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Work Your Wanderlust - Volunteer Travel

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”   — Albert Schweitzer

With summer right around the corner, thoughts and plans for travel are in full force.  According to the U. S. Travel Association, domestic and international travelers spent $947 billion in 2015. Thank goodness that no matter what regional or international disasters take place – naturally, politically, or otherwise generated – we enjoy exploring, meeting new people, seeing new places, reuniting with loved ones or escaping from it all.

If you’re like me, you want to travel year round. Experiencing new cultures, even within your own country, can be life changing. The main restrictions come down to time and money.

What’s exciting to me is the growing popularity and options in what I call purpose-based travel: volunteer tourism, ecotourism and sustainable travel are a few terms you’ll find. As the Schweitzer quote above alludes, serving others is vital to a fulfilled existence. How wonderful to help our planet and others while being immersed in a new culture! Certainly, it’s important to volunteer on a local basis, but putting your outreach to work overseas adds a whole new level of personal enrichment and learning. And, there’s no better way to form personal connections that can last a lifetime.

It seems there is no limit to where you can go, what you can do or with whom -- go solo, with friends or take the family. Pick a cause that tugs at your heart – and importantly, a match for your skills -- from wildlife conservation to working with orphans or even disaster relief. Stay at eco lodges and support local businesses that give back to their communities. Incorporate volunteering with study abroad programs or take your next corporate retreat to a higher level. There are also trips that include a few days of outreach as part of a more mainstream tour, so you enjoy a first-rate tourism experience with the added benefit of contributing to the local ecosystem.

Be sure to research the trip and non-profit organization carefully. Some may seem well intentioned but is the program truly benefitting the local community? This recent story in USA Today points out smart questions to ask before signing on to any volunteer trip.

The costs associated with mission-based travel can vary widely depending on where you go, length of stay and the itinerary.

A friend tipped me off to a great example of a travel agency that customizes trips for anything from philanthropic travel to luxury honeymoons, or family trips that combine both. Boston-based Elevate Destinations has the experience and hands-on knowledge to package a trip to meet your specific purpose-driven travel experience. They are a partner agency with leaders in sustainable travel such as The International Ecotourism Society, the Rainforest Alliance and Sustainable Travel International.

Or, find the opportunity that fits your volunteering desires via a trusted program such as Grassroots Volunteering, and plan the trip yourself. Grassroots Volunteering vets out each organization in their broad database to ensure it is the real deal. Their website also provides tips on doing your own volunteer research.

Either way you go, do your homework. The experience should be a win-win for the local community and you. Don’t get caught in an unsafe environment, without proper insurance or immunizations, or have no answer where travel fees are going.

Here are some helpful resources to learn more and plan your next trip.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has been on any type of volunteer/ecotourism/community-focused tourism trip recently. Who organized it? Where did you go and what did you do? Will you do it again? Accolades and/or warnings are welcome as well as photos of which you can share here or on our Facebook page.