The May issue of Conde Nast Traveler offers 10 tips for getting the most out of volunteer vacations.
The magazine stresses that there are trips for all types of travelers, but you need to figure out what will work best for you. For example, do you want a vacation with a few days of volunteering, or a volunteer-only experience? A scientific or community project? (You can learn more about what's available through the listings at Transitions Abroad, www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml.)
How about your comfort level? Must you have air conditioning? How do you feel about making do without running water? Consider your emotional comfort level, too. Some trips may involve stays in extremely poor communities; others focus on outdoor work in parks.
Also assess the tour operators. Look for those who stress educational experiences rather than just promising to change the world.
Before you go, ask questions about accommodations and exactly what you'll be doing. You'll want to find out how the sponsoring organization measures results and whether the project is done in coordination with a local group. You also may want to speak to former volunteers and get their recommendations.
Ask where the fees go. Generally they finance project research and your trip. Only some operators make donations to projects.
Before you sign up, find out if vaccinations or other shots are required.
To make your trip more meaningful, you'll want to read up on the destination and culture, not just browse through travel guides.
And when you get home, make a donation and spread the word to your friends.