How to Plan a Sustainable Trip: a case study in green travel planning

As wildlife lovers, we have always been interested in environmentally friendly travel. We followed all the basics – avoiding plastics and taking short showers – but only recently began to understand all that goes into making our travel destinations sustainable. We’ve learned that taking time to understand the issues challenging the destination, and planning accordingly, will ensure our travel supports the environment and the local community. In this post we’ll share the travel tips we’ve learned for green travel planning.

What is a sustainable travel plan?

Sustainable holiday planning, or green travel planning, is the process of designing your trip in a responsible way. For sustainable tourism the three pillars of sustainability – the environment, the economy, and society – should all be interdependent. In other words, your trip would be as beneficial to the hosting community as it is to you, the visitor.

Learn more about being a responsible traveler at Sustainable Travel: a globetrotter’s guide.
This post includes affiliate links. Traveling Tulls may earn a small commission, at no additional expense to you, if you purchase something from one of these links.  DISCLOSURE
Rafting on the Peñas Blancas, an experience found on a green travel itinerary

How to plan a sustainable trip?

Seven steps in green travel planning

  1. Research Destination
    1. avoid areas of over tourism
    2. avoid areas of unethical travel or political turmoil
  2. Decide on timing for your travel
    1. choose to travel at times of least tourism
    2. opt for slow travel – spending more time at your destination.
  3. Outline travel plans
    1. can you combine this trip with another so as to economize of transportation?
    2. research activities
      • Investigate ethical options and providers
      • Be sure priority activities will be open
      • Research wildlife activities to determine if they’re ethically run
    3. begin learning about your chosen destination
      • Learn a few words of the language
      • Create a reading list of books about your destination. Or line up some movies for a film festival.
      • Research cultural customs and etiquette
  4. Transportation
    1. train travel is most efficient
    2. bus travel, and ride sharing follow in efficiency
    3. if flying is required, check carbon ratings
    4. walk, bike, or use public transportation at your destination
  5. Choose lodging carefully
    1. locally owned and operated lodging returns the most revenue to the economy
    2. research sustainability practices and community support
  6. Begin booking (or bookmarking) local activities
  7. Pack light and sustainably
    1. create a travel capsule wardrobe to minimize clothing needed
    2. choose quick dry, odor resistant, wrinkle-free items
    3. minimize toiletries carried

The seven steps to green travel planning will help you to be a responsible traveler. Consider each as you put together your itinerary, and you’re good to go!

Bonus: Identify a charity, cause, or foundation from your destination you can contribute to.

scarlet macaw flying over trees near the Pacific ocean

Case Study: How we planned a sustainable trip to Costa Rica

A trip to Costa Rica has been top of my wish list for a long time. I’m an avid birder and had researched birding expeditions to this Central American country for years. My husband is NOT a birder however and prefers a relaxing cruise or island destination for our mid-winter travel. So we compromise. Years of traveling together have helped us to arrive at plans that work for both of us. When traveling anywhere we schedule some quiet time either before or (preferably) at the end of our journey. This has worked well for us on our African safaris, and on our European vacations.

Decisions, decisions… or coming up with a plan

Note: As this was meant as a case study in green travel planning, I wrote this section before our trip. However, a family tragedy right before our travel date changed our travel plans. Read to the end to see how the trip ended up, and whether, despite changes, our goal of traveling responsibly was met.
three toed sloth in wildlife reserve, as found by a local guide in Costa Rica.

1. Destination

Costa Rica – If you research sustainable travel, you will immediately come up with links to Costa Rica. This country is way ahead of the world in sustainable tourism, and is always on the list of ecotourism destinations. Almost 5% of the world’s biodiversity is found in this small nation. In 2021 Costa Rica was the recipient of the Earthshot Prize, a global environmental award.

2. Timing

We are traveling at the end of January to escape the New England winter, but we’ve timed our trip away from school vacation schedules when the sites might be busy. However, with COVID-19 having a severe impact on travel, deciding on an ‘unbusy’ time to travel was largely irrelevant. But deciding to go ahead with the trip this year was important to the Costa Rican tourism industry.

