By guest blogger Suzzanne Lacey
So, you say you're a giver. Giving up your vacation time for a good cause could be the most satisfying way to spend a week or two of your life. But how should you spend it? Which volunteer opportunity fits you best? I've led countless group trips and have learned a few lessons along the way. Here are my tips for volunteer vacationers:
1. Core mission matches your values: Do you agree with and support the organization's mission? Consider this first before agreeing to join a group. It takes patience and commitment to volunteer with a non-profit, and altruistic as the cause may be, you should believe 100 percent in what you're doing since you're giving up free vacation time and money. There are many types of volunteer vacations: counting sea turtles, excavating a Roman fortress, tutoring children. You can also travel solo or take the family. Overall, it's important to remember that this is work. Tax-deductible work, but work nonetheless.
2. Commit to the trip: Organizers of such trips (educational tours, for instance) need volunteers to be committed and available so they can assist on the trip. Be prepared to do the work needed on the trip and sign up only when you can fully commit. It's helpful for (yourself and) the organization. If you're making cheese on an organic farm in France, spend time researching the region. If teaching English in China, head to a shelf at your library or bookstore that will enlighten you on China's history.
3. Donations, in addition to fees, help: Yes, you're giving your much appreciated free time to help a worthy cause, but often the non-profit still struggles with funding. In many instances, volunteer vacations require that you pay part or all of your way. However, for those that don't (you're lucky if you find this) you can still donate money to the cause. Most non-profits include administrative fees in the trip price to offset overhead costs, but like all "good causes," anything extra, even in-kind donations (accounting advice or an old scanner in good condition) can help. Expect to pay fees from $600 to $3500 for a volunteer vacation.
4. Sleeping situations: Get ready for an experience. You're on an adventure and chances are you'll have an opportunity to sleep anywhere from a dorm room to a tent—and you'll have a roommate if you don't travel with a friend or family. Please be kind and know that you're on a peace, educational, or environmental mission and your time, as your roommates' time, is valuable. But standards may be different than what you expect. Keep an open mind and go with the flow.
5. Keeping in touch: I don't go anywhere without my laptop. As group leader, it's not only necessary for my work, but also how I keep in contact with friends and family. Skype is a brilliant technological invention. Simply plug in a microphone and headphone and talk anywhere in the world for pennies, or even for free. When I was in Austria last May, I spoke to my parents, two friends, and a colleague for $1.50 total. If you don't carry a laptop with you, many cyber cafés around the world are Skype-ready. If you really feel adventurous, for about $12, you can acquire a local phone number where people can call you around the world for free.
6. Free time: Expect some free time. All volunteer vacations build in time to get to know your surroundings. It is expected that you'll want to do some exploring, since the destination is likely new to you. Just as you would prepare for any other vacation, research places to go during your free time. When you're at the bookstore picking up that sea turtle book, grab a destination guide, too.
7. What to wear/bring: Find out what clothing is truly appropriate for the trip from the organization ahead of time. Don't be caught in the Amazon without rain gear or in Mississippi with only long-sleeve shirts in the heat of August. Ask what you should bring and what you should leave at home. Any good organization will have a list ready and should be more than happy to pass it and other information along. They should also be willing to respond to any preparation question, no matter how small. Ask away!
Most important is being open to new experiences. There will be moments of shock and awe. You'll also become aware of your weaknesses and strengths.
There are still moments on my trips that surprise me. I spent some time in the southern U.S. this past summer and learned there was such a thing as a "flying, giant cockroach." This turned out to be a problem for many on the trip. But as we ended up laughing about our irrational fear of something so much smaller than us, I still slept with the sheets wrapped around me like a cocoon and my walkman headphones tucked tightly on my ears. It was a comical couple of days on the program. It was also the only city we left on time and the first one we laugh about at reunions. Volunteer vacations are made of lasting moments that don't fall into any itinerary or description. But you can count on them being more than worth the time or money for the unique adventure.
Suzzanne Lacey is a freelance journalist and Founder and Executive Director of Museum Without Walls, a non-profit that plans and gives educational tours around the world.