Mistakes I Made While Traveling (So You Don’t Have To)

This December I flew to Latin America for work and decided to extend my trip to make the most of my time there (and attempt to be more eco-friendly by tacking on vacation time so I wouldn’t make an additional trip another time flying from NYC). I was so excited to have the opportunity to put my life skills of living low waste to the travel test–I mean, I had done a passable job when I went on a road trip to Hudson Valley, Burlington, and Montreal (carpooled).

While I had every intention of succeeding, I think it is safe to say that I had more “fails” than “wins”. Here are some of my mistakes I made while traveling so you know to avoid them when you make your next trip!

Mistake #1: I brought my reusable utensils and stainless steel straw, but I did not use them.

For the majority of my trip I was able to dine in and be able to use stainless steel utensils, but there were times where I forgot to bring my set when I ordered something to drink, and on top of that I would forget to say sin popote, por favor (“no straw, please” in Spanish).

I think out of the times when I received a drink with the straw, only one was a plastic straw, and others were either stainless steel or paper. While paper straws can be composted, it is still a single-use item and one that I didn’t need to use in the first place (and I would encourage us all to refuse single-use items whenever possible, with some exceptions here).

PRO TIP: Just bring the reusable utensils and straw with you wherever you go; it’s light, takes up such little space, and makes for an easy solution if you are ever in a pinch for these items.

Mistake #2: I didn’t bring a reusable container for food.

When you are traveling, it’s hard to gauge the portion sizes of your meals, and whether you’ll want to do takeout when you feel like having a night in. When I am in NYC, I usually always have a reusable container or mason jar because I bring my lunch to work, but didn’t think I would need it while I was here (silly me).

For the majority of the time traveling, I dined at restaurants, but sometimes there would be food that I just couldn’t stuff into my belly, but didn’t want to do takeout and have extra trash (in Costa Rica there are no more styrofoam containers, but plastic containers are still widely used). I briefly weighed the pros and cons to food waste versus takeout containers, and wanted to give the benefit of the doubt that restaurants who are taking care of disposing leftovers would have a compost bin (I was told by someone from Costa Rica that there are usually four bins: regular trash, glass/metal/plastic, paper/cardboard, and organic waste).

PRO TIP: Bring a mason jar or a collapsible container (or both). These items can serve as a beverage container for a drink or smoothie, and hold your leftovers or takeout!

Mistake #3: Sometimes I didn’t recycle or compost.

If you’re reading this and judging me, I’m not offended because I was judging myself hardcore too. I stayed in Airbnbs during my time in Panama and Costa Rica, and not a single one of these accommodations had explicit bins for recycling or composting. There were times when I would walk on streets and see a recycling bin, but they were minimal!

Sometimes when you travel you will encounter these barriers where the infrastructure just isn’t there. The best thing you can do is to adjust your purchasing and consumption habits during this time, such as not buying that juice or soda bottle (even if you are craving it!) and making sure you eat all of your food so there is nothing that a restaurant would have to throw away if they do not compost.

Okay, I listed a few of my mistakes, but I want to share some of the successes (because we’re all here to learn)!

Success #1: I did not use any of my accommodations’ single-use toiletries.

Over the years, my family and I have accumulated a ton of toiletries from the hotels we have stayed in. I think at the time we thought we were being resourceful because we knew if we had opened a product and did not take it with us, it would be thrown away (yikes!), so the next best thing would be to take it home. Of course, now that I am actively trying to reduce my waste, I bring my own toiletries from home (naked products like shampoo and body soap bars, for instance) or even the old toiletries from those hotels in the past!

There are some hotels that are taking steps in the right direction to reduce their waste, such as hotels that offer soap dispensers rather than single-use products!), and social entrepreneurs who are tackling this problem head-on.

Success #2: I carried my reusable water bottle everywhere I went!

If there is ONE thing that you can do as you start your journey to zero waste, I would say it is to bring a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go. There are so many different kinds that you can choose from (flat ones that won’t bulk up your bag, collapsible ones, glass ones if you are sensitive to other materials’ taste, and more traditional stainless steel or durable plastic ones).

I am waiting for more airports like San Francisco International Airport to ban plastic bottles to further encourage travelers like you and me to bring our reusable bottles when we are on the go! I wonder if airports count how many single-use beverage containers are thrown away at the security checkpoint every day…the number must be staggering!

As a note, I am not sponsored by any of these brands, but do own a couple of S’well bottles and a d.stil bottle!

Success #3: I took public transportation and shared car service rather than renting my own car to get around.

Depending on where you travel, there are opportunities for you to take public transportation using the trains, subways, or buses. It might be more convenient to rent your own car when you land from the airport, but if you are staying in a central location where there is public transportation, taxis, or ride-hailing service, I encourage you to opt for those choices instead.

There are definitely other considerations besides convenience, such as your own personal safety. As someone who is standing under 5′ tall, I should be more scared when I travel alone haha, but I ask my friends, browse the internet, and look at reviews for other travelers on the best ways to get around and make my decisions then. When I was in Panama City and San Jose this December I used the ride-hailing service Uber to get around because I felt safer plugging in my destination rather than risking getting lost in a foreign city, but in Merida when I volunteered abroad I used the public buses and was fine!

What are some of the learnings you made when traveling?