Voluntourism: A Growing Alternative Travel Option Among Retirees

Dear Savvy Senior: Can you write a column on volunteer vacations? My husband and I are both in our 60s and are interested in taking a service-oriented "altruistic" vacation this summer but could use some help. --Retired Travelers

Dear Retired: If you're looking to do more on your vacation than relax in the sun or go sightseeing, volunteer service vacations -- also known as voluntourism -- are a great alternative and a growing trend among retirees. Here's what you should know.

Nowadays you don't need to join the Peace Corps to travel to exotic destinations and serve others. Today many organizations offer short-term volunteer projects overseas and in the U.S., lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months.

Common program themes include teaching English, working with children and teens, building and repairing homes and schools and assisting with community or environmental projects. In addition, volunteer vacations also give travelers the opportunity to experience the culture more fully and connect with the local people -- much different than your run-of-the-mill sightseeing vacation.

Most volunteer vacation groups accept singles, couples and families, and you don't need to speak a foreign language. Costs typically range from around $700 to $1,500 a week, not including transportation to the country your site is in. Fees typically cover pre-trip orientation information, room and board, on-site training, ground transportation once you get there, the services of a project leader and a contribution to the local community that covers material and services related to the project. And, if the organization running your trip is a nonprofit, the cost of your trip, including airfare, is probably tax deductible.

Where to Look
While there are dozens of organizations that offer the opportunity to volunteer abroad, there are some good ones that attract a lot of retirees.
Earthwatch Institute: A global nonprofit that offers one and two-week expeditions that focus on environmental conservation and field research projects all over the world.
Globe Aware: Offers one-week volunteer vacations in 15 different countries.
Global Volunteers: Offers a wide variety of two- and three-week service programs in 18 countries, including the U.S.
Road Scholar: Formally known as Elderhostel, they offer a wide variety of volunteer service programs both in the U.S. and abroad, usually to the 50-plus traveler.
Habitat for Humanity: Offers a variety of house-building trips through its Global Village Program and RV Care-A-Vanners program.

How to Choose
With so many different volunteer vacations to choose from, selecting one can be difficult. To help you decide, you need to think specifically about what you want. Ask yourself:

• Where do you want to go and for how long?
• What types of work are you interested in doing?
• What kind of living situation and accommodations do you want? Do you want to volunteer alone or with a group? Do you want a rural or urban placement?

Also consider your age and health. Are you up to the task, or do you have any special needs that will need to be met?

Once you figure out what you want and spot a few volunteer vacations that interest you, ask the organization to send you information that describes the accommodations, the fees and what they cover, including their refund policy, the work schedule and work details, and anything else you have questions about. Get a list of previous volunteers and call them. Don't sign up with a group that won't supply you with this information.

Other Tips
If you're planning to volunteer abroad find out if any vaccinations and/or preventative medications are recommended or required on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, check to see if your health insurer provides coverage outside the U.S. Many health policies (including Medicare) don't pay for medical expenses abroad. If you're not covered, you should consider purchasing a policy (see QuoteWright or InsureMyTrip.com) that includes emergency evacuation coverage.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.