Last year, Nearly 67 million U.S. citizens traveled abroad—a record number that is expected to be dwarfed in the following years. For Americans, travel has never been more difficult. Foreigners are already giving Americans the side-eye (thanks, Trump), so it’s important for travelers to act as an ambassador for our country and not give locals any reason to complain about your visit.
Here are 8 ways you can have a memorable, affordable trip that leaves you enlightened, and (hopefully) your travel destination in better shape than when you got there.
For a decade now, social media sites and travel blogs have inspired younger travelers to go to as many places as possible, scratching countries off their lengthy bucket lists along the way. That usually means flying from country to country, either taking lots of short trips or using a long vacation to destination-hop. Though no one is going to fault you for wanting to see the world, it’s impossible to deny air travel’s harsh impact on the environment. Each year, the airline industry uses around 1.5 billion climate-changing barrels of jet fuel.
Though the best solution is not to fly (or drive or sail or take a train) to the opposite end of the earth, a more reasonable goal is to follow a “slow travel” approach. Don’t simply fly somewhere for a weekend. Instead, stay longer in a primary destination to make the inevitable carbon footprint a bit more manageable. Besides, you can’t really get to know a place in just a few days. Take time to appreciate the culture, meet locals, visit off-the-beaten-path areas, and relax.
Support Local Establishments.
“Living like a local” doesn’t have to mean forgoing museums and tourist attractions. Rather, prioritize supporting the local economy, so your tourist dollars can have a positive impact on the citizens within the area you travel. When done right, this can also save you money: Small, casual eateries and shops located outside of tourist areas are often less expensive than what you’d find within a city center. Quaint attractions that celebrate local culture often have reasonable entry fees, if they charge anything at all.
When booking a room, opt for a family-owned bed and breakfast, a locally-owned boutique hotel, or an AirBnB listing. Sites like Kind Traveler list sustainable properties where a portion of your payment goes towards local charitable causes.
Book a Tour Led by Refugees.
The ongoing refugee crisis has left many migrant families struggling to find work in densely populated European cities. According to the U.N. statistics, in 2015, more than 360,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. In an effort to provide a source of income for these newcomers, organizations like Migrantour and Querstadtein formed tour companies that exclusively hire refugees as their guides. The tours often take travelers “off the beaten path” and allow them to explore sites that are culturally relevant for the guides. More importantly, these tours raise awareness while also providing the guides with economic stability as they continue to get back on their feet.
When visiting developing nations, First World guilt may compel travelers to contribute some local currency to panhandlers or justify steep costs on clearly inexpensive food or souvenirs based on people we perceive as less fortunate. But that doesn’t make your generosity a good thing, especially if it goes against local customs.
For example, many cultures rely on the barter system to make room in their economy for both the rich and poor, even if it’s a bit awkward for travelers who aren’t used to flexible prices. But traveling is about getting out of your comfort zone, and spending $10 USD on an item that should only cost $1 in that country doesn’t help anyone.
While traveling, take care to respect not only local traditions, but also the system. And, as always, shop at local vendors. Though it may sound counterintuitive, you can credibly view bargaining with these vendors as an authentic way to support local economies, even if it feels like you’re being cheap. Such shopping—even with haggling—ensures your travel dollars directly support the region you’re visiting.
Do Research Before Booking Day Trips.
Even the most diligent TripAdvisor trawler can end up wasting precious time and money on a nightmarish excursion.
In Thailand, for example, the Chiang Rai Mai Hill Tribe members—commonly referred to as the Hilltop Tribes or Long Neck Villages—are Tibeto-Burman refugees from Myanmar, who have been granted temporary asylum, so long as they stay in their tiny tourist villages. Thai authorities forbid them from using modern conveniences—like roads, electricity, healthcare, and education—under the pretense of protection.
There are numerous blog posts from people who have regretted visiting the tribes and stories from the villagers trying to raise awareness about their situation. But still, every year tourists pay guides to take them to the hill tribes.
Before booking a day trip or cultural excursion, research the history or ask locals for advice, and make sure the attraction is truly in line with your moral code.
Avoid Hyped-Up Locations.
When then-President Obama implemented policy changes that made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, tourism increased nearly 18 percent in 2015, and 13 percent in 2016. Both businesses and individuals began scrambling for a bite of that “tourism pie”—so much so that it’s not uncommon to find doctors and lawyers with a side hustle in the travel industry. But the sudden influx of tourists also raises questions about who’s profiting most from this economic boost and whether its gains will be realized by all citizens. The Caribbean island also boasts several pristine natural areas that could be negatively impacted by the crowds.
Meanwhile in Barcelona, locals are literally taking to the streets in protest of over-tourism. While millions of tourists continue to visit the 39-square-mile city, locals—especially the elderly—are being slowly driven out to make room for hotels and tourist-favored chain businesses. La Boquieria, a centuries-old market, is now a popular tourist attraction. The crowds of foreign visitors have forced locals to find new places to shop, and as a result many old vendors selling practical items and foods have suffered as sales decrease, while the number of souvenir hawkers has exploded.
Rather than going where you aren’t really wanted, visit a lesser-known destination that’s just as cool. If you’re stumped as to where to go, we have a few ideas.
When it comes to ethical travel, one of the easiest things you can do is pack light and avoid buying something for your trip that you don’t really need. Ethical travelers tend to take pride in their anti-consumerist lifestyle, prioritizing experiences over things. So, yes, you may need an adapter to plug in electronics. No, you don’t need a leather tech dopp kit to stylishly hold your electronics.
Chances are, there’s a cool new product to make your trip more comfortable for wherever you’re going, but that’s not the point of traveling. Plus, choosing to save money on these products will be better in the short term—having more money to actually allocate towards your trip—and long term—not buying random gear as a crutch when going outside your comfort zone.
Remember, chances are that product won’t make that much of a difference on your trip. If anything, expensive gadgets and gear will only increase your chances of getting robbed.
Explore Your Own Backyard.
You don’t need to travel thousands of miles to experience a trip of a lifetime. Instead, choose a nearby city or state to explore the old-fashioned way: by roaming around, meeting new people, experiencing local culture, and appreciating mini-adventures “in your own backyard.” This not only nixes carbon emissions from planes or long drives, it also helps preserve some of the many places being affected by over-tourism.
When traveling locally, you’re less likely to rely on guides and more apt to forge your own path, allowing you to develop a deeper appreciation for the region you call home. Though this may not give you the most passport stamps, you can still build a FOMO-inducing (and totally inspiring) Instagram account around your experiences, all while making friends who aren’t half a world away.