How to Travel Responsibly on a Budget

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For nature lovers, culture aficionados, and foodies alike, there’s nothing quite as exciting as traveling to a new place. Traveling is one of the best ways to appreciate the world on a whole new scale. That’s why it can be distressing to learn that this love of experiencing the world could actually be hurting it.

Air travel accounts for 2 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions, and hotels use around 6,000 gallons of water every month for laundry and hot showers. No matter if your travel is local or international, it can still require polluting transportation or the use of wasteful resources, like plastic bottles of water.

What’s more, even a short trip within the country costs an average of $581. Taking an international trip costs consumers a whopping $3,250 on average. The expense of taking a trip is enough to deter any prospective traveler, let alone the environmental impact.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop traveling in order to save the environment or money — instead, consider how you can travel more responsibly. Ecotourism is a growing trend of responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation, education, and ethical travel. Not only does this help the environment, but it also helps your money have a greater positive impact in the world.

Plus, the choices that conserve our natural world often have the added benefit of costing less. Your money goes further when you use it on efficient travel — and to support the places and movements that you value.

Table of Contents: 

What to Pack

Packing can often feel like a puzzle as you stuff everything into your suitcase. However, packing responsibly is more of a balancing act — you have to weigh what truly makes a difference against what simply holds you back. Rather than bringing the largest suitcase you own, pack lightly to save on emissions and oversized bag fees. Make a list of everything you truly need before you leave to avoid buying essentials like shampoo once you get to your destination.

Instead of extra dress shoes “just in case,” bring these essentials that help you cut down on waste and pollution, and save money on extras:

    • A reusable water bottle
    • Eco-friendly sunscreens without Oxybenzone, a chemical that damages and bleaches coral reefs
    • Plastic-free toiletries like solid soap and shampoo bars
    • Solar-powered flashlights
    • Water filtration system or Steripen
    • A reusable straw

Where to Go

There are a number of ways that your chosen travel spot can affect the environment — and especially your budget. Traveling internationally, for instance, costs more and has a greater impact on carbon emissions, up to a certain point. Over long distances, a road trip across the country can be more polluting per person than air travel, depending on how many people are in the car. A full car creates about as much pollution as a mostly empty one, so traveling with others can be a great way to reduce your footprint. On the other hand, if you’re planning to travel solo, sometimes even a plane could be better for the environment than driving by yourself. Weigh what you’re willing to spend on your trip to decide which option is the most responsible for you.

Choosing your destination wisely can also support the economies of countries that put significant effort towards preserving the environment. There are also some locations that are better about green initiatives like recycling. Look for cities that offer greener transportation options like bike lanes or efficient mass transit systems. Public transit also makes it more cost-effective for you to navigate the city.

If you’re not excited about a city trip, consider a more remote location. Ecotourism is the practice of visiting unpopulated natural areas, with attention to conserving the environment and improving the well-being of the local people. Though you will probably find the best destinations for ecotourism off the beaten path, here are some examples of locations that are typically associated with the practice:

    • Costa Rica: Covered in rainforest and boasting volcanoes, Costa Rica’s natural wonders mean tourism makes up 7 percent of this country’s GDP.
    • New Zealand: Over 20 percent of New Zealand is a national park, making it a great place to appreciate the natural world.
    • Galapagos Islands: These islands are so remote that many of the species are entirely unique to the area. As much as 97 percent of the reptiles and land mammals are endemic to the islands.

How to Get There

One of the largest impacts that tourism has on the environment is the pollution associated with travel. Transportation is also one of the largest expenses when it comes to planning your trip.  It’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate the need for transportation if you’re traveling anywhere, but you can still make strategic choices about how you travel that reduce your impact and save money.

Whenever possible, travel with others in a car or in the economy section of a flight. This is because the more people in a car, train, or economy seat on a plane, the less the carbon footprint is for each person. Taking mass-transit options also often means a cheaper trip, too.

It is also wise to take a non-stop flight whenever possible, as most of the fuel used for air travel is consumed during the takeoff and landing. A nonstop flight eliminates unnecessary waste for getting to your destination.

