Ahhh, vacation. For many people, there's nothing like kicking back in a hammock somewhere, fruity tropical beverage in hand, for a week or two of doing as little as possible. However, if you're the altruistic sort who has dreamed about joining the Peace Corps but found yourself discouraged by the commitment, maybe it's time to consider embarking on a volunteer vacation.
There are seemingly endless, worldwide options for the altruistic traveler, from monitoring migration on whale watching trips in Oregon to helping preserve hiking trails in the Adirondacks to teaching English to children in Honduras to promoting sustainable agriculture in Thailand. Before you throw up your hands and protest, "But I don't know anything about whales/hate hiking/don't speak sign language/know how to farm," it's important to know that most, if not all, organizations looking for volunteer assistance will work to match your skills or interests with the opportunity that's right for you, with the ultimate goal of teaching you a new trick or two along the way.
Here are some things to consider when planning a volunteer vacation:
• Your interests and the type of trip — Some volunteer vacations require a great deal of physical strength or fitness, while others offer more intellectual stimulation, and some involve working with lots of people, while some take travelers to relatively remote areas. A good idea would be to make a checklist of "Wills" and "Won'ts" as far as your specific travel desires.
• Location — Would you prefer to stay in the country or visit a foreign, unknown locale? Do you have a problem with warm or cold climates or soggy weather? Are you comfortable going to a place where English is not the primary language?
• Funds — While most volunteer vacation costs are comparable to regular vacation costs (and they're often tax-deductible, too!), it's important to have a target amount of money you're able to spend for and on a trip.
•Free time allowed — If you'd like to explore your destination on your own, too, be sure to ask the volunteer organization about their policy on free time during the trip.
The website for the International Volunteer Programs Association (www.volunteerinternational.org) will help you match your interests and projected donation time with what's out there, give you lists of things to know before embarking, offer personal stories from former volunteer vacationers, and answer some frequently asked questions. Some of the popular programs listed there include:
• Scientifically-based trips with the Earthwatch Institute (www.earth watch.org), which matches volunteers with researchers in a wide range of fields of study, like ecology, zoology, and archaeology
• Nature/conservancy-based trips with groups like The Sierra Club (www.outings.sierraclub.org/national), the Wilderness Volunteers (www.wildernessvolunteers.org), or archaeology and historic preservation group Passport in Time (www.passportintime.com)
• Building/construction-oriented trips with groups like Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program (www.habitat.org/gv)
These alternative adventures are perfect for individuals, families (with or without children), even large groups of people. While the trips aren't free, they usually include room and board and meals, plus the added bonus of working alongside trip facilitators familiar with the area. The benefits reaped from a volunteer vacation are not just the results of whatever project you decide to help with or the thrills of exploring new places, people, and cultures; they are similar to the "helper's high" — calmness, reduced stress, increased energy, an enhanced feeling of self-worth — that comes from volunteering at home. —Sara Miller