When many people plan their vacations, they look for a place that allows them to rest and escape from their daily lives. But that's certainly not the case with everyone. For those looking to participate in a little civic action while getting away from the daily grind, volunteer vacations can be a great way to help struggling communities and learn more about unfamiliar places.
By its definition, a volunteer vacation is anything that combines volunteer work and travel. You can also choose to play to the skills you already have or try to learn new ones. This might include helping restore or rebuild houses after a natural disaster, teaching your native tongue to foreign schoolchildren or even contributing to large-scale archaeological digs.
We'll be taking a look at different tips to ensure your volunteer vacation will be successful and enjoyable. After all, it's still a vacation.
There are two main reasons to look into the history of the organization you want to volunteer with: First off, you'll want to make sure it's really what it says it is and, second, you'll want to ensure your political and philosophical ideas match that of the organization.
You might want to find out if an organization is faith-based or secular. Good places to start include: Ambassadors for Children, Idealist.org, Habitat for Humanity and Volunteer International.
Ask Lots of Questions
This might seem like common sense, but it can't be understated. You're going to be spending an extended amount of time with strangers in an unfamiliar location so you need to fully understand what you're getting into. This is especially true if you plan on travelling abroad. Once you've narrowed your choices, Volunteer International recommends asking these questions:
By the end of your questioning, you should feel confident with your choice.
Ensure You Can Stay Up to Date
Chances are you're going to connect on a personal level with the people you're working with. Plus, since you care about the task you're performing, you'll want to stay up to date on the work even after your vacation is over. Make sure the organization you're working for is willing to send you updates after you've left [source: Schaler].
If you're working with children at a school, you might want to keep in touch with them as they get older. But even if you spend your time building houses or cleaning up trails, you'll probably want to see how the work has progressed over the years. If an organization is willing to update you, that's usually a good sign that, at the very least, it's committed to staying involved with its volunteers.
Research the Location
Like any vacation, you'll want to ensure you're heading to a place you'll enjoy -- at least on some level. Even though you'll be spending a large chunk of time working on your volunteer projects, you'll still have some free time to explore the area.
Consider the local wildlife, flora, climate and temperature. If you hate rain, for instance, you probably don't want to work in a place where it rains every day. If you're especially scared of big bugs, you'll want to stay away from a rain forest [source: Tuttle]. Most volunteer vacations will offer some type of sight-seeing, so don't worry that you'll be stuck working the entire time and choose a place you've always wanted to visit, but perhaps couldn't afford. That doesn't mean you have to work in a rural environment -- there are plenty of volunteer positions available in urban ones as well. If you'd prefer to remain connected to the outside world, consider working in a metropolitan environment.
You'll also want to get a good understanding of the political climate of where you're heading. This won't be a big deal in a lot of cases, but you'll want to be aware of how a political system works regardless of whether there's a threat in the area.
Find a Skill You'd Like to Learn
One of the big benefits of doing volunteer work is that you'll be given opportunities to learn new skills. Since you're rarely expected to be an expert in the field you're volunteering for, chances are you'll walk away with a newfound appreciation for a type of work you may not have done before [source: Volunteer International].
Stay within your physical and mental bounds -- if you try to tackle an unrealistic challenge, you won't be doing yourself or the volunteer group any good. There are plenty of low-impact volunteer jobs available in which you can help observe wildlife, restore natural habitats, work on architectural digs, clean rivers and more. Finding something you believe in and enjoy can make a volunteer vacation feel less like work and more like a real vacation.
Talk With People Who've Done the Work Before
Most Web sites that connect people with volunteer positions abroad will also connect you with people who've participated in the work in the past. No matter what amount of research you've done or plan on doing, there's no better way to obtain first-hand information than from someone who has done it. That's because almost every organization you look at is going to sound wonderful. Since you're looking for a volunteer position, most organizations will attempt to give you the best possible idea of what you're doing, but they'll likely fall a little short compared to talking with a past participant. Contact the organization and see if they'd be willing to put you in touch with someone who can answer any additional questions you might have [source: Allen].
Look into Tax Breaks
Yes, you're volunteering, but there's nothing wrong with getting a financial benefit out of the whole thing. Sure, you'll have to pay for your flight and possibly parts of your stay, but provided your working at least 40 hours at a non-profit, you'll be able to write off many of your expenses [source: Tuttle].
If you've already done the research into the organization, you should know if it's a for-profit or non-profit. As long as it's non-profit you'll be able to write-off your plane ticket, travel expenses and any boarding expenses you incur.
Get Yourself Prepared
If the work you'll be doing is outside of the country, you might need to get immunizations, passports and medicines that otherwise might be unavailable during your stay.
If you're going to be working with locals, you'll want to learn as much about their culture and language as possible. Learning even simple phrases like "thank you" and "hello" is a step in the right direction. Become knowledgeable about local customs so you don't inadvertently show disrespect to your hosts [source: Schaler]. If you're uncomfortable with any customs, you might want to consider looking for another location in which to do your work.
Use the Skills You Already Have
If you're not really interested in picking up any new skills, offer the ones you do have. Chances are, you can use whatever job or life skills you've already learned and apply them to the place you end up choosing to go.
This is especially true if you've worked as a teacher or carpenter, as many volunteer positions revolve around both of those jobs [source: Schaler]. Are you experienced in manual labor? You shouldn't have any trouble finding places around the world where you're needed. You might have more to offer than you ever realized -- being able to work in all types of weather can be important. Knowledge of how to run a business is a sought-after skill. Even animal tracking can be of benefit to some communities. There are volunteer positions available worldwide for nearly every skill-set, so chances are your profession or hobby can help an organization.
Your trip will vary in price depending on where you're going and who you're volunteering with, but if you're planning on traveling abroad, expect to pay a minimum of $500 and up [sources: CNN; Allen].
More important is deciding how long you'll be able to stay. Volunteer vacations can range from several days to several months.
If you take all of these things into consideration you'll have a great chance of not only helping others but having a great time as well.
Travel over to the next page for lots more information.
Does the Peace Corps want retired volunteers? Learn about the Peace Corps and how retired volunteers can serve
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- Volunteering on Vacation." Sept. 3, 2008. (May 10, 2011). http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/story?id=5708629&page=1Tuttle, Brad.
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- "The Right Program." (May 10, 2011) http://www.volunteerinternational.org/therightprogram.html