ByAudrey Scott

Aug 28, 2014

When on vacation, we are faced with a plethora of decisions — where to stay, eat, and shop, which activities to book, what the best way is to get around. It may not seem like a lot of money. Perhaps it’s few dollars here, a few dollars there. We all know that travel spending adds up.

But does how you spend your money when you travel really make a difference and have a positive impact? Is it possible to align your travel approach and spending decisions with your values of sustainability?

I argue yes, that conscientious spending decisions on vacation that are aligned with your values do matter. Here are seven ways you can do so and contribute to the places you are visiting, as well as reducing your negative impact on the world.

The bonus underlying each one of these: your experience will also be the better for it.

1. Buy Local

The concept here is pretty simple: when you focus your travel purse on buying local products and services, the more the community you are visiting benefits. Seek out locally made crafts, foodstuffs, restaurants, coffee roasters, tours and more.

The possibilities for positive impact are endless.

It’s not just that your purchasing decisions help the end vendor — a shopkeeper or restaurant owner – it’s also that you are supporting all the local suppliers, from artists to farmers, who contributed to that end product. It’s a cycle of economic support that can go deep and affect many people in a community.

In choosing to buy local, you’ll most likely form a deeper connection to the location as you learn more about what — and who — makes those local products unique.

2. Spread Your Money Around

As much as it may be easy and convenient, resist the urge to do all your eating, drinking and shopping at your hotel. Similarly, try not to return repeatedly to the same favorite restaurant or café. Instead, choose to spend your money at different businesses to meet your needs. This spreads the impact of your tourism dollars in that local economy, thereby supporting a wider variety of jobs and services.

A side benefit of this approach is that you will meet and connect with more people, thereby increasing the diversity of experiences and memories from your vacation.

3. Book Accommodations Committed to Sustainability

Seek accommodation providers that are committed to sustainability – including those that commit to reducing their environmental footprint and giving back to the community. This means more than hotels not washing the towels and sheets every day. It also implies how they treat their employees, whether or not they source their needs locally. One way to help with your research is by looking for accommodation with one of these Global Sustainable Tourism Council approved certifications that ensure a high minimum sustainability standard.

However, don’t become certification dependent. There are many wonderful small accommodation providers that simply do not have the resources to obtain official certification even if they would meet all the criteria. Don’t count them out. Instead, call them up and ask a series of questions to find out about the actions they are taking in the interest of the environment and local community. You’ll be able to ascertain pretty quickly whether or not your values are aligned simply by the answers given and the tone with which they are delivered.

4. Frequent Social Enterprises

A social enterprise is an organization that is run like a business, but whose profits go to projects that address a social need. For example, social enterprises will often train and hire disadvantaged youth or adults, thereby providing them employment and skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain. This means that as you enjoy lunch or a coffee at a social enterprise restaurant, your money is supporting that organization’s projects, its employees, and their families.

Social enterprises are still not everywhere, but they are growing in number. You can find a worldwide database listing them here. Also, as you are conducting your vacation research be sure to include an online search for your destination with “social enterprise” to get a list of these sorts of organizations operating where you are traveling.

Spending your time and money at a social enterprise can be a win-win situation for everyone.

5. Take a Walking or Cycling Tour

Leave the car behind and explore a place more deeply by taking a walking or cycling tour. Exploring up close on foot or by bicycle will not only reduce your carbon output, but it will also deepen your knowledge of and change your relationship with the place you are visiting. Not to mention, it offers greater opportunities to create more of your own personal stories and experiences.

Even better, take a walking tour that combines walking with another experience dimension – for example, sampling local food specialties or even learning how to cook them yourself. Tours such as these will often take you to neighborhoods a bit off the beaten path that you might not otherwise know to visit. You’ll also support local food suppliers and experts.

6. Choose Alternative Transportation

Ask yourself: Must I travel by car or plane to get to my vacation spot? Or are there other more environmentally friendly transport options available – like the train, bus or ride share?

If the answer is yes — and it fits within your time and money constraints — then select this option and buy the tickets.

Once you arrive at your destination, challenge yourself to get around with public transport instead of relying on a rental car or taxis. Not only will you likely see different parts of the city, but you will also have an opportunity to engage more with local people along the way.

Sometimes alternative transport just isn’t an option or is too time intensive. In this case, consider purchasing carbon offsets for the vacation.

7. Use Technology to Vet Sustainable Tourism Companies

Unfortunately, greenwashing is real. There are tourism companies that market themselves as committed to sustainability without actually incorporating those values and actually doing the hard work. This is deceptive for the consumer and does such a disservice to other companies who are truly investing consciously in making their operations more sustainable.

Fortunately, technology now provides us with the opportunity to read reviews, ask questions directly of companies, and connect with past customers, even in real time. By no means is this travel feedback loop foolproof, but our growing access to information provides us with more transparency and a better ability to evaluate our travel options to find the ones that are aligned with our values.

If you can’t find the information you want online, don’t be afraid to ask questions directly of the company. If the company is truly sustainable, they will welcome an opportunity to talk about what they are doing to support the community and reduce their environmental impact.

And if the responses are not satisfactory, then take your money and spend it with another company who truly acts in line with your values.

Let Your Purchases Reflect Your Values

Think of conscientious spending not as something that limits our options, but as an experience enhancer. When we make travel purchasing decisions in line with our values — we know where our money is going and that it benefits the local community and environment — the resulting experiences are not only ones we feel good about, but also ones that we will share with friends and carry with us for the rest of our lives.

By Audrey Scott

Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll are writers, speakers, consultants, and digital storytellers. By combining storytelling techniques, content strategies and social media platforms, they help clients market sustainable tourism in a jargon-free way. They run one of the world’s top travel blogs, Uncornered Market, that has shared stories from their journey around the world these last seven years. After visiting over 85 countries together, they are still going…and still married.