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.