You always said you were going to travel the world when you retired. So to celebrate this new stage of your life, you went on a Caribbean cruise. It was beautiful and relaxing, but something was missing.
If you’re seeking a different kind of a travel — a deeper, more meaningful adventure — then maybe you should consider a volunteer vacation. This unique form of travel is growing more popular, particularly among boomers who want to see the world while also giving back.
(MORE: Voluntourism: Are You Up to the Challenges?)
Volunteer vacations are one- to two-week trips that combine community service, cultural immersion and sightseeing, with the goal of truly understanding and appreciating a destination.
Here are six reasons why a volunteer vacation is better than a cruise:
1. You’ll have a one-of-a-kind experience.
No matter the destination, your trip will be unlike your other travels. That’s because you’ll be far from the tourist trail, immersing yourself in the area’s daily life. (Yes, you’ll still see temples in Thailand but with a different perspective, because you had the opportunity to meet and talk with monks the day before.)
(MORE: 5 Surprising Benefits of Volunteering)
Your memories of various cruises may start to meld together after a while. In contrast, are you going to forget the time you helped save turtles in Costa Rica? Or the time you met a soul sister in Tanzania? We think not.
2. You’ll learn something new every day.
Travel is one of the best forms of education — as is serving others. So it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be making daily discoveries. That is, after all, the whole idea behind “service learning.”
You might learn concrete skills, such as how to say “Thank you” in Swahili (asana, for those who are curious), how to build a health clinic out of discarded plastic bottles in the Dominican Republic or how to operate a traditional loom in Peru. More importantly, however, you will learn things about yourself — your strength, your independence and your beliefs.
3. You’ll support the communities you visit.
Traveling with a responsible volunteer vacation company ensures your money goes straight to the people and economy of your destination. Everything from your activities to your food and lodging is sourced from local businesses, which means your tourist dollars directly support well-paying jobs and growth in the destination you’re visiting.
Not only that, but these trips include cultural programs that provide you with a deeper look into your destination, as well as a sustainable way for local artisans to support themselves. If you’re traveling in Guatemala, you might visit an organic chocolaterie; in Peru, you might meet with the village shaman; in India, you might enjoy dinner with a grassroots activist.
4. You’ll challenge yourself (and grow).
Though a volunteer vacation may not be as easy as a cruise, that’s kind of the point. As you age, it’s more and more important to challenge yourself physically and mentally, so why not do so while you’re traveling? Volunteer vacations are organized, keeping you free of the headaches of travel planning; but they are also organic, allowing you to relish unplanned moments and challenges.
You may have to invent a game to make a 6th grader interested in learning English, find a new route home when the regular pathway is flooded or figure out how to communicate with a local who speaks no English. Conquering these small challenges means you’ll return home feeling inspired and empowered.
5. You’ll connect with other people.
Think back to your favorite travel memories. They probably have one thing in common: they were times when you truly connected with other people. Volunteer vacations allow you an unparalleled opportunity to connect with both your fellow travelers and locals. You’ll be living and working side-by-side with area residents, helping them build a new school or cook a traditional meal. It’s during these interactions — whether discussing the ages of your children or your new friend’s favorite guacamole recipe — that you’ll create true connections, allowing both of you to discover our shared humanity.
(MORE: The Case for Eating with Strangers When Traveling)
6. You’ll make the world a better place.
Volunteer vacations are more than just a sustainable form of travel; they are actually a way to contribute to the greater good.
By teaching English to a young child, you’re opening doors of opportunity for their future. By helping to construct a health clinic, you’re ensuring rural communities have access to medical care. And that knowledge, that feeling, is the best souvenir you could ever come home with.
Susan Shain works with Discover Corps, the only volunteer vacation organization endorsed by the National Peace Corps Association. She believes the best way to discover a country is through its people.
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