5 Affordable Vacations that Give Back

Travel light on the planet and on your pocketbook

It sometimes feels like the time you need a vacation most is when you can least afford to take one. If you’re one of the thousands of Americans curtailing travel plans to save some extra money, check this: What if you could cut travel costs while doing something good for the planet and your community?

These trips are not only entirely possible, but they're also a great way to avoid tourist traps and really get your hands dirty doing something good for others. Furthermore, because few of these trips involve staying in environmentally wasteful hotels, the carbon footprint of these trips is signifigantly reduced.

Check out these inexpensive, environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible ways to travel and ways to get involved:

Homestay

Shel Horowitz has been sleeping on strangers’ floors, couches and luxury guest suites for decades now. Over the years, he’s met peace activists, ecologists and friends with whom his family still interacts.

But he’s not just couch surfing. He’s homestaying, a travel option that runs the gamut from traditional foreign-exchange visits for students to the peace outreach program Horowitz has been involved in since 1983, Servas. The way he sees it, he’s doing his part to spread cross-cultural understanding while making travel affordable.

There’s the time he visited Colorado on a homestay and met a couple who gave him a private tour of their collection of Native American art. Last year, he stayed with the director of Guatamala’s National Park Service, as well as a man who’d been active in sustainable development work in the country’s highlands for years. Years ago, he traveled to Mexico during the Reagan administration, and did his part to dispel the myth that all Americans supported Reagan’s involvement in Central American civil wars.

“You get such a richer experience traveling with homestay,” Horowitz says. “I’ll stay with someone who will take me to places I’d never see otherwise. Or they’ll say, ‘Don’t go there. It’s a tourist trap.’”

There are a few things to keep in mind however, says Horowitz, who lives in a farmhouse in Hadley, Massachusetts: First, the average Servas homestay is only two or three nights. Stay longer than that and consider using a different network and paying your host for their hospitality. Second, don’t expect to experience the nightlife wherever you’re visiting, since you’ll be expected to stay home and spend time with your hosts at night. Finally, be prepared for any kind of accommodations.

“You have to be somewhat adventurous, since you don’t know what you’ll get with your visit ahead of time,” he says. “I’ve experienced everything from, ‘Let me move these papers off the floor so you can unroll your sleeping bags,’ to a private guest house.”

To join Servas, you’ll need to pay a membership fee ($50 for U.S.-only travel and $85 for international travel, according to the website) and a deposit on lists of potential hosts. And be aware that most other homestay programs require you to pay your host for what’s typically a longer-term visit.

Home swap

As a renter, San Francisco resident Melanie (who asked her last name not be used) figured home swapping wasn’t for her. The only people she’d read of who’d swapped their home for an inexpensive vacation actually owned their homes.

However, a few months later, Melanie found herself in a small studio in Paris’s ninth district, near the large train station and with easy access to all the city’s major attractions. She says she’d do it again.

“For years I wanted to go to Paris, but it always seemed too expensive — especially with an unfavorable euro-dollar exchange. Then one day I found an inexpensive ticket to Paris [about $600] and decided no matter what, I was going to go and decided to give home swapping a try," she says. “It’s a unique way to connect with people who are different from us and put ourselves in situations that let us see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s a lot easier to do that when you’re literally eating off someone else’s dishes and sleeping in someone else’s bed!”

Because she simply swapped homes with another renter, her carbon footprint was low. Though there are scores of home-swapping websites available to streamline and vet potential swaps, Melanie posted her ad on Craigslist, asking for someone who’d be up for swapping with her. What she found was a 20-something French guy who wanted to visit his girlfriend, who was staying in San Francisco temporarily. Going it alone could be risky, but she met the girlfriend before the visit, and even got to hand the keys to the couple herself the night before she left for France.

It’s important to both trust the person with whom you’re swapping and to set ground rules. Melanie told her swapping partner, for instance, not to hold any big parties, and she similarly got permission from her French swap mate for her friend in London to stay at the Paris apartment with her for a few days.

