How to Holiday Sustainably

So, you want to know how to holiday sustainably? Good for you! I hope this guide will give you an insight in how to enjoy a break while still being conscious of your environmental impact.

At the start of this year, I set myself the intention of not flying for the whole of 2020. I wanted to see if it was possible to totally avoid air travel, and find a way to still holiday around this beautiful earth without getting into an airplane.

Little did I know, by Spring 2020 we would all stop flying… And while I maintain that the pandemic is not a reason to promote environmentalism, as lockdown eases, many people are starting to take flights away from the four walls they’ve been stuck inside.

So, here’s my guide to travelling sustainably whenever you wish to go on holiday – and maybe controversially, why giving up flying is not always the answer.

How To Holiday Sustainably: Two Things To Consider

When it comes to taking a holiday sustainably, there are two aspects to consider:

  1. Social impact: How are you affecting the local communities whose land, wildlife, and economy you’ll be visiting? Can you make a positive impact?
  2. Environmental impact: How are you lessening the impact you have on the environment while taking a holiday? That includes travel, your stay, and the activities your partake in.

Social Impact: Let’s Respect Everyone

A lot of people tend to forget the people element in their holidays. Us Brits have a reputation of “British-ising” certain holiday hotspots, everywhere from Benidorm to Dubai. And we’re not alone: there are plenty of Western peoples who enjoy sticking together in holiday destinations. However, we Brits take more holidays than any other country, and our impact can be detrimental to the local people in the areas we visit, whose cultures and customs are ignored, or stamped out completely.

On top of this, the narrative around Brits holidaying abroad is completely skewed. A great way to identify this is to look at the language used to describe these groups of foreign people in these areas. If they’re rich, from the global north, and often snapping up holiday homes, they’re expats.

Yet for people who are less well-off, from the global south, and sometimes (but not always) fleeing from war, natural disasters, and other issues, they’re immigrants.

When in reality, we’re just people moving around the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe in the free movement of people. But it has to be done in a respectful way, observing traditional customs, cultures, and peoples. That goes for everyone, expats and immigrants alike.

Environmental Impact: Flight-Shaming Isn’t Enough

In regards to the environmental impact, you’re probably already wary of flying. But that’s only a small strand of the overall picture. Yes, aviation’s impact is a lot larger than many of the other holiday activities: 2.5% of the tourism sector’s overall global gas emissions come from aviation. Cars, on the other hand, make up 1.5% of that figure. And the aviation industry continues to grow at 5% each year, meaning this impact will grow too.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to ask everyone to stop flying. And here’s why…

How to reduce your carbon emissions without avoiding flights altogether

Last year I took a total of six flights, which equates to 10 hours of flying, or 900kg of CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to either:

  • Driving 5,500km,
  • Eating a carnivorous diet for a year,
  • Shopping for non-essential goods for 4 months, or
  • Living in a small (16m2 per resident) fossil-fuel powered home.

In my case, it’s very easy to reduce my carbon emissions generated by flying through changing other aspects of my life. For example, I could:

  • Reduce how much I drive by 5,500km
  • Opt for a plant-based diet for a year
  • Shop a third less than the national average
  • Switch to a renewable energy supplier

Some of those seem like much easier, much more convenient options, don’t they? Luckily for me:

  • I don’t drive
  • I don’t eat meat and I avoid dairy
  • I shop less, and often with sustainable stores and second-hand sites
  • I use renewable energy in my home and to power my business.

…And this is why flight-shaming is unnecessary. There are plenty of things we all do that create carbon emissions – and these can be reduced, alongside flying, for more of an impact than simply boycotting flights.

Plus, a welcoming hand goes a lot further than a pointing finger. As the saying goes “You don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly. You need everyone doing it imperfectly.

As far as holidays are concerned, let’s consider more than just flying: where you go, how you interact with your holiday destination, and how you support the community who live there, need to be taken into account.

5 Ways To Holiday Sustainably

Right, that’s enough nagging from me. Here’s a few positive ideas on how to make your holiday more sustainable:

1. Take a staycation. Why not cut out the travel completely, and enjoy the sights and experiences close to home? As a Londoner, my favourite places to visit include Kew Gardens, Borough Market, and sustainable restaurants such as The Frog, Mildreds, Tibits, and more. (Keep up with me on IG Stories and over on Chorus, an app for reviews of local independent businesses around London).

