If you've always dreamed of traveling to Africa, India, Vietnam, Indonesia or other exotic places around the world but it isn't in the budget, consider signing up for a volunteer vacation. The idea behind these programs is to combine sightseeing with volunteering, to make your trip more affordable.
On a volunteer vacation you're able to give back and make a difference and also learn about the community you're visiting. Here are the top five things you need to know before signing up for a volunteer trip.
If you've decided you're ready for a volunteer vacation but you have no idea where to begin, the first thing you need to do is figure out where you'd like to travel to and how long you want to stay.
There are now some great one- and two-week options. Once you have a destination in mind you can start researching what's offered in the area. A smart place to start is checking out Ambassadors for Children (AFC).
A leader in volunteer vacations, AFC offers programs in 20 different destinations around the globe. These trips include working with orphans in Malawi, Africa, helping street kids in Mexico, building schools in Belize and providing medical help in Jordan and Serbia. AFC's founder Sally Brown says a volunteer vacation will change your life and she encourages people to, "journey with an open mind and a gentle heart."
Some other top volunteer organizations include: Volunteer Adventures, GoAbroad, ProWorld, Cross Cultural Solutions and Habitat for Humanity.
Once you've decided where to go, you need to figure out what kind of volunteer work you're comfortable doing. You don't need to have any specific skills to sign up for a volunteer trip. What you need is a good attitude and the willingness to help out wherever it's needed.
Erin Hempen, a stay-at-home mom from Trenton, Ill., says she was nervous when she signed up for her first volunteer vacation at an orphanage in Africa. She wasn't sure how she could help but says she quickly learned everyone has something to give.
"I learned one person can make a difference just by spending time with a child, listening to them and giving them a hug," Hempen says.
There are many programs where the focus is on helping children of all ages at orphanages, schools or hospitals.
If you're more comfortable volunteering on a building project, there are dozens of different options to choose from.
Don't worry if you're not a pro with a hammer and nail, there's a job for everyone on these construction sites. You can also sign up for trips where you work with people in the community and help them set up small businesses or learn a new trade.
If you want to give back to the environment you can also find some "green friendly" vacations in the United States by checking out Wilderness Volunteers. Each of the one-week programs in 2008 cost only $259.
For most of these vacations you have to get to the destination on your own so if you're talking about traveling half way around the world, to Africa or India, you want to plan ahead so you can find the most affordable airfare. Different volunteer groups often scout out the best deals and can give advice about the easiest way to travel.
Most groups also work with special travel agents that can offer discounts for volunteers.
Before you book your travel, make sure to find out exactly what's included. These trips are usually set up like all-inclusive vacations, where you pay one price up front that covers where you stay, most of your meals, local transportation, sightseeing trips, etc.
Keep in mind the reason many of these trips are affordable is because your accommodations and dining options are pretty basic. Know exactly what you're getting into so there are no surprises when you arrive.
If you're volunteering in a different part of the world you need to mentally and physically prepare yourself. Check with your doctor about immunizations you might need. If you're traveling with medications be sure to bring extra along in case your trip home is delayed.
To prepare yourself mentally for visiting a different culture read as much as you can about the destination you're traveling to. Try to learn a few simple words like "hello" and "thank you" and always be respectful of local customs and traditions.
Volunteers often work in some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching environments. Know that it's okay to be overwhelmed at first. Keep a journal and talk to the other volunteers about what you're experiencing. Also, keep a positive attitude so you're able to help empower the people you are helping.
Coming home from a volunteer vacation is an adjustment. Dana Blanchard from Montgomery, Ala., said you might feel guilty leaving everyone behind and going back to your privileged way of life.
Blanchard, 29, felt so strongly about her first trip to Africa she decided to take her young daughter and move to Malawi for a year to run the Mtendere Orphans Village.
"I think personal growth takes place when you put others before you. I'm learning every day from this amazing experience," Blanchard says.
Blanchard recommends when you come home to stay in touch with the people in your volunteer group because they understand what you're going through. Find ways to continue to give back. The experience doesn't have to end just because your vacation is over.
For more Volunteer Vacation options and to read Karen Schaler's story of her two weeks volunteering in Africa visit Karen Schaler's Travel Therapy Web site at www.traveltherapytrips.com.