Choosing a volunteer vacation can be daunting. These four affordable options are worth your time, money and effort.
You Have Time and Skills
Got a couple of weeks to spare? You'll find a variety of volunteer options in far-flung locations that are out of range of travelers limited to a short getaway.
Some will even let you put your professional know-how to work, particularly if you're, say, a doctor, nurse, or veteran teacher.
A caveat: Long trips and international plane tickets have a tendency to be pricey.
The trip: Travelers who can get away for 19 days should check out Road Scholar's excursion to Rajasthan in northwest India. Previously known as Elderhostel, nonprofit Road Scholar has been leading service trips aimed at the 50-plus crowd for 15 years.
Volunteers on the Rajasthan itinerary will spend mornings tutoring middle- and high-school-age students in English (previous teaching experience not required).
Yves Marceau, director of program development, says Road Scholar chose this location in part because of the area's tourist industry, which can provide locals with good jobs -- provided they speak English. When you're not in the classroom, tour cultural sites, see a cricket game, or attend lectures on topics like India's public education system. Volunteers stay in B&Bs and hotels, such as the four-star Trident Agra, near the Taj Mahal.
The price: The itinerary costs up to $3,145, which covers most meals, local transport, activity fees, and medical evacuation insurance.
One way to save: Get your flight through Road Scholar. A March roundtrip ticket from New York to New Delhi booked through the organization costs $950, vs. $1,100 on Kayak.com.
You need some me time
Given that the typical American worker takes just 10 vacation days a year, according to travel booking site Expedia, you may want to mix your volunteering with a little straight R&R.
One option: Some outfitters offer packages with a "taste" of service, which tack a day or two of volunteering onto a typical vacation. U.K.-based Hands Up Holidays, for one, organizes trips to places like Peru and New Zealand for travelers who want to spend about a quarter of their time volunteering.
The downside? Many of these itineraries are run by luxury travel firms and tend to be expensive. Hands Up charges an average of $4,000 per person.
To trim that bill, go DIY. "It's not difficult to add a day on your own," says Shannon O'Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, who suggests searching for nonprofits at your destination (try a site like allforgood.org) and arranging a visit.
The trip: The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, surrounded by the red rock cliffs of Kanab, Utah, takes in hundreds of cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, and other animals that have been abused or neglected. And with 1,700 creatures at the sanctuary at any one time, volunteers are essential for getting all of them fed, groomed, and exercised each day. (Best Friends Animal Society, which runs the Sanctuary, has partnered with the ASPCA on animal rescue initiatives.)
When you're not walking a pup, grooming a horse, or mending a fence, there's plenty to do nearby: Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon are within a 90-mile drive.
The price: There's no charge to volunteer. Best Friends has on-site cabins and cottages, priced from $60 to $140 a night.
Prefer something a little cushier? Many nearby hotels offer discounts for Best Friends volunteers. At the Canyons Lodge, for example, you'll get 15% off, bringing a deluxe queen or king room in the modern, quirkily designed hotel down to $76 to $135, depending on the time of year.
You're a science geek
Why not turn off the Discovery Channel and pick up the trowel yourself? Some trips let you assist scientists in the field, studying the habits of sea turtles or excavating ancient Roman ruins.
These excursions tend to be in remote and costly destinations but include perks such as scientific lectures and comfortable lodging. And don't worry if you have more curiosity than know-how.
"In most cases, you don't need special skills," says Andrew Mersmann, author of Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference.
The trip: Perfect for marine biologist wannabes, nonprofit Earthwatch offers a nine-day excursion to study the habits of whales and dolphins living in Costa Rica's Golfo Dulce, an inlet on the country's southern Pacific coast.
Earthwatch, the granddaddy of science-based trip organizers, excels at choosing projects where volunteers can both advance worthwhile research and enjoy a unique location, says William Rossiter, president of the Cetacean Society International, a marine mammal conservation group.
The ultimate goal of the Costa Rica project is to gather the data needed to establish a marine protected area. Volunteers train for a day and a half, then spend much of the rest of the week on boats, observing and photographing the animals.
Projects like this one, where the volunteers monitor and take notes, free up the scientists to focus on the high-level aspects of the research, says Rossiter. There's also a day reserved for hiking and cultural activities.
The price: The Costa Rica trip is shorter and based in a more accessible locale than many science-based itineraries, keeping the price reasonable. The getaway, which includes meals, eco-lodge accommodation, emergency insurance, and more, is $1,875 -- 25% less than the typical Earthwatch excursion.
You want to bring the kids
A volunteer vacation may sound like an ideal family getaway, but many trips are limited to kids 16 and older. And let's say you do find one that allows rugrats: Most organizers charge per person, which adds up quickly when you bring the brood.
Don't give up. While operators don't always advertise trips as kid-friendly, they may be able to suggest specific itineraries that will work for families, says Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations. A few may even be willing to provide youth discounts, so don't hesitate to ask.
The trip: Global Citizens Network, a nonprofit that has been running volunteer trips focused on working with indigenous communities since 1992, welcomes children as young as 8.
"Family travel is our niche," says Molly Stern, program coordinator, noting that many trips take place during summer or school vacations. Next July, you and your family could spend eight days in La Push, a town on the northwest coast of Washington that's home to the Quileute Native American tribe.
GCN excels at collaborating with local groups, says Genevieve Brown of the International Volunteer Programs Association, and the La Push trip is no exception. Volunteers often help with construction and maintenance projects and get to know locals, partaking in La Push events like drum circles or community salmon bakes on the beach.
On days off, you might head to the forests of Olympic National Park, about an hour's drive east.
The price: At La Push, adults pay $1,200 each. The fee for kids age 15 and under is half price -- one of the most generous discounts around. Meals and rustic lodge accommodations are included.
5 things to know before you sign up
The quality of volunteer vacations varies. Here's how to vet your trip organizer and dig into the details of the itinerary.
- Ask about the work you'll do, the goal of the project, and whether community members will be actively involved. "The best programs are the ones where volunteers support the efforts of locals," says Zahara Heckscher, co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.
- Check references. Organizations should be able to refer you to past volunteers who can talk about their experiences.
- Find out whether you can deduct the cost of your trip. To do so, you must volunteer for an IRS-registered charity and demonstrate that you worked eight hours a day, five days a week.
- Volunteer vacations are run by non- and for-profit groups. Both may offer fine trips, but they divvy up your fee in different ways. To get a sense of where the money goes, ask what percentage is used to fund research or support a project.
- There's no industry-wide certification, but the International Volunteer Programs Association does require that members adhere to best practices, such as partnering with local organizations whenever possible. For more, go to volunteerinternational.org.