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How to be a Better Traveler

japan people crowds kyoto

If we have learned anything from the year 2020, it’s that we need to do better. WE ALL NEED TO DO BETTER. But in particular for travelers, now is an especially crucial time to be aware and self-cognizant about how we fit into the global ecosystem. Travelers today need to recognize that the way we travel deeply affects the world around us and impacts future generations to come.

There are ten easy steps that you can begin implementing into your daily travel routine that can positively impact both the communities you visit AND your community at home. You don’t have to do all of them at once, but slowly incorporating at least a few will have a bigger influence than you may think!

Recognize your privilege

If you are traveling for leisure, YOU HAVE PRIVILEGE. Travel is a luxury, and one that the majority of the world does not have. Travel privilege is not inherently a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind. Recognize that you are healthy enough to travel. That you are financially able to travel. However, travel privilege comes in various other forms as well. Depending on your passport, you are able to travel to more places. You may be treated better than others, even locals. Depending on your gender or skin color, you may be harrassed in the streets unprovoked. If you are able to travel, you have some degree of privilege, so acknowledge it and always stay humble.

girl red wall china

Do What You Can

You may have heard this one, but do what you can to be a more sustainable consumer. I’m going to break it to you slowly, but travel is not good for the Earth. BUUUUT, neither are a lot of things. Some people may choose to transition to a Vegan lifestyle to offset inhumane meat industry practices while others choose to campaign and donate to ethical livestock organizations. In the same way, there are many ways to make travel MORE sustainable. Don’t beat yourself up about not saving the planet all by yourself. You shouldn’t feel bad about not doing everything – but try to do at least one thing. Find something that is easy to implement, and then do it! It can be as easy as just swapping out your travel products for sustainable alternatives, or donating to a carbon pollution reduction program every time you take a flight! Small steps. That’s all it takes.

More Suggestions on Sustainability:

  • Sustainable Products for Travel
  • Tracking and Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint
  • Sustainable Travel Hacks

Respect signs and rules

At the expense of sounding like a grouchy boomer, RESPECT THE LAW. And I’m not just talking about the police, because, obviously you should respect the local law enforcement. But I’m talking about etiquette rules and social practices of the place you are visiting. One of the big ones – STOP TRESPASSING FOR THE GRAM. It doesn’t matter how cool the vantage point looks. If getting to it includes trespassing, just stop. The likes and shallow clout aren’t worth it fam. When it comes to the outdoors, this applies as well, because the signs are there both for your safety and the safety of the plants and animals around you. Every year, hundreds of people fall to their deaths at natural sites and parks because they ventured too close to the edge, usually for a picture. Don’t add to the statistic. Oh, and don’t trample wildflowers.

Take a Deeper Look at Your “Mission Trips.”

Volunteering abroad is great. In theory. You and a group of like minded individuals set out to a less fortunate place with the intentions of helping them. Your group will usually assist in building houses, babysitting orphans, or constructing roads. Again, all good intentions. But, before you sign up, ask yourself. Is your presence necessary in that position? Are you REALLYY an asset to the effort, or will you likely be taking a project away from a local company that could do the same job more efficiently?

Have you heard of the term, “white savior complex”? Ignore the ‘white’ part of the term, as it can be applied to anyone from any nationality or ethnicity. The term stems from more privileged people going to less privileged communities, making charm bracelets at an orphanage, and then posting on social media about how many lives they helped. Good intentions, but even these superficial acts can have long-standing negative effects on the local community. First off, short-term orphanage visits can cause developmental damage to young children and upset their emotional well-being, creating separation anxiety and unhealthy attachments.

These communities use resources to support volunteers that could be put to more sustainable use by reinvesting the resources into themselves. Volunteers are also (usually) inexperienced, and again, the community must use time, energy, and money to either train/teach/chaperone the volunteers, or to redo their unstable work entirely. Plus, it can take away jobs from local labourers. That said, not ALL volunteering trips are bad. Just be sure to take a deeper look at the who/what/when/where/and HOW of the trip. If you wouldn’t do the same task in YOUR community, why do it in somewhere else? Ask the trip leader if perhaps donating the money (instead of your time) to the program would be more positively impactful.

