One of the most common questions that I get is how I avoid using single-use plastic water bottles while traveling. And, oh boy, do I have a story. Or Ten.
See, I fancied myself a responsible traveler when I first set out to live as a nomad. I mean, I reused plastic water bottles multiple times and recycled them when they had run their course. I collected all of my recyclable materials and plastic products and brought them to neighborhood recycling bins.
I was just over six months into my nomad life when a friend in Indonesia challenged me to go 30 days without using a plastic water bottle. At the time, I thought it was no big deal, I had my own reusable water bottle that I used all the time. I would just fill it up more, right?
Wrong. I realized immediately how many water bottles that I was using as I traveled the world. It was simply more convenient to pick up a single-use water bottle than find a way to re-fill my reusable bottle.
The owner of my bungalow in Bali took pity on me and allowed me to buy a reusable, five-gallon water jug (for far less than a single 16-oz water bottle would have cost!) It took a little lifting and a little creativity, but this got me through the 30 days.
And I’ve never looked back.
In fact, I’ve looked up. I see now that every water bottle that I picked up for my personal convenience was left behind in a country that opened its doors to me.
I am now not only entirely free of single-use plastic water bottles, but I am also nearly entirely plastic-free. My biggest challenge is at grocery stores where even organic vegetables and tofu are sometimes wrapped in plastic, but that’s another story!
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My favorite traveling companion is the Nomader Collapsible Water Bottle. It rolls right up into a tiny ball when I’m going through airport security and it works for both cold and hot drinks, so I never use a single-use coffee cup either!
There are two reasons to have a backup water bottle. The first is the obvious one and that’s that you may lose the one that you carry with you everywhere.
I’ll never forget the time I returned to the scene of the crime (an all-night dance party on the beach on the Gili islands of Indonesia) to find my water bottle – in its over-the-shoulder holster – behind the make-shift bar. And that’s not the only time I’ve had to go searching for my water bottle!
The second reason is that sometimes you know that you won’t be able to fill your reusable water bottle for quite some time. The last plastic water bottle that I ever used was in April of 2019 on a bus somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I ran out of water and it was hotter than Hades on that bus.
It won’t happen again because, before a long trip, I will unfold the backup collapsible water bottle that is buried at the bottom of my bag, and take two water bottles with me on the bus or train.
Until I was given a water-bottle holder in Thailand, I didn’t realize how much this would change my life. Especially once I upgraded to a carrier that does double duty as a wallet! After that, I just never left my hotel, Airbnb or bungalow without a full bottle of water.
I mean EVERY chance. If your water bottle is only half empty and you notice a water fountain or a refill station, use it.
I have only had one hotel that hasn’t resolved this issue for me, though, I’ve have had to get creative at some establishments. I used the employee water-cooler bottles in Bali as referenced above, and I used the kitchen in one hotel in Saigon. They simply got used to me popping in behind the “employee only” door to fill up my water bottle.
Providing complimentary water bottles instead of a refilling station in the lobby might get bonus points from the majority of guests, but not us sustainably savvy ones!
I always politely refuse the free, single-use plastic water bottles handed to me at check-in, and I return the ones left in my room back to the front desk. I explain that, while I appreciate the generosity, I do not use single-use plastic.
Honestly, these moments are the ones that will change businesses. They want to make the consumer happy, and reminding them that there are customers who won’t use plastic is one way to get corporations thinking about their environmental impact. Don’t be embarrassed to ask. Nine times out of 10, they will appreciate your effort.
The one time that I did have an issue with getting water at a hotel, I was in the United States where tap water is mostly safe for me to drink. But, when filling up at the sink, it’s best to use Aquatabs. I used these ALL OVER Spain when walking the Camino de Santiago and the only time that I got sick was definitely not from water. (Stupid refried beans.)
These tiny tablets are easy to carry and they kill micro-organisms in water, preventing water-borne illness.
A Steripen performs the same magic trick that water tablets do. It looks much cooler, too!
Pros: It’s just cool and it will purify 16-oz of water in less than a minute (versus the 15-minutes the tablets will take).
Cons: It’s a little larger in terms of packing space than water tablets but fits easily in a shoe, it’s more expensive (you pay for this kind of cool!), and it requires charging.
You can’t go wrong with having one of these and a few water tablets tucked away somewhere for good measure in case you run out of charge.
One of my fondest memories in Cambodia – is one of my dad’s least favorite memories (at least in the moment…he laughs about it now).
We had just gotten off the hot bus that I mentioned above, and I was feeling guilty about breaking my single-use water bottle ban. We were staying at an Airbnb and – of all things – there was a power outage. Having no AC in the sweltering April heat of Siem Reap is, well, not ideal.
Let’s just say, we needed copious amounts of water.
So, we walked down to the little shop at the end of the dirt road where our Airbnb was located, and we negotiated to buy a five-gallon water jug, which we brought back at the end of our trip for the store to reuse and resell.
Now…getting it home was a whole other issue…
In Asia, it is really easy to find places to fill up your water bottle. And you can ask at restaurants, bars, hotels, tourist attractions, you name it, and nobody raises an eyebrow.
It’s a little harder in the states and in Europe. But the worst that can happen is a restaurant turns you down, and you ask at the next one. Remember asking helps us all get the message across to businesses that some consumers want to see fewer water bottles in our oceans and landfills.
But you may be surprised at how many places there are to refill if you look carefully. I found that almost all of the rest stops had water fountains on my recent road trip through the western states. And the National Parks Visitors Centers often had a place to refill.
I also had a water jug in my car that I refilled at these Safeway refill stations:
If you’re like: What? A collapsible cup AND a collapsible water bottle? Hear me out…
You’ve made it through airport security. You’ve unfurled your Nomader, collapsible, reusable, bad-ass water bottle, and you’ve filled it at the refilling station before settling into your airplane seat for takeoff.
Then the flight attendant offers you a nice (glass) bottle of cool, red wine…and a plastic cup. NOW what do you do? If you travel like me, turning down the wine is not an option!
When I know I’m going to be on a plane, I use this fun little cup ☝that I found in a local store near my hometown. It sparks so many conversations with passengers and flight crew alike!
And I have my collapsible cup that folds flat and is always tucked into my backpack.
I forget about it until I really need it. Like that time my flight got canceled in Spain and I had to stand in line for hours. I really needed that discreet cup of wine!
So, there you have it! 10 tips to avoid single-use plastic water bottles.
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