A woman makes travel arrangements with a laptop.

Do your research before jetting off on your next trip. (Getty Images)

Whether you want to promote social and animal welfare, environmental conservation or gender equality on your next trip, there are plenty of ways to travel responsibly. Stay mindful of your travel choices, leave a positive impact on the places you go and take steps to minimize your carbon footprint and other negative consequences, says Michael McColl, co-founder of EthicalTraveler.org, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting human rights and the environment. But of course, treading lightly goes far beyond choosing eco-friendly accommodation options and certified travel companies. That's why U.S. News got the inside scoop from top sustainable travel experts to help you make informed travel decisions that foster economic development, empower local communities and protect natural resources. Here are some simple ways to do good, lend a hand and be an ethically conscious traveler.

[See: 8 Ethical Travel Destinations to Visit in 2017.]

Conduct Diligent Research

"I think it's important that travelers spend a little bit of time before they travel to educate themselves on the places they're going to see," says Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. She advises perusing online resources to dig deeper into the history, politics and social and environmental practices of the places you want to visit before your trip. Make sure to check if a company is certified under recognized green publications and ask the company you want to travel with if they've won any sort of eco awards, she advises. Some handy resources to consult include ResponsibleTravel.com, the World Travel & Tourism Council, a trade group that releases Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, and the Born Free Foundation, which aims to protect threatened animals across the globe. The Rainforest Alliance, which features Sustainable Tourism Standards for hotel and lodging services and inbound tour operators, is another helpful resource to verify if the accommodations you're interested in advocate responsible practices. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is championing excellent work to certify the certifiers, McColl says. "If your travel provider claims they have an eco-certification, go to that certifier's website, and see who certifies them," he advises.

Choose the Right Travel Companies and Organizations

It's important to be vigilant of greenwashing (or spreading false information to promote an eco-friendly public image), McColl explains. "Read up on the eco-issues at your destination before your trip, so you can be an informed consumer," he says. Also, investigate the accommodations you're interested in closely. "If a hotel claims to have all low-flow faucets and showers, but they are required to do that by local law, they're not going above and beyond the minimum. Conversely, low-flow toilets may not matter in the rainforest, but waste minimization and local purchasing may be very important," he explains. "Ask about their environmental policies. Ask about the percentage of managers who are women or minorities. Businesses want to offer what consumers want. We travelers can help businesses understand that consumers care about responsible behavior by tourism providers. The more of us who ask, the more they realize that this is important," he says.

As for tour operators, there's no universal certification program available, McColl explains. Your best bet is checking a company's website to look for their eco-practices and certifications, he says. Some reputable tour companies offering eco-friendly and minimal-impact vacations include Backroads, Discovery Voyages and G Adventures.

Make an Effort to Be Culturally Sensitive

Aside from promoting sustainable practices, it's important to understand and be cognizant of varying customs in different countries, Honey says. "We need to be careful about making quick judgments," and travel with "a bit of humility and a willingness to learn," she adds. "We get so caught up adhering to our values," she says, translating to an intolerance of different cultures and practices we encounter. To be culturally sensitive and enjoy a richer and more eye-opening experience, dress appropriately, pick up a few key phrases in the local language and ask permission before entering sacred attractions.

[See: Going Green: 5 Top Eco-Friendly Trip Ideas.]

Offset Your Carbon Footprint

Relying on airplanes (and consuming plenty of jet fuel) to get from point A to B certainly isn't planet-friendly, but the reality is, air travel is essential to access destinations in desperate need of tourism, particularly developing countries. And while flying is a necessity, you can still fly smart, Honey says. When you choose your flights, consider direct routes, fly out of green airports like San Francisco International and look at the carbon offset programs to help reduce your overall footprint, Honey advises. For instance, United and Delta measure their respective carbon emissions on different routes and give passengers the option to donate money to offset projects, such as investing in renewable wind-based energy sources and forest conservation efforts in Peru. Also, when you arrive at your final destination, lighten your impact by taking the train, getting a bike, walking or relying on public transportation, Honey adds.

McColl also suggests taking fewer trips and staying for extended periods of time to minimize carbon emissions. "Spend a month or more in Thailand or Costa Rica, in one trip, rather than doing several shorter trips. By the same token, consider travel by train or bus, which is always more eco-friendly than travel by car or plane," he says.

Give Back to the Local Community

Traveling like a local by dining at locally owned businesses and staying in locally owned inns, apartments and hotels yields immersive experiences and the satisfaction that "your money is much more likely to support the local family that runs that business," McColl says. And if you're the type who enjoys planning do-it-yourself getaways and planning ahead, "look for links on travel provider websites that link to their environmental and community-support efforts," he says. If you don't see this information, it could be a telltale sign that they're not upholding these policies, he says.

[Read: 6 Sinking Cities to Visit Before It's Too Late.]

If you're passionate about community development, seek out resorts that are championing work to give back "by hiring and training locals to work in their businesses, buying needed supplies locally and supporting local nonprofits," McColl says. Fortunately, there are a variety of venerable tour and hotel operators with programs that do good for the community. "Find ones that have been vetted, so you avoid greenwashing, fake orphanage scams, etc.," McColl says. "When you work with such companies, you will often have a much more authentic experience, so your purchase will be win-win."

Tags: travel, vacations


Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of experience covering the travel industry, Liz has covered a diverse set of topics to help readers make smarter travel decisions and plan better trips. In her current role, she edits a range of consumer-facing topics, including personal finance, retirement, health, wellness and education. Previously, Liz was the Travel Editor for Consumer Advice, where she wrote and edited features and slideshows and managed the En Route travel blog. She graduated with a bachelor's degree from George Washington University. You can follow Liz on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at eweiss@usnews.com.

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