3. Outline travel plans

  • Combining travel – we booked our flight to begin in the NYC area and giving us the opportunity to visit our New York family. In Costa Rica we will have a week on our own, exploring nature, etc. before sailing for a week on a small ship. We had originally intended to add another week’s stay in Florida or Texas, but in light of the epidemic and possible quarantine protocols, we decided to fly directly home.
  • Research activities – we decided to book our pre-cruise week with Nicole Engel (Absolute Experts Costa Rica) a local Costa Rican travel advisor. We’ve outlined things we want to see and do, and requested she book locally owned, sustainable lodging, and local guides for our tours.
  • Learning about the destination –
    1. As we are traveling during the pandemic the most important preparation we have done is researching the health and vaccination requirements for entering Costa Rica. We are fully vaccinated and boosted, so do not need to purchase the mandatory Costa Rican travel insurance for the unvaccinated. We decided to purchase our own insurance anyway in case we got sick and had to cancel at the last minute, or needed additional medical care in Costa Rica.
    2. Putting together a reading list is always a fun activity for me. My favorite for this trip was Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate by Jack Ewing. It’s a collection of natural history essays – easy reading, yet informative.
    3. Dave is pretty fluent in Spanish so we felt comfortable with that. (post-trip note: I need to learn Spanish! Dave did great, but I missed a lot!)

4. Transportation

There are no direct flights from Boston, so we will begin our trip in the NYC area. Undecided whether we will drive or take Amtrak to get to NY.
Our research on Google Flights gave us information on flight efficiency. We are booked to fly on United Airlines on a flight rated as producing 18% lower emissions than average.

Farm to table garden at Hotel Belmar, a sustainable tourism experience
Garden – Hotel Belmar

5. Lodging

We have planned our nature week in Costa Rica with Nicole. We discussed with her our commitment to sustainable travel, and she selected lodging accordingly. Costa Rica makes this easy as the Costa Rican Tourism Institute has developed criteria for lodging to receive certification for sustainable tourism (CST).
Nicole has booked us at the Hotel Belmar near the Monteverde cloud forest. This hotel is rated 5 leaves – the highest rating given by the tourism board. We’re looking forward to learning about how they’ve created a model for sustainable tourism.

After the land portion of the trip, our challenge come in. Cruising can be notoriously UN-sustainable, but we researched and chose to book a small ship cruise with Windstar on one of their sailing ships. This ship carries only 148 guests as opposed to the thousands carried on other lines mega-ships. Windstar has made a commitment to sustainability. The company is upgrading its ships, installing new wastewater treatment systems and new engines which exceed the efficiency standards put in place by the International Maritime Organization limit.

6. Begin Booking and Bookmarking Activities

We’ve settled on a schedule that will allow us some time in San Jose city, several days in nature reserves, and a day or two of complete relaxation. I’ve prepared a journal where I’ve gathered ideas for local restaurants to try, responsible tours, etc. Again, as the pandemic is still ongoing, we do not need to reserve spots for these activities immediately.
Reading reviews on TripAdvisor (or similar review sites) has helped us to decide on what to do and what to avoid. We’ve decided to skip a wildlife refuge that some felt was ethically questionable.

7. Pack light and sustainably

Not a challenge for me! We will likely pack carry-on with one bag each. Over the years we have invested in quality, lightweight, quick-dry clothing. Our gadgets will go in our under-seat bag and will take up much of the baggage weight. In our bags we will be sure to include:

  • reusable water bottle
  • coral safe sunscreen
  • a reusable shopping bag (no plastic bags in Costa Rica)
  • reusable straws

Identify a cause, charity or reserve to support. We’ve searched Pack with a Purpose and found a list of school supplies being collected at Hotel Belmar. Pack with a Purpose is a nonprofit organization that lets travelers identify supplies needed in destinations they are visiting. Hotels and lodgings around the world submit lists of community needs and disperse whatever the traveler is able to fit in their suitcase.
That’s a good start for our giving back. Will have to see if we find more causes when we get there!

baby white-faced capuchin riding on Mom

How’d we do? Was the trip an example of sustainable, green tourism?

Over our years of travel, we’ve learned that the most important thing you can bring on any trip is flexibility. Certainly this was the case for this trip. Right before we were to leave for our trip, we lost a sister to cancer. Though she’d been sick for a while, her death was completely unexpected. We were shattered, and unsure whether to go forward with the trip. We made the difficult decision to adjust plans and go to Costa Rica directly from the funeral.