WWOOFing


No, it’s not animal rescue, although some of these trips can involve working humanely with farm animals. It’s World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a movement that matches eco-conscious urbanites with organic farms around the world. You stay for free and receive some meals from your farmer host, and you repay the farm by weeding, planting, preparing beds and even building fences.

It’s a way to integrate into a community, says Lucas Weiss, 31, of Brooklyn, who has taken two weekend trips to the Meadowstone Farm in New Hampshire over the past year and is planning a third. He chose the farm in Bethlehem, NH because he and his fiancee want to move to the county once he graduates from acupuncture school in a few years.

Staying in farmer Tim Wennrich’s house and eating with his family gave him a taste of farm life he’d never get if he simply stayed in a bed and breakfast or motel — and it certainly was cheaper, costing just gas and a few meals out.

“We got to see first-hand how much work can get done when you have four extra hands,” he said. “I helped build a fence, which I’d never done before, and we planted lots of tomatoes. You really get to see the inner-working of the community.”

You don’t need to have any gardening experience but come prepared to work. You’ll need to commit to up to six hours of work a day and may need to bring your own tent or sleeping bag. While other sites are free, WWOOF USA charges $20 for membership and access to their host farm directory.

While Weiss only visited Meadowbrook Farm for two days, proper WWOOFing requires you to commit to at least five and a half days of work. (Weiss found Meadowbrook, a WWOOF-registered farm, through another Web site which has no such requirements).

Voluntourism

Brooke Bailey was new to both yoga and volunteer work in 2006. But after seeing the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought on New Orleans in 2005, Bailey decided she needed to do something.

So it was that Bailey found herself doing yoga in the morning and at night, and filling the middle of her day with the gutting, cleaning, painting and renewal work the city so desperately needed. It was her first volunteer vacation, but it hasn’t been her last. Since then, she’s received her yoga accreditation in hatha yoga, and organized so-called karma yoga volunteer groups.

“It was amazing for everyone on the trip — life-changing,” she says now. “I really learned about giving just to give, not expecting anything in return. I realized that even if they aren’t literally my community within two blocks of me, even if they’re 5,000 miles from you or halfway around the world, they’re still humanity.”

It’s not the cheapest way to travel — Bailey estimates she paid about $1,400 for the trip — but she found the combination of yoga and volunteer work essential. There are lots of ways to volunteer on your vacations — and entire books dedicated to hundreds of volunteer vacations.

Check out voluntourism.org, volunteeradventures.com, crossculturalsolutions.org or charityguide.org for more info.

Philanthrotourism

Jill Gordon, 52, had been volunteering in inner-city Chicago schools teaching literacy for years when a friend invited her to the talk of someone who started a girls’ school in Afghanistan. That’s when she knew she wanted to take her volunteer work global. She joined the Chicago Women’s Initiative of CARE, a worldwide global poverty nonprofit, and helped organize semi-annual talks and fundraisers for global education programs.

Then, a few years ago, she got to see some of that money at work when she visited remote parts of Peru. This year, she visited rural India, where CARE funds schools and nutrition programs. She and the other women on the trip were allowed to feed infant children their first bites of solid food in the sacred Annaprashan ceremony. They sat in a circle and talked to the women about their lives and how they keep their hair jet-black, no matter their age. (Answer: Black shoe polish, says Kathy Lane, a CARE Chicago staff person.)

“I don’t know if I would have gone to India otherwise,” says Gordon. “We got back and my husband and I are already planning our next trip. I just loved meeting the real people in India, the kids and the mothers groups. We got to see what India’s really like.”

While the trip wasn’t cheap — it cost about $2,500 excluding airfare — that price was all-inclusive. CARE organized travel, meals and accommodations, and packed the trip with information and opportunities to meet and talk with women benefiting from the program.

There are lots of nonprofits that offer such trips — they vary from Christian groups to United Way, which has an Alternative Spring Break program that encourages teens to give their spring break to the organization to do service. To find one, ask groups you support if they offer such trips, and how they’re funded, so your fundraising goes to the people who need it, not your trip.

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