How to travel without killing the planet

How do you reconcile a love of travel with a love of the planet?

This is a struggle that many of us face. There’s an urge to travel to distant places, experience wild new environs, and be confronted by a totally different way of life to our own. There’s also the belief that this will change us in some profound way; in a good way. It will surely change our lives, teach us invaluable lessons that we can take into our future and ultimately help us to make something better of ourselves. 

But then the reality comes crashing in (and not just the financial reality): the environment. What does all that flying do to our carbon footprint? Even those of us with the most rudimentary knowledge of the environmental issues facing the human race today, know that flying is not exactly ‘green’.

For a breakdown of just how much damage our wanderlust can do, feel free to read up on it here, here and here.

But I promise I’m not just here to shit on your perfectly legitimate travel aspirations. It even feels a bit mean to be criticising the onset of cheap airlines, which have given more people than ever before access to foreign travel. These should be good things. 

leio-mclaren-leiomclaren-300912-unsplash

And yet… 

I’m afraid to say, it’s not entirely possible to have it both ways. You can’t go jetting off on multiple long haul, round-the-world trips every other year (not that most of us can afford that) and expect it not to add up to a hefty carbon footprint. On the one hand, it’s valid to want to see and experience beautiful, awe-inspiring cities and landscapes, on the other, it is not valid to wreck them entirely and contribute to humanity’s eventual doom.

Again, I promise I am not here to just offer you, well, doom- doom or a life of geographical stagnancy. I swear. That wouldn’t really suit my purposes at all, being a travel writer. I am genuinely here to offer some solutions too; some possible ways of achieving your goals and satiating (for now) that proverbial wanderlust without causing quite so much damage to environment. 

This article is actually years in the making, it is an accumulation of many many hours spent researching, a curated account of the ideas and information that I have personally gained to date. It is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it can help you have an incredible adventure without all the guilt.

View through the windshield of a car with map

Microadventuring

You’ve gotta love anything with a name like that.

Maybe you’ve heard of this cutesy-sounding trend. As the name would suggest, it is a tiny adventure that you take, to somewhere not very far away and not for very long. It’s an affordable, achievable, planet-friendly idea for people who are short on money, time or tolerance for global warming.

The New York Times characterised Microadventures as “short, perspective-shifting bursts of travel closer to home”.

A little trip away, even if it’s for a night or two, or even just the day can give you the little lift to your spirits that you need. It’s hard to give suggestions on where or how to do this without knowing where exactly you live, of course, but here are a few examples that should apply to you:

Bluebells in English forest at sunset

If you’re a city dweller longing for the great outdoors:

Famous environmentalist John Muir once said, “the clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness”.

So if you want to get to know your little slice of the Universe better, go and find somewhere with fresh air and a dark sky, somewhere you can actually see the stars. It could be the woodlands, it could be the coast, it could be anywhere you like, just as long as you get out of the urban sprawl. 

You’d be surprised how much of an effect this can have, to just restore some calm to your mind and body.

A lot of big cities have a few big parks. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking way out. There should be relatively good public transport links (all the better for the environment) to take you out of the city and into the wild expanses of nature. If not, of course, you could take your car, rent a car, or a bike and maybe camp out.

(Patronisingly obvious side-note: make sure you do your research on where it’s ok to park, camp, and generally be. Try not to trespass!)

New York traffic at dusk

If you want a city break:

Perhaps you still want that urban rush but with change of pace and scenery, to see somewhere different but not go full country bumpkin. (Or maybe you are a country bumpkin who’s looking for a taste of city life). That’s okay too. Chances are, there are big exciting cities within easy reach of where you live.

Again, some quick research, looking up train, bus or other public transport links to a city that intrigues you will get you started. Then simply treat it like you would treat any other holiday: take in the cityscape, go to galleries, museums, monuments and parks, try the city’s speciality food, sample their nightlife. You could do all of this in just one day, on an average weekend. Better yet, you could consider (if time and funds allow) staying the night and contributing to the city’s economy. You maybe lucky enough to make some local friends.  

 

woman reading a map standing in the road

Actually go to a different country:

This last suggestion may not count as a microadventure, depending on your circumstances…maybe I should call it a mesoadventure, in any case it’s definitely not a macroadventure. I would suggest trying this one out on a weekend, as it could require slightly more time. 

We all know the old adage “love thy neighbour”. Getting to know, even getting to understand and to love our geographical neighbours is no bad thing.  

