Resorts Too Pricey? Take a Volunteer Vacation for Less

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Images of sandy beaches, warm weather, and a cool drink may come to mind when thinking about that next vacation. How about helping to rescue animals, picking olives, or building a house instead? Sure, these volunteer projects seem an awful lot like work, but you'll be contributing to a worthy cause while getting away from your day job. Indeed, sometimes a "working vacation" can be more rewarding than a week at an all-inclusive resort.

Volunteer to Help Others.

One common type of working vacation is a volunteer trip. Folks interested in indefinite travel experiences, or at least a several month commitment, may be familiar with WWOOFing. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms arranges for meager room and board in exchange for work on a farm. Opportunities abound as far afield as Iceland, Poland, Uruguay, and Tanzania.

For shorter periods, a volunteer vacation may involve helping to build a house or assisting at an orphanage here or abroad. Such working vacations allow you to give back while experiencing a different local culture and environment. Lodging and some meals often are provided, so the trip may wind up being relatively inexpensive, as well.

You don't need to go all-out to give back. If you're taking the family to Disneyworld, for example, set aside a few hours to visit Give Kids the World Village, located just three miles away. This nonprofit "storybook" resort hosts children with life-threatening diseases and their families for free week-long stays. The Village relies on volunteer support, and more than 1,200 volunteer shifts are open every week. Call ahead to register; children older than 12 may also volunteer.

Before setting out on a volunteer vacation, be sure you're really up for it, especially if you're considering opportunities abroad. Leigh Shulman, who lives in northwest Argentina where she runs an organization called Cloudhead ART, recently went on a volunteer trip to a monkey refuge in Bolivia with her 9-year-old daughter. She had been helping people arrange volunteer vacations but stopped because so many didn't follow through.

"Volunteering is generally not particularly glamorous," she says. "It's cutting fruit, cleaning cages, carrying heavy things, sorting clothes. It often requires going to places that don't have the amenities people like when they're on vacation." Shulman stresses that if you arrive and then back out, you've wasted time, money, and resources that could have been better used elsewhere.

Work Exchanges.

More vacation-like trips that still involve some volunteer work can yield a big payoff. Josie Schneider and Conrad Knutsen, a couple from Michigan who describe themselves as "international house sitters" and maintain The House Sitting Travel Blog, exchanged three days of olive picking in Tuscany for 10 days of free lodging in a stunning apartment. The experience, Schneider says, was fun and romantic.

Music lovers can also arrange a vacation-volunteer exchange. Ken Mitteldorf of Georgia has traveled to the Celtic Roots Festival in Goderich, Ontario regularly over the past 10 years. He signs on as a member of the stage crew and helps with the load-in and setup, and receives free meals and passes. The bonus reward: passes to the weekday evening concerts reserved for students at the Celtic music school that runs the week before the festival. Mitteldorf notes that volunteering is a good way to meet people, even some "locals," and it feels like a reunion whenever he returns.

Making the Arrangements.

Reaching out to festival organizers for a volunteer vacation is relatively easy. What about other opportunities?

Religious institutions are a good place to start. Wanda Anglin has joined volunteer trips to Kenya, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico that were organized by her church in Texas. She has dug an outdoor toilet and shower and taught in a Bible school, and often stays with a host family, an arrangement that lets her experience day-to-day life and make new friends. Anglin says she undergoes personal growth during these volunteer trips and returns home with interesting stories to share.

Global Volunteers is another source for volunteer trips in the United States and elsewhere. For a fee, often several thousand dollars, the company arranges lodging, transportation, orientation, supplies, and other necessary resources (including insurance); projects range from entertaining kids in daycare to landscaping, painting, and teaching computer literacy. Earth Watch matches paying volunteers with scientists who are researching environmental issues. Volunteers can sign up for expeditions that involve helping to care for pandas in China or lions in Africa, and the like.

Frugal adventurers can bypass the fees by arranging volunteer work on their own. Lindsey Rivera spent two months helping to rescue monkeys in the Amazon and a month in Thailand aiding rescue elephants. She points out that many volunteer opportunities are found in poorer regions of the world and the biggest expense is airfare. Her ticket to Thailand cost about $1,000 and she spent about $350 during the entire month. She found a placement by emailing wildlife organizations in countries she wanted to visit and says the process was relatively easy.