August 19, 2022

Practical Traveler: Budget Excursions for Volunteers

These days, it seems that just about every travel organization — from tour companies to luxury resorts — has a volunteer component, whether it is tracking iguanas on Grand Cayman or doling out food at soup kitchens in Moscow. You can even customize your trip, pitching in as much or as little as you want, while staying at upscale resorts. Hands Up Holidays combines luxury travel with “a ‘taste’ of volunteering” through tailor-made volunteer vacations in 26 countries, ranging from building classrooms in a Berber village while staying in luxury riads in Morocco ($1,950 a person, not including airfare, for 10 days) to helping preserve the kiwi bird in New Zealand — in between heli-hiking, whale watching and wine tasting ($29,900, not including airfare, for 18 days).

While it’s great to give back to the communities you visit, programs that offer vacationers a discount in exchange for their efforts are harder to find. Sure, there are traditional long-term volunteer programs dating back to the Peace Corps that allow you to see the world for a small wage by pitching in on local projects. But those programs typically require travelers to devote significant time to the program.

Still, it’s possible to find a program that not only fits your vacation schedule but also gives you a little something in return for your time. A good place to start your search is, which offers an online trip finder that connects volunteers with humanitarian nonprofit organizations that have been vetted by the likes of GuideStar and Charity Navigator, both nonprofit watchdog associations. The site also offers volunteers airfare discounts of 10 to 25 percent off published rates.

“Unfortunately it’s still fairly expensive to travel to another country, especially since places to volunteer are usually off the beaten path,” said Ryan Skoog, president of FlyforGood. “Our goal is to try to make it more accessible and cheaper so more people can volunteer.”

FlyforGood recently secured round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe on South African Airways and partner carriers for a mother/daughter team this summer for about $2,348 a person versus $3,636 a person if booked with those airlines directly.

Sites like and make it easy to set up an online fund-raiser for a group volunteer trip, complete with instant e-mail tax receipts for donors, so you can ask your friends for donations. And’s Travel for Good program lists several affordable volunteer vacation partners including the American Hiking Society, which runs weeklong trail maintenance trips for $250 that include rugged accommodations and food. Travelocity also offers eight $5,000 grants annually to volunteer vacationers. To win, travelers must choose a trip from one of its volunteer-tourism partners, make a video of two minutes or less explaining why they deserve to win, upload it to the site and then send it around to friends and family for voting.

Here are some options for the budget-conscious volunteer traveler. (Remember that you have to pay for your own airfare.)

Appalachian Mountain Club

This conservation organization offers volunteer trail clean-up programs in a variety of locations, from the White Mountains in New Hampshire to the Virgin Islands, for as low as $220 a week for those who are not club members. The price covers meals and rustic lodging, typically cabins, canvas tents on platforms or bunkhouses.

What You Get: A super-cheap vacation. On St. John, for example, volunteers stay in 10-by-14-foot tents with a solid floor and mosquito netting for $330 a week, or roughly $55 a night (tourists pay about $90 a night). Volunteers work about four to six hours a day carrying 20 to 30 pounds of tools and materials, clearing drainage ditches, brushing back vegetation and building rock stairs. Afternoons are free for swimming, snorkeling or lounging on the beach.  

Cross-Cultural Solutions

In addition to more traditional long-term volunteer initiatives, Cross-Cultural Solutions offers one-week trips in eight countries including Brazil, Costa Rica and Ghana, as part of its Insight Abroad program. Roughly 240 people each paid about $1,990 last summer to paint schoolyards, plant vegetable gardens at centers for the elderly and work at day care centers.

What You Get: A tax deduction. Program fees are 100 percent tax-deductible for many United States residents, according to the company, which is an independent nonprofit organization. Payments toward program fees (which goes toward basic lodging, meals, drinking water and the volunteer project itself) that are submitted online from volunteers with a billing address in the United States will automatically receive a tax receipt through the company’s online payment system. (You will need to itemize your tax deductions in order to claim any charitable donation.) Clean, modest accommodations with shared occupancy rooms are the standard, and volunteers have some afternoons, most evenings and every weekend free.

Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club Spa

This South Florida resort has teamed with organizations like the YMCA and Habitat for Humanity to offer guests the opportunity to pitch in with local projects while on vacation. At the Y, volunteers are expected to put in at least two hours of time performing varied maintenance projects or general sprucing up of the Y facilities. Every third Saturday guests are invited to join hotel employees working with Habitat for Humanity on local housing projects. Interested guests must call the hotel’s Vacation Planners at (800) 638-8410 to make arrangements. 

What You Get: 15 percent off room rates through Sept. 30.  

Sierra Club

Through the 80 to 90 volunteer vacations it runs each year, the Sierra Club donates roughly 25,000 work hours to state and federal land agencies. Prices for participants range from $325 for a six-day habitat restoration project in Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge to $1,975 for an 11-day service trip in Maui, with condo accommodations, snorkeling, hiking and whale watching excursions. Roughly 70 percent of the trips, which typically last a week with a couple of days for free time built in, are $700 or less. The Sierra Club keeps prices low by using income from its more expensive vacation program.

What You Get: Insider access. Volunteers are often allowed into park areas that are off-limits to others. Volunteers usually team with forest service rangers to restore wilderness areas, maintain trails, clean up trash and remove non-native plants. But there are also opportunities to pitch in on research projects at whale calving grounds in Maui or assist with archaeological site restoration in New Mexico.  Rustic lodging, typically cabins or tents, is standard.

Vail Resorts Give and Getaway

Volunteers pitch in with conservation and preservation projects in communities surrounding the resorts, from helping local farmers pick pineapples in St. Lucia to restoring sand dunes in Miami to planting trees and clearing trails in the Rockies.

What You Get: 20 percent off at a choice of 13 resorts, including upscale RockResorts properties like Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo., and the Landings St. Lucia.

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