Planning a trip is exciting. I love thinking about all the adventures — or the relaxation! — and scoping out the possibilities. Traveling creates a blank slate. You’re unburdened by the familiar and comfortable, you are free to do whatever you please. You haven’t yet found your favorite café nor your favorite used book store — it all lies undiscovered and waiting to be found.
Finding the local quirks and the hidden gems of a new place is one of my favorite aspects of travel. But figuring out the options can seem endless. So many simple decisions to make. Where should you spend the night: The hotel with the pool? The AirBnB with the kitchen and cute dog? The budget-friendly hostel?
As a responsible traveler, one of the biggest factors that I consider is where I’ll get the biggest bang for my buck. Beyond being on traditional factors alone, which option sounds exciting and is sustainable? I want to spend my money in the best way, and if it can make a difference, then it it’s already going further than it would have otherwise. And it’s not always easy to figure out sustainable options.
Sustainability runs on a sliding scale — being a responsible traveler means finding the happy medium of impact versus goods received. Whether it’s a weekend getaway to break up your routine, or if you rented out your apartment and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand, there are simple ways to weave sustainability into your travels. These six ideas show how spending money locally works throughout every aspect of your trip.
Support Local Businesses
This might seem obvious — but one of the easiest ways to foster sustainability is to buy local. Shop at markets instead of large grocery stores. Choose a hotel run by a local instead of a chain. Buy peanuts from a street vendor instead of packing a granola bar in your backpack.
One of my favorite parts of living in Nicaragua was the fresh produce I bought directly from my doorstep. A few times a week, a truck with a megaphone on top would slowly pass, yelling the different fruits and veggies they had for sale that day. Buying locally had benefits at every level. First, their produce was almost half the price of those found in grocery stores. Second, I didn’t even have to leave my house to get it. And third, it was cool to know that buying carrots, pineapples, and tomatoes put money directly into their pocket. My spending habit better enabled the young man and woman to feed and support their family.
Shop the Local Markets
Markets are pretty great. In addition to the low prices and huge variety of all kinds of items, it is also a totally different type of experience than you would get in a store. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a cheese market on the streets of France or a spice market in Morocco. Markets provide great people watching and unique products, and supporting them is an easy way to practice sustainability during your travels.
In India, market vendors do a pooja (prayer) after they make their first sale of the day. It is humbling and awesome to see, and it certainly made my market chai taste ten times better than a Starbucks latte. Every type of trip can involve shopping at local markets. In Pennsylvania, USA, the markets are filled with Amish farmers selling delicious baked goods. Even better, if you ask nicely, you can probably get a ride in a horse and buggy.
Pack Less, Buy More
If you are traveling to a different country, alter the way you pack for your trip. Particularly if you’re visiting a country with a completely different style than your own, try packing a few less tank tops, and buy some new ones once you arrive instead.
I met a backpacker in Southeast Asia who arrived with the clothes on her back and a small backpack of toiletries. She brought zero clothing with her, knowing that clothes in Southeast Asia are cheap and fun. She now has an entirely new wardrobe for about $150 USD, and she also infused her money into the local economy by shopping at markets and other local shops. I’m not hardcore enough to start at zero, but I do find that the more I travel, the less I pack. It’s not only fun to buy clothes locally, but it’s yet another easy way to weave in the ideology of responsible travel. The more money you can infuse into the local economy, the more positive impact you create with your travels.
Use Local Tour Guides
Taking a tour is a great way to see the local sights and experience parts of a city you wouldn’t have otherwise known about. You can also learn a lot about the history and culture of an area through a local guide. Finding a good, local guide can make a tour the highlight of your entire trip. Local guides are usually entrepreneurial and eager to teach you about their city and their way of life. They know the best restaurants with the tastiest foods. They know local do’s and don’t’s (which can be critical in a new city). And if you’re abroad, they help you understand a new place if you don’t happen to speak the local language. By supporting local tour guides, you are give money directly to them and their families instead of a big company.
Take a Class
One fun way to learn about a local culture and practice sustainability is to take a class taught by a local. Many students and entrepreneurial adults advertise classes on anything from cooking to foreign languages to artisanal skills. Learn a new skill and support a small business in an impactful way. Check out bulletin boards at coffee shops, or do some online searching to find a specific type of class. These businesses exist all over the world.
Buy Sustainable Souvenirs
Before heading home, buying souvenirs is likely on your to-do list. Maybe you’re the type of person who searches the entire trip for just the right gift. Or maybe you wait until the last day to pick up a bunch of items you’ve eyed. Either way, locally made souvenirs are an excellent way to practice sustainable travel. And, they’re probably better than things you would find at home. I have yet to find a better hammock than the $15 one I purchased in Guatemala. There have been many times I’ve contemplated going back just to buy more hammocks! Fair trade tea, coffee, and chocolate from your trip are always safe bets, as well.
Do you have other tips and tricks to travel sustainably and support local economies? Let us know!
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She has been traveling around the world for the past six years, and is currently living in Cordova, Alaska for the summer. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.