How to Win Free Travel (Hint: You’ll Have to Get Creative)

Like free travel? Of course you do. There are a few contests you should enter, especially if you are a seasoned business traveler or a bubbly sociable traveler. Like most online contests, they will require social media savvy and some old-fashioned popularity contest-winning charm, but hey, you could win free travel!

-Jauntaroo’s Best Job Around the World: The vacation matchmaker site is looking for a “Chief World Explorer” to travel the world for one year (or at least a few exciting destinations like Berlin and the Maldives), with all expenses paid. You’ll be representing Jauntaroo and creating social content, and earning a $100k salary for your trouble. There’s also a “voluntourism” component, promoting the site’s partner charities and “travel with a cause” motto. To enter, upload a 60-second video detailing why you should win by September 15 and get your friends to like it, as only the final five will make it to the interview.

-“American Way” Road Warrior: Already been around the world, with an expertly-packed carry-on and the efficiency of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”? If you’re a true “road warrior” you know that “American Way” is the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, and they have an annual contest to award the ultimate business traveler. The grand prize includes a half million AAdvantage miles and a trip to Curacao, plus a slew of other prizes befitting a frequent flier, such as noise-canceling headphones. Fill out the application (sample question: what makes you a true road warrior?) by August 31, and the five finalists will be posted online for the public to vote on the top three winners.

Like a more honest day’s travel work? Check out a few unusual travel jobs.

Why Would Anyone Ever Go To Afghanistan?

“I got asked to go to Afghanistan.”

The parents obviously weren’t excited with that statement and what ensued was a “we support you but this is going to be difficult for us” conversation. When you pitch your parents on traveling to a conflict zone, this conversation is inevitable.

I would have that same conversation with lots of people in the weeks before taking off to a country that most of us associate with terrorism and suicide bombings. It’s not shocking that my friends were nervous; Afghanistan isn’t one of those places you just go to. Traveling to this part of the world is a calculated risk – a matter of gathering all possible information before you leave knowing fully well that you’ll never be able to be absolutely prepared for what awaits you on the other side of the world.

But I wanted to go. I had to go.

My friend Shannon Galpin, the executive director of Mountain2Mountain, had asked me to come along to help in the production of a series of public photo exhibits. Afghanistan is the kind of place that you don’t just throw a few things in a backpack, buy a Lonely Planet guide (although there is one), get a visa and get on a plane. But it’s also not North Korea either; the borders are open, passport control is just like in any country and in Kabul there are hotels, guesthouses and coffee shops with wireless.In the 1960s and 1970s Afghanistan attracted overland wanderers and climbers alike, but in the wake of several decades of foreign invasions, war and Taliban control, it has yet to return to the tourist destination of yore. Conflict zones attract a certain adventurous spirit, however, and a handful of groups like Hinterland Travel do offer tours for those in the need of a special kind of adrenaline kick. As it’s home to many a nonprofit and development project, you can also travel to Afghanistan as part of an experiential education with Global Exchange, what the organization deems a “Reality Tour.” Their most recent focused on women making change, connecting participants with women and organizations on the ground taking reconstruction into their own hands.

But let’s say you are that adventure-seeking, can’t-do-another-trip-on-a-Thai-beach kind of traveler – the question remains: should you go to Afghanistan? Ultimately, that’s a personal choice. The State Department warns against it, and after having traveled there myself, I would be hard pressed to tell someone to go if they had absolutely no contacts on the ground. A conflict zone is the kind of place that it’s essential to know the right people and to have some sort of community to fall back on when something goes wrong. But people go, and the ones that do, find a very different people and place than what we so often see in the Western media.

Knowing that I probably wasn’t going to head to Afghanistan on an individual trek anytime soon, the chance to go with Mountain2Mountain was one I couldn’t turn down, and one letter of introduction, a few extra passport photos and an Afghan visa later, I found myself on the long trip to Kabul.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

The Dos And Don’ts Of Voluntourism

In Juarez, Mexico, a group of American university students build houses. In Quito, Ecuador, medical professionals spend two weeks correcting cataracts – pro bono. In Kenya, handfuls of Hollywood stars try “making a difference” at orphanages. At the same time, these volunteers are having a travel experience. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and try to bond with locals. They are volunteer traveler hybrids known as voluntourists. Can they really see the world and save it too?

A rising tide of do-good travelers

“Voluntourism,” writes David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, “is the conscious, seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – while in the destination.”

Over the past 20 years, companies and organizations have sprouted up to meet mushrooming demand for these experiences. In kind, journalists and researchers have also begun investigating the impacts. A recent ABC report, for example, examines the downsides of medical missions.

The benefits for the voluntourist are clear: meaningful cross-cultural exchanges; the chance to contribute to a vital humanitarian cause or project; and insights about life from people with different perspectives. But critics have legitimate questions. Can cross-cultural exchanges also lead to greater misunderstanding and loss? Can well-intentioned individuals on short-term schedules make a lasting difference? Is it really about the destination, or just an ego trip? The solution is complex.

