The Traveler’s Guide to Eco-Friendly Tourism

A lake shaped like the world map in the middle of a forest

While travel has many upsides—mental and physical benefits, opportunities for cultural immersion, and educational enrichment—it also has a significant impact on our planet. Tourism contributes to roughly 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2019 study by Skift, a leading news source for travel executives founded by Rafat Ali, MA’01.

As we venture to places both international and domestic, it’s in our planet’s best interest to keep our carbon footprint in mind.

We asked Bill Bennett, director of IU Travels, and Makayla Bonney, assistant director of Sustain IU, to weigh in on the topic.

“Virtually every country that you could visit has a lower carbon impact per person [compared to] the U.S. What can we learn from traveling abroad? What habits can we then bring home?” Bonney asks.

The following are seven eco-friendly travel habits Bennett and Bonney have adopted over the years.

  1. Pack reusable items
    Bennett, who has visited more than 50 countries, says he always carries a water bottle with a built-in purifier. “It filters out viruses and bacteria from tap water that would otherwise be risky to drink,” he explains. A reusable coffee mug and tote bag are also on Bennett’s zero-waste travel packing list.
  2. Forgo hotel toiletries
    Millions of bars of half-used soap and half-empty bottles of shampoo are discarded by hotels every day. The solution, Bennett says, is to pack your own toiletries in reusable containers. When you arrive at your hotel, set the provided soap and shampoo aside so it’s clear to housekeeping that the items went unused.
  3. Eat, drink, and stay local
    Rather than stay with a hotel chain or eat at the local Subway, try going the mom-and-pop route. “By putting your travel dollars directly into the local economy, your vacation can be a force for good in that community,” Bonney says.
  4. Skip the car rental
    Another way to lower your carbon impact is to travel by foot or bike, says Bonney. Public transportation such as city buses, trolleys, and the subway are other great alternatives to renting a vehicle. Have to order an Uber? Consider using the carpool option—a more planet-conscious choice.
  5. Fly coach
    In 2019, Vox reported that flying first-class has three times the impact on your carbon footprint compared to flying coach. That’s because first-class seats are heavier and often take up more floor space on an aircraft. To put things in perspective, Bonney explains that “a round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly the same amount of carbon per person as six months of driving.” This isn’t meant to deter you from an international getaway, but rather encourage you to find ways to offset the impact of air travel.
  6. Conserve water
    Take shorter showers, turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth, reuse hotel towels—these are all ways to conserve this precious resource, Bennett says.
  7. Wear eco-friendly sunscreen
    When skimming for harmful chemicals on the backs of sunscreen bottles, avoid products with oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3 and BP-3) and octinoxate. These chemicals pose a threat to coral reefs, aquatic life, and water quality. For the same reasons, lotions are recommended over sprays. Aerosol sunscreens end up on the sand, which can have a negative impact on animals who inhabit the beaches. Bennett recommends the reef-safe sunscreens by Badger.

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Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.