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How to Travel Sustainably for the Holidays

holiday travel

The world is changing around us. Temperatures are rising, lakes and rivers are drying up and glaciers that have existed for millennia are disappearing. These are just some of the reasons why it’s incumbent to start planning our travels more thoughtfully.

Whether you’re going home to visit family and friends over the holidays or using the season to explore a new corner of the world, you may want to start shifting your travel mindset. Instead of simply choosing what’s quickest and easiest, consider the impact of each step of your journey, from mode of transportation to where you’re staying and even the length of time spent in a specific location.

“Thinking more critically about the act of travel and asking probing questions before leaving home can make travelers more aware of their choices, actions and behavior,” says JoAnna Haugen, founder of Rooted, a platform focused on sustainable tourism, storytelling and social impact.

Travel is part of the joy of the holiday season and exploring the world is tremendously enriching. As you’re planning holiday getaways, here are five ways to start thinking more sustainably.

Think Creatively About Transportation

While booking a flight is often the first choice that springs to mind when considering travel logistics, it’s also the mode of transportation that comes with the most significant impact on the planet in the form of carbon emissions.

“Before taking a flight, consider do you really need to fly? Can you go by other means like electric vehicle, train or bus?” suggests Matt Berna, president, North America for Intrepid Travel, a certified B Corp that has long focused on traveling with purpose. “Carpool with other family members where you can.”

For those who have young children in tow, train travel can add to the fun of the holiday journey. But even for adults, train trips can be more relaxing, eliminating the stress associated with driving, all while helping the planet. Trains “consume less energy and create less emissions on a per-passenger-mile basis than cars, trucks and planes,” according to Amtrak.

If you do plan to drive, renting an electric car is yet another option that can substantially reduce your impact. Or you might choose to rethink where you’re traveling altogether.

“If you can, stay closer to home and aim to avoid flying,” says Impact Travel Alliance’s Founder and Executive Director Kelley Louise.

If you do ultimately choose to fly during the holidays, consider an airline that operates using more eco-friendly biofuels, such as United Airlines or KLM, says Berna.

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Stay and Eat Locally

There’s a growing number of hotels around the country and the world that are building sustainable operations into their business model by sourcing food from local growers, relying on renewable energy sources and implementing composting and recycling programs on premises.

“If you are planning a vacation somewhere – versus visiting a relative – do your research to make sure you are making that trip as sustainable as possible. Stay in locally owned hotels and support restaurants that put a focus on local ingredients,” suggests Sebastian Modak, editor-at-large of Lonely Planet, a noted sustainable travel advocate.

The emphasis on local foods is important because these products don’t have to travel as far to get to your plate, which means reduced carbon emissions. At the same time, you’re supporting local businesses in a meaningful way.

“Understand the impact that your spending can have on local businesses such as dining, accommodations and transport providers,” says Berma. “Support locally-owned diners and hoteliers.”

Pick One Destination and Go Deep

For those who use the holiday season to explore the world, Modak suggests identifying one destination and exploring it well, rather than jetting from one locale to the next.

“Not only will you gain a more profound appreciation for the place and its culture, but you will also minimize your carbon footprint by avoiding short flights and drives as you try and cover as much ground as possible,” explains Modak. “There’s nothing like convincing yourself you live somewhere for just a little bit, and to do that successfully, you need to slow down and spend some quality time there.”

This approach is known as slow travel and it’s an increasingly important approach to protecting the planet as we move into the future. “Take advantage of remote work options if that’s available to you and opt to stay longer in a destination,” says Louise. “This allows you to slow down and experience a destination more like a local.”

holiday travel

Think Outside the Box When Planning Activities

When it comes time to organize family fun, wherever you go, consider the carbon impact of your options.

“Take a long bike ride to the park instead of a short drive.Go kayaking instead of jet skiing,” says Modak. “Better yet, a nature walk, where [you not only] get exercise and engage in a carbon-neutral activity, but you can also incorporate educational moments for the kids and grandkids as you learn about the flora and fauna around you.”

Plant a Tree

For many of us, the holidays are a time of giving gifts small and large to those we love. As you plan your holiday travel consider giving a gift to the planet as well, to help offset your impact.

“Make it a rule of thumb to plant at least a single tree as you return from your trips,” suggests Will Hatton, CEO and founder of Broke Backpacker. “Even planting a single sapling does count among your good habits, creating a better place to reside.”

While you’re at it, why not consider gifting something eco-friendly like tree saplings to loved ones as well? After all, preserving nature is the best gift you can give the planet and future generations.

Book an earth-friendly hotel or rent an EV for your next vacation.

AAA’s sustainable travel series is written in partnership with Kind Traveler, a women-and-veteran-owned sustainable travel platform empowering travelers to make a positive impact in local communities, and contributing writer, Mia Taylor.


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