In this post, I look at alternatives and ideas for more sustainable travel.
In just under a year of travelling, I have been able to see so many wonderful places, get to know new cultures, meet super dear people, make new friends and experience so many new and spectacular things. In short, I have seen how wonderful the world is and also how important travelling is: on the one hand for personal development, because travelling teaches you so much about the world, about empathy and openness to the world. On the other hand, above all, for intercultural exchange and international understanding. In many projects that I was able to visit and support, I saw how much travel creates connections between people and continents on a personal level.
But at the same time, I have also been able to see in some places how climate change is already changing and destroying our world: in Cuba I was diving on a completely bleached coral reef, in Panama there was an enormous backwater at the canal because Lake Gatun has much less water than usual. In many countries, the actually constant rainy seasons are hardly predictable and there is either much less rain than usual or much more. The consequences for nature are fatal.
In addition, I have met many people who travel without any noticeable regard for the environment: who cross an entire ocean for a 2-week holiday, who take the plane from Medellin to Bogotá (8 hours by bus) or who leave an endless trail of plastic waste behind them. Travelling can be enormously destructive, and classic tourism often is these days. But there are also many ways to make travel more sustainable and many of them I tried and/or got to know on this trip and would like to present them to you here, so that you hopefully take one or the other with you. I’m also happy if you share your ideas in the comments or leave your own suggestions.
It is important for me to mention that although I have reduced my emissions significantly in some respects, I am of course far from emission-free travel. The point is not that you should all implement ideas in exactly the same way, but rather that it is important that we address the many emissions that travel causes and make an effort to reduce them significantly. Because it’s not only us who (hopefully) agree that the way we travel has to change and become more sustainable, but also science says so. And for that, it is important that we stay in discussion, exchange ideas and inspire each other.
I am worried about the future of our planet as natural disasters increase worldwide. I hope that my children and grandchildren will still have the chance to explore this fantastic world and see all the wonderful things that I am currently able to see. But if climate protection continues as it is now, then in 2063 there will be no more coral reefs, in 70 years the home of over 200 million people will have sunk into the sea and a multitude of species will no longer exist. The scenarios always sound dramatic, but unfortunately that is also the situation with climate protection.
In order to sort the tips and ideas a bit, I’m dividing them up by area: General Tips, Transport, Accommodation and Food.
The idea of this article is, of course, not to reduce emissions in order to travel more, but to reduce emissions in order to affect the environment as little as possible with a trip.
In general, we should ask ourselves if there is anything we can do without: Is this flight necessary or can’t I find a nice destination within train distance? Do I really need a rental car for the whole trip or can I manage without it? Do I have to see 3 countries in 4 weeks or can’t I stay longer in one place? Less can be more on holiday or when travelling, so you can enjoy your time much more.
It is not about travelling emission-free and being perfect in all aspects. Instead, it is about being or becoming aware of the impacts of travel and taking these into account in decisions to significantly reduce one’s carbon footprint.
I am also aware that it is an absolute privilege to have the time, the money and the possibilities to make this trip this way, but if I had been travelling for, say, a month, I would certainly not have flown to Latin America, but would have done, say, Inter-Rail in Eastern Europe or something.
Basically, the same applies when travelling as at home: we should be careful with all resources. This means paying attention to water consumption, only turning on air conditioners and fans when we need them, etc.
Another point to consider even before the trip begins: the luggage. If your suitcase or backpack is lighter, it not only protects your back, but also ensures less energy consumption in the means of transport. I’m not so exemplary in this respect, especially because of my guitar, but I wanted to share this tip I read with you anyway. Anyway, this is probably not the tip that will save huge amounts of CO2, but one that few people probably think about.
More important is the next tip, which many people, including me, don’t think about when it comes to sustainability: Travel anti-cyclically and avoid crowded places. Mass tourism in particular leads to infrastructures being overloaded and irreversible damage to ecosystems. If ten people a day walk through a small forest, the forest and its inhabitants probably don’t care. It’s a different story if there are thousands. You can prevent this if you don’t contribute to overcrowding by travelling in the low season or by avoiding these places. Of course, I am aware that there are professions where it is difficult to travel acyclically.
Last but not least, travellers should try to use local and small shops as much as possible instead of big shops and chains. This applies to accommodation, grocery shops, souvenirs, etc. On the one hand, this supports the local people and not a huge company, and on the other hand, the products, labour, etc. are more likely to come from nearby and thus also protect the environment. And in Latin America, for example, it is often even cheaper in the small shops than in the supermarket.
