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It's Thanksgiving Day in the USA, and despite all the world's controversies and problems, many pause to reflect on what in their lives they're thankful for, and perhaps, too, the travel-minded a bit on how they can give a little back of their own good fortune the next time they travel.

It's certainly true that more travelers than ever (especially young women, it seems) are taking a break from the usual “turn-and-burn” vacations or hedonistic city sojourns in favor of travel with a purpose. And most often that purpose is to help the disadvantaged and/or the environment, both in their own countries and abroad. It used to be that international volunteering was the province of formal programs such as America’s Peace Corps. and Britain’s InterVol. But now everyone can get in on the act, with the trend of “voluntourism“,  aka “volunteer holidays” and “solidarity tourism“, has been one of the hottest in travel for several years now, and shows no sign of abating.

All this interest and activity has spawned a huge, sprawling field, with thousands of programs, millions participating, and billions being spent for the privilege of, say, building houses and schools; teaching English; cleaning up national parks; caring for orphans; and assisting ecological groups in wildlife monitoring or rescue. These experiences range from “voluntourism lite”, such as day programs for guests at fancy resorts or cruise ships, to multi-month gigs. Participants may live with host families or a variety of other arrangements, from private accommodations to dormitory-style digs. There is often a program fee on top of travel costs.

Naturally, too, there are thorns amid the roses. For starters, it has become so lucrative for travel sellers that many piled onto the bandwagon in a big way, while other new players have sprung up.  And of course this means not all of them are of top quality (or even, in some cases, reputable). You definitely need to do a bit of homework when researching volunteer vacations.

And even when all goes smoothly, sometimes these programs can be ineffectual or even an impediment, if you get well-intentioned but unskilled volunteers essentially parachuting into a destination for several days to perform tasks they often have little or experience or training in (I’ve heard more than one story of shoddy construction work that had to be redone by locals – a waste of time and resources).


But doing the homework and choosing the right agencies, destinations, and projects can help reduce these kinds of problems. For example, organisations like four-year-old Moving Worlds focus on matching volunteer opportunities with people with some amount of expertise in various fields  – say, people with organising experience to help run day camps at a school in Costa Rica‘s Osa Peninsula.


Even the unskilled, however, can make a contribution through well established, reputable programs and tour operators such as Cross-Cultural SolutionsREI AdventuresTravel to Teach, and others. Another good option is to browse online clearinghouses such as Global VolunteersProjects-Abroad.organd Voluntourism.org.


And finally, enquire with the airline you plan to fly, as some, such as Iberia have added special fares for passengers travelling for humanitarian purposes, which feature relaxed conditions in terms of ticket changes and checked baggage; they are available through agencies and tour operators which arrange volunteer travel.


Get away and give back! It just might change your life.


photos: Hug It Forward 

 

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