"I felt like I was on the moon," Mollai Anne Sweeney is telling me. "I was zipping through Utah and the desert went so far that it sort of melted into the horizon. Then there were mountains – and the tracks of the train went so high over them that you might just imagine falling off the edge. I’ve never seen anything like it."
Funnily enough, Mollai was able to witness these rolling landscapes sort of by chance. She’d been staying on the US west coast, in California, and needed to get to Philadelphia to catch a flight home to Ireland. The flight was quick and relatively cheap. But Mollai, 22, a social worker from Dublin, took a two-day sleeper train for the same price instead. "That’s a long train journey," she continues. "But I’m so thankful I did it. As well as cutting out an entire plane journey within my trip, it also allowed me to see so much more of the country I was in. I went right across the States, I saw incredible scenery, I met other, brilliant people along the way… I don’t think I’ll ever forget it."
Like Mollai, more and more of us are considering our impact on the world as we click "book" on our latest escapade. We’ve all likely felt the pang of guilt, receiving a confirmation email from Ryanair, as I did recently, on return flights to a quick getaway for under 30 quid. It’s so cheap that it’s often hard to say no. But while air travel becomes ever more convenient, the exponential cost to our planet is rising. Right now, around 20,000 planes serve more than three billion people across the world and it’s estimated that number will increase to more than 50,000 planes in service by 2040. Already, aeroplanes produce 2.5% of our annual emissions at minimum, while tourism in general accounts for 8%, according to one scientific paper – a huge contribution to climate change. It’s why so-called flight-shaming has taken hold – and why solo travellers like Mollai are finding alternative ways to see the world.
The thing is that while ethical travel is admirable and aspirational, we’re not about to simply stop using planes. Plus, train travel can be extremely expensive, especially within the UK, so for many people – families on low incomes, for example – cheap flights have made travel opportunities more equal, societally speaking. So how do we find the happy medium?
"I think we need to be realistic, rather than idealistic, when it comes to ethical travelling on our own," Luisa Ruocco, 28, says. She’s a self-titled digital nomad and travel and food influencer who spends around one third of her time travelling solo. "For me it’s more about being very aware of the impact you have on the environment, and then finding ways to offset that footprint."
Luisa suggests using sites like carbonfootprint.com to calculate your imprint on the Earth before you set off, and even making a donation to a climate change project as you book your flight ("British Airways has a very easy check box for you to do this as you book," Luisa says, "it’s usually just a nominal amount like £2, but it can make a difference.") However, firms like Responsible Travel – a company which acts as a "matchmaker" for tourists who want to travel more ethically from the UK around the world – warn that "offsetting" can often distract from actually reducing your emissions in the first place.
"Until decarbonisation of aviation becomes reality we’re going to need to fly less and fly smarter," Ellie Weehuizen of Responsible Travel says. "That can mean taking fewer, but longer holidays that involve a flight, and choosing to fly direct and in economy class," because, she explains, first class can have double the carbon footprint. "You can look into which airlines have the lowest emissions per passenger per mile, travel overland in a destination instead of taking domestic flights and make your trip count by choosing a holiday that benefits local communities and wildlife when you’re there."
There are the little things we can do, too – staying in shared places via Airbnb or a similar home-sharing site will always be more economic and better for the environment than a hotel room. As Luisa points out, while conglomerates might have cottoned on to leaving notes about the number of times we change our towels or sheets, the constant heating – or air conditioning – in a hotel has a huge added impact. Even avoiding use of tiny, posh hotel soaps can help reduce our overall carbon footprint.
"Another thing is to avoid buffet breakfasts at all costs," Luisa says. "The amount of wasted food in the tourism industry is so high it’s almost difficult to think about." I nod in agreement – on a recent trip to The Gambia to report on the oyster farming industry, I was told time and again that all-inclusive hotels were capturing the business of tourists and draining local business, too, and in turn the livelihoods of the people producing local food. Often our footprint has a further reaching impact than we perhaps know.
There are the little things, too, says Mollai, that we can take on ourselves. "One of the easiest things I’ve done is buy mini travel bottles for my essentials – like shampoo, conditioner and shower gel – to refill before I go away. Those little things can make a huge difference. It means I’m not contributing to plastic waste (by using hotel/store-bought products), and I’m not using chemicals I don’t want to when I’m away."
"When we travel, we have a responsibility to keep waste to a minimum," Ellie adds, "so also make sure you pack your reusable water bottle, tote bag and cutlery, and remove any excess packaging while you’re still at home. It might seem obvious but small changes can really make a big difference, especially in destinations which struggle to recycle or manage waste."
Really, it’s about asking questions – the things we might be accustomed to, like taking a cab from the airport to our home for the week instead of figuring out the local tram network, can all add up.
Finally, Luisa, says, speak up. "You might feel like a really annoying tourist," she says, "but just asking a hotel manager about their food waste, or plastic policy, can at least plant a seed of thought which might just provoke a little change. And if more and more people do that, the message will spread higher up. You can only ask," she adds.
And who knows, booking that train, like Mollai did, might just be the best decision you ever made. Small changes might just lead to big experiences. We’ve all got to hope, haven’t we?
Support the locals
Choose your accommodation wisely – by staying in family-run or locally owned accommodation you can ensure your money goes to the local economy, rather than a faceless multinational chain hotel. Similarly, choose local restaurants to eat in and buy your souvenirs from locals too. That way you're not only helping local business but reducing the need for goods to be shipped over from other countries.
Responsible tourism policies
Ask for your accommodation or holiday provider’s responsible tourism policies to check that they are doing all they can to provide a low carbon and sustainable trip. They might install fans instead of power-guzzling air con, use energy-efficient LED lighting, or use solar panels to heat water, etc. Do they offer bike hire or other options for getting around? Do they grow food on site or source furniture from local artisans? Do they employ local guides? If their policy is not up to scratch then it might be one to avoid.
Leave plastic packaging at home
Ask yourself before you leave if you're keeping the waste you travel with to a minimum. Can you take biodegradable wet wipes instead? Can you take your own toiletries instead of using the little ones in the hotel? Remove any packaging you don't need.
Consider visiting places like national parks, which usually have fees to raise funds for conservation. Prioritise excursions that put the wildlife first, not the tourist, and ask questions about anything that makes you a bit uncomfortable. If they're worth their salt, they shouldn't have a problem answering them.