Theory versus practice

In academic circles, best practices have been suggested to avoid voluntourism’s potential dark side. Academics cite potential negative impacts such as the overruling of locals’ desires, outright cultural loss or change, low quality of work completed, decreased demand for local labor, and poverty rationalization (i.e. a reinforcement of misconceptions about poverty).

Meanwhile, on the front lines of voluntourism, organizations have years of ground-level experience with connecting travelers to volunteer opportunities all over the world. Volunteer coordinators admit the road isn’t always smooth, and that when trying to place affluent Westerners in impoverished populations, anything can happen.

In a collection of interviews I collected with volunteer placement coordinators all over the world, however, the academic skepticism remained a distant abstraction. Coordinators recalled very few bad voluntourist scenarios, noting that experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Based on their diverse experiences, they offered their wisdom on practices to avoid as a voluntourist and how to volunteer abroad like you mean it. A cross section of those conversations follows.

What not to do as a voluntourist

Tim Rowse is is the director of WAVES for Development, which combines surf tourism on the Peruvian coast with community service projects. He recalled a difficult experience with one particular individual. “Pre-departure, we spent time corresponding with the volunteer on in-country travel logistics, setting up lodging, keying up staff for their arrival in Lobitos, Peru,” Rowse explains. “Preferring to trust that individuals will deliver on their commitments, we let payment slide until his arrival. Turns out, the volunteer decided to bypass WAVES all together and live in an unaffiliated hotel. His idea was to volunteer for WAVES from outside our system. That’s fine, we get people who don’t know about WAVES and show up in Lobitos wanting to help, but we couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how the events occurred.”

Perpetua Opoku-Agyemang is general manager of Student and Youth Travel Organization in Accra, Ghana, which provides a range of cross-cultural programs and support services. She laments some volunteers’ uncompromising attitudes. “We’ve had cases where a volunteer isn’t satisfied with the condition of our bicycles, so halfway through the journey, she or he abandons the bicycle and walks the rest of the way.”

Laurel Carlton is a volunteer coordinator in Xela, Guatemala, at EntreMundos, a non-profit that provides organizations and communities with training opportunities, resources and volunteers. Because EntreMundos emphasizes clients’ needs over volunteers’ requirements, personal irresponsibility can cause substantial problems.

“One volunteer went to an organization that networks with local producers of fair trade and organic products,” says Carlton. “The volunteer spoke Spanish, had marketing skills and, prior to arrival, she indicated she would stay for at least two months. The organization was quite enthusiastic about the volunteer, and spent several days training her and preparing an individual project. After her first week, the volunteer stopped showing up, and the organization was unable to contact her via email and telephone. Three weeks later, they received an email that she had decided to move on with her travels. The organization was so frustrated by this waste of their time, energy and resources that they have discontinued their volunteer relationship entirely.”

How to volunteer abroad like you mean it

Ground-level managers all look for similar things – a willing attitude, language capabilities, cultural sensitivity, applicable skills and open-mindedness – and they tend to agree that longer stays are most effective.

Carlton describes an ideal experience: “One young woman spoke advanced Spanish and had extensive marketing skills. She was exemplary in her work with an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. She successfully won the organization over $1000 in funds to buy two much-needed sewing machines, she held several successful fundraising events, and she focused on improving ties with the weaving store’s external markets.”

A similar anecdote comes from Chris Engler, a program coordinator at World Unite. “We recently had a 43-year-old man, Olaf from Germany, who works in public relations. He came for six weeks to Tanzania to volunteer with an NGO that is dealing with female genital mutilation, which is a very sensitive issue. A lot of knowledge about local culture is needed to address rural tribal communities about the topic successfully. Olaf was excellent in listening to the NGO members and developing a PR strategy. He also raised funds for its implementation. Olaf is still in touch with us and is continuing with PR work for all the NGOs in Tanzania he got to know.”

Engler says that a positive attitude and cultural sensitivity are the key criteria of good voluntourists. Carlton, aside from prizing strong Spanish skills in EntreMundos’ voluntourists, agrees. “Great volunteers display flexibility, independence, personal maturity, initiative and a high level of openness and tolerance to a different culture. Humility and awareness of their status as a visitor in another country are also highly important.”

Sustainable Bolivia’s assistant national director, Erin Beasley, succinctly outlines a very healthy overall approach for would-be volunteers. “Observe what needs to be done and help to make that happen. Leave the place cleaner than when you arrived. When you receive generosity, respond with generosity. Be direct, thoughtful and patient when communicating with your new colleagues. And have fun! Your energy and spirit of helping is a great addition to your host organization.”

Voluntourism Dos and Don’ts

Don’t

  • Overstate your skills and abilities
  • Make commitments you can’t keep
  • Expect a free ride just because you are working
  • Forget your priorities: In voluntourism, ‘tourism’ comes second

Do

  • Your homework. Look for transparency about how your fees are being used
  • A deep self-evaluation of your motives and expectations before voluntouring
  • Plan to stay awhile. The longer you stay, the more effective you can be
  • Try it at least once in your life, no matter your age or experience level

Ready to volunteer abroad?

