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The new rules of travel

Our travel leaves a mark. Here’s how to make sure it’s a positive one.

(Illustration by Alejandro Parrilla for The Washington Post)

As travel roared back in 2022 after its pandemic hiatus, we jumped back in with a vengeance to make up for lost time. As a result of increased bookings, airlines struggled to keep up with demand, crowds returned at big tourist destinations and bad behavior reared its ugly head again.

It’s a good reminder to reflect on our impact as travelers for the coming year. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, where and how we travel leaves a mark on the planet and other people, and it’s our responsibility to make that mark a positive one.

So to hold ourselves accountable, here are some new rules for being a more responsible traveler — beyond basics such as minimizing single-use plastic waste or boycotting unethical wildlife experiences.

Protect popular places by visiting in the offseason

The Colosseum, Yellowstone National Park and the Great Wall of China are spectacular, so of course you want to see them in your lifetime. But doing so at their busiest can not only be miserable, but it can also be detrimental to the places. You can avoid adding to the immense strain that busy seasons put on popular spots by visiting them during the offseason.

It’s a win-win scenario: You enjoy a place with fewer people — and at cheaper rates — while contributing to businesses when tourism is slower.

If you can only travel during busy times (i.e., your kid’s school breaks), consider comparable alternatives to tourist epicenters. Just as there’s more to the Louvre than the Mona Lisa, there’s more to Italian beaches in the summer than the Amalfi Coast. (In fact, we wrote about them here.)

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Don’t go into debt to travel

Being a responsible traveler isn’t always about how you treat others; it can also be about how your treat yourself. Protect your financial and mental well-being by spending on travel responsibly this year. It’s a particularly risky time to put trips on credit cards if you can’t afford to pay the bill, financial experts say. Michelle Singletary, author and personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, says you don’t want to carry a balance with the continued fight against inflation and the threat of more layoffs looming.

“The danger is that you get behind and you start just making the minimum credit card payment,” Singletary says. “That debt is going to cost you.”

Instead of putting off how you’ll pay for a trip, set up a travel budgeting plan to figure out how much you’ll need to save now for this year’s travel — then save and spend accordingly. If you’ll be traveling in a group, get on the same page about how much you’d like to spend on the trip by setting expectations early. Maybe someone wants to be your trip budgeting buddy, and you can hold each other accountable for saving money for your upcoming adventure.

Swap cars and planes for walks, bikes, trains and buses

Extreme weather is taking a toll on our planet. It’s not reasonable to expect people to forgo travel altogether, but we can reasonably tweak how we travel to leave a smaller carbon footprint. Maybe that’s planning trips closer to home (shorter distance = less fuel); trying a camping or biking trip; or taking a scenic train or sleepover bus. Map what you’d like to do on your trip, and book a place to stay within walking, biking or public transportation distance to most of your points of interest.

If you’re flying to a destination, can you take public transportation to and from the airport? Can you plan a trip to a place where you don’t need a car? Paris, New York City, Hong Kong and Toronto metro systems come to mind — and highly walkable Tokyo, San Francisco, Istanbul, Washington and Lisbon.

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Spend your money at local businesses

The pandemic was brutal on small businesses, particularly those in hospitality and travel. Consider this your reminder to support the little guys: bed-and-breakfasts, artists and craftspeople, neighborhood restaurants, independent tour guides and family-run cooking classes. Skip big chains that prevent you from supporting local businesses, or at least find ones that do a better job of connecting with the community.

Carry cash to tip

Tipping is one of the best ways to show gratitude and support locals. But in an increasingly cashless world, most of us only use cards and smartphones to pay, making it more complicated or easier to forget to tip sidewalk musicians, housekeeping, tour guides or an unexpected helping hand.

Add a line on your pre-travel to-do list to hit a bank before you leave town, or set a reminder to use the ATM once you get there. In a pinch, there are also a handful of ways to tip digitally.

Rethink taking travel photos

Most of us could unplug more when we travel. It has become our instinct to take photos and videos of everything we encounter on a trip — but what happens to those images? Do you put them in a travel journal? Share them on social media? Will they never be looked at again? Our compulsion to get as much travel content as possible can overshadow the actual traveling.

You can still capture travel photos, but think about how the process affects your experience, plus what you’re photographing and why.

“You shouldn’t enter any situation feeling like you’re on safari,” says Whitney Latorre, vice president of visuals and immersive experiences at National Geographic. She frames travel photography as “making a photograph” vs. “taking” one. That means learning about local cultures before you arrive and asking permission to shoot a stranger’s photo before you do it.

“Before you ever pick up your camera, get to know the people you’re photographing,” Latorre recommends. “Have a conversation.” The result is often a more compelling travel photo and a more memorable experience.