Arthur Frommer

Arthur Frommer: Earthwatch volunteer trips the real deal

Volunteer vacations are a major vogue in travel, and people who attend travel lectures seem intrigued by the possibility of devoting their leisure time to a worthwhile cause. They soon find that the options are limited.

To enjoy a volunteer vacation in which you engage in meaningful work, and enjoy free room and board while doing it, requires in most instances that you sign up for a full year of labor in an undeveloped area of the world. It is only that kind of major commitment that can lead to free-of-charge travel for the purpose of performing valuable tasks.

As for the shorter commitment — let's say, a period of two or three weeks in a third-world village or rural area — those so-called volunteer vacations are nearly always somewhat artificial and contrived. They involve —with some exceptions — a form of playacting in which unskilled Americans purport to teach impoverished villagers how to improve their lives or agricultural production.

You are given a well to dig, a creek to dam up — as if those villagers were incapable on their own of digging such a well or damming such a creek. You also pay a pretty penny to engage in such playacting. You discover that the sponsor of the volunteer vacation has heavy expenses that must be covered by the participants.

In short, the volunteer vacation doesn't resemble the noble activity that you thought it would be. Unless, that is, you engage in a research expedition sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute.

Now in its 40th year of recruiting Americans to assist noted university scientists in valid, serious, research efforts or improvements in the environment, Earthwatch has an absolutely unassailable record. It is the real thing. Its participants perform valuable work assisting real-life scientists in groundbreaking projects, but usually for periods of two or three weeks at a time.

Simply to list the research trips available (about 60 separate projects in 2011) is to realize how important is the work done by Earthwatch's roster of eminent scientists and researchers. "Restoring Easter Island's Forests," "Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos," "Monitoring Brazil's Wildlife Corridors," "Mammal Conservation in South Africa," "Mapping the Ecology of China's Huang Cun Village," "Cheetah Conservation in Namibia," "Studying Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge," "Restoring Belize's Reef Ecosystem," "Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast," "Searching Fossils of the Panama Canal," "Studying Mangroves and Reefs of the Bahamas," "Cataloguing Plant Life of California's Mountains" and so on.

These are serious projects undertaken by distinguished scientists, who invite Earthwatch participants to perform the "scut work" on their projects, laboriously listing and collecting the data involved in each effort. These fall, generally, into categories dealing with Ecosystems, Climate Change and Cultural Heritage.

When you participate in an Earthwatch Expedition, you pay your own airfare to the location from which the research expedition kicks off. You engage in an effort that, on average, runs eight to 15 days, for which you pay a usual charge (to cover heavy expenses of the expedition) of about $200 a day.

But because you are assisting a university professor in a serious, nonprofit research effort, the $200 a day you pay is almost universally regarded as a valid tax deduction. And if you're in a combined federal/state tax category amounting to nearly 50 percent, your costs of the expedition are cut in half.

Naturally, you'll want to consult your own tax adviser to determine whether your expenses are tax-deductible. Tens of thousands of Americans of all ages have now engaged in Earthwatch expeditions during the past 40 years.

It is the pre-eminent "volunteer vacation," a memorable, life-changing experience that is more fully described in a major catalog that I assume is available directly from Earthwatch, as is much additional information at or from 800-776-0188.