How to be a responsible traveller: our 26 best responsible travel tips
Here are our simple and effective responsible travel tips to help you get the best out of your travels, and leave the world a better place.
Includes tips and advice on the environment, plastic, people, culture and animals.
Less excuses. More action. Every day.
This is the simple mantra we’ve begun to apply to our everyday life.
Because in the last three years of full-time travel, we’ve seen some incredible sights, met some wonderful people, and made enough memories to last us till we’re old and grey.
But after so long on the road, we’ve also seen firsthand the impact of pollution, overtourism, and cultural destruction on our planet.
We've seen beaches on the Med and in the tropics filled with plastic, and rubbish littering the high mountains of Italy and Nepal. Heavily polluted cities choking in smog and bursting at the seams as they struggle to cope with overpopulation. Quiet villages turned into drunken backpacker party sports, elephants tortured to carry tourists - we could go on for a while.
Worst of all; we’ve realised that the thing we all treasure so dearly, travel, is playing a huge part in destroying the planet we so love to explore.
Short of packing away the suitcases and never boarding a flight again, what can we, the mad travellers of this incredible planet, do about this growing problem?
Thankfully, there’s plenty we can all do - you’ve just got to know where to start.
Over the last few years, we’ve grown ever more conscious about our footprint when travelling (and at home!), and committed to taking positive action wherever possible. Responsible travel has become a huge focus for us and we’ve become passionate about travelling in a way that is ‘good for all’; ourselves, the places and the people we visit.
It’s not always easy, and we’ll admit that there are times we’ve slipped up too - but we truly believe that ethical travel is about keeping informed, your attitude, and the choices you make while you’re on the road.
We’ve put this responsible travel guide together full of the tips we’ve discovered on our travels; not to preach about how you should do things, but to inform and suggest, and we hope that you consider a lot of these for your next holiday and beyond. Remember - no action is EVER too small, and we all have the power to change our perspective, impact and reality!
responsible travel tips | Our guide to being a responsible tourist
what is responsible travel, anyway?
Responsible travel - and it’s counterparts sustainable travel, ethical travel, eco-friendly travel, etc - has become one of the biggest buzzwords in the travel industry right now. But what does it actually mean to travel responsibly, anyway?
Responsible travel is the umbrella term for dozens of ethical issues like wildlife tourism, volunteer travel (aka voluntourism), conservation issues; any topic that considers how to protect and improve the world we live in and travel through. Simply put, responsible tourism is all about having an active awareness about the effect that travel has on destinations and cultures around the world; positive and negative. It’s about considering your own impact and that of the travel providers you choose, and taking responsibility for ensuring that every facet of your travels, from the transport you take, the places you stay, the way you interact, and the companies and governments you support, are as sustainable as possible.
It’s not about being superior, or telling others that the way they’re doing it is wrong. It’s not about making drastic changes or taking all the fun out of your travels. If anything, it’s about travelling with awareness, kindness, and mutual respect for the world around you, making small choices with big impacts, and at least attempting to leave no trace of your wanderings.
Responsible travel tips | Cultural
#1 RESPECT LOCALS AND THEIR CULTURE
When visiting a foreign country it's important to remember that you're a guest; so behave like one. You might think that wandering through the main square of Hvar town in your bathers is alright, or snapping photos of market workers in Malawi is fine, or wearing short shots and behaving loudly at temples in Cambodia is acceptable - but locals may see it in a totally different light.
Respect that other people and places may view the world very differently to you and that their customs might feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable as you experience them. But just because something is different or you don’t agree with it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong or your way is better. Tomayto / tomahto and all that.
So much of the beauty of travel is found in discovering the rich tapestry of religion, language, and customs that make up our world, and respecting each of these for their individuality is key. Treat locals how you’d wish to be treated as a guest, take your cues from how they behave and dress, and always travel with respect at the heart of your adventures.
#2 SEEK AND ENJOY CULTURAL EXPERIENCES
We're completely aware that many people travel very differently to us; while we enjoy getting under the skind of a place and enjoying its cultural and authentic experiences, many love relaxing by the pool and sipping cocktails. Both ways are totally okay; but we’d also recommend expanding your experiences in a new place well beyond the all-inclusive resort.
Join a local tour, visit museums, local markets and restaurants, and chat with locals to grow your understanding and broaden your holiday experience. After all, what’s the point of leaving home and travelling all this way if you don’t want to at least try to experience your destination?
#3 BARGAIN RESPECTFULLY
Bargaining in a lively local market is all part of the fun when travelling, while haggling over food, transport, and souvenirs is commonplace in many parts of the world.