Reevaluate Animal Encounters

While on the topic of ethical engagement – let’s talk animals. Unfortunately, animals are one of the most abused and exploited groups in the world, in EVERY country. The reason, simply, because people love animals. This dynamic creates and industry that thrives on tourists’ demands to experience an animal up-close, with little regulations on if these experiences are even ethical. There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to animals, so just use your best judgement. Here are some red flags to look out for:

  • Elephant Riding. BIG NO NO. Don’t ride elephants. AT ALL. Elephants are tortured for years in order to break their spirits enough for elephant rides. For more information on elephant abuse, refer to this article.
  • Chains on animals
  • Taking pictures next to normally-dangerous animals like lions, tigers, bears (they are often drugged out of their mindsss)
  • Overworked labor animals. Like horses, donkeys, mules, etc. These are animals bred for labor, but keep an eye out for any signs of mistreatment or malnourishment.


Decolonize Your World Perception

This may come as a shock to some, but history books are not unbiased. They praise certain historical figures chapter after chapter, but leave out the parts about slaughtering indigenous communities, exploiting resources, pillaging unarmed villages, and downplaying the enslavement of an entire continent. Today’s current global society is a painfully calculated result of colonialism. Recognize that. When you travel, make an effort to learn about the local culture of the region and the history from their perspective. How did World War II impact Korea during Japanese occupation of the region? Why is Cuba viewed as a dangerous country when it has one of the lowest crime rates and highest literacy rates in the world? When you learn to view a region’s history from their point of view, you are able to understand that country just a bit more clearly.

Support LOCAL – especially black, brown, and indigenous businesses

Speaking of decolonizing your mind, try decolonizing your wallet as well. As a traveler, your money speaks VOLUMES. The tourism market has the power to determine which businesses get published in the city’s “must visit” newsletters, which restaurants get placed on the food tour, and which companies get added to travel magazines. Never forget the strength of your money. That said, shop local. Big businesses have the luxury to afford lower costs, but small local businesses are the soul of the city. Plus, the souvenirs are usually better and more unique as well!

As you know, the world is unfair. So also keep a special eye out for businesses owned and operated by people of color and indigenous people. Statistically, they have lower loan approvals and higher interest rates, solely based on prejudices of banks and historical injustices. Be an ally and put your money where your ethical-consumerism is.

Give Back to the Communities you Visit

You came, you saw, you had an amazing experience. Travel really is transformative. Now, if you are so inclined, consider giving back to the communities that welcomed you for vacation. Donate to their environmental efforts. Buy some supplies for the local animal shelter. Tip the musicians bussing in the streets as you eat a romantic dinner.  This is probably the easiest and simplest request out of all the tips on this list. But if you are unable to give back to the communities you visit, you can still give back at home. The Global Dreamers Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors young adults with ethical and sustainable global opportunities! They are always accepting donations as well as applications

Stop Judging Someone Else’s Travel

Ah, now that you’ve home from your trip, no doubt travel is all you want to talk about. And, since you’ve now experienced such tremendous personal growth from following the first eight steps, you want to help make others better travelers as well! But…then you see your friends checking in at an American chain restaurant in Costa Rica. And going on a lion walk in South Africa. And going on a travel retreat with someone who isn’t even a local!! And even…TAKING A CRUISE??!? What are your friends thinking?

Well, before you jump on a pedestal and threaten to unfollow all of your friends. Breathe, and remember step 1. Humble yourself. First of all, not everyone is at the same point in their travel journey. A lot of people just don’t know that there are more sustainable or ethical options. Others have food sensitivities that make chowing down street food vendors with no ingredient list dangerous for them. Or mobility restrictions that make navigating to more difficult lodgings that may or may not be accessible to them. Don’t judge someone else’s travel because it seems basic or shallow to you. If you have suggestions, approach the topic from a stance of understanding and openness. If travel teaches you anything, it is that you don’t and never will know everything. Especially about other people. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

pink cherry blossoms flowers park

Bring Your Compassion Home with You

Now that you’ve spread so much sustainable positivity in the places that you’ve visited, you must now do the same at home. When you hear racism and xenophobia in your hometown, stand up against it. Be open and welcoming to different cultures, and make sure that your city does the same. During the 2020 COVID-19 #StayHome initiatives enacted by countries around the world, don’t be selfish. Don’t buy cheap plane tickets and potentially spread the virus to communities with already limited resources. To people who have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and even their lives – please show empathy. Be kind, above all else, and do not use your energy to spread misinformation or chew people out if you feel they are promoting unsafe behavior. Treat others with the same level of compassion and understanding as you would a friend.

