Jul 162011
Taken by me in May 2006. 1-2 year old Green Se...

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A DELUXE room at the luxurious Snake River Lodge & Spa in Jackson, Wyo., typically goes for $385 a night, but it can be reserved for as low as $192 this fall.

The catch: In order to qualify for the discount, travelers must agree to spend a portion of their vacation taking down barbed wire fences so local wildlife can roam more freely.

These days, it seems that just about every travel organization — from tour companies to luxury resorts — has a volunteer component, whether it is tracking iguanas on Grand Cayman or doling out food at soup kitchens in Moscow. You can even customize your trip, pitching in as much or as little as you want, while staying at upscale resorts. Hands Up Holidays combines luxury travel with “a ‘taste’ of volunteering” through tailor-made volunteer vacations in 26 countries, ranging from building classrooms in a Berber village while staying in luxury riads in Morocco ($1,950 a person, not including airfare, for 10 days) to helping preserve the kiwi bird in New Zealand — in between heli-hiking, whale watching and wine tasting ($29,900, not including airfare, for 18 days).

While it’s great to give back to the communities you visit, programs that offer vacationers a discount in exchange for their efforts are harder to find. Sure, there are traditional long-term volunteer programs dating back to the Peace Corps that allow you to see the world for a small wage by pitching in on local projects. But those programs typically require travelers to devote significant time to the program.

Still, it’s possible to find a program that not only fits your vacation schedule but also gives you a little something in return for your time. A good place to start your search is FlyforGood.com, which offers an online trip finder that connects volunteers with humanitarian nonprofit organizations that have been vetted by the likes of GuideStar and Charity Navigator, both nonprofit watchdog associations. The site also offers volunteers airfare discounts of 10 to 25 percent off published rates.

“Unfortunately it’s still fairly expensive to travel to another country, especially since places to volunteer are usually off the beaten path,” said Ryan Skoog, president of FlyforGood. “Our goal is to try to make it more accessible and cheaper so more people can volunteer.”

FlyforGood recently secured round-trip airfare from San Francisco to Victoria Falls airport in Zimbabwe on South African Airways and partner carriers for a mother/daughter team this summer for about $2,348 a person versus $3,636 a person if booked with those airlines directly.

Sites like Razoo.com and NetworkforGood.com make it easy to set up an online fund-raiser for a group volunteer trip, complete with instant e-mail tax receipts for donors, so you can ask your friends for donations. And Travelocity.com’s Travel for Good program lists several affordable volunteer vacation partners including the American Hiking Society, which runs weeklong trail maintenance trips for $250 that include rugged accommodations and food. Travelocity also offers eight $5,000 grants annually to volunteer vacationers. To win, travelers must choose a trip from one of its volunteer-tourism partners, make a video of two minutes or less explaining why they deserve to win, upload it to the site and then send it around to friends and family for voting.

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