9 Zero Waste Travel Tips That Won’t Suck The Joy Out Of Your Trip

Looking for zero waste travel tips? Want to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling? Or just waste less? It's possible to take part in environmentally-friendly travel without it sucking!

“Zero waste travel? That sounds … joyless,” my friend teases as we pick at a pile of nachos.

“It really does, doesn’t it?” I laugh. When I first started thinking about my carbon footprint and how much waste I produce while traveling I pictured myself eating lentils out of a mason jar, while waiting for the subway.

Not relaxing, not lovely, not very, uh, vacation-y.

But as I started to tweak and test and I discovered that – counter-intuitive and unlikely as it sounds – I actually enjoyed my trips more when I did these things.

I got through security at the airport faster, I had more conversations with locals + more picnics in the park, and I was less likely to spill coffee or leftovers all over my bag. (A surprisingly and frustratingly common occurrence.)

9 Zero Waste Travel Tips That Won’t Suck The Joy Out Of Your Trip

A giant asterisk: None of us are perfect and most things we do have SOME impact on the environment. I don’t want your trip to be a hard, boring slog of eating sandwiches while walking in the rain and denying yourself any joy or convenience.

Try one or two of these things! Do what’s easiest for you. And if you try something and it sucks the joy right out of your trip, don’t do it again. Try something else. Eat the fish and spit out the bones. (Ya know, like metaphorically.)

1. Experiment with road tripping + train travel 

If you’re traveling for the sake of traveling (like, an ‘I just need to get out of a town’ vacation), consider a destination you can reach in some manner that doesn’t involve a plane. I was horrified to learn that taking one round-trip flight between New York and California generates about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that a car emits over an entire year.

I’m not suggesting we give up flying completely – that’s simply not an option for a lot of people. But when we’re thinking about travel in general (rather than a trip to a specific place, for a specific reason), what if we at least considered a road trip? What if we at least opened the Amtrak tab and scrolled around for five minutes?

As a side note, I like road trips a million times better than air travel. I like being able to pull over whenever I want, explore anything I see, and take the scenic route.

Also: road trips down require me to take off my shoes, belt, scarf, and jewelry while a stranger pats me down.

Related: Everything you need to know to plan an amazing road trip

2. Take a longer vacation

In case you needed it: here’ s your official permission to make your vacation longer. If we’re going to use up all that jet fuel getting some place, we might as well make it worth our while!

So tack some extra days onto that business trip or really, actually use all your vacation days this year. 52% of Americans don’t use all their vacation time! If you’ve got paid vacation time, uuuuuuuse iiiiiiiit. Taking time off literally makes you a better worker!

3. Book the direct flight

Jets burn the most fuel during take off, so here’s your excuse to buy the direct flight – one fewer flight > one fewer take-off > fewer emissions.

Also, you might want to stick with coach. Because there are more seats in coach, that means more people per tank of fuel, which means a smaller environmental impact. In fact, the emissions associated with flying business class are three times (!!!) that of flying coach. (Don’t worry, you can still get that exit row upgrade in coach!)

If you’d like to buy carbon offsets you can, but most airlines now have them baked into your flight cost! If you want to buy them anyway, you can do that here.

4. Skip baggage claim

Packing carry-on only means lighter luggage, which means better gas mileage for your road trip and an easier take off for that jet you’re on.

Also, let’s be real. Trundling down the baggage claim and waiting for 15 minutes isn’t fun.

Here’s how I packed in a carry-on for a six-week, multi-country, multi-climate trip. It’s not as hard as it sounds. I promise!

5. See the city on bike, foot, or bus

Some of my favorite travel memories involve public transport in other countries – watching people climb on top of the buses in southern Nepal, sharing snacks with my train-car mates in India, making conversation in my terrible Spanish on the bus in Costa Rica.

Public transport gives you insights into ‘real life’ at your travel destination. It also happens to be cheaper and better for the environment than taking taxis everywhere.

Most major western cities have bike sharing programs and it wouldn’t be a visit to the Netherlands if you didn’t take part in their bike culture.

