Alternative Spring Break: Volunteer Travel
The American ritual known as spring break has evolved from a sprawling beach party into a chance for students to do some good. The opportunities to contribute are numerous and wide-ranging. You can volunteer in a low-income school, help out on an archaeological dig, or work for a crucial environmental cause. This guide to alternative spring break presents organizations focused on volunteer travel, along with recently published articles on the topic, so you’ll be equipped to find a cause and project that suit your own unique interests and talents.
If you remember your last spring break as a blur of crowded beaches, overpriced meals, and bad hangovers, consider traveling with a purpose this semester. A practice called volunteer tourism (or “voluntourism”), where tourists incorporate time working on volunteer projects into their vacations, is rising in popularity. Use the resources in this section to learn more about this emerging form of travel, including how it can benefit you.
- When planned well, volunteer tourism can benefit everyone involved. The University of Minnesota outlines reasons for lending a hand, and skills you may develop by volunteering.
- Volunteer tourism doesn’t require nonstop hard labor, and it’s still possible to return from your vacation feeling fresh and rejuvenated. On some Habitat for Humanity projects, workers retire to comfortable hotels (partnered with Habitat) after a hard day of building.
- Volunteer travel can have a huge impact on human rights issues. Take the efforts of the organization Ethical Traveler, for example. Its boycott of travel to Nepal resulted in the Nepalese government reversing its policy regarding Tibetan refugees in India.
- Volunteer travel is not without its critics. Some see the trend as a form of colonialism that benefits tourism providers, rather than people in communities where volunteers are sent. Critics also cite instances of volunteers unnecessarily redoing projects performed by earlier groups, or doing work that is against the wishes of local people, as evidence of voluntourism’s flaws. These issues are discussed in greater length in the Picks. The Ethical Travel Guide: Your Passport to Exciting Alternative Holidays is a guidebook with alternative travel ideas for those who wish to avoid what it describes as “guilt trips.”
For perspectives on volunteer travel …
has an article called “Voluntourism trips for do-gooders,” published in June, 2007. Learn reasons for taking a volunteer vacation, which the author dubs “something of a bandwagon.”
The New York Times
also offers insight into volunteer travel opportunities. Read accounts of a mother and son who lent a hand in Brazil, and a woman who painted houses in Peru as a way to cope with losing her fiancée on 9/11.
featured an article analyzing volunteer tourism, questioning whether the concept is merely an “overpriced guilt trip” for participants. The article likens voluntourism to an imitation of celebrity exploits abroad and points out flaws in the industry, but also shows how volunteer vacations can have a positive impact.
For personal travel accounts …
is a massive source of information and advice provided by actual travelers in blog-type format. Explore reasons for doing volunteer travel, and find links to RealTravel blogs written by volunteer travelers around the world.
is a travel guide with a casual tone and a pop culture slant. Look for a collection of entries about volunteer tourism offering insight into several different options that could inspire your volunteer vacation.
The Orange County Register
has a timeline that offers an interesting perspective on the history of spring break. It’s a good resource on the subject, amid a sea of vague and unreliable sources. This article from TripSmarter.com
, which attempts to establish a historical precedent for the carnival of indulgence that is the modern spring break, is one such example.
The New York Times
credits the Colgate University Swim Team with starting the spring break tradition in the mid 1930s, using the trip as a motivational tactic. The team traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to train in a warm place.
The length of your break, the location of your trip, your budget, and work preferences are a handful of considerations you need to make during the planning phase of your vacation. The sites below provide a voluntourism introduction, with tips on how to make your trip a reality.
- First-hand accounts of volunteer experiences offer unexpected ideas for incorporating volunteering into your vacation.
- Most newspaper and magazine articles on the topic of volunteer travel focus on international efforts, but there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer domestically.