If you’re reading this and you’re a mainland European this could be a pretty easy one for you- we have great train and bus links that can take you easily over the boarder(s) to neighbouring countries where you can have still have a microadventure but you’re challenged with a new country and perhaps a different language and different set of customs. 

If you’re British, again, this is pretty easy: Scotland, Wales, England- eliminate the one you live in and travel to one of the other two, probably whichever is closest. 

Steam train Scottish countryside

If you’re from a very large country this could be a bit more difficult, but not impossible. If you’re from the US, for example, and live near the border of Canada or Mexico, try taking a trip to see what what it’s like on the other side. Same goes for any other big country (including Canada and Mexico) same goes for pretty much anywhere in Asia, Africa, South America, if you’re near a border, try going over it! If you live in the interior of a large country, or you’re country is a huge island (hi, Australia), you could try visiting a neighbouring state/county/territory. 

Personally, I currently live in the countryside in northwest England. Here are some of my microadventures for inspiration:

  • An overnight stay in Edinburgh (only 3 hours away by train)
  • A day trip to Manchester 
  • Glamping in Yorkshire 

 

I’m very fortunate to have such incredible cities and stunning landscapes right on my doorstep. You are probably just as fortunate. You just need to look around and explore your surroundings with a fresh perspective. Remember that someone, somewhere is desperate to be right where you are.  You can enjoy an array of amazing travel experiences and it barely has to cost you or the environment a thing. 

What are the benefits of a Microadventure?

  • Much less environmental damage than your average holiday
  • Way easier on the budget
  • It can broaden your mind and challenge your perspective, without requiring too much (or any) time off work 
  • Gets you out of your comfort zone
  • Fall deeper in love with your own home and the places near your home
  • Make connections with the people and places close to you 
  • Contribute to making your home and its surroundings an even better place by visiting cultural and natural attractions and supporting the local economy

Ship and icebergs in the Antarctic ocean

Long Term Travel

If you truly have your heart set on seeing very distant places, I don’t blame you. Sometimes a microadventure is not enough, sometimes you just need to go macro. And there are multiple ways of doing this whilst still taking steps to keep your carbon footprint to a minimum.

Living Abroad

Taking some time to actually live in a different part of the world is one of the best ways to have an adventure, immerse yourself in a different culture and truly get to know another place. This can come in a variety of forms; you could study abroad, do a working holiday or volunteer. (More on these options below).

Girl drinking coffee al fresco European city

Studying Abroad at University 

This is possibly one of the most valuable and productive travel experiences you can have. You get to explore and really get to know a new country and region whilst expanding your knowledge and gaining a tangible new set of skills whilst working towards your degree. 

Many people take this opportunity while at university or college. I would say, if this opportunity is presented to you, take it.

If you are reading this and you are currently applying to for higher education or are at university/college, try looking into the options available to you on your course. Most European universities, for example, participate in the Erasmus scheme, which could be your ticket to six months or a year spent in another European country, looking at your subject from a fresh new perspective whilst immersing yourself in a different culture and possibly learning a new language. While at university I knew many Erasmus students who came back from their year abroad fluent in one or even two foreign languages, and having seemed to acquire an ineffable and enviably cool pan-European flair. 

But there are plenty of global opportunities available for a range of subjects, including sciences, arts, humanities, politics, economics, the list goes on. A degree in, say, politics or human rights could be massively boosted by a year spent in Brussels or Washington D.C. A geography degree could be helped by a semester in the field studying fascinating and unique landscapes in Ethiopia or Iceland. A budding artist could spend 6 months studying classical art in Italy then the next 6 months studying the modern art scene in New York or Tokyo. The value of international experience in your field can only do good, not just for your future career but to help you grow as an individual and gain invaluable life experience. 

Do some research and come up with some ideas of what you might like to do, make an appointment at your university careers office and/or the office for study abroad and explore your options. It is also a good idea to take advantage of any scholarships or funding opportunities that may be offered to you.  

Studying Abroad Independently 

If you already graduated or simply never wanted to go to university, you’re not completely screwed. There are plenty of options to learn something new abroad.

three women s

Language Study

This is one of the obvious options that comes to mind. It’s universally useful, applicable and helpful, giving you a cultural insight to get to know your host country. 

Many universities are actually open to non-students who want to study languages, you do not have to have a degree or even be studying for one. I had a friend who I met whilst I was backpacking around Taiwan who was studying Mandarin at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, in an independent language class that the university offered. Not all universities, of course, offer this but it’s worth a quick google search to the city you’re interested in studying in, to see if their universities offer comprehensive, often very reasonably priced classes. 