Be a good traveler, yes, but be an even BETTER person.

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  • Amy March 28, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    Absolutely love this! So true that travelers have a bigger impact on the communities they visit – especially more rural communities. Especially when you think that 1 traveler is actually thousands of travelers at a time!! These are amazing points to think about and implement while we reassess the way we travel for the future!

  • Stephanie March 28, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    The animal encounter one is so important! We shouldn’t be touching or near them. Great post!

  • Katherine March 28, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks for writing about recognising your privilege. I think that’s a big one that some of us don’t think about at all.

  • Francesca March 28, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    This is such an important post. We can forget that we have a huge responsibility as travellers and knowing how we can be considerate and respectful wherever we go makes all the difference.

  • Imani March 28, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Enjoyed reading this; there are some really great tips here! I try to do little bits here and there but I want to do more to be a sustainable traveller, so this helped, thanks for sharing!

  • Emma March 28, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    I love this post. It’s everything everyone should know and think about traveling, but don’t. It’s the way we should be more aware and grateful and supportive and everything else. Couldn’t agree with these points more

  • Mayuri March 28, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    Such great ideas! Sustainable ways to travel are so important these days. We have never rented a car in our European travels and love to explore using public/group transportation.

    Lovely post!

  • Marcea March 28, 2020 at 9:52 pm

    Great tips! I love the ones about purchasing local products and also not judging other people’s travel.

  • Josy A March 29, 2020 at 12:56 am

    Love this sooo much Kalilah! I was nodding along the whole time reading it. I mean, it took me a long time to learn most of this (especially things like the idea of white savior complex, and recognizing my own privilege.) I’m still very far from perfect, but the more I learn, the more I hope to be a better person. I think most of us are *trying* to do that.

    p.s. people that don’t follow signs, especially folks that trample wildflowers or put wildlife in danger make me sooo mad. I do try not to judge people…but seeing anyone do that kind of thing gets my judge-y-side all activated…

  • Rae March 29, 2020 at 8:33 am

    This is great! Some of these things really resonate and make me so sad when I’m traveling – like when people swim in protected areas or participate in unethical animal encounters. I think a lot of that comes from ignorance (I’ve certainly been guilty of violating best practices) so I really appreciate that you wrote this article.

  • Ty Hubbard March 29, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    What a great post. You touched on difficult but necessary topics!

  • Anela March 30, 2020 at 4:05 pm

    Just yes to all of this! I love Kay’s approach to this piece. Frank, funny, and real. We could use way more of that in travel writing and blogging.

  • Curls en Route March 30, 2020 at 4:20 pm

    Love this read!

  • Amanda Brimmage March 31, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Such a great post! Thanks for sharing, Kay.

  • ZAYNTRAV April 10, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Donating to those we met on travel is a great thing. You described it well.

  • Charlotte Lint May 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    Thank you for including my article Kay!!!

  • Luisa May 9, 2020 at 3:53 am

    We need more bloggers who are this self-aware in 2020 and moving forward!!

  • Teresa July 18, 2020 at 3:47 am

    What a great post! Loved reading this – so many good points that we all need to take into our next trips!

  • Ellie July 24, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    This was so insightful! Thank you Kay! I never thought about donating to local organizations! That’s such a great idea – and a good way to say thank you to the places you visit!

  • Caroline July 30, 2020 at 7:06 pm

    INCREDIBLE post. Yes to everything 🙌🏼

  • Stella Wilson October 7, 2020 at 1:09 am

    Wonderful blog. I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing your your views and tips on how to be a better traveller in 2020. I am a solo traveller and i love it. I get to learn so many things on my own. I will deninitely use these tips to be a better traveller in Future.

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