In general, have fun with it and haggle hard but fairly. What might seem just a game and the difference of a good latte to you, could genuinely mean the difference between a full day’s wage and a bad day at work for the seller you’re bargaining with. Positively support the livelihoods of traders by keeping in mind that the goal is to pay the fairest price for everyone, not the cheapest.
Also, bargaining isn’t standard practice in every country - so be sure to read up on the local etiquette before arriving to ensure you don’t cause offence by trying to bargain where it isn’t a thing.
#4 EAT LOCALLY
Let's be honest, there really is nothing better than eating local cuisine. Not only is the food delicious, it also supports the local economy via the use of local ingredients and produce, workers, restaurant owners and food culture.
So when you visit a destination, make a point of eating from locally run restaurants, street food stands, and markets, and forget the familiar (we're looking at you, McDonalds). Not only is it more delicious that way, you're helping the local communities support themselves.
Bonus, eating locally also cuts down on long carbon-intensive supply chains used to transport those frozen McDonalds fries we all know and love across the country on gas-guzzling trucks. A win-win for all!
#5 FIND ETHICAL NON-PROFITS AND SUPPORT THEM
If you’re keen to support community projects and the livelihoods of the locals you’re visiting, research non-profits and social enterprises at your destination before you visit and offer your services, book an experience, or purchase any products that are produced.
In Nepal, we did a cooking class through Seven Women, a social enterprise helping disadvantaged women get back on their feet. In Malawi, we purchased handicrafts from the Manchewe Mamas at the Mushroom Farm Malawi. In both cases, we came away with truly authentic experiences and were able to give back in a small way.
#6 RESPECT DRESS CODES
In many Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Orthodox countries, a fairly strict dress code applies, especially when visiting sights of religious significance, such as Angkor Wat, or within local villages.
A few years ago, we were pretty horrified to see so many backpackers flaunting their midriffs or wearing short shorts and singlet tops at sacred sites like Angkor Wat, active Lao temples, and the like. We get it; it’s hot, and the thought of wearing long-fitting clothing can be awful. But everyone’s in the same boat, and whether you agree with it or not, showing that much skin in places like this is just downright rude.
In most cultures, covering shoulders and knees is enough, however walking around in a bikini or bathers is frowned upon. Whether you disagree with this or not, respect the local culture.
#6 LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE (OR AS MUCH AS YOU CAN)
Our German is barely passable, our French horrible, and our Nepalese... well, we can say Namaste! But one thing that we try to do when we visit a new country is learn a few key phrases of the local language. Just a small amount of effort results in very positive outcomes (even in France!).
Some key phrases we try to learn include:
Hello/How are you?
Thank you/no thank you
Do speak English?
Sorry, i don't understand
Google Translate is a wonderful app to learn from.
#7 SLOW YOUR ROLL
So often, our travel instinct is to absolutely binge - much like when you find yourself sitting with a jumbo popcorn bucket at the movies.
We constantly want to see more, do more, eat more, hear more, more highlights, more miles travelled, more countries ticked off, as fast as we possibly can, and all in the name of maximising our time. People jump on tourist buses, cram as many cities as they can into two or four weeks of annual leave, and ‘see’ everything without even scratching the surface.
This world is a bigger place than any of us can hope to explore, and you’re never going to be able to truly appreciate your experiences or a destination by trying to cram too much in. Slow your travel down, see less places but see them better. Take the time to discover the rhythms of local life, buy food from markets, observe the goings-on of the neighbourhood you’re in, develop your cultural understanding, and be present wherever you find yourself. Travel should be about seeing and doing things as well and authentically as possible - not as fast as possible.
Southern Africa | A travellers guide to languages and phrases
Responsible travel tips | People
#8 JUST BE A GOOD PERSON
We generally don’t like to speak ill of people, but a few years ago we ended up travelling in Myanmar for a couple of days with a Swiss couple who were, quite frankly, terrible people. Every step of the way, they were negative and whiney, they argued with drivers over the difference of £1 and accused them outright of trying to rip them off, they rolled their eyes at people, treated waiters and operators with such contempt, and almost every interaction we witnessed of theirs made us want the earth to open up and swallow us whole.
This might sound totally simple and obvious, but to be a responsible traveller all you really need to do is be a good person. Start with a smile, listen patiently, and respond politely to those around you. Treat those you come across with respect and kindness - even those annoying hagglers who just asked you for the 16th time this hour if you’d like a tuktuk! If you’re not interested in chatting or purchasing, politely decline and move on. The old adage about treating others as you’d like to be treated is eternally true on the road - and you’ll be amazed at the kindness you’ll receive in return!
