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Vacations That Give Back

Take a “voluntourism” trip and you’ll see the world from a fresh perspective.

Courtesy Earthwatch Institute

Looking for a vacation idea that’s off the beaten path? Combine your love of travel with your impulse to give to a good cause. The options for “voluntourism” trips range all over the map, from teaching English to Vietnamese orphans to feeding animals at a Costa Rican wildlife refuge. You’ll pay for your airfare, food and lodging, but your costs may be tax-deductible.

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Global Volunteers sends more than 2,000 volunteers each year to 17 countries (including the U.S.) to do everything from providing child care to building community facilities. You’ll pay $1,800 for a two-week stint in India; two weeks in Italy will cost $3,195. The fee covers food, lodging, in-country transportation, and emergency medical and evacuation insurance. Airfare is extra.

You can work side by side with research scientists in the field with the Earthwatch Institute. The group organizes volunteer expeditions in 40 countries. On one popular 12-day trip to Polokwane, South Africa, volunteers gather information to help protect endangered animals. Costs start at $2,775 per person, plus airfare.


United Planet sends about 300 to 500 volunteers a year to more than 35 countries. Projects include volunteering in orphanages, teaching English and working on reforestation efforts. Volunteers typically live with host families. Fees range from $1,985 for one week to $6,345 for 12 weeks, plus airfare.

Even Carnival, the giant cruise line, is getting into the act. It recently announced a new cruise brand called Fathom that will offer “impact travel” vacations to developing countries such as the Dominican Republic starting in 2016. Prices start at $1,540 per week.

Roughing it (or not). Depending on the sponsoring organization, you may stay in a dormitory, guest house or hotel. Some programs might be outside your comfort zone, so ask questions to make sure a trip is right for you. “Living conditions can be rustic, including shared lodging spaces, basic food and not a lot of hot water for showers,” says Elisa Sabatini, of Via International, which sends about 800 volunteers a year to Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Sri Lanka and other countries.

If you’d prefer to combine volunteering with a luxury vacation, for-profit tour companies, such as Hands Up Holidays, will customize vacations for individuals and groups that include opportunities for a few days of service. Typical costs are about $10,000 per person for two weeks, plus airfare. Volunteers stay in luxury hotels that combine high-end amenities with environmentally friendly practices.


Take a tax deduction. Your service-program fees, airfare, visa and related expenses may be tax-deductible if you sign up with a tax-exempt charitable organization. Also, the IRS requires you to work, on average, eight hours per day, five days out of seven, to claim the deduction. If you tack a couple of extra days onto your trip to sightsee, you will not be able to deduct the airfare. However, you will still be able to get a tax break for the program fee, meals and supplies directly related to your time spent volunteering.

When you combine federal and state income tax savings, a typical volunteer who itemizes deductions could save one-third of the cost of the service program.