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How to Travel Without Hurting the Environment

Here's How to Travel in Ways That Don't Trash the Planet

At the height of my environmentalism, I was vegan. I boycotted Starbucks and planned seminaked bike rides to promote sustainable transportation. I was a junior environmental studies major at New York University, and when I decided to take a semester off to backpack through India, I had my first opportunity to find a way to mesh my ethics of sustainability with a passion for traveling. During that trip and many travels since then, I realized that this is not only possible but also can lead to unexpected and invaluable experiences. It may not always be easy, but it's always worth it.

When I was backpacking through India, there were affordable flights between cities, but I opted to take the even cheaper trains and buses. The hours that I spent alone gave me time for reflection that a yoga retreat could rival. I got to see small cities that I would've completely missed if I'd flown. One of my most memorable experiences was on a 12-hour train ride in the ladies' compartment of the Trivandrum-Chennai Express, where I quickly befriended an Indian family sitting near me. They showed me a trick — the luggage rack above the seat worked as an impromptu bunk bed where I slept. On my whole journey, I don't think I felt more welcome anywhere than I did on that train. This environmental ethos served me again, years later, when I was taking a bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca on New Year's Eve and drove down into the city from the top of a mountain, watching bright white fireworks rising into the sky just as the year changed.

It may not always be easy, but it's always worth it.

But on the other hand, making the more sustainable choice, when taken to the extreme, can leave you incredibly uncomfortable. At the end of my India trip, I took a horrible 30-hour bus trip from Kathmandu to Delhi, during which my legs from the knee down became covered in mosquito bites and I had to share my seat with a silent teenage boy for hours. There was no toilet on the bus. One time when we stopped, I had to find a bush to pee behind and ended up standing in a puddle of gray sludge that reached to the top of my waterproof hiking boots. They smelled so bad that I left them there and went barefoot for the rest of the ride.

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I've always seen my love for travel and environmentalism going hand in hand — what travel-lover would want to see islands be submerged because of climate change? Or thinks that the ocean should be filled with more garbage? Or goes to another country and takes joy in trashing it for the people who live there? When it comes to thinking about environmental travel, the first thing to realize is that there are two different but related things going on: climate change and pollution. When you're contributing to climate change through burning fossil fuels, there's no immediate effect on your surroundings, but you are increasing the likelihood of sea level rise and more intense natural disasters. When you're contributing to pollution, you're degrading the environmental health — the air or water quality — of the country you're visiting. I've compiled some tips for you to get your earth mama gears turning. Do whatever feels good for you, and don't forget — talking about how you're traveling green can encourage others to do the same and can create exponential change.

1. Eat less meat

One of the best things you can do for the planet is to eat less meat. Meat production takes an incredible amount of energy and produces a lot of waste. I'm not saying cut out meat entirely — totally eat a live octopus if that's your thing. And some places won't have many nonmeat options (finding veggie meals in South Korea was really tough, and you have to eat meat to really try Korean barbecue — which I totally recommend), but where you can still experience the local cuisine, try to eat only veggies as much as possible (India and Thailand had some of my favorite veggie dishes). Vegetarians — you get a gold star for this one!

2. Think about trash

Whether it's a plastic water bottle or candy wrapper or plastic bag, odds are that it's going to end up in the ocean. Do what you can to not be a part of the problem. A few weeks ago, I went beach camping with some high school friends and totally blanked on bringing water with me. We bought a 24-pack of water bottles because we needed them, but had I thought ahead and filled some jugs with grade-A NYC tap water, that wouldn't have been necessary. So plan ahead! If you're traveling internationally, sometimes you'll have to get bottled water, and that's OK. But have your reusable bottle handy for when you can fill it up. If you have to buy a bottled beverage, remember that glass is always better than plastic. Also get in the habit of bringing a lightweight reusable bag everywhere with you. This really hit home for me in Bali, where what were supposed to be beautiful beaches were covered in garbage.

3. Opt For Fans Over AC

On the climate-change side of things, air conditioning creates a feedback loop where fossil fuels are burned to run ACs, which leads to hotter Summers so that even more air conditioning is needed, which leads to even hotter Summers . . . you can see where I'm going with this. Also, air conditioning takes a lot of electricity, which has to be generated somewhere and is usually done by burning dirty fossil fuels. If a fan is available, try that first and only use the AC when it's absolutely necessary.

4. Embrace the Bicycle

Especially if you're visiting a city! Biking is the most efficient form of transportation and creates zero carbon emissions. Also, you can see so much more by bike, and many cities have bike shares that are really easy to use.

5. Avoid Using Pads or Tampons

If you get your period, consider using a pad/tampon alternative such as Thinx or the Diva Cup. This will ensure you don't get into a tough place where you need a tampon but can't find one and will cut back on the trash you generate — and save you money!

6. Buy Gear That Will Last

The next time you're investing in a suitcase, sunglasses, or hiking boots, consider spending a little more for something that you won't need to replace. In this way, you can imbue meaning and memories into the things you have and not need to leave behind your worn-out stuff.

7. Do Your Research, and Be Wary of "Ecotourism"

Absolutely volunteer on a farm or try WOOFing for a while, but most places I've seen that use the word "ecotourism" are usually trying to pull on your green heartstrings so they can charge you an extra buck. True ecotourism has the aim of bringing travelers into nature with the goal of conserving it and is also run by people local to that place.

With this list of tips I've just given you, you'll be well on your way to being a more conscious world traveler. Remember — traveling (and living!) environmentally is not an all-or-nothing game. It's the practice of thinking about the decisions you make and how they affect people and nature. Every little thing you do adds up, and you never know where conscious travel might take you!

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