Consider these transportation options in order of least to most polluting:

Cycling: Though you may not be able to bike across the Atlantic ocean or be committed enough to make a cycling trip across the country, consider incorporating bike travel into your trip. Cycling can be a great option for exploring a new location once you get there. Once in the city or country you want to explore, renting a bike for a day can be a great way to get around pollution-free, see the city from a new perspective, and save money.

Trains: International light rail produces just 8 grams of CO2 per passenger per mile. However, the amount of pollution varies depending on whether the train runs on fossil fuels or other forms of energy. Usually, trains are some of the most efficient forms of long-distance travel due to how many people they can carry a long distance. Though it may take you a little longer to get to your destination, traveling by train saves you an average of $132 per trip.

Buses: Long-distance buses, sometimes referred to as coaches, internationally produce an average of 44 grams of CO2 per person per mile. However, this depends greatly on how many people are on a particular route. A mostly empty bus will work out to be much less efficient per passenger than even a car. Local buses produce on average 166g of CO2 per passenger, so if the location you’re in offers it, you may be better off taking a subway for short distances. Plus, almost every major city offers daily, weekly, and monthly transit passes that can make local transit an extremely affordable option.

Cars: The efficiency of your travel by car depends a lot on how many passengers there are and whether the car is a hybrid or electric. A car that runs on gas produces 289g of CO2 per mile. While this is more than a bus or train, more passengers can make a trip via car more sensible than an under-occupied bus. When considering the cost-effectiveness of a car, think about the wear and tear on your vehicle, and how many miles to the gallon your vehicle gets. Don’t forget to consider how expensive gas prices can be in other parts of the country.

Planes: Planes produce some of the most carbon emissions, but they’re also sometimes the only way to get from one location to another. Make choices that help reduce your impact, like sitting in the economy section or booking a direct flight. A long-haul flight produces 238 grams of CO2 per passenger in the economy — but those in first class create 960 grams of CO2 per mile. First class seats take up much more room, therefore reducing the efficiency of a plane and taking a greater share of the carbon emissions.

There is as much as a 26 percent difference in efficiency depending on the airline you fly with. Differences can be attributed to technology use, fleet modernization, and seat density. Choosing a budget airline also usually means more fuel efficiency. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, these are the most and least efficient US Domestic airlines:

Most Fuel Efficient:

  1. Frontier
  2. Spirit
  3. Southwest

Least Fuel Efficient:

  1. JetBlue
  2. Hawaiian
  3. American

Cruise Ships: Cruise ships produce an estimated 430 grams of CO2 per passenger mile, making it worse for the environment than a normal economy airline seat, but not quite as bad as first class. However, there are also impacts on the ecology of the ocean that mean cruise ships have additional negative impacts on the environment. Many argue that they don’t responsibly handle their wastewater treatment and disposal, polluting the waters they pass through. Since cruise ships focus on luxury, there is also limited value to local towns where the ship docks.

What to Do Once You’re There

Once on vacation, it’s easy to get carried away with extravagant dinners and splurges. However, responsible consumption of local activities is better for the environment and your budget.

When eating or dining out, try local cuisine. Though it’s tempting to stop by a familiar establishment like Starbucks abroad, consider supporting a local business instead. This helps the local community much more than purchasing from an international corporation and is a huge part of the travel experience. Plus, you’re likely to get a better deal for food sourced and cooked locally.

Though you should make an effort to engage with local wildlife and nature, you should also be careful of organizations that exploit the environment and animals tourists want to see. As the number of ecotourists has grown, so have the number of unethical businesses targeting them. Do your research before embarking on any expeditions or visiting animals in captivity.

Visit animals in sanctuaries that are designed to rescue and rehabilitate, not be used as a photo opportunity for money. For example, riding elephants may sound like a great experience, but the practice of riding an elephant is harmful for the animal. Not only are elephants not suited to support the weight of a person, but many of the facilities that offer elephant rides mistreat them. Do your research into the practice of any business offering an experience with an animal.

Consider volunteering with a local entity. You’ll gain a unique cultural insight to the area, enjoy a free activity, and give back to the world. Depending on the time you have, you can do anything from cleaning up a green space to teaching children English.