Let’s move on to the No. 1 climate killer in transport: flying. A long-haul flight from Frankfurt to Rio and back emits about 3.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalents, to New Zealand even 6.6 tonnes. But according to science, a person should emit an average of no more than 2 tonnes of CO2 per year if we want to keep to the climate targets and leave the environment in a good condition for future generations. However, due to the lack of climate protection and the resulting environmental destruction, the amount is becoming smaller and smaller and is already tending towards 1 tonne.
The greatest potential for saving CO2 emissions is in flying. It would be best for the climate if we no longer flew at all, but that is probably unrealistic and, as I said, I also see the need for exchange and international understanding, and air travel cannot always be avoided. But air travel could be greatly reduced if we saw flying for what it is: an absolute privilege, because the majority of people cannot afford it. Unfortunately, this also makes flying extremely unfair: a fact that few want to hear, but a fact: a minority emits much more CO2 and equivalents when flying than they are actually entitled to if we want to be in harmony with our planet and its resources. The fact that the climate has not already completely collapsed is mainly due to the fact that there are many people around the world who cannot afford our standard of living by a long shot, and especially cannot fly, and therefore emit much less CO2. Thus flying is a strong expression of global injustice and part of an imperial/post-colonial way of life as described by the author Ulrich Brand in the book “Imperiale Lebensweise – zur Ausbeutung von Mensch & Natur im globalen Kapitalismus”. The only logical thing to do then is to do without aeroplanes in the future for holiday trips. This is also how the German Federal Environment Agency describes it in its concept for “Air Transport of the Future”.
Briefly on equivalents, what is meant by this? Flying not only blows CO2 into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, but there are also non-CO2 effects, which even account for almost 2/3 of flying. The most climate-damaging effects of flying are contrails.
My friend Gero writes about how the effects of contrails could be greatly reduced in this article for Deutsche Welle.
But Gero also comes to the clear conclusion that it will take a long time before flying becomes climate-friendly and that it is therefore necessary to drastically reduce air travel.
Flying should therefore be understood as a privilege and considered an exception. But what are the alternatives to flying: On land it is quite easy, a fully occupied car is more climate-friendly than a flight, but really economical is travelling by bus and train. All sources agree on this, too.
The difficulty for CO2 studies
A short digression: It is sometimes quite exhausting that the CO2 balances of means of transport diverge depending on the source. But this is because, for example, the underlying electricity mix can make a big difference in the calculation. In addition, many sources only calculate the transport costs that a journey from A to B costs. But of course you also have to factor in how much CO2 is emitted in the production of the vehicle and the route. Regardless of this, flying is by far the most harmful means of transport in all statistics, and bus and train the best.
Of course, bus and train can take longer than flying, but for many routes the time gained by flying is often much less than the flight time would suggest. If you take into account the journey, check-in, waiting time, baggage claim, etc., a flight is not that fast after all. Moreover, if you travel by bus or train, you can easily make a stopover and visit another place on the way. Travelling overnight is also a good option, which I have often used on buses in Latin America, because you can (hopefully) sleep on the bus, arrive in the morning and save yourself an overnight stay.
Another way to avoid flying is to adjust your destination. For a two-week holiday, for example, I don’t think the benefits are commensurate with the climate costs, especially for long-haul flights. And there are enough nice destinations nearby, or at least on the same continent, where you can also meet many people from all over the world and other cultures. By the way, something that also works very well in your own country and city. You don’t necessarily have to travel to Latin America to meet Latin Americans. In everyday life, these opportunities are easily lost, but you can also consciously take time to travel in your own country and get to know other cultures in your own country. In Germany there are large communities of people from different countries with whom you can come into contact and get to know their culture. If friendships then develop, it is also much easier to meet again.
On a long trip to another continent, you can also consider spending more time in one place instead of seeing lots of places briefly. On my world trip of about 14 months, for example, I deliberately chose one continent instead of doing Asia and Africa after South America, for example. This gave me time to immerse myself much more intensively in the culture of the countries, to stay longer in great places, to get to know the people better, and so on. And quite honestly, even that was too little time for such a large continent! So instead of rushing from A to B, which automatically increases the CO2 footprint, you can stay in one place for a long time and still have a wonderful time, and you’ll never be able to see everything anyway. In my experience, you miss out on a lot of great experiences if you leave after just two days in one place. I don’t mean that you can’t visit a place for a short time, but maybe you’ll stay longer in the next one. Here, too, it is important to be aware of the effects of a journey and to take this into consideration. Especially since the more you travel, the more time you spend on the bus or other means of transport, which is always time you don’t spend in the place.
