What to Know Before Booking a Volunteer Vacation

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Finding companies that are transparent about who they're working with is one factor to keep in mind when looking for a volunteer vacation. Photo: Elevate Destinations

Finding companies that are transparent about who they’re working with is one factor to keep in mind when looking for a volunteer vacation. Photo: Elevate Destinations

Instead of just getting a stamp in a passport and a memory card full of photos, more and more travelers are looking to add a little meaning to their trips in the form of volunteering.

“Everyone’s sick of just going on boring beach vacations,” says Dominique Callimanopulos, founder and president of Elevate Destinations, an adventure travel operator focused on sustainable tourism.

The problem is that it can be difficult to identify trips that don’t require a long-term commitment, and as interest in this type of travel increases, more “opportunities” pop up that don’t have much of an impact or may not be a fulfilling experience. So how do you go about finding a place where you can not only have a nice vacation but also pitch in to help those who need it?

“I’ve long wished there was a TripAdvisor for volunteer experiences,” Callimanopulos says. “It’s not something that’s really out there, but it should be.”

In lieu of such a tool, Callimanopulos recommends looking for companies that are transparent about how much money is going to the trip and the local community. You also want to collect some background information on the community project or NGO you’ll be working with.

“We work in solidarity with local communities; projects we have our travelers participate in are projects that have been designed by local communities and stated as a need,” Callimanopulos says. “We don’t go in and say, ‘Looks like you need this and why don’t we do this for you.’ It’s not a feeling of we’re here to rescue you or we’re here to displace you. We work side by side with locals.”

Just as a company should be responsible in dealing with local communities, it should be responsible with the experience and safety of its clients as well. Look into the track record of any organization you’re considering traveling with to ensure they attend to travelers’ concerns both before the trip and while on-site. “You want to make sure people are really responsive to all of your questions and can really be articulate about what they’re doing where and why and exactly what’s going to be going on on a day-to-day basis while you’re on the ground,” Callimanopulos says.

If you're bringing your family on a volunteer vacation, Elevate Destinations recommends ensuring there will be age-appropriate activities for them. Photo: Elevate Destinations

If you’re bringing your family on a volunteer vacation, Elevate Destinations recommends ensuring there will be age-appropriate activities for them. Photo: Elevate Destinations

Booking with companies that have sustainable, low-impact philosophies is an important consideration as well. For example, Elevate donates 5 percent of the net cost of all private trips to organizations that support conservation in the countries they visit; reduces the carbon footprint of travel by providing carbon offsets for all land portions of trips; selects the most sustainable lodges and properties available; partners with like-minded in-country operators that follow sustainability guidelines; and continually evaluates trips to include the most responsible travel guidelines available.

“People have an opportunity to do a lot of damage if they’re not careful in the way they travel,” Callimanopulos says. “By staying in a hotel that has no conservation policies, you’re perpetuating a not-so-great system as opposed to putting your dollars somewhere where water practices are being attended to and the community is being engaged in a helpful way.”

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What is the environmental policy of the hotels and the tour operator?
  • Do they pay their employees a fair wage, and what opportunities do they make available to their employees? Are they creating jobs for local people?
  • Does the tour operator offset carbon from traveling? If so, what company do they use?

Researching all this beforehand may seem daunting, but the advantage of going with a responsible company is that once the trip starts, most details will be taken care of for you, which can be invaluable for time-strapped travelers.

The benefits of a regular vacation are all there, except this time, you’ll know you’ve left an impact on your destination, just as it’s left an impact on you.

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Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of national and regional publications, covering everything from sustainability and health to travel and retail.