by Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
My husband and I are approaching retirement and are interested in learning more about volunteer vacations. Can you give us some information on this travel option, and refer us to some good organizations that offer these types of trips?
Love to Travel
If you’re looking to do more on your next vacation than relax in the sun or go sightseeing, volunteer vacations – also known as voluntourism – which combine travel and volunteer work, are a great alternative and a growing trend among retirees.
There are many organizations today that offer short-term volunteer vacation projects in the U.S. and abroad, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Common program themes include teaching English, working with children and teens, building and repairing homes and schools and assisting with community or environmental projects.
In addition, volunteer vacations also give travelers the opportunity to experience the culture more fully and connect with the local people – much different than your run-of-the-mill sightseeing vacation.
Most volunteer vacation groups accept singles, couples and families and you don’t need to speak a foreign language. Costs usually range from around $1,000 to $3,000 per week, not including transportation to the country your site is in. Fees typically cover pre-trip orientation information, room and board, on-site training, ground transportation once you get there, the services of a project leader and a contribution to the local community that covers material and services related to the project. And, if the organization running your trip is a nonprofit, the cost of your trip, including airfare, is probably tax-deductible.
Where to Look
While there are many organizations that offer volunteer vacations, here are some good ones that attract a lot of retirees.
Global Volunteers (GlobalVolunteers.org): A pioneer in global travel, this group tackles hunger, poverty and educational needs. It offers a variety of one, two and three-week service programs in 17 countries, including the U.S.
Earthwatch Institute (Earthwatch.org): With an emphasis in environmental conservation and research, they offer dozens of one and two-week expeditions in countries all over the world.
Cross-Cultural Solutions (CrossCulturalSolutions.org): Based in New Rochelle, NY, they focus on health, education and economic volunteer opportunities in Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Biosphere Expeditions (Biosphere-expeditions.org): Offers wildlife conservation expeditions in 13 countries.
Habitat for Humanity (Habitat.org): Offers international house-building trips through its Global Village Program in more than 40 countries.
Sierra Club (Sierraclub.org): This venerable environmental group sponsors dozens of service trips in the U.S. each year, with more projects offered through local chapters.
How to Choose
With so many different volunteer vacations to choose from, selecting one can be difficult. To help you decide, you need to think specifically about what you want. For example: Where you want to go and for how long? What types of work are you interested in doing? What kind of living situation and accommodations do you want? Do you want to volunteer alone or with a group? Do you want a rural or urban placement? Also consider your age and health. Are you up to the task, or do you have any special needs that will need to be met?
Once you figure out what you want and spot a few volunteer vacations that interest you, ask the organization to send you information that describes the accommodations, the fees and what they cover including their refund policy, the work schedule and work details and anything else you have questions about. Also, get a list of previous volunteers and call them.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.