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Be more than a tourist with volunteer vacations

SmarterTravel

If you want a travel experience that takes you beyond a destination’s tourist attractions, consider a volunteer vacation. Whether its teaching English in Thailand or building houses in Belize, volunteer travel projects can put you in touch with locals and give you insight into a region’s history, environment, and culture. And whether you’re looking to go for a week or six months, volunteer travel won’t kill your budget, as it tends to cost significantly less than comparable tour vacations. Plus, you get the intrinsic benefit of helping others and the environment.

If you haven’t contemplated the idea before, here’s a primer on volunteer travel basics.

The costs and benefits of volunteer travel

The idea of paying to volunteer may seem contradictory at first, but if you consider the costs associated with running a volunteer project, it becomes clear why it?s necessary. Your payment covers the cost of accommodations, food, and training, and it helps defray the cost of things like building materials, medical supplies, salaries for local staff, and other project expenses. If a community or nonprofit group needs help from volunteers to build a school or conserve wildlife, chances are they don?t have a lot of extra dough lying around. Companies that organize volunteer programs charge participants so that the project costs are not passed onto the community or organization being helped.

Don?t think that you?re not getting anything out of this, however. Check with your school, as there?s a possibility you could receive school credit for participating in volunteer programs. And the experience can enhance your resume, especially if you choose a project related to your future career. Journalism major? Instead of interning at your local newspaper, sharpen your writing skills and discover a new culture by volunteering at an English-language paper in Honduras. Premed? Offer your skills to an AIDS outreach program in South Africa.

Also, much of your costs are generally tax deductible. So, you?re getting an experience of a lifetime, and at the end of the year, Uncle Sam?s giving you a break. Check with the IRS or your tax advisor for expenses that can be deducted.

Volunteer organizations

There are numerous organizations that offer short- and long-term volunteer travel programs at reasonable costs. Some notable examples are described below.

American Hiking Society

The American Hiking Society (AHS) offers one- and two-week volunteer projects in U.S. National Parks and other wilderness areas, where participants repair deteriorating hiking trails or build new ones. With corporate sponsors such as REI and Columbia covering much of the project costs, participants pay only $100 per trip ($80 if for AHS members). This includes food and accommodations at campsites or cabins. Check out the AHS website for details on all the projects nationwide. Bear in mind that you must be fit enough to hike five or more miles per day and carry a heavy pack.

Habitat for Humanity

Habitat is a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing for low-income families around the world. Volunteers help with all aspects of the building alongside the family that will be living in the completed home. Project fees vary greatly depending upon the destination you choose and the project length, but international Global Village programs range from $1,100 to $2,200. The cost covers accommodations, food, ground transportation, insurance, some cultural activities on days off, and a donation to Habitat. Visit the Habitat for Humanity website to learn more.

Earth Watch Institute

Earth Watch has some very interesting programs for budding scientists that allow for hands-on field research in exotic locations around the world. Students save 20 percent on select expeditions (as long as they have an Earth Watch membership, which costs $35). High school students are also eligible to apply for the “Student Challenge Awards Program,” which is a non-government grant that will cover all of the project costs.

Sample programs discounted for students involve caring for Costa Rican sea turtles ($1,596 for 10 days) and recording botanical diversity in Kenya?s Taita Hills ($1,356 for 15 days). The fees cover accommodations, food, and on-site travel, as well as all field research costs. For more information, go to the Earth Watch website.

i-to-i

If you?ve got more time to play with, i-to-i offers projects in 23 countries ranging from one to 24 weeks. Programs focus on teaching, building, conservation, community development, health, media, marketing, museums, or tourism. For example, you could teach English in rural Costa Rica for four weeks for $2,195 or work as an intern for an English-language newspaper in Ghana for six weeks for $3,015.

Project fees include health insurance, on-site support, and orientation. Most programs also include housing and food, but not every program is all-inclusive. The Media project in Ghana, for example, will provide housing, but you must cover your own food costs. The programs provide good value for your money, even with potential added costs, when you break down the price per day. Got to the i-to-i website to learn more.

How to choose the right program

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a project, such as location, cost, personal interests, and the reputation of the volunteer organization. The Internet is chock full of resources that can help you decide what sort of experience is best for you. From tips on overcoming obstacles that might keep you from going (such as not knowing the local language) to how your personal preferences will affect your choices, you can find the answers to pretty much any question you have.

You can also find out ways to help defray the costs of volunteering (besides running to Mom and Dad pleading for money). The i-to-i website includes an entire guide on its website devoted to ways you can raise money to cover your expenses. One interesting idea is to ask a local business to donate funds and offer to wear a shirt with their logo on it during the trip.

Good online resources include TransitionsAbroad.com, VolunteerOverseas.org and VolunteerInternational.org.

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