Where to Stay

After travel expenses, where you stay is often the largest portion of your budget. Likewise, one of the biggest ways you can reduce the cost and negative impact of your travel is in where you choose to stay. Consider these more affordable and environmentally friendly options when traveling:

Eco-lodges: Also known as eco-hotels, these are accommodations that are committed to minimizing their impact on the environment. They do this by instituting practices like running on renewable energy sources, sourcing food locally, and using water conservation methods. The downside is that there are no universal standards that they must adhere to in order to qualify, so it’s important to look into the actual practices of a hotel you’re considering staying at.

Hostels: A low-cost lodging option where you usually rent by the bed, hostels offer all the necessities of a stay without as much waste. With a communal bathroom and kitchen, they aren’t luxurious, but they’re much more affordable.

Stay with locals: The rise of the sharing economy means that just about anywhere you go now, you can book a stay in a local’s home using an app like Airbnb. Staying in your own place, a spare room, or even just on a couch makes it easy to reduce your footprint, all while immersing yourself further in the local culture.

8 Smart Ways to Keep Your Travel Under Budget

No matter where your adventure takes you, without a careful eye on your finances, it’s easy to get carried away and spend more than you mean to. Here are some easy ways to cut costs on your trip:

1. Eat twice a day

Though not the most attractive way to save, reducing the number of meals you have to buy is a sure-fire way to save money. Instead of eating out for breakfast lunch and dinner, try buying a pack of protein bars that can get you through lunch or breakfast time. On a full day of activities and experiences, you’ll find you aren’t thinking about meals as often as before.

2. Splurge on lunch

Since trying the local cuisine can be a crucial part of experiencing a new place’s culture, consider saving your expensive meals for lunchtime instead of dinner. Lunch menus almost always have more affordable options and portions of the same menu. This way you don’t miss out on what a country has to offer, or overindulge in the evenings.

3. Share costs

Solo travel has its perks, but being cost-effective isn’t one of them. Whether you’re planning a road trip or backpacking across Europe, having a travel buddy to split costs can majorly reduce your overall expenses. If you can find a group to travel with, even better. Sometimes the hotels and short-term rentals you can find with a large group are nicer and cheaper than what you could have afforded alone.

4. Get a travel rewards card

A credit card that gives you travel miles or points for spending is a great way to save on the expense of transportation. Especially if you travel often for work, a travel rewards card could be for you. There are many cards out there offering a variety of rewards systems for travel, flights, restaurants, and other purchases, so check out all your options before opening a new line of credit.

5. Learn the language

Knowing passable sentences for getting directions, ordering food, and haggling prices is a must for any foreign country. Not only will being able to converse with the locals lead to unique advice and tips, but passing as a local may save you money outright. That’s because it isn’t unheard of for shops and restaurants to charge one price for locals, and a much higher price for tourists. When booking hotels or apartments, try searching using that country’s local language. You’re more likely to get listings catered to locals and natives, without the upcharges.

6. Travel out of season

Peak season is roughly from June to August, meaning that flights, hotels, and businesses are all flooded with tourists on family vacations during this time. Due to the high demand, you’re likely to pay more for just about everything that travel requires. Instead, try traveling during the off season, November to March. Not only will your prices be better, but any popular destinations you’re planning on seeing will be a lot less crowded, and you can spend more time exploring your destination without lines and congestion.

7. Work for your keep

You may be able to work out an arrangement with a hostel to allow you to stay for a discounted rate, in exchange for working in the kitchen or as a cleaner. There are also websites like Workaway designed to connect you with work exchange opportunities abroad.

8. Book flights with a VPN

Though the advice of browsing in incognito mode has been debunked, there’s still a browser hack that will help you save money on flights. Using a virtual private network, or VPN, allows you to appear as if you’re from a different country. When booking international flights between foreign countries, change your location to one of those countries, and you may just see a bargain.

Additional Resources

Center For Responsible Travel

Responsible Tourism Destinations

Earthwatch Environmental Expeditions

Responsible Travel Agency


Responsible Travel Guides

Travel Budget Guides

Sources: WashingtonPost | BookMundi | BBC | FarawayLucy | Tripping | TheBrokeBackpacker | GreenGlobalTravel | EBSCO Sustainability | USAToday | UK BEIS/ DEFRA Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors | CostaRicaGuide | | Hostelworld | Phocuswright


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