Q: Maybe it’s holiday fatigue, but I need a vacation — far, far away from my family. To ease the guilt, I'm up for doing some community service while I’m away. Are there any sites that will help me plan a solo getaway to be around people who may actually enjoy my company?
A: I’ve done my share of globetrotting, but the idea of helping others during a vacation rarely crossed my selfish mind.
Fortunately, travel consultant Ann Lombardi of The Trip Chicks is listed under “getaway” in my cellphone directory. Lombardi specializes in trips down the road less traveled, whether it’s bicycling across Bulgaria or bunking on a New Zealand sheep farm. After couch surfing across Eastern Europe and eating her way through the chocolate factories of Switzerland, Lombardi has accumulated quite a few of her own memorable experiences, so the concept of “voluntourism” was nothing new for this intrepid traveler.
“It’s a great way to form friendships,” she said, adding “it’s not for the person looking to totally relax and get away from it all. It’s for someone who wants a cultural and life-changing experience.”
For the price of an airline ticket and a nominal membership fee, “volunturism” helps you to see the world — and make a valuable contribution to the global community. Lombardi helped one client pursue a program in Provence, France, where she used her art background to help restore a medieval castle. Now that’s a nice way to bolster your resume.
Excursions within the United States also can be pretty interesting. My friend Joanna Pera spent Christmas at a wolf sanctuary in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with a friend she met during her first “voluntourist” excursion to Mississippi, helping Best Friends Animal Society care for displaced animals after Hurricane Katrina.
“It was an emotional experience, the most rewarding I have ever had,” Pera said. She also noted that these trips are best suited for those with “a bit of adventure in their blood along with a very open mind.”
If “voluntoursim” sounds preferable to hanging with your family, then bon voyage! Here are a few tips to help plan a trip that’s good for you and the planet:
Get a passport
It can take up to six weeks for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs to process a passport application, so apply well before you plan a trip. For information on obtaining or renewing a passport, visit Travel.State.gov. Even if you plan a trip stateside, it’s good to have this document in hand.
Find your passion
CharityGuide.com lists various causes ranging from animal welfare to poverty. Find a cause that is close to your heart and then start doing research.
Love pets? Consider volunteering at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. (It’s on my short list of travel getaways.) While the nonprofit organization has focused on animal causes for decades, Best Friends gained national attention for assisting pit bulls confiscated in the Michael Vick dogfighting case.
Many animals will spend their lives at the sanctuary. Others hope to be adopted into a forever home. They all need love and socialization, so Best Friends welcomes volunteers all-year long. You could spend this Easter helping real bunnies. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 435-644-2001, ext. 4119. If you are feeling truly adventurous, follow Pera’s lead and dance (metaphorically speaking, of course) with wolves at Wolf Sanctum in North Carolina.
Get your hands dirty
Lombardi suggests starting with sites such as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and HelpExchange.net. Both are well-respected organizations that operate under a simple premise. You volunteer for a few hours a day in exchange for food and accommodations.
“There is something very satisfying about eating something you helped grow,” Lombardi said, “and you can save huge amounts of money.”
In some cases, WWOOF chapters charge a 10- to 20-euro annual membership fee ($14-$28) to access detailed information about host farms, so it pays to narrow your list down to a few countries. WWOOF Argentina’s free membership site lists an organic farm in Chubut that seeks gardening help and suggests that volunteers bring their own tent. On Helpx.net, owners of the Alpine Retreat Lodge in New Zealand request that volunteers spend at least five hours a day assisting with “just a wee tidy-up and maintenance of grounds” and room service in exchange for free room and board, morning and afternoon tea breaks. (How civilized!)
Clearly define your expectations — and limitations
Whether you want to get your hands dirty or simply pet a few animals, learn about your destination and get a clear understanding of what is expected when you arrive.
“If you don’t like the heat, don’t volunteer in the summer at a wildlife sanctuary and expect to be inside all the time in air conditioning,” Pera warned. “If you have physical limitations, be sure to alert the organization so they can place you appropriately to ensure a rewarding experience for you and the organization.”
For example, Best Friends welcomes animal lovers, but you must leave your own fur kids at home when visiting the retreat. Lombardi said that many volunteer exchange programs also require work insurance, which can be purchased online through companies such as Travelex or Insuremytrip.com. Some programs also have minimum daily work hours or require a one-week investment.
“Even the most conscientious planner can be met with some unexpected interesting encounters,” Pera said. “A loving open attitude towards all types of people is critical to an enjoyable experience.”