Alternatively, there are plenty of language schools all over the world. Searching for a language school in the country/region/city you’re interested in going to should point you in the right direction. There are also plenty of good options on well-known sites that are constantly updating reviews such as GoOverseas and ESL Language Studies that work with well regarded institutions that the prospective students can browse through, research their options and find the course that’s right for them. 

Other Skills

Studying new skills in a foreign country can be the perfect way to combine further education with travel. Here are just some ideas that may appeal to you:

cheese in a fromagerie

Learning to Cook

Mastering the art of creating delicious and exotic meals is not only a wonderful lens to explore a culture and country through, but is something that can equip you with skills that you can bring back into your everyday life. It could prove to benefit many aspects of your life; your health (or not), love life, social life and could even help you forge a new career path.

There is a whole world of cuisines and regional specialities to try your hand at, to name just a few:

India

Mexico

Thailand

Japan 

France 

Peru

Vietnam 

Italy 

three people snorkelling in the Maldives

Learning to Scuba Dive 

It’s a pretty over-quoted fact that we humans have explored more of outer space than our own oceans. There’s a whole other world beneath water’s surface, just begging to be explored. Learning to dive or even to become a dive instructor could be your ticket to that world, and (again) may even lead to an amazing new career path you never considered. 

PADI offer a range of diving qualifications in almost every region of the world where you could simultaneously learn a great new skill whilst getting to grips with a new county, culture and maybe even a new language too. 

A lot of scuba enthusiasts develop an even greater respect and love for nature and our oceans. The more they dive, the more they see and the more they learn about the importance of protecting what we have and reducing the damage already done.

 

Learning to Ski or Surf

Again, these are excellent examples of developing new skills that are fun, active, could potentially set you on a new career path for a while and give you the opportunity to live in a different country and spend your free time exploring your adopted home and the surrounding areas. 

There’s a great article on how to and why you should become a ski instructor here, and another for aspiring surf instructors here. 

prayer flags in the Himalaya

Spiritual Education

This is an interesting way to gain a more in depth understanding of the country you want to explore, albeit a somewhat emotionally and spiritually intense way, at times. Many temples all over the world offer the opportunity to stay with them and learn about their beliefs (sometimes in return for voluntary services or a small fee). 

India, regarded by some as the Mother of Eastern religion, is one of the most popular and fascinating destinations to pursue a spiritual education.

Staying in ashrams, for example, is a popular way of gaining an understanding of Hindu beliefs and can be a great insight into Indian life and culture, an opportunity to meet new friends and provide you with a base from which to explore in your free time.

You could equally request to stay at a Buddhist temple in several regions across Asia, including South Korea, Thailand and, the current home of the Dalai Lama, Mcleod Ganj in northern India.  

Indian spices

Traditional yoga and Ayurvedic medicine courses are also popular in India, all of which can give you a greater understanding and respect for the country’s history, culture and customs. This kind of cultural awareness and knowledge can not only heighten your emotional intelligence and make you more receptive to other people and their ways of life, but is actually a quality that is sought after in the social, political and professional spheres. 

At its core, spiritual education should lead you to think in new ways and gain a wider perspective, which, after all for so many of us is the whole point of long term and long haul travel. 

Toasting with beer

Working Holidays

The feeling of travel, even when you’re working. A working holiday gives you the opportunity to explore your new home and its surroundings in your free time whilst earning and gaining work experience. The most common jobs are farm work, tourism, hospitality, office or retail. But you’re not just limited to those fields, if that isn’t what you want.

There are tonnes of options, but you will have to check what’s available to you in terms of working visas. UK and Irish citizens aged 18-30 are entitled to a work visa for up to two years in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. 

Mount Fuji at sunset

Teaching English 

Speaking of Japan, its also a very popular country with English language teachers. If you are a native English speaker, have a degree in any discipline, and have (or are willing to do) a TEFL course, you could have an incredible experience exploring a new country as a teacher. Your options could include Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan or Vietnam (and that’s just a handful of options in Asia alone). There are TEFL jobs available worldwide, visit the British Council website for even more options in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

English teachers are often given an impressive salary and benefits, including free accommodation, a round-trip flight, bonuses and free language classes. If you’re interested in languages and getting to know new cultures, and are considering becoming a teacher it’s definitely worth looking into a TEFL course.

I met several EFL teachers whilst backpacking in East Asia, they unanimously attested to loving the experience of living in a different county and the travel opportunities it affords them. Asia is still perhaps the best market for EFL work so if you’re intrigued by East Asia and would like to get to know the region better without having to go on multiple long haul flights, it may be worth considering a job in the country you are most drawn to. You could live there, get to know it and use it as a base to explore the surrounding areas either overland or via much shorter, less environmentally damaging flights to neighbouring countries. 

