Volunteer vacations promise a chance to see the world as well as a chance to make a difference. Volunteer travel’s roots can be traced to the mid-1950s, when a British couple founded the organization Voluntary Service Overseas and ran it, initially, out of their house. Today the institution has sent more 40,000 volunteers across the world. Volunteer vacations have continued to grow in popularity since then, due in part to the 1961 establishment of the Peace Corps as well as to schools incorporating volunteer travel into their curricular or extracurricular activities.
Especially in educational settings, these trips are pitched as learning experiences and services opportunities, where young students can absorb a moral lesson and gain an enviable line on their resume. It’s important when evaluating the who, what, where, how, and why of volunteer travel to ask the questions: Who are you really there for? Who is being helped by your presence? Travel + Leisure evaluates volunteer vacation outfits on the basis of tangible benefits to local communities, safe and positive experiences for visitors, as well as their cost and location.
Charity travel can be a powerful force for good, but it’s often a complicated process. People who choose to volunteer abroad generally desire a degree of control over the kinds of services they perform, but many site managers encourage volunteers to use their day-job expertise, be it information technology or teaching elementary school. In many cases, travelers looking as much for a break from their daily lives as a service project often show up thinking they’ll be constructing schools or digging wells. Unfortunately, manual labor is usually the resource poorer communities have in the greatest abundance.
Voluntourism, of course, need not be limited to human communities. Volunteers in Greece can help fill out nest activity surveys for native loggerhead sea turtles. In the U.S. a volunteer travel package might include a day of coastal dune replanting in addition to a generous amount of kayaking and wine tasting. Wherever you decide to go, prepare to live where you—and the community you’ve temporary joined—work.
Charity work can and should be rewarding in and of itself, and volunteer trips doubly so. Here, Travel + Leisure can help you navigate not only the thoughtful ethical discussions taking place about volunteering, service, and travel but also find the projects that are most helpful, collaborative, and sensitive to the communities they exist in.