And, of course, walking creates zero emissions, is good exercise, and allows you to explore a city slowly enough that you discover hidden gems. When I was in Costa Rica a few weeks ago, my friend and I stumbled across this cemetery as we were poking around San Jose. It’s one of my favorite memories of the whole trip!

Download the City Bike app to see where you can pick up and drop off bikes or check out these apps that help you find walking tours of cities all over the world.

6. Stay in an Airbnb or a vacation rental

Airbnb and vacation rentals aren’t perfect – nothing is. But from an environmental impact standpoint, they’re a jillion times better than hotels. Think of all those empty hotel rooms being heated and cooled, those hallways with the lights on all night, and the constant washing of sheets and towels, often after one use.

Besides, you get more for your tourism dollar in a vacation rental, it’s easier to stay in a ‘real’ neighborhood, and you often have a kitchen so you can make a few meals in-house and save $$$. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s $40 towards your first booking!

7. Try a new restaurant

Bad news: milk, cheese, and meat aren’t particularly great for the planet. Good news: your trip can be an opportunity to try an amazing vegetarian or vegan restaurant in your destination city!

This site will help you find vegan and vegetarian restaurants in any zip code. Or just use this trip as an excuse to eat more avocados, more peanut butter, and more bread than ever!

8. BYO… most things

We can dramatically reduce the amount of waste we create while traveling with a tiiiny bit of planning. We can bring our travel coffee mugs and water bottlesa set of silverware, a tiffin for restaurant leftover or impromptu picnics, and a reusable bag.

And if you’re thinking, “That sure seems like an annoying hassle, Sarah,” I get it!

You know what I hate more than the hassle of packing this extra stuff? I hate carrying my delicious restaurant leftovers in my hands for an hour because the Styrofoam clamshell they gave me isn’t watertight, so if I put it in my bag it’ll leak pasta all over.

I don’t like drinking coffee out of little paper cups that burn my hand and don’t keep my coffee warm. I hate eating takeout with a tiny plastic fork that breaks when I use it on a piece of apple.

So, yes, bringing these things is better for the environment but, selfishly, they’re better for me. They keep my coffee warm longer. They let me put my leftovers in my bag and forget about them. They make my picnic nicer and my trip to the picturesque street market more enjoyable.

9. Forget about that dang 3 ounce rule!

Three ounces of shampoo and conditioner is not going to get you through your two week trip. Shampoo and conditioner bars create less waste, last much longer than their liquid counterparts, and don’t count towards that three-once rule. More space in your one-gallon ziplock for other awesome, liquid things!

You can also find face wash, sunscreen, face cream, and body lotion in bar form. Or toothpaste in … tab form? They won’t spill in your bag and they’ll last forever!

I want to hear from you! Share your best environmentally-friendly travel tips in the comments so we can learn from you!

P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously 

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

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  1. Sophie

    Sarah, do you know about Ethique (https://ethiqueworld.com/)? I *think* that you can buy it in the US now, and the shampoo and conditioner bars are now standard use at my house. Run by a very cool woman too.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ohhh, I’d never heard of that brand before – thanks for the head’s up!

  2. Liz

    Do you have links to studies that demonstrate how AirBnB is better environmentally than hotels? I would have thought that hotels are the most efficient way of accommodating lots of people wanting to stay in a single town. Yes, they could be more energy efficient, and many of them are working on that, but AirBnB is now big business – to the point where some cities cap the number of AirBnB rentals as they destroy the atmosphere and culture. It’s a different experience, but I don’t see that it is worse environmentally than hotels.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Hi Liz,

      Here ya go! Hotels contribute 60 million tons of C02 per year. Of course, maybe that number is different since the related studies came out.

      The other thing that I think is worth noting is that much of the hotel industry is built on the backs of wildly underpaid and mistreated immigrants and undocumented people. Obviously, this isn’t *every* hotel and I know none of us can skip hotels altogether, but something to think about when considering the “Airbnb-is-ruining-everything” argument.