- Your trip planning will revolve around which type of organization you volunteer with. Some companies offer all-inclusive packages with transportation and accommodation. Others allow for more free time, or may require additional planning on your part.
is a superb resource for anyone planning to work, study, or live abroad. Read about the success of volunteer tourism and learn how to incorporate volunteering into any trip, even without the help of a third party. Find a list of key questions to ask volunteer travel tour operators and organizations before you book.
is a travel blog led by several seasoned travel writers, including Rolf Potts, the author of Vagabonding
. Read Potts’ ideas on how to spontaneously contribute to local communities while traveling. Looking out for people in need while you’re on the road is a way to avoid paying an organization to find a project for you, according to Potts.
BootsnAll Travel Network
is a travel site devoted to independent, authentic experiences abroad, offering flight and hotel search tools in addition to forums and feature articles. Read their guide to volunteering abroad for a series of first-hand accounts with advice for how to begin researching volunteer tourism, as well as pivotal first steps to take, such as determining a location.
is a Seattle-based site focused on inexpensive travel. Find great advice for potential volunteer travelers, including an overview of placement agencies and what to ask yourself before you approach one.
Before your alternative spring break dreams can come to fruition, you might want some help from a knowledgeable, experienced volunteer tourism provider. You’ll find them using the sites below.
- There are countless volunteer vacation organizations touting themselves online, but before you shell out cash, take caution. Look for organizations with clearly outlined standards and thorough explanation of how fees are used.
- Volunteer vacations often have high price tags. When they are all-inclusive, and cover food, accommodation, and costs associated with running the organization, it makes sense. Always be sure to learn what expenses you’ll need to cover out of pocket, in addition to the standard program fee.
- If you’ve always ruled out spring break for financial reasons, take heed: there are volunteer organizations offering short-term projects at little to no cost. All you’ll need is transportation to the project site.
For a search tool…
helps you find volunteer opportunities matching your location and interests. Enter a few specifications into the search tool, and get a list of current and upcoming projects that need your help.
provides information on study and volunteer opportunities abroad, and has a search engine to help you find the perfect program. Enter a world region or country, the type of work you’re looking for, and the amount of time you plan to spend abroad; you’ll be presented with a list of options with detailed information about each program and links to organizations.
provides nonprofit and volunteer resources, including more than 60,000 nonprofit organizations. Search for volunteer opportunities, and community events and actions worldwide.
For international organizations …
is an organization engaging in volunteer service abroad and in the United States, and has been featured on CNN and National Geographic
. It’s the only non-governmental organization of its kind affiliated with the United Nations. Find programs such as teaching English, working with community members across a broad age group, providing health care, and improving local infrastructure.
is focused on sustainable volunteer programs that benefit communities; you’ll stay in local housing and use local transportation during your project. Look for various volunteer programs working with children, wildlife, sports, and community development. Also find paid English teaching placements, internships, and “Meaningful Tours
” that include some aspect of volunteering.
was named “Best Voluntourism Outfitter” by National Geographic Adventure
magazine. The international nonprofit supports scientific field research and conservation efforts by enlisting the help of volunteers. Work with New York City wildlife, or join an expedition to save lemurs in Madagascar, for example.
For low-cost options …
Volunteers For Peace
(VFP) places volunteers in more than 3,000 projects, known as International Work Camps, in more than 100 countries, including some opportunities with U.S. programs. VFP specializes in short-term projects and maintains a low placement fee of $300. Search the project directory
to discover opportunities.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
(WWOOF) strives to support sustainable ways of life by connecting volunteers with small farms in need of workers. Volunteers get food, accommodation, and an education in organic living at no cost, in exchange for working. Look for projects around the world.
For outdoor work in the United States …
is a U.S. grassroots environmental organization that offers volunteer vacations for all ages and levels of stamina. Perform trail maintenance, help out on archeological digs, and more. Look for numerous trip options across the United States year-round.
has been operating international tours since 1925 and began offering voluntourism packages in 2003, partnering with the National Park Service and other organizations, to provide opportunities from New Orleans to Yellowstone. Volunteer for two hours, or join a 10-day tour through Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and South Dakota, volunteering in parks along the way. Learn about projects and find practical information on this site.
The Appalachian Mountain Club
works to promote the protection and maintenance of mountains, rivers, and trails in the Northeast United States. Look for volunteer opportunities working on trails, leading outdoor excursions, and teaching. Commitments can be as short as one day.
