Volunteer travel

Get away from it all and help others, too? 'Voluntourism' grows as a travel option.

Here's a great travel fantasy: Watch giraffes galloping across the savanna, spot elephants on their migratory path, and then snooze in a hammock under a baobab tree.

Or, instead of being catered to on a luxury safari, you can read to nursing-home residents in inner-city Philadelphia, help build a schoolhouse in Zambia, or plant trees to stop erosion along Big Darby Creek in Ohio.

In growing numbers, travelers are choosing the latter examples as a way to learn more about various cultures and to help people in a deeper way than just buying their souvenirs. On volunteer vacations, they work hard, laugh a lot, and live an adventure that can't be duplicated.

The menu of volunteer vacations is lengthy and diverse, covering environmental, scientific, educational, and social-service expeditions both in the United States and abroad. It can be a week insulating a home in Kentucky, two weeks rescuing leatherback turtle eggs in St. Croix, or a weekend registering voters in San Antonio.

Steve Bingham, part owner of an environmental consulting firm in Seattle, has taken trips to Guatemala, Indonesia, and Costa Rica with Global Volunteers, and spent a week building a home with Habitat for Humanity. On one adventure, he helped develop a biological reserve in a Costa Rican "cloud forest," a locale where, he says, "you're not staying at the Hilton. When you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you're walking through wet, cloudy, total darkness. Monkeys live there, and you don't know what else. Your heart pounds a little, and it's just wonderful."

Another volunteer I know went on an Earthwatch excavation on Johnson Island in Ohio's Sandusky Bay. The island had served as a prison housing Confederate officers during the Civil War. Under the latrines they found wine bottles, hospital items, buttons, and pottery.

"We learned that those boys ate better early in the war," my friend says. "We found a lot of beef bones from the early years. They didn't get so much protein as the war raged on."

Costs of volunteer vacations vary according to length and locale. You can work on a Habitat for Humanity house in Cleveland free of charge, or you can spend $4,000 or more traveling to an exotic location. The good news: The cost of most volunteer vacations is tax-deductible.

To learn more, see the box on page 35. Or read "Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others," by Bill McMillon.

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Questions to ask before you embark on a volunteer vacation

Think carefully about the demands, time commitment, and logistics. And be sure to check with other volunteers.

••What do you hope to gain from this volunteer vacation?

••What type of volunteer vacation appeals to you? Would you like to build houses or work with animals, for example? Do you work better in teams or do you prefer to work by yourself?

••How much time can you realistically commit to a volunteer experience? Do you plan to volunteer once or go back year after year? Have you considered taking a gap year or service year – a long-term volunteer commitment?

••Does your volunteer vacation organization provide housing, transportation, food, and other needs? If the organization doesn't provide these amenities, what are your options?

••Are you interested in sightseeing or participating in recreational activities during your volunteer vacation? Some organizations provide more downtime then others, while some are more focused on full-time volunteering.

••What skills are needed to volunteer at this particular organization? Do you need any prior training?

••What will your daily schedule entail? What will your responsibilities be?

••Will you work with other people in the community?

••What is the cost of the trip? Is all of it tax-deductible?

••What do others say about volunteering for a particular organization? Read reviews online or seek out former volunteers via Facebook or Eons.com.

Questions are adapted from 'Volunteer Vacations Across America,' by Sheryl Kayne.