#9 ENGAGE AND SPEAK WITH LOCALS
Engaging and speaking with locals can lead to many positive experiences while travelling, and best of all it's free.
Recently in Sri Lanka, a local Muslim in Galle invited us into his home for tea, before telling us all about his family's history in Galle, which gave us a fascinating and personal insight into the city. An experience like this would not have been possible had we not smiled and said hello as we walked past.
#10 DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE VOLUNTEERING
For those fortunate enough to be able to travel the world, wanting to volunteer is perfectly normal. While it’s great to want to do some good while you’re travelling and it generally always comes from the best intentions, sometimes volunteering actually causes more harm to local communities than good.
Successful volunteering is that which empowers a local community to grow from within, and offers your unique set of skills to help them achieve that goal - not to swoop in and “fix” a place (check out the white saviour barbie Instagram for a brilliant take on this!)
According to Save the Children, up to 80% of the eight million children in orphanages worldwide are not actual orphans, and "children are bought or leased from their parents with the promise of a better life and better education, when the operators of the orphanage are merely trying to meet high demand. The more ‘orphans’ in need, the more tourists donate or pay to volunteer in their orphanage, and the more profitable the operation". Staggering.
Similarly, unless you have a very specific skill set, say as a doctor, midwife, or teacher and can commit to a long-term program (6+ months), simply going to teach English and hand out notebooks for a few weeks and then leaving again is extremely disruptive to children’s educations.
That being said, there are incredible organisations doing wonderful things, but it absolutely pays to do your research.
If you’re wanting to volunteer, consider the following:
What will be the outcome of your volunteering adventure?
Are you doing it for the right reasons?
What skills can you offer developing nations to empower and grow their next generation to be self-sufficient?
One great resource for information is Rethink Orphanages Network.
#11 ETHICAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Photography is an incredible way to remember your trip long after your tan has faded and the trinkets you’ve bought are showing their wear. But for some reason, the usual photography etiquettes that people tend to employ in their own country often seem to fly out the window the minute they step foot in another.
Responsible travel photography is about placing yourself in the other person’s shoes, and asking whether you would feel it appropriate if they took the same photo of you. Would you take this photo at home? Or be happy if someone took it of you? Could it considered exploitative in any way (ie. is it of children, or people ‘down on their luck’?)? Have you gained the person’s consent? Is photography even considered culturally acceptable in this place?
There’s absolutely nothing we love more than going to a bustling market or busy street on our travels, and being able to capture the people who exist there with our cameras - but you’ll almost never see us snapping away without first interacting with the subjects we intend to photograph. Instead of taking a photo immediately, we’ll try to get involved with what the person is doing, whether it’s sharing a joke with them, purchasing something from their stall, or simply smiling and pointing at our cameras to ask if we can take their photo.
Making it a two-way interaction is not only important to us, it generally leads to a far more comfortable and engaged photograph. Plus you might even get a rare insight into something you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise!
#12 SHOP LOCALLY AND SUPPORT FAMILY-RUN BUSINESSES
The choices you make about the way you travel can have a huge impact on the health of our planet and its communities. By choosing to sleep, eat, and travel like a local you’ll support local economies, drastically reduce your carbon footprint, and help to keep our planet’s lungs clean and healthy for centuries to come.
Support families by staying in locally-owned guest houses instead of large energy-intensive hotels, take local transport instead of hiring a private car, and buy from talented local sellers and craftsmen to help keep centuries-old traditions alive and well and pour money back into the local community at the source. Plus, who wants another tacky same-same, made in China tourist item when you could have a skilfully crafted, unique souvenir that truly reflects the place you’re in?
Responsible Travel tips | Plastic
#13 SAY NO TO PLASTIC
A plastic bag for this, a plastic bag for that; this is how we felt when travelling through south east Asia and it was overwhelming. The easiest way to reduce your overall plastic consumption is to just say NO!
Avoid buying plastic products if at all possible, say no to plastic bags, and where possible, gently educate locals on the negative consequences of plastic. It doesn’t need to get preachy; a simple ‘no thanks, I don’t like plastic as it’s bad for the environment’ will suffice.
#14 USE REUSABLE BOTTLES/WATER PURIFIERS
Globally, humans binge on a million plastic bottles a minute. Just let that sink in for a second.
