9 Vacations Where Going Away Means Giving Back

Kyle McCarthy

Discover top ways you can help underserved communities on your next vacation.

The old adage take only pictures, leave only footprints is not enough for some travelers, who find volunteering to be more authentic way to travel. Jacqueline Frank, director of the international development consultancy Keystroke Communications Ltd, says nongovernmental organizations have mixed feelings about volunteers. "Some [volunteers] are only looking for meaningful pictures to post on social media, yet organizations want to share their work with visitors and hopefully get donations and further involvement down the line," she says. So, whether you're looking for a career break, semester abroad or service weekend, here are nine ways to contribute to social good.

Consider responsible trips and guided volunteering vacations.

Hundreds of vacation tours offer volunteering opportunities, so doing your homework is essential. The nonprofit Cross-Cultural Solutions offers trips in nine countries, plus family and high school programs in Costa Rica, India, Peru, Ghana and Guatemala. Most importantly, they partner with nongovernmental organizations and train locals to guide visiting volunteers, typically on two-week trips. Intrepid Travel, which operates 800 socially responsible adventures each year, doesn't advocate short-term volunteering. UNICEF and many experts agree that a revolving door of volunteers can harm communities, especially children. Instead, Intrepid Travel invites travelers to donate to its foundation and visit its beneficiary projects.

Understand where you can lend a hand before volunteering.

Seeing an underserved community's needs up-close, instead of in media portrayals, is the first step for many volunteers. Tour company Reality Tours & Travel leads guided walks through the slums featured in the 2008 film "Slumdog Millionaire" as well as cultural and interpretive food tours in Mumbai, Delhi and Rajasthan, India. For a decade, they have hired guides from within these communities, forbidden clients from photographing locals without permission and funded community education programs with 80 percent of all earnings. Other real-life tours are available in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and some urban ghettos.

Seek out resources for finding long-term volunteer opportunities.

Many travelers prefer to give time rather than cash. Frank urges those who want to help contribute to a specific cause to contact well-organized international nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam International and CARE, nonprofits dedicated to fighting poverty that work with local organizations. Idealist.org currently lists more than 1,000 remote volunteer opportunities, and GoAbroad.com has 17,000 user reviews, trip listings and articles by staff and educators with useful tips. Another great source is Volunteer Alliance, which showcases hundreds of registered organizations working in 50 countries, with a summary page listing the cost of each volunteer opportunity, which is especially helpful to those on a budget.

Consider serving as a disaster volunteer.

Relief trips (picture volunteering on the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy or lending a hand in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake) are made possible thanks to major charities such as United Way and the Red Cross, which organize volunteer visits in conjunction with cash donations to disaster relief efforts. Faith-based groups often recommend opportunities at reciprocal congregations. And in Louisiana, VolunteerLouisiana.gov has catalogued volunteer needs from charities since 1993. When visiting New Orleans' plantations, for example, travelers can spend a day assisting flood relief efforts by staffing shelters, packing food, manning phone banks and doing light construction. Some organizations even provide free volunteer housing.

Try a volunteer-focused cruise vacation.

Fathom, Carnival's new social impact cruise company, gives volunteers the chance to sail from Miami to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic and join development projects run by local nongovernmental organizations. Volunteer opportunities can include producing ceramic water filters, teaching villagers English, wrapping chocolate bars at a women's collective or laying concrete floors in underserved areas. Onboard activities range from yoga to merengue, Lido deck barbecues, spa treatments and Spanish and cultural sensitivity workshops for volunteers. "Working alongside locals is so much more rewarding than just working with each other," explains Ambra Attus, Fathom's on ground impact director for the Dominican Republic. Prices start at $499 for a weeklong cruise vacation.

Seek out environmental volunteer options.

Volunteers can assist scientists on EarthWatch and Projects Abroad trips combining environmental advocacy with hands-on activities like wildlife monitoring. For a low-tech, low-cost approach, plan a June vacation over the American Hiking Society's National Trails Day, when many regional clubs sponsor volunteers. This year, Maine Huts & Trails had volunteers clearing the 1.47-mile-long Bigelow Approach Trail, part of 36,000 acres of public land. The Bigelow Preserve's Stratton Brook Hut provided free housing, home cooked meals, tools and training for the weekend. Plan a vacation as a campground host or cleaning up national recreation areas by using the tools at Volunteer.gov.

Support sustainable tourism on vacation.

Families who want to teach children gratitude often look for sustainable tourism options such as cultural programs, locally sourced products and community service projects. At Velas Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, guests assist naturalists in protecting sea turtle nests and releasing hatchlings between June and December. The luxury beachfront resort, where all-inclusive nightly rates begin at around $150 per person, maintains an award-winning spa and kids club and offers free ecotours. The Sandals Foundation also offers the Reading Road Trip initiative on five Caribbean islands, which welcomes guests at Sandals and Beaches Resorts to visit schools and read with local children during their stay.

Remember, planning a volunteer trip isn't just about giving back.

Giving back doesn't only mean volunteering. Public benefit corporation KindTraveler.com pairs socially conscious travelers with "kind" hotels that give discounts to travelers who contribute to designated local charities. At Ruby's Inn, a collection of three hotels at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, guests can horseback ride, mountain bike, see a rodeo, shop for authentic Southwestern Indian arts and crafts and support the community. Since 2004, these hotels have raised $600,000 for the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association and local causes with a voluntary dollar Check-Off program that adds just $1 per night to room rates beginning from $82.

Maximize the impact of your donations.

Instead of candy bars, T-shirts or school pens, pack the items that will leave the most impact for your hosts. Pack for a Purpose is a directory of nongovernmental organizations, schools, causes and destinations around the world that have requested specific donations. By supporting education, health, children, animal welfare and socioeconomic development projects, you may be able to deliver donations, tour the receiving charity and connect with beneficiaries.