Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×

Search

Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Sustainable Travel Is Easier Than You Think

When going green, consider the community and environment before booking your next trip

spinner image The sun setting over a vineyard in Sonoma County, California
Sonoma County, California
Getty Images

When travelers adopt more sustainable practices, they can help protect and renew the places they love to visit. But sustainable travel is more than taking steps to protect the natural environment. It also includes empowering Indigenous and local communities to lead the tourism industry.

There are several ways to get started traveling sustainably. Here’s how you can make trips better for the environment and the communities you visit.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership

Join AARP for $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine

Join Now

When and where to go

The first thing to do is choose a destination that’s taking steps to protect and regenerate the environment. Sonoma County, California, for example, is leading the way among U.S. destinations in making its wine country more sustainable. Sonoma Sustainable Tourism Observatory is the only U.S. location that’s part of the United Nations International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories, whose mission is to create more sustainable tourism for its partners. Mexico’s Yucatan region; Barcelona, Spain; and Antigua, Guatemala, are also part of the observatory network.

Sonoma County, which is home to more than 400 wineries, routinely deals with drought and has to mitigate the effects that up to 10 million annual visitors can have on a partially rural, agricultural area.

“Do your research to know what places are overvisited,” says Christine Vogt, Arizona State University emeritus professor and the former director of ASU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism. “And if they are, are there better time periods to go? Meaning, you’re going to encounter less people, your presence there is going to have a little bit less of an impact than if you jump on the heap of too many tourists.”

Visiting popular tourist areas during a shoulder season or a low season, when fewer tourists are present, is helpful. Travelers benefit because they don’t wait in large crowds to see popular sites. Businesses can benefit, too, from more steady revenue year-round, says Wes Espinosa, interim executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel.

“In addition, traveling in those seasons often has a positive impact on those communities, who are so saturated in volume in their high seasons that they really struggle to get through the shoulder and low seasons,” he says.

Some places have become so inundated with tourists that residents are asking for tourists not to visit. For example, after Hawaii peaked at more than 10 million visitors in 2019, Native Hawaiians like climate activist and former state Rep. Kaniela Ing began using grassroots campaigns to tell tourists not to visit. Overtourism has caused harm to the environment and wildlife and created economic inequity for the Native community, they say. Honolulu’s city council voted unanimously in 2021 to tear down the Haiku Stairs, a steep staircase on the Koolau mountain range that has been closed to the public since 1987. Trespassers keep hiking the stairs, causing neighborhood disturbances and environmental concerns on the watershed lands. On Oahu, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders experience homelessness at higher rates than other residents due to a rising cost of living driven in part by the state’s tourism industry.

Respecting the wishes of Indigenous and local communities is an important part of making sustainable travel choices.

Getting to your destination

Once you’ve chosen where and when you’ll go on vacation, the next impactful decision is in choosing how to get there. According to the scientific online publication Our World in Data, the aviation industry accounts for 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

If it’s impractical or impossible to avoid flying, consider booking a direct flight to lessen the amount of carbon emissions. Use travel search services to book a flight with lower-than-average emissions. Google Flights and Skyscanner let users filter results to show only flights with an average lower carbon output. 

Travel

Holland America Line

Up to $200 onboard credit on select cruises

See more Travel offers >

Carbon offset programs encourage travelers to cancel out the amount of carbon emissions used by flying, driving a car or other polluting activities by buying credits from a company that invests in programs that benefit the environment. For example, Sustainable Travel International’s carbon offset program allows travelers to enter their flight information to calculate the number of carbon dioxide metric tons used for them to fly. It gives a recommended dollar amount a traveler can pay to neutralize that carbon output. Once a traveler makes a payment, STI uses the money to invest in reforestation, renewable energy and other green programs. Along with STI, Native and the Gold Standard have carbon offset programs.

Espinosa says that it’s important that travelers buy from a verified carbon offsets program, but that doing so doesn’t go far enough in creating the structural change needed to make traveling sustainable.

“It’s a temporary fix that we should be doing, but also recognize that it’s not a long-term solution to the problem,” he says. “We have to reduce our emissions by being more conscious about how we travel.”

Espinosa says that stronger government and industry regulation is needed but that travelers can do their part by taking fewer trips that last longer, rather than flying for short weekend trips.

Invest time in a destination,” he says. “It’ll also give you a more holistic, authentic experience in a place.”

Lodging considerations

There are a few things to consider when looking for more sustainable accommodations. Hotels and vacation rentals may have been built with locally sourced, renewable materials. They also should have plans in place to reduce waste and save water and energy. An easy way to spot accommodations that have met some or all of these standards is by looking for a LEED certified logo. LEED certification is an independent review process that recognizes buildings for being better for the environment.

Sustainable lodging should also be embedded in the community, Espinosa says. That includes several things such as the business employing nearby residents. It also means the hotel has programs that showcase their community relationships, like displaying a local artist’s work inside the hotel.

Bed-and-breakfasts have been around since before the short-term rental boom and are a great option for accommodations, Vogt says.

“People flock to bed-and-breakfasts because there’s a host and it’s locally owned and they get to know real people that live in a community,” she says.

Some bed-and-breakfasts list their properties on short-term rental sites like Airbnb and Vrbo, but several have their own websites and booking platforms. Espinosa recommends finding sustainable hotels by using the websites Kind Traveler and Stay Beyond Green. Booking.com uses a Travel Sustainable badge to point out accommodations with sustainable practices.

Once you’re there

One of the most important things travelers can do when they’re on vacation is support Indigenous-owned and locally owned businesses. This ensures that the money tourists spend on vacation will circulate in the local economy. For Espinosa, that means skipping meals at a hotel restaurant, for example, in favor of eating at a locally owned establishment.

“Ensure that once you’re there, all your money isn’t going to one place, but it’s going to the local barber, it’s going to the local artists and it’s going to the local guides,” he says.

  • Be mindful when using water and energy.
  • Reduce waste (including food waste).
  • Avoid single-use plastics.
  • Leave no trace,” meaning leaving as little of an impact on a natural area as possible. This goes beyond removing trash; it also means respecting wildlife and keeping the natural landscape intact.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed trying to do everything right, but Espinosa says there’s no perfect way to make a trip sustainable. Vogt says keeping a mindful attitude will help travelers do the best they can. Every bit helps protect the world’s most spectacular places.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

AARP Travel Center

Or Call: 1-800-675-4318

Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Flight 2

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 3

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 4

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 5

Enter a valid departing date

+ Add Another Flight

Enter a valid checking in date

Enter a valid checking out date


Occupants of Room 1:



Occupants of Room 2:



Occupants of Room 3:



Occupants of Room 4:



Occupants of Room 5:



Occupants of Room 6:



Occupants of Room 7:



Occupants of Room 8:


Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 2:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 3:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 4:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 5:

Age of children:

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid start date

Enter a valid drop off date

Select a valid to location

Select a month

Enter a valid from date

Enter a valid to date