broccoli, cauliflower and carrot. For my protein, a can of chickpeas and tofu. For my seasoning, curry mix sachet and soy sauce. There’s 3 dinners and 3 leftover lunches in 6 ingredients. It’s quite a fun exercise to come up with recipes that maximise each ingredient.


If you need some more help, check out Pick Up Lime’s meals on a budget. They are low cost, easy meals that can help you make the most out of one small shop. Before you head to the shops, check out the free food corner of your hostel. Not all hostels have kitchen facilities but when they do they usually have a labelling system. This means you can take food that other travellers have left behind. If you don’t use up all your ingredients and you can’t take them on the road with you, leave it for someone else to enjoy!


Lastly, I suggest carrying containers as you travel. You can buy rubber, collapsable ones that fold up easily into your bag. I use my thermos all the time, whether it’s storing leftovers in the hostel’s fridge (rather than in a bowl which stinks up the fridge) or to store my food as I travel.

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Slow travel


This new concept called slow travel counters one’s 21st century, preconceived notions of travel in the same way slow fashion counters fast fashion. The speed of life has undeniably accelerated as we’ve been exposed to so many opportunities.

Cruises, for example, can take you around the whole world in one annual leave holiday but how much of each city do you really get to see? Did you sit at a cafe for hours watching the streets and how people behave? Did you speak to the locals about nearby national parks or beaches that you can visit? Did you feel the city? Does taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower and moving on satisfy your purpose for travelling or your Instagram image? I’m not judging anyone, including myself (I can be guilty of it too), I am bringing awareness to this illusion that we seem to have all got caught up in. Let’s all step back and move toward what feels right within our hearts. What does that look like for you?


Do you want to learn how to do Flamenco dancing? Do a lesson or a course while you’re in Spain. Do you want to learn a new language? Move to a city that speaks that language for a month, try out Workaway or other cultural exchange programs. Do you want to investigate why Scandinavian countries are some of the most sustainable? Do an internship with a climate-based company in Denmark.


What’s the take away?


In essence, the most important tools to have for travelling sustainably are awareness and intention. You probably won’t be 100% green the entire trip but as long as you are trying to be most of the time, that’s all that counts! You can expect it to be harder than usual since you don’t have the usual routine that you would at home, however, it can be all the more rewarding too! I mean, you are navigating sustainability in a completely new place with different attitudes, foods and values. Go you! Reflect on what you learnt from the place, the people and from your own experience and try to implement this insight into your life back home. If your country only has two bins, can you compost yourself or separate your waste and take it to a recycling plant? Can you walk, ride or get public transport to work? Can you minimise your material possessions?


About the Author: Audrey Priscilla is an environment enthusiast who has taken a gap year between high school and university. In an unexpected twist of fate, she found herself backpacking through Europe. When she isn’t exploring the rich European culture and history, you could find her writing poetry, hiking in Nature or cooking tasty plant-based food.

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