On this trip, I also tried another alternative for crossing oceans: sailboats. From Spain, I hitchhiked on several sailboats across the Canary Islands and Cape Verde to the Caribbean. Even though sailboats hardly consume any fuel during the journey, they naturally have not inconsiderable production costs. But if you travel on boats that are going on a trip across the Atlantic anyway (or on any other route), you produce almost no extra CO2 emissions. If you want to read more about my route across the Atlantic, you will find several posts on the blog. Here is the diary of the Atlantic crossing.
So if you have more time to travel (which you need for sailing, unfortunately), this is a good, climate-friendly alternative and I promise you will see wonderful places, especially on islands you would never have come to otherwise!
Hitchhiking, by the way, is of course also very climate-friendly on land. Far too many cars drive around with one or a few people, so there is still a lot of potential for optimisation. I hitchhiked most of the time, especially from Germany, but also in Latin America (mostly shorter distances) and have collected some tips for you in this article.
Hitchhiking is not only climate-friendly, but also a great way to travel, as you get to know very different people and come into much more contact with locals.
On the other hand, if you hire a car, you can of course also take people with you. Of course, with a rental car there’s always the question of whether it’s necessary or whether you can get there by train, bus or hitchhiking. Personally, I like to use the same means of transport as the locals and to talk to them. And if you don’t want to do without a rental car, you can consider using it only for part of the trip. Without a rental car is in most cases like in real life without a car: much cheaper!
The same applies to taxis or Uber, but here too the question is in which situations it is necessary to be driven around. Taxis are usually faster, buses cheaper, and especially in the cities they are usually well developed. It should be noted that taxis are often not recommended in Latin America, as they are often used for robberies. Uber and other apps are a good alternative because the drivers are safely registered. But if the taxi is official (and you are sure about that), a taxi is of course also possible. Of course, it also depends on where you are. I have used unofficial taxis or motorbikes from time to time, especially in the countryside, and never felt unsafe. And when you use a taxi, not part of the money goes to the Uber company.
Food & Drinks
When it comes to food and drinks, it’s especially good to reduce transport costs and plastic waste.
I admit to appreciating a European product like pesto or Italian pasta from time to time. But mostly I try to consume local products and that works very well in Latin America, for example, because there is a lot of fresh, regional fruit and vegetables that are super tasty. And just as it’s not necessary to buy avocados all the time in Germany, I don’t need German produce every week when I travel.
Another big environmental burden, especially with food and drinks, is plastic – both in production and disposal. But here in particular there are some simple things that can greatly reduce plastic consumption:
Having a drinking bottle with you is an absolute must, also to stay hydrated when you can’t buy anything anywhere. It’s also a good way to refill the bottle with fresh water instead of buying a new bottle every time. Of course, it is important to ask beforehand whether the tap water is drinkable. Otherwise, however, many households have a filter or a large water container from which you can get water for a small amount of money (usually for free). Another practical gadget is a small water filter of your own, so you can fill up with water anywhere. It’s also good to get juices on the street filled into your own bottle.
For eating, three items are indispensable for me: a lunch box, a spoon and a pocket knife. With these, you can prepare a lot of things yourself and eat them without plastic: for example, bread with avocado. You can also have street food put in your lunch box and eat it with your own spoon, so you avoid all the plastic that is quickly produced there. The lunch box is also practical if you can’t open everything in the restaurant and then take the leftovers.
Also very practical, but not so much for environmental reasons, are your own spices, which are unfortunately not available in every hostel.
Of course, it’s always practical to have your own backpack for shopping, so you don’t have to take plastic bags. Small bags for fruit and vegetables are just as practical when travelling as they are at home. And just as you shouldn’t give up on broken things at home, but repair them yourself or take them to a shop to be repaired, the same applies when travelling. And in Latin America, this culture is even more widespread. In every major city, there are heaps of mobile phone repair shops, cobblers, seamstresses, etc. It’s a good idea to have a small sewing kit with you. Having a small sewing kit with you is also very practical.