People jumping in the air in celebration

Volunteering 

It shouldn’t be, but this is the only potentially dodgy item on this list. Voluntourism has become a colossal problem facing the developing world today, not just in terms of economic and emotional impact on other humans, but also on threatened animals and environments volunteers had set out to help.

In today’s world you have to be so careful and research meticulously the potential impact you could have, even with the very best of intentions. There are many comprehensive and well-researched articles on the subject, so I won’t go into too much detail. But if you want to volunteer please make sure that you are satisfied that whoever you arrange to volunteer with is doing what they say they are.

Grassroots Volunteering is a generally well-trusted resource, it was created with the sole purpose to “decommodify the volunteerism industry.” There’s a wealth of diverse opportunities, including teaching, healthcare and conservation on the website, in a range of countries across the world. 

Asian elephants in Thailand

Elephant Nature Park is another reputable project that cares for elephants and other animals in Thailand (and neighbouring countries) with the help of volunteers. It is a seemingly very positive and impactful project, headed by the famous Lek Chailert, who was honoured in 2010 as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation and named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of Asia in 2005 and the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet” in 2001.

If you are passionate about animal welfare and want to learn more about conservation, Born Free also offer volunteer opportunities in countries across sub-Saharan Africa. 

You can also volunteer on various small projects globally via WWOOF and Work Away for free in exchange for your work on the project, or for a small daily fee. 

There are lots more genuinely good projects that are creating real positive change, you just have to know where to look. 

Girl travelling through Peak District

These are all meaningful and purposeful ways of travelling, despite the fact that you may not visit as many places in 6 months or a year as someone might on a RTW trip. But when you consider how much experience and value you could get from staying and getting under the skin of just one place (and the surrounding areas), I’d say it evens out. You’ve taken the time to get to know and explore one region, you’ve lived there, studied there. Plus there’s the benefit of not being quite so wracked with guilt, safe in the knowledge that you probably just have one long round-trip to make.

What are the benefits of living, working, studying or volunteering abroad?

  • Better for the environment than a longterm trip with multiple stopovers
  • Easier on the budget (you may even earn money)
  • Gain a more profound understanding of another place and culture than if you’d simply visited for a short time
  • Make deeper cross-cultural connections with the people who live there 
  • Perhaps learn a new language 
  • Gain valuable life experience and skills

camping woman in American wilderness relaxing hammock between two trees

Travel Slow 

If you truly want no more than to simply experience a full-time backpacking lifestyle, that’s absolutely fine; there are ways of cutting down your carbon footprint here too. 

A money-saving and more environmentally friendly alternative to a RTW multi-stop trip with several long haul flights, is to pick a region that calls to you and take just one flight, there and back, over-landing as you travel through the area. Limiting the amount of flights you take and travelling slowly overland via public transport such as trains and buses not only reduces costs but reduces the carbon footprint of your travels. 

 

Inspiration:

  • Overlanding Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Rail travel through Mainland Europe and the Nordics
  • Trans-American road tripping 

If you have a bit more time on your hands and still want to travel slower and greener, you could consider starting from your home country with no flight and travelling overland to a far-off destination, then flying only once, back home. 

Mexican cacti

Inspiration:

  • Taking the trans-Mongolian railway, St. Petersburg to Beijing (and possibly onto southern China)
  • Busing from North America through Latin America, down to Patagonia, Argentina
  • Train travel through the old Silk Road

There’s always a way to achieve travel goals whilst doing as little harm as you possibly can. Even if you live in a country that is somewhat isolated – New Zealand, for instance – you can make an adventure of it. Perhaps you could try visiting every state or territory in your country without flying?

And, of course, if you really do want or need to fly, there are ways of reducing or making up for it. The not-for-profit organisation Carbon Fund can help you to balance out the environmental impact of air travel, by calculating an amount to donate towards tackling climate change.

Remember, there’s always a solution and there’s always room for improvement. None of these methods are 100% perfect in terms of being totally green, but they could be a solution for you, a compromise, until there’s a better way.

Woman sits facing the distance in Sahara desert

Until next time, thank you for reading and feel free to comment and share your own experiences, thoughts and ideas in the comment section.

*Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with or sponsored by any of the organisations mentioned in this post. They have been included as examples and for information and inspiration! 

** I would also like to extend a big thanks to the incredibly talented photographers working in collaboration with Unsplash for their beautiful images

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