It’s becoming routine to think about sustainable decisions a bit more, and there are lots of ways to start when it comes to everyday choices — like cycling to work or switching to a vegan diet. But when you go on holiday — which is thankfully becoming a bit more possible for some of us — it can be tough to keep up a low-carbon lifestyle.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was one of the fast-growing global industries — and its carbon emissions rose rapidly at the same time. Research from 2018 found that the travel industry was accountable for about 8% of global emissions, with flying accounting for about half of those emissions.

At the same time, traveling the world, meeting new people, or learning fascinating things about new cultures is a fulfilling experience you probably don’t want to miss out on — of course, during times when travel restrictions amid COVID-19 are permitting. More to the point, taking breaks and vacations, if you are able to, is vital for our wellbeing.

Luckily, there are ways you can manage to take a holiday without turbo-charging your carbon emissions. As more tourists grow conscious of their environmental impact, more travel operators have designed trips that offer the best of a typical vacation without the giant carbon footprint

With that in mind, here are some of the best ways to make your next holiday good for you and the planet. 

1. Explore train travel in a big way 

Aviation contributes to around 2.4% of global carbon dioxide emissions. When you add in other gases that air travel produces, such as nitrous oxide, and the water vapour trails produced by aircrafts, it actually accounts for 5% of global emissions, according to the BBC.

So one of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to find a way to get to your holiday destination without flying.

It might take longer, but that could be part of the fun. That’s the view of travel expert Susanna Elfors, who, following the success of her Facebook page for the “flygskam” movement — meaning “flight shame” in Swedish — co-founded a train holiday website to help to take the hassle out of booking multiple trains.

She told Global Citizen in 2019: “You can jump off the train and stay in a small village and have that as part of your holiday experience. In planes you just see the clouds going past."

There are lots of holiday companies that offer train-only travel. From the UK you can use the Eurostar to get to Paris or Brussels, then grab an interrail pass for multiple train trips around the continent (it’s especially affordable if you’re under 27). Check out the “Man in Seat 61” blog for more inspiration — an award-winning travel website by global train travel aficionado Mark Smith.

2. Find a place to stay that is run on renewables

Staying in a hotel or holiday home that is run on renewable energy is a great way to cut emissions on your trip and learn more about sustainable technology while you’re there.

British heritage conservation organisation the National Trust, has a list of its rental cottages run by solar or water power, proving older properties can be made energy-efficient. Or you could swap Airbnb for Ecobnb, a website that allows you to browse rental homes all over the world with detailed ratings on how sustainable they are. Glamping on a green-powered organic farm in Tuscany, anyone? Yes please!

Or if you fancy something that looks like a Hobbit house nestled into a Scottish hillside, check out the Earth Ship in Perthshire: it's made from recycled materials and reclaimed items, uses wool for insulation, and sources energy from wind turbines on the working farm on which it is based.

For a more urban setting – look at luxe hotels like the Breeze Hotel in the centre of Amsterdam, which has won awards for innovation and sourcing all its energy from its own renewable systems. It uses sunlight to heat up water for showers, solar panels, and even has a natural air conditioning system using reused water. 

3. Electric cars and bike-friendly destinations

You might find that even if you avoid flights, you might need a car to get to your destination. If so, you might want to consider hiring an electric car, which is a widely available option in Europe and America. While electricity used to power the cars is often produced using fossil fuels, they are still better for emissions overall than driving regular petrol cars.

A study from 2020 predicted that by 2050 every other car on the road in the world would be electric, which would save annual carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to to the size of Russia’s entire annual carbon emissions.

The Ecobnb website helpfully tells you which of its rentals are located near to electric car charging points or if they have one on-site. If you’re in Europe, Norway and France are two countries leading the way in terms of take-up of electric cars and the number of charging points available.

If you’re on a city break — and therefore can probably live without a car — think about cities that make it easy to get around by bike. In the United States, San Francisco, Portland, and Fort Collins in Colorado topped a recent table of bike-friendly cities. In Europe, Utrecht in the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium, and Ljubljana in Slovenia have all been recommended for the number of bike paths they have.

4. Go to lesser-known or local destinations  

Bucket-list attractions and famous beauty spots can suffer from over-tourism, which in turn contributes to air pollution and puts a lot of pressure on local water and food resources in those places.

In Barcelona, the mayor threatened to limit tourism to the city after it was named the most polluted port in Europe in 2019. Meanwhile delicate coral reefs in tropical parts of the world have been damaged by swimmers and boats speeding past

Global travel restrictions brought in to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic helped reveal the true impact of tourism during normal times. For example there were rare sightings of dolphins in Venice canals in April 2020, following strict lockdowns in Italy which had resulted in boat traffic slowing in the normally tourist-overrun city.

However, tourism can be good for the local economy and boost sustainable development efforts when done well — try doing some research and find a place that would really benefit from you visiting there first. Or swap out famous destinations for lesser-known but still beautiful and fascinating alternatives.

Indeed before you even research a far-flung destination there may be amazing places to visit within a few hours from where you live to try first.

5. Learn about nature conservation on holiday

Taking the idea of making your choice of destination count one step further, you could actually use the trip to find more about — and contribute to — conservation efforts that benefit the environment.

For example, the charity WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) has a travel website where you can book adventurous tours that help fund conservation efforts and provide the chance to spot wildlife. The organisation also teams up with local holiday providers, certifying eco-friendly places to stay close to national parks and hiking trails, so visitors can enjoy nature with less impact.

Another option is to camp at a rewilded estate, gaining popularity in places like the UK, where landowners have made an effort to restore nature and reintroduce endangered species or species that have been extinct in the wild in the country, such as beavers and storks.

6. Think about food

Hotel food normally brings all-you-can-eat buffets to mind, which are notoriously wasteful. Although some hotels are thinking about ways to reduce their food waste — from offering smaller portions to eliminating free bread — many still have a long way to go.

Globally, less than half of hotels compost their food waste, and often send it to landfill instead, creating methane gas which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Sustainable World Travel, a nonprofit promoting sustainable tourism.

Another issue is that on popular island holiday spots, like the Maldives, a huge amount of food is imported for tourists. Sustainable World Travel estimates that 80% of food consumed by the tourism industry on pacific islands is imported, generating greenhouse gas emissions to get there.

While travelling, consider a self-catered holiday, and restaurants serving locally-sourced food. And while you might struggle to eat a plant-based diet everywhere, vegan and vegetarian diets are a burgeoning trend, and apps like Happy Cow, which has listings in cities all over the world can show you nearby places serving vegan or vegetarian dishes.

And finally, avoid single-use plastic by bringing a reusable water bottle and coffee cup for when you’re out and about. 

Global Citizen Life

Defend the Planet

6 Top Tips for Going on an Eco-Friendly Holiday

By Helen Lock