Consider that it takes 400 years for plastic to biodegrade and that in many countries drinking water is available for free, and suddenly the idea of using a plastic bottle for convenience is absurd. Fill up a reusable water bottle and take it with you wherever you go to avoid buying unnecessary single-use bottles.
‘But what about dirty water?!,’ we hear you ask. Well, we agree that clean drinking water can be an issue in many developing nations - but as a traveller it absolutely doesn’t need to mean buying endless plastic bottles everywhere you go. Investing in a water filtration bottle or steri-pen, which delivers clean, safe drinking water from any non-saltwater source, is a simple solution.
We've used ours in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Sri Lanka without any issue. If in doubt, use our eco-friendly packing guide to help.
#15 SAY NO TO THE STRAW
"No straw, please"! A simple statement with wide-ranging positive implications on the planet. Over 8 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced on this planet, with 91% of it not being recycle. Much of it, like straws, end up in our oceans, with dire consequences for marine life.
When you stop and really think about it: straws get thrown into our drinks, where we drink from them using mouths that can easily do the task by themselves, for maybe half an hour before they get dumped straight into the trash. Multiply that by how many drinks you might have at a venue, and then by all the other patrons there and you start to realise just how damaging the problem really is.
So next time you order a cocktail, smoothie, or iced coffee, use that simple phrase - "no straw, please".
#16 STOP USING PLASTIC TOILETRIES
Look inside your toiletries bag and you'll realise that 99% of the stuff within it is plastic. Shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, razors, make up - almost everything we use for our personal hygiene is wrapped in a layer of plastic.
Fortunately, brands such as Lush and Ethique are starting to provide consumers with alternatives to plastic bottles, such as soap, shampoo and conditioner bars, toothy tabs and mouthwash, and moisturiser.
We made the change and replaced all of our plastic toiletries in 2018 and haven't looked back. Our toiletries are now smaller and lighter as a result.
Responsible Travel tips | Environment
#17 RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT
We can't tell you the number of times we've been in the middle of pristine nature only to look around discover piles of rubbish. Sadly, it’s becoming so common to spot bits of trash on our hiking trails, beaches, and national parks that it seems we’re all becoming desensitised to it - and it's just not good enough.
Regardless of whether it's your home country or somewhere you're visiting, respect the local environment, and take your trash with you until you can find an adequate trashcan or recycling bin to leave it.
#18 OFFSET YOUR CARBON EMISSIONS
Airline travel has never been more popular, or more dangerous to the planet. In fact, we’re more aware than ever that our own choice of career is having a huge impact on the environment.
Airline emissions represent 2% of the worlds man-made carbon emissions, and it's not something that's going to change any time soon, with air travel continued to increase between 2 - 8% annually until 2030.
One simple way to counteract your inevitable carbon footprint is to offset your emissions. This can be done by calculating your emissions, and then making a donation to respective projects around the world aimed at reducing carbon in the atmosphere.
Many airlines don't have the ability to offset your emissions directly, so the best way to do this is via Carbonfootprint.com or Atmosphere, websites which allow you to calculate and offset your emissions easily through reputable organisations or global projects.
Alternatively, travel closer to home and save those emissions altogether.
#19 TRAVEL BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
When we travel, we endeavour to take public transport at every opportunity. Not only is it exciting, it's a great way to meet locals and see more of the country you're visiting.
But the number 1 reason to travel by public transport? Reducing your carbon footprint. By choosing already-existing on-ground transport (trains, etc) and minimising your internal short-haul flights or private taxis, you’re cutting down on unnecessary emissions - so next time you're in a country, take the metro, local train or bus, tuk-tuk, or even rent a bike!
#20 WALK EVERYWHERE WHEN VISITING CITIES
In our humble opinion, the best way to discover a city is by foot. Roaming the streets and invariably getting lost not only a fun way to approach exploring, but also good for the environment.
#21 REDUCE OR STOP EATING MEAT (ESPECIALLY RED MEAT)
While we don't expect everyone who reads this blog to become vegetarian/vegan, the simple act of reducing your meat and dairy consumption can have a positive effect on the environment.
Livestock production now contributes nearly 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, which is even more than the transportation sector. Here are some other stats that might blow your mind:
Compared to crops like potatoes, wheat and rice, beef requires 160 times more land, and produces over 11 times more greenhouse gases
Of the land that isn’t covered by ice, livestock takes up 30% of our land.