WWOOF Worldwide
EntreMundos, Guatemala
WAVES for Development, Peru
Conscious Journeys
Sustainable Bolivia
World Unite
SYTO Ghana

[Images courtesy WWOOF Canada and World Unite]

How To Prepare To Volunteer Abroad

homework Volunteering abroad is a worthwhile experience that allows you to help a community while really getting to know a culture. While rewarding, there is a lot of preparation, both physical and mental, that is necessary to get you ready for a volunteer vacation. To help you prepare, use the tips below.

Do Your Homework

Not all volunteer agencies are created equal. While some are scams, others are legitimate but charge astronomical fees. You’ll also want to look at what’s included in the price, and what type of accommodation you’ll be set up in. For example, when I volunteer I don’t like being put in a hotel. Instead, I prefer doing a homestay to get closer to the local culture. The volunteer placement board SE7EN does not use a middleman, so you’ll usually get to volunteer for free or very cheap, and stay with a family. Likewise, International Volunteer Headquarters, the company I always go through, offers affordable programs that include homestays and local activities. If you’d like to talk to someone knowledgeable in person before embarking on the trip, go with a global organization that has local chapters, like Habitat for Humanity.Connect With Past Volunteers

To get an idea of what to expect, it’s a good idea to connect with past volunteers. Ask them their opinion of the organization, what went well, what went wrong, what to expect and what to pack. For example, when I volunteered to teach English in Thailand, I had no idea what to bring, or how the project would be run. I used the organization’s Facebook page to find past volunteers, and learned about how lesson planning worked, what supplies to bring and that packing a roll of toilet paper was a must.

needle Apply For A Program That Fits Your Skills

To really make a difference, try to find a project where you can really utilize your skills. If you’ve studied medicine, help take care of sick children or do hospital work. If you’re good with kids or enjoy teaching, sign up for an orphanage project or teach English. And if you’re not sure where you’d be best placed, ask the organization you’re going through where the most help is needed.

Learn The Customs Of The Country

This is an important step that many travelers often overlook. You should never just show up in a country without researching the local customs. This is especially true when you’re representing a volunteer organization or staying with a family, because you don’t want to offend anyone. For instance, in Thailand it’s considered offensive to enter a room with shoes on, touch another person’s head or point your feet at someone. These are all things I do at home, so it was good to know beforehand. Likewise, punishments for certain offenses vary depending on where you are. For instance, while chewing gum is fine in Western countries, you can incur a hefty fine for doing this in Singapore.

orphanage Become Familiar With The Work You’ll Be Doing

Know beforehand what exactly you’ll be doing so you can efficiently prepare. If you know you’ll be working in an orphanage, bring some small toys to give to the children. Teaching English? Print out some worksheets and pack extra school supplies.

Find Out What The Dress Code Is

I made this mistake when teaching in Thailand. Although I knew I would be working in a rural village, I packed slacks and dress shirts, because I wanted to look professional. When I arrived, however, everyone was in baggy capris and T-shirts. If only I’d have found out beforehand, I could have saved myself the trouble of having to ship clothing home and buy new outfits.

money Fundraise

Whether you put the money towards your program costs or donate it straight to the organization you’re helping, fundraising is worthwhile. If you have the time, try planning a benefit dinner, concert or sporting event. Moreover, you could try to piggyback on an event that’s already going on, and ask for a cut of the profits. Selling food, leaving a donation can at your local pizza place, having a social media contest or holding a meetup are other effective ways to fundraise.

Get In The Right Mindset

One thing to remember is that there will be culture shock. You’ll not only be experiencing a new culture, but also seeing things that aren’t easy to look at, like hungry children or wounded animals. Additionally, you’re probably not going to be able to change everything while you’re there. Mentally prepare yourself beforehand, and remind yourself that every little bit of aid helps to move things in the right direction.

[images via Svadilfari, Intropin, Jessie on a Journey, J.J.]

British Protesters Campaign For A Rain-Free Olympics

gandys flip flops And I thought the weather was controlled by nature. Recently, a group of bikini-clad female protesters in London headed to Parliament Square to demand sunnier weather and a rain-free Olympics. While this may sound outlandish, the comical campaign is actually part of a bigger project to help a community.

In the hopes that the government complies with the protesters – or that Mother Nature simply supplies some sunshine – brothers Rob and Paul Forkan of Gandys Flip Flops are getting their product ready, and will be putting partial earnings towards the building of an orphanage in Goa, India. The pair, who were orphaned after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, are doing the project as a tribute to their parents.

“The poor weather and the current economic climate haven’t exactly put people in the mood for the beach,” Rob Forkan told the Daily Mail. “We thought it would be interesting to combine the two issues with a protest in jest. Hopefully we will cheer even Parliament up!”

[photo via Gandy's Flip Flops]