If you're exhausted from slaving away for The Man, it seems the last thing you'd want to do on your two weeks off is . . . more work. But what if you could have fun as you do it, rather than just adding to corporate profits? On a volunteer vacation, you can become immersed in a foreign culture while rejuvenating your spirit instead of racking up room-service bills.
"You get out of college, join the workforce and start to miss that feeling of making a difference in a meaningful way," says Tara Swords, who spent two weeks in Costa Rica in 2003, volunteering at an orphanage through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). Yes, it's more strenuous than a stint at an all-inclusive resort. But there's something to be said for getting a tan while teaching kids to play dodgeball as opposed to just making a dent in the sand. Here's what you need to know to take your ideals on the road:
WHAT IT COSTS. It depends where you're going and for how long. Usually all expenses are covered except airfare, and some groups even pay for immunization (no small perk, as many health insurance plans don't). For $2,700, you can spend a month in Thailand with CCS, teaching English to novice monks, assisting hospice patients or mentoring children. Handy with a hammer and a camera? Habitat for Humanity offers a 13-day trip to Hawaii with an emphasis not only on building houses for the needy, but on amateur photography as well. For $1,700 you spend eight days pounding nails, and the rest of the trip you can attend photography workshops, take in the sights or surf. A bonus: U.S. citizens can deduct travel expenses if a trip was "mostly" charitable in nature -- meaning eight hours a day, five days a week (see your accountant for the fine print).
WHAT TO ASK. There are the little things (Who's picking me up at the airstrip in Tanzania?) and the logical things (info on your destination, safety and visa requirements). Then, there are details you don't encounter on a typical trip. For example, just as you would with a regular job, you'll want to be clear on responsibilities and expectations before you sign up. You don't want to arrive in India thinking you're going to be caring for the elderly and wind up pushing paper at volunteer headquarters.
WHAT ABOUT R&R? There's no such thing as all work and no play on a volunteer trip. You'll probably have free time scheduled each day, and most programs offer weekend activities. In Thailand, after the work is done, CCS volunteers can lounge on beaches, explore Buddhist temples or hike waterfalls. In Ghana, Global Volunteers participants learn soccer from neighborhood kids or take ecological tours. And in Brazil, CCS workers can visit scientists attempting to save five species of sea turtles. (Check with the program to find out its R&R-to-work ratio.)
Pick Your Cause
Citizens Development Corps. www.cdc.org. This group, commissioned by former president George H.W. Bush, recruits business professionals to mentor fledgling to midsize companies in developing countries.
Cross-Cultural Solutions. www.crossculturalsolutions.org. More than 1,500 people join CCS each year in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru and Russia to help kids and the elderly.
Earthwatch Institute. www.earthwatch.org. Organizes conservation expeditions, such as studying the coastal archaeology of Maine or climate change in Australia.
Global Volunteers. www.globalvolunteers.org. From repairing buildings and assisting in schools on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to helping conserve the environment on the Cook Islands, teams of eight to 12 volunteers voyage the world each month.
Habitat for Humanity. www.habitat.org. Habitat's Global Village program places people overseas to build housing for those in need. And don't think burly men are the only ones suited to the task: Its Women Build initiative trains female participants.
International Volunteer Programs Association. www.volunteerinternational.org. This umbrella organization lists opportunities with groups such as Child Family Health International, which works to boost health care in under-served areas.
United Nations Volunteers. www.unv.org. A mega-resource listing more than 40 agencies that place executives, IT specialists and other experts overseas for assignments such as working with the World Food Programme in Afghanistan.