It’s possible to travel as a family with a focus on sustainable, ethical, and cultural experiences. It’s wonderful for children to have the opportunity to explore the world. By traveling responsibly as a family you can ensure that your adventures don’t contribute to overtourism or have a negative impact on the people and places you visit. These are tried and true family sustainable travel tips from Emma of Small Footprints, Big Adventures who has taken her two children on many travels within Australia and to four countries in Southeast Asia, all in an ethical manner. Here are her expert family sustainable travel tips to green your trip.
CHOOSE DESTINATIONS CAREFULLY
Thanks to affordable flights, package tours, and Airbnb accommodation options, it’s easy to gravitate to the major tourist hot spots but this isn’t always the most responsible option. Choosing a destination more thoughtfully means researching the low season, how tourist spending can benefit local communities, cultural learning opportunities for children, and whether the place is suffering from too many tourists. After considering these factors you can decide as a family whether or not it’s responsible for your family to visit the select destination.
We spent two months exploring Peninsular Malaysia in 2017, slowly traveling overland to small towns like Ipoh, where we stayed in a treehouse, and Kahang, where we stayed at a Rice Farm. We spent several weeks on Tioman Island in Malaysia which allowed us time to volunteer together at the Juara Turtle Project and time to relax and explore the island, too. We met many new friends in Malaysia and saw much of their beautiful country, and knew that spending the majority of time in Kuala Lumpur wouldn’t have given us the same opportunities, or benefited so many people and small initiatives.
When traveling to a major tourist attraction is a must for your family try to organize your trip in the low season in order to keep your impact minimal. We traveled with our kids to Uluru, Australia last year in late November, when the weather is really heating up in Australia. It was an amazing experience for us all because we were excited to finally reach the heart of our country, learn about our indigenous people’s history, and explore without contending with enormous crowds.
Preferably organize most family trips to lesser-known places. Your family will have a chance to connect to local people and support them with your travel spending. Traveling slowly and locally is a wise investment for your family in order to support sustainable travel.
BOOK RESPONSIBLE ACCOMMODATION
Choosing eco-conscious or socially-responsible accommodation is crucial for positive-impact travel as a family. Showing your children that you’ve been mindful to make these decisions will gently teaching them about the importance of sustainability. Families don’t need to stay at an all-inclusive resort in order to have a comfortable, safe, and fun vacation. International hotel chains are usually not the most environmentally-friendly and have been known not to be entirely supportive of the local community. Generally, many all-inclusive resorts focus on creating on-site experiences rather than immersive travel in the region.
Don’t fret, you can still enjoy luxurious accommodations. All it takes is a little research to determine which hotels and lodges give back to their communities. For a truly local experience that will be memorable for your children book a homestay with a local family. Other unique accommodation options that are more eco-friendly and will be fun for the kids include farmstays or glamping. All will give you a very different experience from a large hotel chain.
GO ON ETHICAL TOURS
Seek activities which support the environment, local people, native animals, and plants. They’re much better experiences as they’re naturally more connective and thoughtful. Do some research to find local guides, community-based tourism, locally-owned providers, or eco-responsible operators. These entities will help you find experiences that don’t make a negative impact on your destination.
If you’re unsure how ethical a tour company is, ask questions about their waste policies, interaction and proximity to animals, and how many of their staff are employed from the local community. We researched intensively in Thailand to find a truly ethical elephant experience and found a wonderfully supportive program which included a homestay with a Thai family. Observing elephants living happily in the jungle was infinitely better than viewing them in a work camp or riding them.
PLAN TO TRAVEL SLOWLY
Planning to travel slowly is vital for family sustainable travel. It’s easy to try to maximize a trip somewhere by skimming the surface of many places within a short time. But hopping from one major attraction or country to another is a terrible idea for children, and for traveling sustainably. Kids will get tired faster than adults and can’t fit as much into their days. Children will need time to unwind and adjust after taking in new experiences and rushing through it all will not bring them as much happiness or learning as traveling slower will.
From a sustainability perspective, slow travel has many benefits for the environment and destinations you visit. You generate fewer emissions when you stay in one place longer. You’ll have the opportunity to seek immersive tourism experiences such as going back to a memorable local café and getting to know the people there a bit better, too.
PACK MINIMALLY FOR KIDS
It’s so easy to over-pack with kids in tow. In reality, they don’t much as you might think. They especially don’t need many toys while traveling. There will be so much new information to take in and places to explore that toys are really mostly for on the plane, bus, train or for occasional downtime.
Pack some small, light books for travel days, a small pencil case and blank paper, one small favorite toy, headphones for each child and mini iPads filled with e-books, audiobooks, and their favorite games. Some families manage fine with real books and toys instead, but these take up more space in your suitcase.
Other gear will depend on the ages of your children. Pack enough clothing for a week and extra underwear for kids in small suitcases which they can pull themselves. Get them a small backpack that can carry their books and iPads, their school bag is probably fine to repurpose as a carry-on. Parents can take larger backpacks that can fit in the overhead bin in order to minimize your weight and therefore reduce carbon emissions. It honestly makes travel easier too—the less stuff you need to pack up and keep track of, the better.
