August 1 2011|08.00 AM UTC

Erik Chang

Work Exchange Vacations in the United States

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This summer, many families are looking for unique family vacations where they can learn new skills and become immersed in a different lifestyle. In the United States, these “Volunteer Vacation” opportunities are vastly cheaper than typical trips and give to a worthy cause.

According to the AAA vacation costs survey, a family of two adults and two children pay about $269 per day for food and lodging during a domestic vacation. Add travel costs and admission to attractions, and the average daily cost for family vacationers is over $500 – or about $3,500 for a weeklong trip. This price can even double when visiting high-priced locations like Hawaii, New York and Washington D.C., where vacationers can easily spend over $7,000 per week on a mid-range getaway.

Volunteer vacations offer an economical and meaningful alternative to the traditional summer vacation, whether it’s a weekend getaway or a month-long adventure. Most of these family-friendly work exchange opportunities involve outdoor projects like organic farming and trail building in national parks. Volunteers are responsible for their own travel arrangements and some programs charge an administrative fee to cover costs like advertising and insurance. Other out-of-pocket costs may include food and special equipment (i.e. camping gear for National Parks, work boots and gloves). Generally, work exchange agreements involve about 4-6 hours a day of labor, with ample free time to explore the local area.

Here are some of the opportunities available to individuals and families looking to contribute to a good cause during their vacation, all while saving some money:

WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms)

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This non-profit organization connects volunteers with organic farms. A half-day of volunteer help is traded for food and accommodation on a farm, with no money exchanged between the volunteers and host family.

Many of the host farms welcome children and pets, so this is a great option for families who want to teach their children where food comes from. With over 1,800 member farms in all 50 states, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, a variety of volunteer opportunities are available – such as cultivating organic tea in Hawaii and urban beekeeping in Oregon.
A small annual membership fee is required to sign up ($30 Online/$40 Printed directory and online access).

USDA Forest Service Passport in Time

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PIT is a volunteer archaeology and historical preservation program offered by the USDA, which matches volunteer teams with professional archaeologists and historians to work on projects throughout the country. Current opportunities include an excavation of a WWII bomber crash site, staffing a historic guard station in Manti-La Sal Forest, and maintenance duties at the Tallac Historic Site at Lake Tahoe.

The 7 Interchange

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This social and environmental volunteer network lists host projects from around the world, including tornado disaster relief projects, working on sustainable community farms, and building straw bale homes.

Camp Sunshine

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Located in the Sebago Lake region of Maine, this residential camp for critically ill children and their families runs six-day sessions (Sunday to Friday), each requiring 75 volunteers for a 1:2 volunteer to camper ratio. They also run weekend sessions February through December. Volunteer opportunities include housekeeping, marina, pool, arts and crafts and leaders for age-specific groups. Volunteers aged 16 and 17 may stay on site if accompanied by a chaperone over age 21, making this great for families with older teens.

All meals and accommodations are provided in camp cabins and participants are encouraged to make an optional membership donation of $50 ($25 for students) to cover administrative costs.

Volunteer vacations aren’t for everyone, so it’s important to consider your personal skills and interests before signing up to pick organic strawberries or clear hiking trails. If you’re involving kids, make sure they are clear about the reasons for choosing a work-exchange trip and ask what they’d be interested in doing. Try volunteering near your home for a few one-day events to see if it’s a good fit before committing to a weeklong project. Though many work-exchange vacationers quickly become hooked and make volunteering a part of their annual family vacation tradition.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ali Siddiqui August 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Eric,
I agree with you on a point: making a week long vacation is too expensive nowadays. People usually have to plan and save a lot in order to have a week of enjoyment. However, if you allow me, may i suggest you visiting http://volunteerstays.com? This is a great website which provides a wide range of services, even for those who want to do work exchanges in return for local food and accommodation. Do check it out, it is a very useful website for travelers these days.

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