Planning Ahead: Flying

This weekend, I'm headed to Philadelphia for a good friend's wedding. The East Coast in the fall is so dear to me, and I'm looking forward to walking around beloved corners of the city, stopping in coffee shops, and seeing friends. I've been trying to travel zero waste for a few years now, but it's not always the easiest thing. Since I'm flying there today, I wanted to share a few tips I've learned over the years for staying zero waste on plane trips.


I always bring an empty water bottle that I can fill after going through security. On shorter trips, I bring my trusty metal Nalgene. But, on longer trips (like a cross-country or a transatlantic flight), I'll bring two plastic Nalgenes instead. They're lighter weight, and on those long flights I really need that much water, so I fill them both. I've found that most airlines won't fill your own cup with water, and if they do it's from a disposable plastic bottle anyway, so this is a time when planning ahead really matters.

I'm not a coffee drinker, but tea can be really comforting, so I often pack a reusable thermos, too.


On shorter flights, this one is easy. I pop two pieces of fruit and a few reusable containers filled with snacks in my carry-on, and that usually works well. My favorite fruits are ones that stand up well to injury. Apples and clementines seem to work best for me, even if they aren't in season. With stone fruit or bananas, you're just cruisin' for a bruisin', as my mom would say. Additionally, before a trip I scour my local bulk aisle for healthy but exciting snacks that will be easy to transport - interestingly spiced nuts are a favorite, as is dried fruit. I'd like to tell you to learn from my mistakes and buy these snacks at least a week in advance to reduce your stress leading up to a vacation (the night before I go I always seem to be running around like a chicken with my head cut off), but every time I've done that I've invariably eaten half my snacks before the actual trip. So.

On longer flights, like the one I took to Ireland, planning to stay zero waste food-wise gets trickier. I ended up bringing three apples and three sandwiches, one each for lunch, dinner, and breakfast, plus a few extra snacks (and, yes, I got hungry, and yes, I got dang tired of those sandwiches). Next time, I'd mix it up and bring something different for each meal (ideas: grain or bean salad, a sandwich, a bagel, a sturdy homemade waffle, a jar of granola, etc.).


A few other things that seem to always come in handy for me: a fork and spoon just in case, a cloth napkin, a handkerchief or two, and a scarf, shawl, or small blanket. Plus, I find that these things prove useful throughout the rest of my trip, too.


To plastic-wrapped blankets. To free airline headphones (in case you're tempted, I accepted some on a flight this summer and they broke after a mere 5 minutes of tinny sound. Not worth it). To tiny bags of peanuts.


We've all been there - your flight is delayed what feels like years, or hunger strikes unexpectedly but your plane is boarding in five minutes. Trying to be perfectly zero waste in these situations is stressful and might not be possible. For me, traveling zero waste means accepting that I've tried to plan ahead for most situations but that once I get to the airport things are largely out of my control, and then I go with the flow.

What are your tips for traveling zero waste? Any favorite things you always bring along? You can read a few more thoughts on planning ahead for different situations, here.

Photograph of Philadelphia in the fall.