TAKING REUSABLE GEAR FROM HOME
Traveling generates waste. Some of it’s avoidable such as single-use food packaging and disposable items. Being organized before you leave with reusable gear is a great step for low-waste travel and continues to support a more thoughtful mindset during the entire travel experience.
In my family, we never leave home without our excellent leak-proof, insulated water bottles from Ecococoon—we have one each and they’ve been a mainstay in our travel and home life. We also take a water filter when traveling and fill our bottles before heading out each day in order to ensure we never have to buy bottled water on a trip. Avoid wasteful single-use wipes by keeping a small washcloth in your bag for sticky fingers and grubby faces!
If your children like to use straws, get some reusable washable ones instead of using a plastic straw each time they have a drink. We prefer steel or bamboo for kids than glass which is too breakable. Reusable coffee mugs like KeepCups are vital for hot drinks while out and about. A couple of lightweight bowls or leak-proof containers, washable chopsticks or metal cutlery are handy for waste-free take-out, leftovers from dining out, or taking a picnic somewhere special. Washable fabric snack packs are light and handy to fill with nibbles for adding to day packs.
Have a few large foldable shopping bags on hand and reusable produce bags, such as Onya ones which are made from 100% recycled PET. These will come in handy often and take up virtually no room in your luggage, they’re a no-brainer for avoiding plastic bags. The cloth bags are great for storing dirty laundry and transporting clothes to and from laundromats and of course, for carrying purchases. I’ve had the same Envirosax bags for nine years now and they’re still in great shape.
BE RESPONSIBLE FOR DISPOSING OF ANY TRASH YOU CREATE
Despite taking reusable gear, it’s inevitable that travel will create rubbish along the way. Model taking full responsibility for your waste is great for kids to see—always seek proper waste disposal methods. Never, ever litter, even if it seems like everyone around you is. Find recycling bins, even if it means holding onto the trash for a while.
It’s helpful to buy products with the least amount of packaging. Choose minimal or no packaging or go for large portions instead of smaller ones. Split a large packet of nuts and dried fruit between family-style snack packs for nibbles on the go.
If the area you’re traveling to has a lot of litter, taking a bit of time to do a clean-up with your kiddos. It’s a great way to give back to the community you’re visiting. Every time I’ve picked up trash in public, other people have joined in too! It’s likely you’ll inspire others by taking some responsibility for it and it’s a great example for your kids too. It creates a good opportunity to discuss what should be in the environment and what shouldn’t, so children understand that we can’t take souvenirs like shells or pieces of buildings with us, but that pollution has no place there and needs to be removed.
SUPPORT LOCAL PEOPLE
These are my most important family sustainable travel tips. My final recommendation for sustainable travel as a family is to be constantly aware of the impact you’re making on the local people you are visiting. Every destination has a local community and we’re the outsiders benefiting from their hometown and resources. It’s essential to learn about the local culture, their history, and some basic language skills if it’s different to yours. My whole family is currently learning Spanish for our next adventures and it’s been really fun learning another language together.
Ensuring to dress and behave within the norms of the community shows respect to the people around you, and knowing some basics of their language goes a long way to better communication. I vividly recall how pleased people were when we (our kids especially) spoke in their language in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia. Dante and Allegra can still say ‘thank you’ in five different languages! We always learn the correct or traditional names for people, places, and food, rather than relying on the Anglicized names.
Another important way to support locals is to shop at small shops, cafes, and local markets instead of familiar chain stores and restaurants. It’s great for kids to try new things. If they’re not receptive to different foods, a plain dish or some Western-style option will usually be available.
Don’t bargain with local sellers forcefully. If haggling is expected, learn the appropriate percentage for the region and stick to it. Never worry about a small price increase between stores either; often a dollar or two means a lot to a local family. Be respectful of all people—and remember that you are the privileged one in the situation.
LET THE WORLD BE A CLASSROOM
Actually being somewhere is the best learning experience, as it’s the only place in the world with that particular combination of culture, history, and local customs. Simply engaging with people as you explore is one of the best ways to support locals and travel sustainably as a family. With respectful conversations and showing interest in their lives, we as the travelers can bring greater understanding between cultures, and show that we’re not simply taking advantage of their town.
There are always opportunities to connect with our fellow humans, even in the most every day of interactions. Kids who’ve traveled will grow up to be respectful and inclusive when they see that it’s a normal and positive way of interacting. Traveling together as a family in a sustainable way offers many wonderful chances to put respect into practice.
Emma Walmsley blogs about sustainable travel and lifestyle topics on Small Footprints and Big Adventures. She and her partner Anthony have chosen to home educate and ‘worldschool’ their children, Dante and Allegra. They’ve traveled within their home country of Australia and around South East Asia together. Follow their journey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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