For other domestic organizations …
Habitat for Humanity
is a worldwide nonprofit Christian housing ministry that builds homes in low-income areas and disaster-affected areas, such as New Orleans. Find volunteering options in the United States, either in your own town or city, or further away. Houses are not donated; families typically contribute a $500 down payment and aid in construction efforts. Consult the list of opportunities
, including short-term mission trips .
The Archaeological Institute of America
offers volunteers the opportunity to work on digs with professionals and students. Discover more than 250 fieldwork projects of varying lengths in locations worldwide.
Best Friends Animal Society
has volunteer opportunities with abused and unwanted animals in your local community, internationally, or at the animal sanctuary in Southern Utah, where critters need feeding, grooming, and training. Complete a free online registration form to learn about specific projects and sign up to volunteer.
To ensure an organization’s legitimacy …
acts as a watchdog by rating charities on a four-star scale that takes into account financial efficiency, such as how donations are used. Find an extensive selection of tips, studies, and articles, as well as personalized tracking tools.
Volunteer vacations aren’t always cheap, so you’ll want to save money however possible; start with a good deal on airline tickets with help from the sites below.
- If you’re volunteering in the United States, don’t forget about Southwest Airlines. The company often has very low prices, but is the only major airline that doesn’t offer tickets on other travel search sites. Visit the Southwest site to find and book flights.
is a flight search engine that scours hundreds of travel sites and airline sites to find the lowest prices. Use the simple search tool to get a list of possible flights, organized by price.
aims to simplify the process of finding and booking airfare. Once you’ve found a flight, you’ll be taken directly to the airline or travel site to complete the booking process. The key to FareCompare is that it obtains fare data directly from airlines, and then makes fares available almost immediately, several hours before they’d normally be posted by airlines. Sign up for RSS feeds to be informed of deals all day long.
has teamed up with the United Way to encourage travelers to volunteer. Look for flight and hotel packages, as well as certain discounts for schools, religious groups, and nonprofit organizations planning group volunteer vacations.
Fly for Good
negotiates international flight discounts for nonprofit organizations, their families and their volunteers. Savings range from 10–50 percent off on more than 24 airlines that only service nonprofits working on international humanitarian issues. Additionally, a portion of Fly for Good's profits are donated to a humanitarian project. Check the homepage for "Featured Non-Profits" to learn of different organizations and potential volunteer opportunities.
posts cheap flights found by actual people, not from other search sites. Find fares to U.S. and international destinations by entering a city name, or check the “Top 50 Fares
” and “Fare of the Day
” features. Subscribe to e-mail alerts to stay abreast of deals, and check the blog for travel-related news.
There are special considerations to make regarding your health and safety when volunteering abroad. The sites below should quell any pre-trip worries.
- If you plan on volunteering in a country you’ve never been to before, look for an organization with in-country staff; they’ll be better aware of cultural and safety issues.
- If you’re still determined to spend spring break amid scantily clad coeds on the beach, at least go prepared. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a “Spring Break Guide to Staying Safe and Healthy” for women, with advice that is largely applicable to men as well. Read statistics on binge drinking, advice for staying healthy and active during your break, and how to protect yourself from disease.
For international health and safety …
The U.S. Department of State
“International Travel” section offers safety information for students venturing abroad. Look for tips for women traveling alone, what to do in an emergency, as well as new requirements for travelers, among other pertinent topics to consider before international spring break.
discusses issues of relevance for female volunteers abroad. Explore the complexities of race and sexual stereotypes, in addition to methods of dealing with common crime.
The Center for Global Education
offers a “Pre-Departure Health Training Handbook” for students traveling abroad. The guide is adapted from a Peace Corps document, which makes it especially applicable to volunteer travel. Find information on specific viruses, infections, and diseases, as well as advice for crisis management and general personal safety.
For general health information …
provides authoritative information on numerous health topics, as well as health news. Turn to this especially helpful site if you want to research a specific disease or condition; thorough topical health guides are provided.
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