As a regular traveller it’s easy to forget that each flight we take pumps enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a major cost to our environment. On this Earth Day 2016 I want to take a moment to acknowledge that fact and let it be known that simply having the ability to travel doesn’t mean I ever take that for granted. There simply is no such thing as a ‘cheap’ flight when you consider the many impacts a short-flight has on our environment and the people living in it. The carbon that we contribute often impacts those living well below the poverty line in low lying nations such as Bangladesh, Indonesia or Vietnam. It impacts those who have no say in how we (at the global level) make decisions and they are not compensated for the impact of those decisions (otherwise known as the ‘externalities’ of air travel for the economically-minded readers).
However, I do believe that travel is crucial for so many things: diplomacy, cultural exchanges, building shared understandings, for broadening the mindset, forging friendships and quite frankly, making us nicer, kinder, more empathetic human beings.
For me travelling just doesn’t feel optional, it feels like an absolute necessity. Yet I also care truly, deeply, passionately about our Mother Earth. The Earth and her resources are so preciously finite, I want to know i’m doing everything in my power to preserve it.
I’ve watched documentaries about people who care so vehemently about the environment they have committed to only travel to destinations with a carbon neutral footprint. Whilst living in Europe, it is technically possible to reach a different country with an almost neutral footprint, as an individual and working professional who is often time-constrained i’m simply not prepared to give up the privilege that air travel provides. So my question is, can we choose to travel and also care about our planet or are these two concepts so completely at odds with one another? This is a conundrum that has been on my mind for the past 13 years and has been the source of many a late night tossing an turning.
Alas whilst I still haven’t found an answer to my dilemma I do think that there are a number of things one can do so that even if we can’t travel carbon neutrally, at least we can try to travel ‘consciously’.
So here goes, the list of tips and tricks I use to try to travel as ‘consciously’ as possible:
- Travel by train instead of plane. Yes it takes longer and can be more expensive but taking the train is an experience in and of itself; truly the experience is the journey and not in the destination. Feel free to relax, stretch out and stare out the window for hours while you watch the world (race) by in a meditative trance. Some of the best trips i’ve done have involved long old train journeys including the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, the epic trip from Seattle to San Francisco, the Rocky Mountaineer from Banff to Vancouver and my absolute favourite: Anchorage to Seward in Alaska. The natural beauty and landscapes aside, another benefit of train over air travel is the dose of radiation we are saving our bodies. Did you know that we are exposed to ‘moderate’ amounts of radiation when we fly? (A 6 hour flight is roughly equivalent to the same dose of radiation received when getting a chest x-ray). This is still ‘low’ in radiation terms but still it seems this is a little known fact…….
- Ditch the bus tour and ride a bike instead. I’ve done two city bus tours, one in Belfast and one in Miami. Both experiences left a little to be desired. In Belfast I’d been up since 4am and so a mid-afternoon bus tour meant literally nodding off at the back of the double decker with my sister taking photos of me dribbling down my top. Not good. In Miami, my husband and I had to leave our bus tour early because we quite simply weren’t interested in learning about how much some celebrity we’d never heard of’s boat cost or what the average apartment rent was in Miami. Biking the city is a much more interactive experience, plus you get fit at the same time AND it’s better on those carbon fumes. BOOM! Obviously this is more suited to some cities than others but wonderful cities where i’ve had the privilege of biking include: San Francisco, Vancouver, Copenhagen and Kyoto.
- Learn a few words of the local language. Always. Being a native English speaker it is so easy to get lazy and assume everyone will just understand us but really a little bit really does goes a looooong way. I remember before I went on a business trip to Japan reciting three lines over and over and over again, much to the enjoyment of my eavesdropping husband “Hajimimashte, watashi wa Amanda des, yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (Hello, my name is Amanda, Nice to meet you, please receive me well, which is basically a more polite way of saying “nice to meet you”). Those three sentences went an extremely long way in Japan, I could tell my colleagues were impressed. That phrase and the word for “vegetables” and “white fish” really saved the day when travelling with a fellow vegetarian colleague. It shows the locals that you are interested in their language, country and culture, willing to engage and learn and most importantly, a little humility!