2. Take the train. Travelling around the UK and Europe is incredibly easy by train. My favourite destinations to go by train: Bath, Paris, Amsterdam, with Brighton, Edinburgh, and a few others on my list for this year.

3. Interact with the local culture. One thing I learned from my year of living abroad in Paris is that no matter the competency of bilingual speakers, there is value in making an effort to speak the local language and keep up with their customs. Sure, all-inclusive holidays or cruises may be easy to book, but they offer no real way to respect local people and customs, and often rinse areas of their best resources and aspects.

4. Support small and independent business. When you visit a new destination, try exploring the small, independent businesses and supporting local people. Sure, McDonald’s and Pret provide a sense of familiarity, but big chains siphon money away from local economies, and sure don’t provide an authentic experience of the places you’re visiting.

5. Roll in some conservation. Our earth is home to so many beautiful places and wildlife, so if you’re planning on visiting any beauty spots, see if you can do so in a way that creates a positive impact. Donate to conservation efforts, volunteer, and respect local rules and laws.

How To Reduce The Impact of Flying

Finally: please don’t use this post as a free pass for flying. It’s a call to reduce your flying, and also reduce your impact across other areas of your life and holidays.

If you’re thinking about reducing how much you fly, consider taking some tips from V of Dancing In My Wellies, who responded to my poll on Twitter about avoiding flying:

“I’ve not flown in… 11 years. A little more planning [is] required but you see so much more when not flying!

“[In order to holiday without flying] do lots of research and allow plenty of time to get to where you are going. Go for tickets which are flexible in case you are going to miss the transport e.g. a ferry.”

And when avoiding flying isn’t possible, here are five ways to reduce your impact when you fly:

1. Fly More Efficiently

My fellow Year of Green Action Ambassador, Vicky Smith of Earth Changers, shared a few gems in her post about reducing your travel footprint:

  • Fly less often: Take fewer trips generally.
  • Fly less mileage: Consider short haul rather than long haul. You’ll save money and emissions.
  • Fly direct: Avoid stop-overs even if they’re cheaper – aeroplanes use a lot of fuel taking off and landing, representing a higher proportion of fuel on a short-haul flight.
  • Fly economy: Flying First or Business Class means more space per seat, which equates to more carbon per passenger.
  • Fly with less luggage: Again, less stuff, less weight, less emissions.

2. Recognise The Privilege of Flying

Did you know, 57% of the UK population does not fly abroad at all? And on top of that, 15% of UK travellers take 70% of all flights?

Flying is a privilege. Despite the constant coverage in adverts and media, it’s not something a lot of the world does, or even the UK population.

Oh, and it goes without saying, but don’t fly for the ‘gram. I’m really hoping that if you’re reading this, you already know that flying out somewhere just to take Instagram-worthy pictures is incredibly damaging to the planet and local communities. It’s also a trademark of fast fashion marketing, making cheap, unsustainable clothes look luxury. I took part in We Are Social’s panel talk about Instagram and overtourism, which you can watch back if you’d like more information.

3. Campaign for Green Flying Duty

Did you know, the UK charges Air Passenger Duty (A.P.D.) on anyone travelling by commercial airplane outside of the UK and Isle of Man? Each year, this equates to £3.4 billion, or £240 per household. And right now, it’s going on protecting our incredibly polluting aviation industry.

Eco travel organisation Responsible Travel is campaigning to reform this duty. They’re calling it Green Flying Duty, and they’re proposing this money is ring-fenced for Research and Development in electric aviation and to improve railway connectivity only. (Yeah, electric planes are a thing. I really hope these become a standard option in the future).

If you fly, you’re contributing to A.P.D. So make sure to support Green Flying Duty, as well as write to the Transport Minister and your local politician about it.

4. Reduce Your Carbon Emissions Elsewhere

As I said before, boycotting flying isn’t a practical idea. It’s also not the be-all and end-all to avoid the climate crisis.

Consider reducing your carbon impact elsewhere, or reducing how much you fly generally. And consider making some sustainable swaps while on holiday too – this guide by Jess Rigg will help you get started!

5. Offset Any Flights You Can’t Avoid

Finally, offsetting. Yes, this comes bottom of the pile because it really is the last recommendation around flying. Offsetting should only be done when no other alternative is possible.

Vicky of Earth Changers recommends two sites for offsetting flights:

Both of these have flight calculators to help you get it spot on. And if you’re really conscious, why not calculate your annual carbon emissions while you’re at it?

Photo credit: Airplane cabin photo by Suhyeon Choi


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