eco-friendly family travel tips.

May 3, 2017

Directly on the heels of our trip to Seattle, here are a few tips for eco-friendly travel as a family. Air travel, of course, isn’t without significant impact on the environment, but there’s lots we can do to mitigate our impact on the environment in other ways. With a little bit of thoughtfulness while packing and little bit of creativity on the road, I’ve found it’s easy to incorporate a bit of environmental mindfulness into our time away from home. But I’ll go a step further and say that sticking to an eco-friendly routine while traveling can actually mean more enjoyment of our time away. In my experience it forces me to get to know a place a little more intimately, it thrusts our family right into the middle of local habits, and we finish by getting a richer local experience of a place.

+ Carry reusables. Carrying around an entire family-sized supply of reusable gear is a bit daunting load-wise, especially for folks traveling long distances or hoping to pack light. Still, I never regret having a few basic reusables on hand while we’re away from home. In our family, we bring an insulated stainless steel water bottle for each water-drinking member of the family. (James and I strategize and devote my smaller bottle for shared coffee refills, and we use his larger bottle for water. Faye, thank goodness, gets a bottle all to herself.). We also pack two small stainless steel containers for lunches and snacks (and one of these bento bags). On this recent trip we filled them up with snacks and lunch items before catching our plane and they came in so handy as we explored the city and refilled them at local grocery stores and markets. A large reusable grocery bag that takes up hardly any room while folded is something we used nearly every day for everything from farmer’s market goodies to stashing extra sweaters and umbrellas during the day. This trip we also compromised by packing a limited wardrobe so that we had room to pack a supply of cloth diapers and still only bring our two carry-on backpacks and a small carryall for the kids.

+ Buy local. Whether it’s a visit to the local farmers’ market or a trip through a city’s organic food coop, one of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to explore the local options for grocery shopping. On this recent trip to Seattle we made a trip to a local coop on our first night and came home with locally made pasta, local spring veggies and cheeses, Washington-state wine, and bread from a city bakery. Buying local means that the carbon footprint of the food is limited, the local economy gets supported, and you get to taste locally-grown and made treats that you wouldn’t otherwise get to have.

+ Follow recycling rules. This one’s not very sexy, but it is kind of fascinating. Every city has different rules (and facilities) that determine what can and can’t get recycled. They’re usually pretty straightforward, available to read on the municipal website, and a good thing to familiarize yourself with if you’re staying in a place for any length of time. We stayed in three different Airbnb rentals while on this trip, and it was interesting to see how different owners approached relaying the local recycling and composting guidelines. (Seattle’s got a super impressive thing going.)

+ Enjoy sit-down meals. Sitting down for a meal in a restaurant or home instead of relying on food to-go automatically reduces waste. I like to go the sit-down route even for smaller treats like a lemonade or a coffee. It means a significant reduction in the amount of disposables you use while away, and you get to take in the sights and sounds of a place from the comfort of a cozy cafe; even better if you’re able to snag a spot to enjoy outdoors.

+ Take public transportation. Taking a little bit of time to research easy public transportation options from airport to your destination means great things for the environment, your wallet, and with kids especially, your headaches. Taking public transportation means not having to think about traveling with carseats (or renting or borrowing locally.) We took public transportation to and from the airport in Seattle and throughout our visit (ferries!) and felt like we really got to know the city’s neighborhoods in a way we might not have otherwise. (When it made sense to rent a car for a few days during our trip, we also rented carseats and opted for a hybrid so that we ended up only using a few gallons of gas over the course of a few days.)

+ Explore the great outdoors. Part of embracing eco-friendly travel is making an effort to enjoy the environment itself. Spending a day beachcombing and getting to know the local flora and fauna is one of my favorite ways to get to know a new place.

As always, the point isn’t to be perfect, the point is to try. In my experience, traveling with kids will automatically mean that well-meaning flight attendants supply them with individually wrapped cookies or pretzels or cups of juice (why, oh why!?). I sometimes manage to fend those things off graciously; I sometimes accept a little pack of cookies and count myself lucky that it arrived at precisely the right moment.

