Vacation. Is there a more appealing word in the English language?
But not everyone defines “vacation” in the traditional sense: swaying palm trees, glistening tropical waters and a ridiculously large umbrella drink served poolside. Your ideal getaway doesn’t involve wiling away the days getting sun poisoning or stuffing your face at a more-than-all-you-can eat cruise buffet. No, you’d rather assist communities in need, entrench yourself in local culture and help heal the planet, you do-gooder, you.
So get off your butt and try a volunteer vacation.
These are trips that allow you to help a nonprofit or other such organization by dedicating your time and energy to projects big and small. While these groups benefit from your free labor, your reward is experiencing an exciting new place, challenging yourself mentally and physically, and filling up on that warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies good deeds. Of course, these vacations aren’t free for you—you’ll still have to pay for things like room and board and any related travel expenses—but they tend to be a whole lot cheaper than what you’d pay traveling to these places on your own. Plus, some of the cost may be tax deductible (ask your tax preparer or accountant for more details).
Here are four organizations that would be happy to have you:
How do these sound: helping to save cheetahs from extinction in Namibia, researching climate change in Borneo’s rain forest, assessing the biodiversity of a Bordeaux winery? All these expeditions are available through the Earthwatch Institute, an environmental nonprofit founded in 1971. The organization offers special teen and family-friendly volunteer opportunities, and for your convenience labels expeditions with difficulty levels (easy, moderate, strenuous). Some of these trips could cost you upwards of $4,000, but really, can you put a price tag on an once-in-a-lifetime experience that helps save the world?
Archaeological Institute of America
If “likes to play in dirt” is your motto, then check out the Archaeological Institute of America. The nonprofit supports archaeological research and promotes the preservation of historical sites around the world. As part of its mission, the organization provides listings of volunteer archaeological digs—most sponsored by universities—in just about every corner of the globe. You can help excavate a medieval castle in Italy’s Tuscany region or a Roman military camp in Bulgaria, or unearth the past in an Inca fortress in Peru or an Iroquois village in New York. For many of the digs, no experience is necessary, and in some cases, college credits are offered. Some digs cost a nominal fee, while others can set you back a couple thousand dollars. It all depends on what you select, so dig around and find something you like.
See those well-cared-for hiking paths that wind their way through your favorite park lands? They didn’t get that way on their own; behind every good trail is a volunteer who helped make it that way—for example, the good people who sign on for the Sierra Club’s Volunteer Vacations. Depending on the trip you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to help build and maintain trails, repair meadows, assist archaeologists or help rid parks of invasive, non-native plants. Locales range from ghost towns nestled in the Sierra Nevada to the breathtaking coastline of Newfoundland, Canada. Of course, it’s not all hard work and no play. You’ll also be provided with plenty of time to relax and take in your beautiful surroundings. Most trips cost in the several-hundred-dollars range and space is limited.
Teaching English to a rural African community, maintaining a library and museum on the Cook Islands, helping to build a new childcare center in Ecuador—those are just some of the enriching experiences Global Volunteers provides. Founded in 1984, the organization’s mission is to get compassionate people such as yourself involved in a community’s economic and human development while working in close partnership with the local residents. You can sign on for a one- or two-week stint—prices vary depending on how long you stay, although you can count on spending at least a couple thousand dollars—but if you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from your charitable mission, long-term opportunities are available.