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For travelers, voluntourism is the way to go

Everyone, it seems, is getting into the act.

Even cruise ships and hotels now offer guests the opportunity to volunteer. Last summer, Holland America launched the "Cruise With Purpose": Passengers stopping in Juneau boarded research vessels to collect water samples and record ocean-temperature readings to try to predict the success of Alaska's salmon-run season.

Ritz-Carlton arranges half-day volunteer activities at 74 locations: In Cancun, Mexico, guests travel to a Mayan pueblo to help renovate a school. In Jakarta, Indonesia, they cook and clean at a shelter for street children.

Volunteerism on the rise

From charities to tour companies to luxury hotels to cruise ships, there's no shortage of nonprofits and for-profits willing to organize a volunteer trip for the altruistic - and paying - traveler. For good reason: Nearly one in 20 U.S. travelers has taken a trip to help the less fortunate or support a humanitarian cause, according to research firm Y Partnership's 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor.

"Voluntourism" has grown in popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Experts cite another reason for its ascent: It's trendy.

Think Angelina Jolie touring refugee camps in Darfur.

"There's just much more interest in reaching out and helping people in poverty," said Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a group of nongovernmental organizations involved in volunteer work.

Where to go

Voluntourism usually works best when the volunteer contributes to a well-organized project while interacting with other volunteers and local residents. But sometimes, volunteers don't have a fulfilling experience. Worse, sometimes they actually harm, not help, the community.

For instance, some voluntourism experts advise against volunteering at an orphanage, because the already-vulnerable children can get too attachedto someone who won't stick around. Others say volunteers should make sure they aren't taking jobs away from locals.

How to choose

With so many voluntourism opportunities out there, and so much that can go awry, how's a traveler to choose? David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, said potential voluntourists should first carefully consider their motivation. Anyone doing it just for school credit would probably be better off getting a summer job. Anyone doing it simply to write off a vacation probably shouldn't be a voluntourist at all, Clemmons said.

Volunteers should decide what they're qualified to do. Setting realistic goals is important.

Ask questions: What kind of accommodations will you tolerate - are you willing to live with a local family or do you want to stay at a hotel? How much time do you want to spend volunteering vs. sightseeing?

Once practical concerns are addressed, choose an organization. If you've decided on a nonprofit organization that does nothing but coordinate trips, do more digging: Interview someone who works for the group. Make sure you share the organization's values, as some have overtly religious or political views.

What it costs

Ask exactly what the cost covers. Some organizations cover only housing and food; you pay for airfare, ground transportation and expenses.

Others will include transportation to and from the airport,supplies, liability and evacuation insurance, and more. Some include a donation to the community in the price.

The more expensive organizations often provide volunteers with more support at the project site. For instance, some will give you an orientation and a staff member to stay with your group at all times.Others let you figure things out on your own.

If you're volunteering abroad, will there be a bilingual staff member on-site at all times? Find out what the organization would do if you were to become ill or get injured.

Get referrals

Many organizations have Facebook pages, which you can use to find volunteers. Talk to the happy volunteers, but ask them to refer you to someone who was not so pleased with the program.

Some organizations that arrange travel programs for volunteers:

ENVIRONMENT/AGRICULTURE

Sierra Club, 415-977-5522, sierraclub.org/outings/national

This environmental group runs about 80 trips a year nationwide of six to seven days each. Tasks can include plant restoration or rebuilding and maintaining trails. Prices range from $300 to $1,000 and cover meals, lodging and on-the-ground support.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, wwoof.org

A global network of farmers who provide housing, food and lessons on leading an organic lifestyle in exchange for help on their farms. Volunteers don't pay for their stay, but WWOOF organizations usually charge both volunteers and hosts a small fee.

BUILDING/COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

Habitat for Humanity, 800-422-4828, habitat.org/getinv

This organization sends volunteers to help build homes in the United States and oversears. Seven- to 14-day programs typically range from $900 to $2,500.

Amizade, 304-293-6049, amizade.org

Programs range in length from one week to a year. Prices start at $732 and can go as high as $12,050 if the volunteer takes a course. Food, lodging, emergency travelers' insurance for international trips and other services are provided. Most of the projects focus on building schools, health clinics and other community structures.

SOCIAL WORK/EDUCATION/HEALTH CARE

Global Volunteers, 800-487-1074, globalvolunteers.org

Volunteers live an work with local people for one to three weeks, participating in activities such as teaching English, caring for disabled children and repairing community facilities. Fees range from $945 to $3,195 and cover housing, food, in-country transportation, on-the-ground personnel and other services.

Cross-Cultural Solutions, 800-380-4777, crossculturalsolutions.org

Programs run from one to 12 weeks. Duties may include teaching English, working in health clinics and helping with children in orphanages in 12 countries. Fees range from $1,853 to $6,843. Included are food, lodging, support staff and other services.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

VolunTourism.org, 619-434-6230

International Volunteer Programs Association, 646-505-8209, volunteerinternational.org

Center for Responsible Travel, 202-347-9203, responsibletravel.org

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