What about you guys? Eco-friendly travel tips you always put into practice?

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  • Reply Joanna May 3, 2017 at 10:50 am

    How are you liking your travel backpack? I remember when you were looking at options. What configuration did you get? I always love your tips.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 3, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      Love it! A little more about the bags we chose in this post!

  • Reply Auberie May 3, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Thank you very much for these tips! My water bottle is also going strong. Actually I have two, an insulated one for coffee, tea, etc. and a non-insulated one. I bought a sport-cap for the non-insulated one as I think it’s much more simple to drink from it in the car, especially if I’m the driver. If I’m travelling by train, then I just take the insulated one with me. I never have to buy plastic bottle and I can always refill them. So practical! 🙂
    A great tip is also to always have at least a spork with you! (I also carry chopsticks, for no real reason) That way you can always eliminate plastic forks, spoons, etc. And it saved me while eating a delicious “Ispahan” on the steps of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, without doing a mess. 😀

    • Reply Jessica May 3, 2017 at 11:43 am

      I just need to say that you have blown my mind with your “I bought a sport-cap” comment. I have a Hydroflask that I rarely use because I hate drinking out of it, and it never occurred to me that I could buy a better top for it. Thank you!!

      • Reply auberie May 3, 2017 at 12:15 pm

        I have the Klean Kanteen ones (both a classic non-insulated and a wide insulated one) and their caps are great! I really like that they can be adapted on every bottle and that I can easily replace the gasket and/or the cap if something should happen to it. And it makes life so much simpler!
        I’m glad I could help you Jessica!

        • Reply Amanda May 4, 2017 at 8:36 am

          I love the Cafe cap for my Klean Kanteen, makes drinking beverages, easy. I love those bottles.

  • Reply Angela May 3, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Talk a little bit about traveling with cloth diapers, please! I find my jaunts around town are super easy with cloth diapers, but I’m intimidated about traveling with them.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 3, 2017 at 11:48 am

      It was so easy! Might do a short post about to inspire confidence!

      • Reply TC May 3, 2017 at 12:12 pm

        Yes, please do!

      • Reply Erin May 3, 2017 at 1:18 pm

        I’d also be very interested to hear! We just did a week at the beach in cloth, which was easy as we had laundry in our condo–but we have a couple of weekend trips coming up and a big, two-week international trip that will have us jumping from city to city. Help!

      • Reply Summer May 3, 2017 at 7:56 pm

        Please share! We’ve never been brave enough.

      • Reply Kir May 6, 2017 at 2:17 am

        Please do, I just started cloth diapering this week. I’ll watch for your post!

  • Reply Brittany R. May 3, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Last year we (family of 5) took a weeklong trip camping. We were tent camping so there was quite a bit of gear that had to fit into the van. We packed half the amount of clothes we needed to save room, and went to the laundromat in the middle of the trip. It ended up being a really nice couple of hours of a forced break.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 3, 2017 at 12:04 pm

      Yes, agreed! We did that on our camping trip the summer before last!

  • Reply Priscilla May 3, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you for these travel tips! I also like Auberie’s idea of carrying a spork. I’ve carried just a spoon before and then found myself limited with certain foods.

    • Reply Alix May 3, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      If you’re in the market for a spork, I’d highly recommend Snowpeak’s titanium spork. I keep mine at the office–works great for pretty much anything and very easy to clean.

      • Reply Priscilla May 4, 2017 at 9:01 am

        Thank you, Alix! I looked up your spork recommendation and found a store in my area.:-)

  • Reply Rebecca May 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    How do you deal with washing cloth diapers while traveling?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 3, 2017 at 1:26 pm

      I’m going to put together a little post on it with a few details, but we just…washed them!

  • Reply MA May 3, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I love these thoughts – thanks for sharing. Re: the excellent spork idea, my friend and I used to take our kids to the beach for lunch and she would always bring her kids yogurt and inevitably forget a spoon. So she’d go find a blue mussel shell, “sterilize it” (as parents do), and give it to Charlie to eat his yogurt. One day after the mussel-spoon was deployed and we were congratulating ourselves on being so resourceful, Charlie turned to his mom and said “Mom, next time, can we just remember the spoon?” 🙂

    • Reply Angie May 3, 2017 at 5:21 pm

      Haha ahhh parenting…

    • Reply CalifNative May 3, 2017 at 9:13 pm

      Wonderful, will never look at blue mussel shells the same again.

