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Take Your Big Heart on the Road: Consider a Volunteer Vacation

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November 27, 2015

Looking to visit a remote locale and give back at the same time? A volunteer vacation might be the ticket. Whether you want to work with animals and the environment, or use your professional skills to help disadvantaged people, a volunteer vacation can offer something for everyone.

“Voluntourism,” as it’s sometimes called, has existed for years. But now it’s easier to participate as more companies are selling organized trips that take care of the (sometimes extensive) planning involved with volunteering abroad.

Christian Clark, deputy director for USA at Projects Abroad, says working with an established program that organizes logistics is the first step to a successful trip. Such organizations have done all the research ahead of time, have secured lodging, and often have local staff available to help volunteers.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, so we have all the kinks worked out, we take care of [potential] risks,” Clark says.

Make Sure Goals Align

To find a program, Clark suggests that potential volunteers begin by consulting the International Volunteer Programs Association. The volunteer programs work with you to make sure your traveling goals match the needs of the local community; the program will also do background checks, he said. Although most projects don’t require experience, there are some trips where professionals can leverage their specific skills, Clark says.

With these programs, the minimum trip length is usually a week, with the average voluntour lasting four weeks. Some can be longer.

Costs to volunteer vary depending on location, project, and length of time. For example, the cost of a week in Nepal with Project Abroad is about $1,700, and a four-week trip to other locations may be around $3,000. That fee includes accommodations, meals, airport shuttles, work-related transportation, medical and travel insurance, local staff support, and 24-hour emergency assistance. Travelers will need to add on airfare and passport/visa costs.

There are plenty of stateside volunteer programs, too. The website Just Give lists national programs that include Habitat for Humanity, Sierra Club, and the national-park-focused Sousson Foundation.

Resort Stays, Too

For those who aren’t ready to commit to a pure volunteer travel experience, some hotels are offering short volunteer experiences for their guests. For example, the Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International, works with guests in the Caribbean focused on sustainable projects in education, environment, and community. Los Suenos Marriott Costa Rica offers guests a chance to plant trees for rainforest development.

Voluntourism can be a great way to get off the typical tourist track and have a rewarding experience. Relationship-building—professionally and personally—adds value to the whole trip, too.

 “You learn about culture and lifestyle and get to share your culture,” Clark says. 

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