How to travel sustainably: tips for families with kids to reduce the environmental impact of family vacations near and far.
One of my favorite travel mantras is ‘take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time‘, but sometimes family travel and sustainable travel seem to be at the two ends of the eco-friendly spectrum.
Many family vacation ideas look fun, colorful and child-friendly, but few are sustainable or kind to the environment.
From gadgets to animal shows, it seems like to travel with kids we need to buy, use, build and make the environment around us as artificial as possible: natural is often perceived as uncomfortable or unsafe.
So, is sustainable family travel a myth? I don’t think so and I believe there are many easy actions we can take to lower the impact of our travels and make our family holiday greener.
Travel sustainably with kids: actionable sustainable travel tips
Reduce the number of flights you take
The carbon footprint of flights is one of the most damaging byproducts of travel so the first thing we can do to travel sustainably with kids is to look at all alternatives and choose not to fly, when possible.
It is not always possible to avoid flying altogether but in several cases, we have discovered that with a little extra research it is possible and often even better to take the train to your destination.
As a family, we find train travel really easy with children and, sometimes, more time-efficient than flying: between check- in, boarding, luggage etc, even a short plane journey takes up hours and might not compare as well as we think with the equivalent journey by train.
This might not be the case for your specific itinerary, but it is worth checking.
In some countries, such as Italy, train travel is fast, reliable and budget-friendly (you can check info about it here)
Take direct flights and pack light
When flying is the only option, there are things we can do to mitigate its damages.
Taking direct flights, choosing economy over business class, packing light are all simple enough practices that reduce the amount of fuel needed.
While they will not make flying sustainable, they are one of the many little things that, if we all do them, can make a difference.
Use public transport
The car is often the go-to mean of transport for families but choosing public transport when possible will go a long way to travel more sustainably,
No distance is too short for this choice to make a difference.
While this didn’t make our travel carbon neutral, it took our car and the car of all our fellow shuttle used off the road. It’s all in the small steps!
Choose accommodation wisely
The greenest form of accommodation is the one that uses the resources already in place.
Eco-friendly hotels are also becoming easier and easier to find: among our favorite, White Pod in Switzerland and Brooklodge in Ireland prove that comfort, environmental awareness and family vacations can indeed go hand in hand!
Reduce air conditioning
A cool room after a hot sticky day exploring is one of the pleasures of family vacations but you don’t’ always need to be as cool as you may think.
Often, you can use air conditioning a little less or have it less cold than you are used to and still be ok.
The same goes for heating: it is often possible to lower it by a couple of degrees and still be comfortable,
It is worth trying!
Choose local food
In many parts of the world, we are now used to having all foods available regardless of the season.
While it might feel great to eat strawberries on a cold December evening in Ireland, with the heating on full blast, moving food from one part of the world to another leaves a massive carbon footprint.
To make our table a bit greener, eat locally sourced food and cook for yourself instead of always going to the restaurant.
When in a restaurant, try local dishes (yes, also for the kids!) and check sustainability lists: if you are visiting a country because it’s a snorkeling paradise, make sure you don’t eat away the very reason that brought you there!
Eat less meat
My favorite meal ever is steak, so the tip about eating less meat doesn’t come easy for me – it is an important one however and one that can have a huge environmental impact.
The emissions from meat production, especially beef, are significant, and so can be the one from lamb products, since many countries have to import this type of meat.
Reducing the amount of meat we consume is one of the most powerful and easy steps we can take to travel sustainably.
Research carefully all activities involving animals
It is very difficult not to be attracted by activities that involve animals.
Dolphin shows, riding elephants, hugging pandas: they make for fantastic experiences for children (and great Instagram photos). But do they make for fantastic experiences for the animals?
Usually not: most of these activities use the animals as if they were dolls, teddy bears or full-on slaves.
Before signing up for any activities, ask yourself: ‘how is this experienced by the animals?’ If you love pandas, you might think a cuddle is an expression of this love, but what if that hug means the panda is caged and separated from its peers?
‘If you love someone, set them free’ often applies here.
Choose reusable, recyclable, eco-friendly products
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference: getting into the habit of carrying your own water bottle with you reduces waste.
Using your hotel towels for a little longer reduces high impact laundry activities.
In warm climates, letting your clothes to dry naturally will reduce the use of electric dryers and choosing sensible, sustainable souvenirs can make a huge difference in supporting more eco-friendly commerce.
Whenever you are packing, think of the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle’: can you reduce the number of items you carry with you and you dispose of?
Can you reuse stuff you already have at home?
Can we recycle what you are done with?
I hope you found these ideas on how to be a responsible tourist and sustainable travel tips useful. Safe, and sustainable, travels to you all!
This post was originally published in 2015 and has not been fully updated – January 2020.