The joys — and costs — of volunteering on vacation

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More travelers than ever want to give back to the communities they visit. These financial tips can help as you're planning your trip.
We're all in this world together. That realization of our common interests is one of the benefits of travel, and it's a lesson the pandemic has only helped to underscore. Now, as people plan vacations, many are looking for ways to connect even more closely with the environments and communities they visit. "They want to engage with fellow citizens, and even leave their chosen destination a little better than they found it," says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guidebooks and Frommers.com.
One way to do that? A volunteer vacation (sometimes referred to as "voluntourism") gives you the chance to join a group of like-minded people and make a difference in the world for a period of time that can range from a few days to a few months. The category is as broad as the values of the people who take them. Just a few examples: clearing litter from a Florida beach, removing invasive species from a national park in Hawaii (before a spot of whale watching), or rebuilding homes for low-income families in rural Appalachia.
Voluntourism doesn't benefit just the destinations visited, says Samantha Jo Warfield. She's a spokesperson for AmeriCorps, a government-supported volunteer program that offers short-term travel service options. "There's a growing body of research indicating that volunteering is good for your health," she says. In fact, studies have shown a connection between volunteering and rates of mortality and later-life depression, as well as lower blood pressure.Footnote 1 And, especially if you're nearing retirement, it can be a gateway into a potential second-act career. "A lot of people find their true purpose through service," Warfield notes. (See "Want to take a volunteer vacation? Try these 4 websites" for some organizations offering volunteer vacation opportunities.)
Whether you see a volunteer vacation as a long weekend or a major commitment, planning ahead can go a long way toward making the experience more fulfilling. Could your expenses be tax-deductible? Do you need travel insurance? How can you manage your finances if you commit to a longer volunteer stint? Consider these tips before planning your trip.
Be clear about what you want to get out of your experience
Volunteer vacations generally offer accommodations that are more rustic and may require a level of physical activity that's higher than a typical vacation. Take the time to research your options thoroughly so you don't find you've made a mistake once you get there.
Consider how long a commitment you can make, how many hours a day you want to work, how much physical labor you're willing to perform and what the age range of the people you're with will be, so that you find the best fit. Talking with others who have gone through the experience can help, so don't hesitate to ask for references. "And you should always do some research to make sure the organization has a track record," says Frommer.
Finally, be thoughtful about your goals and what you hope to achieve, says Warfield. Do you want to bring your family and teach them life lessons, or take a solo journey of self-discovery? Do you want to use your existing skills, or are you looking to learn something completely new?
Manage your expenses
Volunteer vacations often cost more than their more conventional counterparts, because you're covering not only your own costs but also a part of the organization's costs. Bear in mind that in addition to the organization's fees — which can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars — you're typically on the hook for your airfare, vaccinations, visas and other personal expenses. In some instances, you may also want to consider emergency medical evacuation insurance. Start by drawing up a preliminary travel budget.
Volunteer vacations often cost more than their conventional counterparts, and you're typically on the hook for airfare, vaccinations, visas and other personal expenses. Ask your tax advisor whether some or all of your expenses could be tax-deductible.
One financial consideration is the length of time you'll be away. While some volunteer opportunities are for a few days or a week, others may last a month, or even several. If you're looking at something on the longer side, think through what it will cost — both the extra expense and the income you may forego.
If that number seems a little higher than you'd like, look for ways to whittle it down. For instance, you may be able to rent out your home while you're away — though you might need an umbrella insurance policy to provide liability coverage for your tenants. Ask your tax advisor whether some or all of your expenses could be tax-deductible.
If you're leaving home for a month or longer, you'll need to make arrangements for someone to handle your financial matters. Try to put most of your bills on autopay and — especially if you're headed to a rural area with potentially spotty Wi-Fi — make arrangements in the event that something unforeseeable occurs and you can't be reached. Make sure someone you know and trust is aware of the person you've selected as your Power of Attorney, and has access to that document. Also consider sharing the contact numbers of other professionals, such as your accountant, and close relatives or best friends.
Don't lose sight of your bigger financial picture
If your volunteer vacation takes the form of an unpaid sabbatical from your full-time job, keep in mind that you won't be contributing to your 401(k) while you're away. You can, however, use catch-up provisions to make up some of the shortfall if you're age 50 or older. If you've had any earned income during a volunteer stint, you can also continue to contribute to an IRA, notes Ben Storey, director, Retirement Thought Leadership, Bank of America. If you're already retired and thinking about drawing from your investments to pay for the trip, consider the impact that might have on their future growth as well as the potential tax consequences, he adds.
But, whatever financial tradeoffs you might make to take your volunteer vacation, never lose sight of the value of the experiences you'll have. The satisfaction of giving back while getting away is sure to make this a vacation you'll never forget.
A shot underwater of a swimmer taking a photo of a whale shark.

Want to take a volunteer vacation? Try these 4 websites

Americorps: Americorps.gov
This government program covers nearly every American state, tribal land and territory. Its May-September VISTA program offers assignments ranging from home repair projects in low-income neighborhoods to assisting with food forest management.
Volunteer World: Volunteerworld.com
This nonprofit serves people committed to preserving indigenous cultures and local ecologies, and to enhancing the quality of life in the destinations they cover. Typically requires a one- to 16-week commitment; nearly all costs are covered.
Sierra Club: sierraclub.org
One of the oldest environmental organizations in the U.S. offers dozens of service trips each year to assist on conservation projects. Trips last a week or two and cost around $300 to $400 per person per day.
EarthWatch: earthwatch.org
Partner with real-world researchers to tackle some of the world's most complex environmental challenges. Food and accommodations are included.

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Footnote 1 https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2013/june/june13_volunteeringhypertension.html

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