  3. Anna C

    My travel mug and my water bottle are always in my bag on trips. They’re more important when I’m travelling! I need to add a reusable bag to my stash. 🙂

  4. Ffion Evans

    Oooooh, I love these! This has been a huge topic for us during our current one-year trip through South East Asia, we couldn’t believe how much trash we were generating while on the go in the beginning.

    Some of my favourite travel companions have become two foldable silicone bowls, we take them to restaurants and get them to put the takeaway in there, people love them. We also have our own set of silverware, and I have a thermos flask with a tea-strainer insert that my brother gifted me that I have used soooo much. These have actually been some of my favourite possessions while traveling, which totally surprised me, I didn’t think they’d be so useful. Also, even better than getting takeaway, just eating at all the local stalls and restaurants wherever possible and soaking in the atmosphere.

    We hang on to plastic bags and reuse as frequently as we can, and we have a couple of foldable shopping bags that you can squish into any baggage or even pocket.

    We opt for buying big water containers (5 – 6l) and using refill stations wherever possible. We refuse plastic bags at grocery stores as much as possible, and try to remember to refuse straws, though that has proved trickier.

    And we’ve actually given up soap and shampoo completely. Most hotels have soap, and I wash my hair with water only and feel like it has much more natural volume once it adjusted to the change. Mostly just water does the trick just fine unless we’re really filthy.

    Some great ideas in this post, thanks for the inspiration!

  5. VC Rankin

    My Father was a gentleman and he did NOT eat with his hands for any reason. Whenever we went to a fast food restaurant, he simply would not eat. I started carrying a plate (small) and silverware in my purse (in a ziplock bag). My kids (and some by-standers) often kidded me about having Mary Poppins purse but it was so easy and it made my Dad so happy. My Dad passed several years ago but I’m still in the habit and it still comes in surprisingly handy.

    As for water bottles, how do people survive without carrying their own reusable bottle?

  6. Erin

    I travel a lot for business, so I don’t have control over where I go when I’m jumping on a plane (and it’s always a plane). But after a few trips of throwing away so. many. takeout containers and having my barely used bar of hotel-issued soap replaced every single day, I started to think about what I could do to lessen the impact my travel had.

    For one: I’m already following some of the tips on your list! I always pack a carry-on. I take direct flights (twist my arm). I almost always sit in coach (company policy). Also, while I can’t always extend the trip, if I’m going somewhere fun like NYC or a city in Europe, I’ll try to extend at least for a day or two so that I can actually see the city (and not just the inside of a conference room). I bring my own water bottle and use reusable coffee mugs whenever possible.

    Since I have to stay in hotels, I mostly leave on the “Do Not Disturb” sign. It’s wonderful to find my used towels still on the rack, my used sheets still on the bed, and my used bar of soap sitting in the soap dish. I generally will let housekeeping in every 2-3 days if it’s a long trip so they know I’m not a serial killer.

    Also, while it’s expected that I’ll take a taxi between the airport and the hotel, I consider it a fun challenge to figure out the local public transportation. This has the added benefit of preparing me for if I ever visit the city for leisure and don’t want to pay for a taxi ride from the airport. My proudest moment was in New Orleans: $1.50 and 42 minutes for the bus (vs. ~$40 and ~30 min for a taxi) from the airport to Canal St!

    About half the time, I’m taking trips alone to a specific town, where the hotel I stay in has no refrigerator or microwave, and there are no grocery stores within walking distance. It’s easiest and least awkward to eat takeout lunch at my desk and takeout in my hotel room. But… this leads to a lot of plastic waste. My solution is to eat at the restaurant, alone, as much as possible, using their reusable dishes. It’s definitely not my favorite thing to do, but I’ll do it occasionally.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      These are such great tips, Erin! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Rent

    We have 6 kids and I TOTALLY agree with this! Thank goodness for tablets, e-readers, and such – not to mention chargers. We bring a charger for each of our children as well. With 6 kids, we also bring along a Power Strip so we can plug in all their chargers at once.

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