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How to determine if a 'volunteer' vacation is right for you

It was the most touching goodbye of my life. My wife and I had taught English for two weeks at an elementary school in Costa Rica, and on our last day, as we walked from our tin-roof classroom to a waiting van, the children swarmed us, hugging us and telling us "adios."

But not every volunteer receives such a fond farewell. 

In the weeks after we left, another American worked at the school. She was college age, and, she admitted, she was volunteering because it would look good on her résumé. Frequently, we were told, she sat in class and read a book. On her last day, she walked from the school alone.

Most volunteers, I’m pleased to say, are more selfless than selfish (or more like Mother Theresa than say a Hollywood celebrity). 

I’ve worked on a series of two-week volunteer vacations aka “voluntourism” trips—much like mini-Peace Corps programs—from rebuilding homes in New Orleans to caring for orphans in Kenya. 

On each trip, I found that you not only help others, but you immerse yourself in another culture—and see yourself anew.

Of course, using your free time to teach rambunctious children isn’t everyone’s idea of a laugh-filled, carefree vacation. Travelers usually prefer to splash in a pool than sweat in a school. 

So, before you find yourself clearing hiking trails in the Appalachian Mountains or dodging monkey poop on a wildlife reserve in South Africa, see if your personality matches these five statements.

Just work hard, smile often, and do what you’re asked. And most importantly, try to help others—not boost your résumé.

1. You think room service is overrated.

Volunteer trips are rarely luxurious. I’ve stayed everywhere from a cabana in the Andes (no electricity, lots of horseflies) to a two-room flat in a Palestinian refugee camp (18 guys, one bathroom). Sometimes you’ll stay in hotels, but if you like to be pampered—if you desperately need a mini-bar—stick with a resort. If you’re OK with washing dishes and enduring tropical heat without air conditioning, you’ve got the volunteer mindset.

2. You’d rather work than relax.

The term “volunteer vacation” is misleading, because painting houses under a brutal Louisiana sun or getting gouged by special needs kids in China (and yes, I’ve experienced both) is not what I’d call a vacation. 

Sure, you have free time on evenings and weekends—I used my free weekend in Kenya to take a safari—but ultimately you’re there to work. And that work can be beneficial: in Costa Rica, the school where I volunteered could use its limited resources to buy computers instead of hiring an English teacher. 

In Ecuador, when I worked on a climate change research project, the scientists could run more projects with volunteer labor. But don’t expect much down time. 

After every trip I was exhausted—mentally, physically, emotionally. It was only when I returned home that I’d realize…Wow. That was a really unique experience.

3. You’re OK not only with working for free…

...but with paying for the privilege of working for free (which, I grant you, is odd—like paying to use slot machines and then giving the casino your winnings). With volunteer vacations you typically pay a program fee, which covers your accommodations, food, local transportation, and possibly field trips or cultural programs (it also helps volunteer organizations cover some of their operating expenses). The upside for you? The fees are often tax deductible.

4. You never eat Big Macs when you travel.

Volunteering lets you escape the tourist cocoon. Instead of sitting on a bus with other Americans, you walk the streets with locals. Instead of eating in hotels, you eat local foods. 

The freshest, tastiest meals I ate in China were at the special needs school where I worked. 

In Kenya, we stayed with a local woman and her kids, and regularly ate staples like nyama choma (meat cooked in charcoal) and ugali (like cornbread you use to scoop veggies). Volunteering lets you work with locals, learn from locals, bond with locals.

5. You don’t need to be the boss.

When you volunteer overseas, you’re the foreigner. How would you feel if some guy from Zimbabwe or Bolivia came to your office and told you how to work more efficiently? In a short-term volunteer gig, you’re better off taking orders than giving them. You may have smart ideas, but you’re probably clueless about cultural differences—such as punctuality. 

In Kenya, if you say 1 o'clock, locals assume one thirty. So don’t plot a coup at a school on your second day. Just work hard, smile often, and do what you’re asked. And most importantly, try to help others—not boost your résumé.

Ken Budd is the author of the new memoir, "The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem" (William Morrow 2012).  He’s donating his earnings from the book to the organizations and places where he's volunteered. You’ll find helpful resources on voluntourism at www.thevoluntouristbook.com/get-help-give-help/