A growing number of teens on spring break, baby boomers and well-traveled seniors are taking volunteer vacations to help causes abroad or in the U.S. Feeding African lion cubs, building homes in a Third World country, or helping preserve Caribbean reefs while diving -- all are forms of Voluntourism.
Combining a vacation or trip abroad with volunteering on local projects is one way many travelers choose to immerse themselves in local cultures and make a difference.
Here are suggestions for the route to deciding if volunteer travel -- VolunTourism -- is for you. Returning travelers say it's a life-changing experience.
Time Required: A few hours of research, phone calls and personal assessment
- Choose an organization that follows your passions. Do you feel strongly about protecting wild elephants from extinction? Do you feel compelled to build houses for hurricane or tsunami victims? Would you like to help farmers till the land?
- Do your research. Visit websites that list volunteer programs and trips. Some sites, such as i-to-i and Volunteer Abroad let you search by typing a country name in a search box or clicking on a map, specify the preferred length of a volunteer trip and the type of volunteer work you would like to do.
- Do a reality check about your own personality. If you are doing volunteer work in a culture that is alien to you, will you be open-minded enough to accept and respect the views of the people you are helping?
- Think about how much time you want to spend working on a volunteer project and how much time you would like to do touristy activities. If you want a mix, companies such as i-to-i offer "Meaningful Tours" that include some volunteering and lot of sightseeing.
- Once you’ve found a few projects of interest, email or call to ask exactly what type of work will you be doing. Teaching in a classroom? Construction? Working with wild animals? Take time to seriously consider if this type of voluntourism is in sync with your physical conditioning or mental skills.
- Ask the trip organizer what the country and the specific region the project is located are like. Is the project in a big city? A small town or a rural location where there might not be indoor plumbing and you have to live in a shack or a tent?
- How long is the project. A day, a week or months? How many people will be involved in the project? Two or three, a dozen or more?
- I want to take my family on a vacation that includes a volunteering component. How do I decide if it’s a good family trip?
- Who runs the trip? A non-profit organization in the U.S. or in the country where the project is located? A local organization? What’s the organization’s background?
- Travelers typically pay to go on volunteer vacations but ask exactly what the money covers. Does it cover lodging and food for you? The in-country support staff? The staff working behind the scenes to make the trip possible?
- If you're a high school or a college student, especially one studying pre-med, ask if there is an internship. If you work for a living, will the volunteer work you do during this trip enhance your resume?
- Once you’ve chosen a project, ask about the type and amount of support offered. Once you book will you get pre-departure help arranging your travel? Information about what shots and vaccines might be needed? A packet of information about the country and the project? What about support during the trip and even afterward?
- Does the organization have a charitable foundation, in case you decide that a trip isn’t right for you but you'd like to make a donation to the cause.
- These trips and experiences are as close as building homes in New Orleans or a far away as helping in orphanages in Romania or elephant camps in Africa. To see a list of organizations that offer volunteer travel trips and vacations (where you spend a few days of a trip volunteering and explore a new country the rest) click on Top Sources for Volunteer Vacations.