Ecotourism on a shoestring budget

By Austin Bailey

Last Updated: June 27, 2019

Ecotourism on a shoestring budget

Sure, international ecotourism sounds swell. Who doesn’t want to dash off to Norway to view the Northern Lights in the company of reindeer and the indigenous Sámi people? Is there anyone among us who wouldn’t jump at the chance to pass a week or two in a carbon-neutral ecolodge in Costa Rica?

While these trips would undoubtably make for unforgettable educational adventures, your bank account might not have what it takes to get you there. Keep that chin up! You can still be a dashing and daring ecotourist, even if personal budget considerations demand that you stay closer to home. Jet fuel is really bad for the environment, anyway. 

Christina Jones and her husband Cory turned a work conference into an adventure by skipping the hotel and staying in a yurt instead.

Rent a yurt on an avocado farm

This is a real thing you can do! Follow the lead of Cory and Christina Jones of Little Rock, Arkansas, who used a work conference in California as an anchor for a weeklong West Coast getaway. Why stay at a boring chain hotel when you can settle in on a working orange/avocado/blueberry farm for less than $100 a night?

Camping doesn't have to happen in just a tent. Teepees, treehouses, RVs and yurts are all on offer as sustainable tourism options.

Go glamping

If you know your way around tents, tree hammocks, water purifiers and the like, get on out there and do your thing. If you’re not one of those people, no worries. Hipcamp is the Airbnb for outdoorsy types, a handy website that can link you to unique outdoor experiences from rustic to ritzy. Use the site to search for tent, RV and “glamping” options close by or at your vacation destination. Click on “Best tent camping near me” if your Boy Scout training is still fresh at hand. If champagne wishes and caviar dreams are more what you’re after, click on “Best glamping near me” for cabins, treehouses and renovated and retro RVs.

The Hipcamp website lets you search for camping locations by date, location and type, and you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $50 a night (although the Desert Pensione Joshua Tree looks well worth an extra $25). Most sites are run by local people, so make some new friends!

The corny dad who runs the National Park Service Instagram account really wants you to visit.

"America's best idea" really is clever.

Still need some inspiration to get trekking? The Instagram for the National Park Service is gorgeous and goofy, and I think your dad runs the account?

So peruse the Insta pictures of Old Faithful and adorable otters and such, then go here to choose the park(s) for your summer itinerary. You won’t have to go far: 29 U.S. states, plus American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have national parks within their borders. Nearly half the parks charge entrance fees, but you can get in for free on these upcoming holidays:

  • August 25: National Parks Birthday
  • September 28: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

Even better, if you have a fourth grader in your life, this is your year! Fourth graders and their families get an entire year of free park admissions with the Every Kid In A Park program.  

Power your own vacation on a bicycle.

Take two wheels instead of four

Bicycle tourism seems daunting for the less athletically inclined. But bike tours aren’t limited to touring the tulip fields of Holland or raising money for charity on an all-out cross-country trek. Think smaller! Even a day ride to tour local breweries counts.

You can plan or book bike tours of almost any duration and for any budget, in any natural environment. Confident cyclists might consider multi-day tours, either self-guided or planned and catered by companies that set up water stops and nightly accommodations for you. Some cyclists lug tents and food on carts they tow behind them. Some pony up for posh all-inclusive packages that include a tour guide and bed and breakfast overnights. The Adventure Cycling Association offers a good explainer of all the different options, from local day rides to luxurious multi-day tours of the California wine country. 

Bicycle tourism is not only environmentally friendly. Because of the slow traveling pace, these tourists stay in one place long enough to contribute more to local economies than motorized tourists who zip right through.

There are plenty of options for people who want to see what life on the farm is all about.

Work on a farm

City dwellers looking to escape the urban grind can try their hand at farming. You can find gigs at WWOOF: Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms. Volunteers work about five hours per day on organic farms in exchange for room and board. Participants can pick from among more than 2,000 host farms in the United States.  

Heifer International offers plenty of ecotourism options including a residential volunteer program at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas. Residential volunteers stay for weeks or months to lead visitor tours, care for livestock and tend the gardens. If you only have a few days of vacation time, the Ranch offers lots of shorter-term programs for visitors to learn about sustainable farming as an answer to global hunger and poverty.