By 2050, it's estimated that the emissions from the agriculture and food production industry will account for about half of the total available "carbon budget"
One pound of beef requires around 9,000 litres of water over its lifetime
The average British carnivore eats more than 11,000 animals in their lifetime
One billion people go hungry every day, and yet livestock now consumes the majority of the world's crops.
Throughout our travels, we’ve come across beautiful untouched pockets of the world that had just been designated for cattle farms; we’ve seen extreme poverty and hunger firsthand, and we’ve seen mistreatment of animals nearly everywhere we’ve gone. At the end of our year around the world, we decided that the meat industry was no longer something we wanted to support.
Our journey to vegetarianism began as ‘flexitarians’ in 2016, we haven’t bought or cooked meat in that time, and we’re now almost exclusively veggie, and have almost entirely cut out dairy too. We say ‘almost’, because on rare occasions Mim might still eat some fish, or we’ll sample a piece of the local delicacy offered to us on our travels (like reindeer cooked by local sami people in Swedish Lapland). The goal is to make meat a treat, rather than a necessity.
What's more, in going vegetarian, you'll discover an incredible world of tastes and flavours you never knew about.
#22 CHOSE RESPONSIBLE TOUR OPERATORS
If you’re travelling as part of a tour, do your research and choose a travel brand that reflects your own values and beliefs: are they just a party company, or do they care about the communities they visit? What attractions do they visit? What type of transport do they use? Do they condone cruel practices like elephant rides or lion walks, or have they signed with any wildlife protection bodies? Are they carbon neutral certified? What’s more - do they actually live by these values, or are they simply words on a page?!
A good benchmark is a travel company like Intrepid Travel, who is leading the way when it comes to responsible tourism, is b-corporation certified, and pushes for animal protection across the industry.
#23 CONSERVE WATER AND USE LESS WHEN SHOWERING
We loooooooove our long, warm showers, but we know that water is such a scarce commodity throughout the world that we can no longer justify an obscenely long shower.
In fact, in Cape Town in 2016, as the city was gripped by drought (it still is, by the way), we limited our showers to 1 minute, and were only allowed to flush the toilet for number 2's. This taught us a very valuable lesson regarding water usage.
Remember that while you may have access to clean fresh water, many don't, so limit your showers to a maximum of 2 minutes, and never, ever, leave a tap on when brushing your teeth or washing dishes.
#24 CHOSE SUSTAINABILITY/ECO-FRIENDLY ACCOMMODATION
As the tourism industry evolves and moves towards a more sustainable model, it's becoming easier and easier to choose sustainable and eco-friendly accommodation.
Research is key here, as many ‘eco-lodges’ are the furthest thing from, but a thorough scan of their websites - as we did when booking hotels in Sri Lanka recently (if you’re travelling there, we recommend Tri Lanka!) - will help you understand their credentials. If you’re in doubt about anything, reach out to them for clarification.
Alternatively, you can use websites such as BookDifferent.com, which is powered by booking.com. BookDifferent lets users compare hotels based on their green credentials, through a carbon footprint rating, for over 1,00,000 properties worldwide.
Responsible Travel tips | Animal Tourism
#25 DON’T SUPPORT ANIMAL TOURISM
After three years on the road, we've discovered that just about every single animal attraction is negative, so our simple solution is to not support any of them. This includes riding Elephants or Elephant safaris, Elephant 'sanctuaries', Tiger temples, swimming with dolphins, animal performances, hunting... the list goes on.
If you’re absolutely determined to get up close to a wild animal, we implore you to do thorough research through Google, Tripadvisor and guidebooks before you visit any animal attraction and only support those who are truly ethical.
We’ve put together a guide on how to be an animal friendly traveller which you can read here.
#26 LIMIT YOUR WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS TO THE WILD
Some of the best experiences you’ll ever have as a traveller are witnessing a herd of elephants walk across the plains of the African savannah at sunset, a tiger pausing to drink at a river in India, an Orangutan swinging through the lush canopy of Borneo’s jungles, or whales as they migrate towards warmer tropical waters.
Avoid zoos and wildlife parks, and stick to viewing animals in their natural habitats (at a safe distance for all!).
Do you have any more responsible travel tips? We’re always keen to learn how we, and our readers/followers can minimise their footprint and leave a positive impact on the planet! Share your responsible tourism tips and experiences in the comments below!
Like this post? Pin and share it!
Become a more responsible traveller with these stories, guides and tips
Some of the links on this post are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase using these links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please know that by using these affiliate links, you're directly supporting The Common Wanderer to stay wandering, the running costs of the site, and our ability to provide you with free content to help you on your travels. That, and you're officially a legend.