Almost all the plans we’ve outlined above changed. We left from Texas, cancelled the cruise portion of the trip, and slowed down our schedule to add more time to rest. As a result, the trip was more sustainable than we’d planned. We know it was more of what we needed after our loss. Not only did we have privacy to mourn, but also the days in small towns gave us the opportunity to enjoy local restaurants, and hear live music.

Green Travel Planning Success – going with local guides!

We met the most extraordinary nature guides, who not only shared with us their knowledge of wildlife, but also took the time to talk about their lives, their struggles these past two years, and cheered us with their good humor. Undoubtedly, having tourists back in Costa Rica is essential to the country and these people. They were justly proud of the work Costa Rica has done to protect its environments:

Local guide, and bird caller extraordinaire, Giovanni Bogarin
Giovanni Bogarin of La Fortuna
  • Karen Castillo (Smilisca Natural Expeditions), our guide in Manuel Antonio National Park, shared how this immensely popular park has not only set limits on the numbers of visitors daily, but also has made the decision to close one day a week to allow nature to recover. In this way, the government is prioritizing nature over money. BTW Karen was the first female guide in the national park!
  • Felix Barrantes (Pasión Costa Rica) gave us an amazing tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, but also shared his concerns for the effects climate change has already had on the ecosystem. In the 1970s the cloud forest averaged no more than 23 sunny days a year, in 2021 there were 132 sunny days. This change has resulted in many species disappearing, possibly forever.
    Felix told us about the quality of life in the country, and the laws enacted to preserve health and the environment – no smoking allowed in ANY public space, fines of littering, etc.
  • Giovanni Bogarin has single-handedly reforested 30 acres in the town of La Fortuna. This reserve is now home to sloths, iguanas, and hundreds of bird species. Giovanni has been featured in the New York Times for his work. Our day with Giovanni was extraordinary!

Final thoughts

Now that we’re home and reflecting on the past month, we recognize how restoring it was to spend time with each other and with the friendly local people of Costa Rica. As we said goodbye to each guide, each hotelier, and each driver, my husband assured them that we would come back to Costa Rica. I think my ‘birding dream vacation’ was a hit with him too!

Want more help in planning your trip? Read: Our 25 Top Travel Tips.
horizon view over the Pacific

Are you a earth-friendly traveler? Do you have suggestions on how to plan a sustainable trip? I’d love to hear any tips you have to make our travel more sustainable, and that we can share in this green travel guide! Thanks! – Amy

7 Steps for Green Travel Planning. How to plan a responsible trip that benefits you and the community you're visiting. #sustainability #sustainabletourism #ecotourism
7 steps to green travel planning. How to plan a sustainable trip.

25 thoughts on “How to Plan a Sustainable Trip: a case study in green travel planning

  1. Oh I love this guide! I’m always looking for ways to make my travels more sustainable! I can’t wait to put some of these tips into practice on my next trip – thanks so much for the great guide!

  2. I want to make my travels more sustainable, so this article was great… real treasure! And thank you for putting it together.

  3. I am so sorry for your loss. But it sounds like the changes to your plans were great both for your sanity and for sustainable travel. It is nice to see how your plans changed – and it sounds like such a fantastic experience with all those wildlife guides.

  4. I love travel planning and only travel itself is better. Sustainability is an important aspect of all that. Thanks for sharing tips to emphasize this aspect of travel planning!

  5. I think it takes a lot of research and planning to make out travels sustainable, but it is worth it. And your article has some great tips, so great work! Saving it!

  6. I love this post so much. Sustainable travel should be a high priority on any traveler’s list. Not only is travelling at lesser touristy times more sustainable, but it’s also cheaper, less busy, and therefore makes it a better time! Locally owned B&Bs, homestays, etc. is my favourite way to travel. In Asia, I tried to stay in as many homestays as possible and met so many incredible people along the way, not to mention tasted some awesome homemade food!!! <3 I especially love that you chose to support a charity on your visit to Costa Rica, what a lovely idea!

  7. Wow, you have a lot of great content on here. Thanks for sharing some really good details on green traveling. I was glad to see you covered combine traveling, since it’s one I am currently doing too. I’ll have to branch out to more!

  8. I love living and traveling more sustainably. And Costa Rica is on my bucket list!! Great case study!!!

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