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Volunteer vacations: Budget travel with a heart

By Mike Paglia

What if there was a way to travel to an exotic destination, contribute to a worthy cause, get an undiluted taste of another culture, and pay hundreds of dollars less than the cost of a typical vacation for the experience? It’s easier than you might think. More and more people are discovering that by passing on mainstream tourism and turning to volunteer vacations they can have an immensely rewarding travel experience and save money, too.

Why go on volunteer vacations

Why work during your vacation? Here are four good reasons:

  • Volunteering abroad gives you the opportunity to visit unusual places you might not have considered for a regular vacation, as well as participate in activities you might never have the chance to do otherwise. For example, the volunteer travel company i-to-i offers travelers many unique volunteer opportunities, including coaching kids’ soccer teams in Ghana, writing articles for an English-language newspaper in Bolivia, and tracking lion populations in South Africa.
  • Volunteering allows you to interact with a different culture on a profound level. Often, volunteers work side by side with people from local organizations. This type of interaction can give you a far deeper understanding of a place than the superficial impressions you’d get just passing through.
  • Volunteering lets you give something positive back to a destination. “Most of our volunteers want to do something constructive on their vacation, immerse themselves in the culture, challenge themselves, and help the underprivileged,” says Marshall England of i-to-i.
  • Signing on to a volunteer project can often save hundreds of dollars over visiting the same area as a regular tourist. Say, for example, you’ve always wanted to visit the Australian Outback. You might want to consider an organization such as Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA). CVA runs conservation projects in Australian wilderness areas—including the Outback—ranging from tree planting to trail maintenance to wildlife surveying. Four-week volunteer packages start at $594 ($815 Australia dollars), which covers all accommodations, meals, transportation to and from the project site, and project training and support. At slightly more than $20 a day, that’s not a bad deal.

Is volunteering right for you?

Bear in mind that as a volunteer traveling to developing areas you should not expect the same sorts of comforts and certainties you’d get on a regular vacation. If your idea of the ideal trip is to lounge around at a posh resort sipping cocktails, then this sort of thing might not be for you. You’ll be expected to do a job, one that can be difficult at times, and put the project before your own interests.

Linda, an i-to-i volunteer who worked on a post-tsunami relief project in Sri Lanka, says her trip was “without a doubt, the most physically and emotionally challenging experience” of her life. Hard work yields great payoffs, however. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and would eagerly do it all again,” says Linda. “I feel extremely grateful for everything that I have.”

Volunteer travel organizations

There are hundreds of volunteer organizations in the U.S. and overseas, and an equally diverse number of projects. Finding the right one can be intimidating, but a little research will pay off. You can find a wealth of information about volunteer travel organizations online; start by looking at general sites like and Here are several recommendations for organizations that have good reputations and offer a wide selection of destinations and projects:

  • U.K.-based i-to-i has sent thousands of volunteers to 27 countries on five continents, including a large group sent to Sri Lanka in response to the December 2004 tsunami. Programs run from one to 24 weeks and may involve humanitarian efforts, work with local media outlets and businesses, building projects, community development, English teaching, or conservation. Costs start at $795 per person. In most cases, prices cover accommodations, meals, travel insurance, project training and support, and airport pickup.
  • The non-profit Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) was founded in 1995 and boasts 10,000 alumni. Projects are oriented toward human services such as working with disadvantaged children, assisting local medical professionals, and working with people affected by AIDS/HIV. One to 12-week trips operate in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand. CCS also builds custom placements for those looking to share their professional skills and experience. Prices range from $1,595 to $4,996 and cover accommodations, transportation, travel insurance, cultural and learning activities, and in-country support staff.
  • Providing affordable housing for needy families, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 200,000 homes in 100 countries across the globe since 1976. Habitat runs nine- to 14-day building projects abroad, ideal for travelers with a limited amount of time. The cost to participate runs approximately $1,000 to $2,200. Volunteers can expect room and board, travel insurance, and in-country transportation in return. A portion of the cost also covers the expense of the building project itself. Those interested in joining one of Habitat’s many programs should be aware that although it’s a Christian organization, all are welcome.

In the end, volunteer travel is not for everyone. But, if you are open-minded, hard working, and have a sense of adventure, then you stand to return home from a volunteer vacation with memories that will last years longer than any suntan. Just ask Jessica, a volunteer who worked with disadvantaged children in Rio de Janeiro: “No matter how tough it may have seemed some days, I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world.”

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