I was having a conversation last week when a friend said to me “sure, you can travel sustainably, but you need a lot of money to do so.”
It struck me that it’s a frequently perceived truth that if Luxury is your thing, there are no shortage of well appointed Eco-Resorts, Rainforest and Safari Lodges or Glamping setups—where the food is organic, bath products are biodegradable, local building materials have been used, and investment into the local community has been made… the list of great things goes on.
While this is a huge part of the appeal of sustainable tourism, the truth is that sustainable travel is not only possible at a luxury price point.
The fact is though, that at a luxury price point Eco-friendly or sustainable options are much easier to find because they’re much better marketed.
When it comes to travelling sustainably without spending a few hundred dollars, euros or pounds per night on the room rate I personally believe the biggest challenge is knowing where to start looking.
What is important though, it that it is completely possible to travel in a more sustainable way and create a positive impact—arguably an even stronger one than in the luxury category—through embracing a few subtle but meaningful mindset twists.
So with the above said, here are some pointers for what I have so far found to be helpful for budget sustainable travel:
Where to stay?
As mentioned above, one of the challenges when booking a trip on a budget is finding smaller hotels, guesthouses and hostels that have put eco or sustainability measures in place.
Many places will have put some measures in place, but are not active in marketing them, or it’s simply difficult to find information at all.
Another dimension is that the more expensive and chain-like hotels and places to stay have invested more into sustainable travel as a concept for its potential marketing value. Many chain hotels have invested in being certified for different eco labels but (in my personal opinion) offer less benefit economically and socially to the communities which they are located in.
Fortunately, help is becoming easier to find. Lonely Planet now labels eco friendly options in its guidebooks with a leaf next to the listing; and in general it is much better (and cheaper) to support smaller places to stay than to stay in large resort type hotels. One website; Bookdifferent.com highlights all hotels that have an eco label and shows their carbon emissions as well as making a donation to a charity of your choice per reservation—although this website also tends to lean more towards the bigger chain style hotels.
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There’s been heated debate about the impact of AirBnB in recent months as relates to housing prices, shortages and tourism demand; however one of the best options for experiencing a place’s true culture and interact with locals—be it in Paris or Paraguay—is to stay in an air bnb or via couch surfing. Hosts can often give great inside info as well which allow you to see places that are off the beaten tourist track.
Lastly, we can vote with our mouths, our feet and our wallets. If we find ourselves staying somewhere that doesn’t recycle or have any measures in place for reducing waste and being responsible, share your concerns with the management. In many developing countries managing waste is a huge challenge but if enough paying guests voice their opinions, the message starts to get through. If you find a better option nearby that you hadn’t found before that does more; maybe it’s time to pack your bags and check in there instead.
What to do when you get there?
A major way that everyone can make a positive impact when they travel is to consider carefully what their activities will be once they are travelling. Once in a destination we have the opportunity to support sustainable tourism initiatives, eat out in cafes that serve seasonal, local and organic produce (often for a fraction of the price that we’d have to pay at home). Spreading our money out to support different places, venturing off the beaten track and visiting smaller attractions as opposed to only the main tourist hotspots can have a very positive impact.
In a nutshell:
- Check online for sustainable tourism initiatives in where you are going that you might want to support (visit.org is a great resource as well as guidebooks). To save money on tours, even better explore around by yourself and simply see what you find.
- Get out and spread your money around as opposed to spending all your time in one place if you can!
- Treat animal “sanctuaries’ with a healthy degree of skepticism—unfortunately many places that market themselves as sanctuaries for wild animals are directly or indirectly encouraging the keeping of wild animals in captivity to earn revenue from tourism.
- Do NOT engage in riding of wild animals, selfies with wild animals, Elephant “Mahut” courses or anything which encourages this mistreatment and abuse of animals—for my post on why you should not ride elephants see here.
- Ask around (other travellers, guest house owners) for other tips on the local lowdown or suggestions of sustainable tourism ventures that you can support (for example participating in tours that give back to the local economy and protect local culture).
- Think twice before volunteering, especially for a short period of time, as these often well-meaning activities have been shown to be counterproductive in many cases—read more here.
- Consider and be respectful of the culture where you are. That means dressing appropriately, not drinking in public, or perhaps just taking the time to stop and say hello to people—depending on what part of the world you may be in. The best advice: to arm yourself with information beforehand.
Spending time and money outside of your accommodation and going off the beaten path can make the world of difference in our impact as a traveller. It’s for this reason that cruise tourism ranks amongst one of the least sustainable forms of tourism, seeing as the vast majority of money and time spent by customers is on the boat, as opposed to in the places that they visit. Even when off the boat, time and money are concentrated in a few hotspots.
How to Travel.
Slow Travel. If you’re on a budget but have time on your hands, ‘Slow Travel’ may just be the perfect answer, to save money on flights and see a side of the country you would not otherwise. Slow Travel means taking the road less travelled, not only in terms of where you go, but also how you get there. And when it comes to sustainable travel, there’s no better way to really get to know a place or get to meet the people, than to travel by public transport. It can even teach us a lesson or two in patience on the way.
So if you have more than a couple of weeks to spare and there is an alternative to flying — why not take the train, the boat, or brave the bus? You may just end up with a story you’ll remember for ever.
Have you experienced slow travel? Or have some examples of how you’ve managed to travel sustainably on a budget? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.