Spring is in the air, but many of us are already looking toward the season that comes after and that crazy little thing we call our summer vacation. We're hatching grand schemes and blocking off vast swaths of the calendar. But before you book, consider this: a volunteer vacation may be the best one you've never taken.
Now there's nothing wrong with an ordinary vacation in a quintessential destination. Sometimes sitting on your hiney slathered in SPF 50 whilst contemplating your navel and sipping a neon-colored beverage with a tiny umbrella in it is just what the doctor ordered. But sometimes you want more. Sometimes you want to get up close to an exotic locale and really experience the people, culture, and nature that make it tick. In that case, you may looking for a volunteer vacation.
On the face of it, these kinds of sojourns are simple: You travel to an interesting place under the auspices of a nonprofit aid group and do some volunteer work to help the community and/or environment. In return, you get what's usually a relatively bargain-priced experience that often includes meals, lodging, and transportation; introduces you to great like-minded folk and local people alike; and gives you boatloads of unique insider access to your destination that you'd never otherwise enjoy. It's win-win, and once they've take this kind of vacation, many people never take any other kind again.
There's no end to the possibilities. Help schools in the Galapagos. Dig with archeologists in Colorado. Collect butterflies in the Amazon. Count crocodiles in Belize. Teach English in Viet Nam. Feed baby cheetahs in Zambia. Build gardens in Romania. With opportunities that match nearly any interest with any destination, the only real challenge is finding one that's right for you. Here's what the experts suggest:
- Choose a volunteer vacation that matches your capabilities. Many require little more than two hands and a big heart, but others involve specific talents like carpentry or scuba diving. If you have a medical or technical background, you can put that to good use, too. Fitness can also matter as some experiences are physically demanding.
- Assess your feelings about independent travel. While most volunteer vacation organizers will be with you at least some of the way, you may also have to occasionally fend for yourself. These moments can create a trip's most authentic memories, but only if you're open to them.
- Ask the organization what kind of support they'll provide. Do they offer language training or orientations? How do they handle emergencies? Are side trips for local sightseeing included? What does the fee include and does any portion of it go to the cause or community you're aiding?
- Since accommodations can range from a tent to a hotel, make sure you your hosts won't be putting you up in a place that brings you down.
- Consider your foreign language abilities and comfort level. Unlike tours with translators, you might be on your own now and again. While this is a great way to learn a new language or polish existing skills, it's not for everyone.
- Look into the organization's reputation before you commit. Ask to contact past participants in your chosen program so you can get the real scoop.
Volunteer vacations come in all shapes and sizes, but what they have in common is that they supply an experience like no other. Whether it's just you or the whole family, they'll take you off the beaten path for a week or two of lending a helping life-affirming hand that neither you nor our world will ever forget. If you want to be traveler and not a tourist, they just may be the trip of a lifetime.
To start hunting for the perfect volunteer vacation, visit the International Volunteer Programs Association or Global Volunteers. The Volunteer Guide also has some useful information and offers trips as well.
Want to start with a guidebook? These can send you packing In the right direction:
- Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others
- 700 Places to Volunteer Before You Die: A Traveler's Guide
- Ecotourists Save the World: The Environmental Volunteer's Guide to More Than 300 International Adventures to Conserve, Preserve, and Rehabilitate Wildlife and Habitats
- 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life