  • Reply Samantha May 3, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    I love taking public transportation when I travel! It saves money and lets me see the cities in a much more intimate way.And because it’s not as convenient as hopping in a cab, it forces you to walk on foot a bit more – I’ve stumbled into so many amazing gems that way. I would have missed them otherwise. <3

  • Reply jessie Hess May 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    I love your blog yet I am giving fair warning- I am about to be a Debbie Downer. My biggest
    issue with family vacations is that car and air travel are absolutely not eco-friendly. I wrestle with this a great deal as I love to be out and about in the world- especially as a mom. I highly recommend bicycle touring if you really want to see the world without burning fossil fuel! It would make a great post to feature a family who travels in such a fashion!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 3, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      Yes, all the more reason to make every effort to be as mindful as possible to reduce our impact when we can! Would love to one day embark on a bicycling adventure!

    • Reply Laurie May 4, 2017 at 2:36 am

      My family has chosen to simply take fewer airplane trips. When we looked at the carbon footprint, we couldn’t justify the expense. A cross country flight round trip generates an equivalent of around 2 tons of CO2 per person, according to a NYTimes article. The average American generates about 10 tons of CO2 a year, so airplane travel can really impact your numbers. You cannot offset 2 tons of carbon using your own spork. Psychologically, it might make you feel better, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We miss weddings, we get jealous when it seems like everyone we know is in Costa Rica, we never jet away for a weekend to “treat” ourselves. I haven’t been to Europe in 15 years. It’s sucks, but I know it’s still there. We made a rule, fly once every three years. I would like to cut back even more. It feels like our generation thinks that travel is non-negotiable, that we deserve to do it because we can and everyone else is. Where else would we take all these gorgeous pictures? Then, I think about pioneer families, who would roll off into the prarie knowing full well that they’d never go back to see their relatives, when, technically, they were like, not even a day’s drive away. I believe our desires are malleable.

      It’s hard, but you learn to prioritize, and there are amazing things at our doorstep. My sense of frustration with the inaction of government and citizens is offset by what I, personally, can do.

      • Reply Meredith May 4, 2017 at 4:56 pm

        Thanks Laurie and Jessie, for your comments. Being truly ‘eco-friendly’ requires giving up much, much more than the average person is willing to sacrifice. It seems like a no-brainer, because truly, the lives of our children and grand children are on the line, but the convenience and luxury of the fossil fuel industry has become so normalized that people feel entitled to it. It’s heartening that many people are taking small steps to change their own consumption and increase awareness of (the ways we are destroying ) the environment, but as Laurie said, most of this is just a drop in the bucket.

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 4, 2017 at 5:17 pm

          Agreed entirely! I’m also interested in getting to a place where we can work together toward an everyday common goal of environmental stewardship. To get folks onboard, I think it’s crucial to lift folks up for the work they’re doing, to encourage them to make large and small changes, to acknowledge and stay mindful of failures, and to push legislators to make meaningful, top-level changes.

  • Reply Angie May 3, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    You ROCK Erin! Love this post. As a relatively new parent I’m still balking over the amount of stuff needed to get out of the door with kids, and while I bring reusables for all the food needs of my little one, I tend to sigh and leave the food related reusables for myself at home. You’ve inspired me now to at least pack a spork and a hankerchief, and buy a smaller waterbottle that I won’t hesitate to pack.

  • Reply Carol Wayne May 4, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    What bento boxes do you like….I bought one from the Container Store, but the lid is problematic……

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 5, 2017 at 8:49 am

      I actually use a bento *bag* linked above! As for containers, we have a few from U Konserve that we like!

  • Reply Laura May 11, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Hi, Erin! Have you written about zero waste options for plane food or travel snacks? If not, I would love your insight! Love this post so much.

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