The summer vacation season may be winding down, but fall is a beautiful time to get away -- especially in retirement! "Volunteer" and "vacation" may seem like a contradiction of terms -- why work on your relaxing holiday? But some travelers over 50 are trading sunning on beaches, standing in line at crowded tourist traps, and taking tours that make you feel like you're looking at the culture from behind a window for more of an experience. Here are five ways volunteer vacations -- also known as voluntourism -- can provide boomers with more than photos (and a sunburn) at the end of the adventure.
1. Experience a people, a culture, and an area more richly.
It's possible to see the Greek island of Crete, the rural countryside of China or the lions of Kenya from the comfort of a tour bus. But with GlobalVolunteers.org, you can fully immerse yourself in the Greek culture as you travel from the coast to a mountaintop school every day for two weeks to teach English to youth and adults with special needs. Volunteer vacations range from one week to months, and depending on how much time you want to spend and how you want to serve, can give you the opportunity to authentically know a people, an area or an effort. You can explore China's Guangzhou City and its rural outskirts while you build a house for a family with Habitat for Humanity. Or you can track lions and their prey in Kenya with the Earthwatch Institute.
2. Try out new skills or a new industry to prep for a job change.
Thinking about a late career change or finding that doing nothing in retirement isn't your cup of tea? Skills-based volunteering is a way to learn more about specific industries, gain experience working on different types of teams and gain exposure working in different organizations, according to Mark Horoszowski, co-founder of MovingWorlds.org. Moving Worlds connects people who want to volunteer their skills with social impact organizations around the world. Human resource experts can work in Mexico City for 2-6 months helping find staff for clinics for the blind, and grant writers can work up to two years in India helping to support a wood stove company that reduces toxic fumes and wood consumption.
3. Save money and still enjoy that dream destination.
Volunteer vacations aren't inherently cheap - many organizations use a portion of what you pay for the trip to contribute to their efforts. Habitat for Humanity uses about half of your trip's cost to pay for their building efforts. But it is possible to find trips that are inexpensive. MovingWorlds.org offers opportunities that cover the cost of accommodations and/or meals for a one-time $125 membership fee, saving international travelers about $1,500 a week. Globe Aware charges between $700-$1100 for its 1-2 week trips, which covers accommodations, meals, on-site travel, and program expenses. Their website provides info on how to pay your costs with scholarships and other fundraising efforts. Airfare is seldom covered by volunteer vacation opportunities, but FlyforGood.com offers discounted travel for volunteers involved in international humanitarian work.
4. Bond with your friends and housemates.
Living in a Golden Girls-style household? What better way to connect with your housemates or friends than to share a life-changing experience like volunteering abroad with them? Depending on how large your house is, you may be able to sign up for one of the group or family volunteer vacations offered by many organizations. Both GlobalVolunteers.org and GVIUSA.com put together opportunities for groups. Working together as a house allows you to jointly see the impact of your service, and pooling your efforts to fundraise can help the money-raising process feel less arduous.
5. Give back.
Rather than spending your vacation relaxing on a beach, volunteer vacations can give you the opportunity to affect causes you really care about. Opportunities abound (both nationally and internationally) working with varying groups with volunteer needs. Andrew Mersmann's blog ChangebyDoing.com highlights the latest volunteer opportunities. This article from TransitionsAbroad.com highlights senior-friendly volunteer vacations. Still can't find a volunteer vacation you're interested in? Consider doing it yourself. Put together a trip to an area where you'd like to chip in and call a local service organization with an offer to lend a hand.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Golden Girls Network blog. Bonnie Moore is the founder of Golden Girls Network, the only nationwide network that helps adults' ages 50+ find roommates and access the resources they need to make shared living work. She teaches classes about shared living and is the author of How to Start a Golden Girls Home.
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