05 August 2003
by Joan Rattner Heilman
Have you ever thought of using your free time to build houses for migrant workers in Texas, track black bears in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, or help preserve the countryside in Wales? On your next vacation, instead of lollygagging on a poop deck waiting for the next meal to be served, you might want to consider a working holiday that's good for you, good for other people, good for the environment and maybe even good for your wallet.
Volunteer vacations, sponsored by nonprofit organizations, are becoming increasingly popular, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. And many vacationers return again and again. Ed Choby, a retired chemist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, has been on 13 trips to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado. There he works as a volunteer helping archaeologists excavate American Indian artifacts and dwellings.
To qualify for projects such as these, you don't have to be an expert at anything. Trip leaders provide on-site training for work that usually requires little experience but lots of enthusiasm.
Roughing it, inexpensively
Another appeal of these trips is that they tend to be easy on your travel budget. Although you pay for the privilege of working on vacation, the fees can be remarkably low. The American Hiking Society's volunteer vacations, for example, cost only $75. Volunteers get to hike into remote locations and spend one to two weeks helping to clear and maintain trails.
There are equally inexpensive options abroad. Volunteers who help out the National Trust's conservation program in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland live in converted barns or farmhouses for a cost of only US$89 a week in July and August and $74 a week the rest of the year.
Even more expensive trips can seem like a bargain. For example, the North Carolina black bear expedition sponsored by the nonprofit Earthwatch Institute costs $1295 for a two-week stint. More exotic adventures, such as documenting the coral reefs in the waters of the Philippines, can run you $2195 for 10 days. Food and accommodations (a tent, a cabin, a farmhouse, an inn, maybe even a castle) are always provided in these types of projects, but you are responsible for your own transportation to and from the base.
Although there are hundreds of nonprofit organizations sponsoring volunteer vacations today, here is a short list of some of the better-known ones.