Here’s a little (Not So Fun) fact on the side: It’s easy to get the impression that Latin American countries and people are particularly wasteful when it comes to plastic, because it’s more visible due to all the street food. But in fact, Western countries, for example, produce much more plastic waste per capita. With us, the plastic is just not as visible, but often, for example, clothes are specially wrapped in plastic, and even with food in Europe, almost everything is wrapped in plastic.
Accommodation is one of the main CO2 emitters when travelling, because a hotel or hostel is built especially for travellers and often also has an enormous electricity consumption. There are many ways to reduce emissions here. Basically, the less space needed per person, the better. A dormitory with bunk beds is obviously more space-saving than a private room. But a small room is also much better than a huge suite.
And there are still two almost climate-neutral options that I tried a lot on this trip: Camping and Couchsurfing.
When camping with your own tent or, as in my case, with your own hammock, you don’t need an elaborately constructed building, at most sanitary facilities at a campsite. But most of the time, especially during the boat hitchhiking, we wild camped with some friends and then there is no infrastructure built especially for us and other travellers. Another advantage of camping is that you are close to nature. I found it fantastic to be woken up by the sound of the sea on the beach or the sound of crickets and birds in the middle of the jungle.
One thing that should go without saying is that you should clean up after camping and take your rubbish back with you. Maybe you can even extend this and collect other rubbish, according to the motto: “Leave the place cleaner than you found it.
But I liked Couchsurfing even more. The idea of Couchsurfing is quite simple and detached from the app: instead of staying in a hotel, you stay in someone’s private house, but not for money like with AirBnB, but for a non-material exchange. AirBnB can of course also be sustainable in some cases, but in most cases these are flats that are specially built, bought or rented and that could otherwise be permanently occupied by someone else.
With Couchsurfing, it doesn’t matter whether you know the person or not, the principle is “surfing”, i.e. spending the night, on a couch in a private home. In many cases, the couch is also a bed or an air mattress.
Especially in Mexico, but also in many other countries, I have visited friends and stayed overnight with them – probably the best form of couchsurfing: you already know the hosts, you have a great reunion, no accommodation costs, local guides and it is more sustainable than in a hostel.
But of course we don’t all have acquaintances in every place we can visit. And that’s why there’s the app Couchsurfing and, by the way, many very similar apps.
The idea is simple: if you want, you can make your home available to strangers on Couchsurfing. They can then contact you and request a stay. Through references, you can see what experiences others have had with this person. If everything fits, the request is accepted. The guest has a free night, gets to know a local and gets great tips for the place. The host gets to know a person from another city or another country, is maybe invited for a beer or cooked for and can couchsurf himself on the next trip. For me, it’s a win-win situation and I’ve only had good experiences with over 30 couchsurfers I’ve met so far! In fact, I’m already really looking forward to hosting people in my room in Cologne.
By the way, I didn’t stay at all the places I met. There is also the option in the Couchsurfing app to connect with travellers just like that or to post events.
There is one small disadvantage with Couchsurfing: since recently, an annual fee of about 14 dollars has been charged. But financially, it’s worth it after two nights at the latest, and all the great experiences I’ve had through Couchsurfing are priceless anyway. But if you can’t afford that, you can fall back on some alternatives: https://thenomadfamily.org/7-best-couchsurfing-alternative/
In summary, I would like to use this article to encourage people to think about the impact of travel on the climate and to put these thoughts into practice. It is not a matter of doing without what we enjoy, but rather of ensuring, within the scope of our own possibilities, that travel becomes more sustainable and that as many future generations as possible can discover a wonderful planet.
The biggest lever is undoubtedly flying, which can be avoided or reduced by using alternative means of transport (train, bus, car, hitchhiking) or by adapting the travel route. But you can also reduce a lot of CO2 emissions by foregoing rental cars and taxis in favour of buses and trains.
When it comes to food, the key is to buy and consume as much locally as possible and to always have a lunch box, spoon, knife and water bottle with you to avoid plastic. Also a small backpack and fruit bag for shopping and a sewing kit for repairs.
When it comes to accommodation, it’s a good idea to save space and go to small accommodation instead of a big hotel complex. If you want to socialise with locals, couchsurfing is an even more economical option, and if you like being in nature, consider camping.
Again, you don’t have to camp or stay with Couchsurfers all the time, you can alternate that with hostels for example.
I’m looking forward to your feedback and I’m happy about comments under the post or personal feedback.