- Eat the local food. Avoid foreign fast food outlets like the plague. I’ll never forget landing in Ko Samui for the first time on a family holiday when I was 17 years old and the sheer disappointment I felt driving along to our hotel and just seeing a row of American fast food outlets, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza hut. We were on a ‘desert island’ where the airport lounge was quite literally a straw hut but yet I felt like I was in a shopping centre food court, it felt very wrong. Arriving at the sanctuary of our little beach huts I remember promising myself to support local vendors only. It may not always look pretty but your assured a much more authentic and meaningful experience.
- Stay local too. Just like the fast food outlets I’ve also always been a bit ‘ick’ about large hotel chains. I. Just. Can’t. Do. It. Ick. Large hotels just feel so clinical and impersonal. I would choose a guest house or hostel any day over a fancy hotel. My motto is stay somewhere where there is a good chance that the person behind reception will remember your name. I would also venture to say that AirBnB has been one of the best things to happen to travellers since the internet! Just today i’m looking into booking a trip to Prague. I go online to Booking.com which is usually my go to for scoping out accommodation at the lower end of the cost spectrum or the more Boutique variety. I’m quoted a number of 4-5* hotels in and around the Old Town for between £100 and 200 a night. I do a quick cross check with AirBnB and find that a nice lady called ‘Evgeny’ can rent me a luxurious studio in the city centre (with parking) and a view for only 46 squids which with all the fees included will still end up under 60 a night. Here I also get to choose where I eat breakfast, make myself a cup of bedtime cocoa and have plenty of room to roll out my yoga mat if I so wish. What’s so great about AirBnB is that you get to have a peak at what its really like to be a local, something you can’t do when staying in a chain hotel in the most touristy part of town. Now I admit AirBnB can have its downsides, do check out the area of town that you are staying in to be well informed and if you don’t fancy direct interaction with your host look for entire apartment rentals only (I have had both good and not so good hosts on Airbnb!)
- Get out into the nature. Learn about the local flora and fauna. Find the wildlife. Nuff said.
- Be responsible. Remember that when we travel we are effectively acting as ambassadors for our country. The people we meet may not have the privilege of travelling outside their country like we do so it is important to remember the contact they have with us may be of great significance. I once met a young Malaysian girl on a bus when I was travelling alone though Eastern Malaysia (Borneo). She was concerned for my safety and invited me to stay with her and her family in their home in Sandakan. I shared a room with the ladies of the house which consisted of two mattresses on the floor which we shared between the four of us. It was a surreal but wonderfully unique experience. One of the most significant things I remember her telling me was that she was an English teacher at a local school but I was the first caucasian and only native English speaker she had ever spoken to! That really stuck with me and I remember realising there and then how important it was to be an ambassador when we travel and leave a good impression!
- Talk to people. This sounds obvious but sometimes its hard travelling alone and with a language barrier but I encourage you to talk to as many people as you can. Ask people what their favourite thing is about living in their country, what hobbies they enjoy, what their family traditions are. I was once fortunate enough to get to spend New Years with a family from Mellipilla, Chile. After toasting one another at midnight we headed to the local graveyard to toast the ones that had passed on. It was an intense but beautiful experience, one that ended with me crying and the mother of the host cradling me in her arms and saying ‘Mi hija, mi hija’ (My daughter, My daughter). And last but not least….
- Educate, Educate, Educate. I read newspapers and online articles, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries about the country i’m travelling to, about the environment in general, about worldwide poverty, about the impact of climate change, about the latest natural disasters, about the Zika virus and the world water crisis. After all knowledge is power. If we’re going to be travellers and explorers let’s not be ignorant.
What are your favourite ‘conscious’ travel tips?