The Best of Affordable Eco-Vacations

The iconic coming-of-age vacation for young Americans of the twentieth century involved a few friends, a gas-guzzling car on the open road, the throwing of caution to the proverbial wind, and the occasional insult to local culture. Today, many young adults are increasingly aware that all of our actions have ripple effects on the environment, our communities and the economy. We think carefully about what we take in, from consumer goods to energy, and we also watch what we mete out.

But what about the way we travel? Because young adults generally have fewer commitments and responsibilities, we're an especially mobile demographic group. But traditional tourism, with its exotification and exploitation of the foreign, its strain on delicate ecosystems, and its tendency to exacerbate wealth and power disparities, requires a suspension of social consciousness that more and more people are unwilling to make.

In recent years, eco-tourism became the hot guilt-free alternative, growing rapidly as an industry by offering tourists a chance to see wildlife and habitats up close while minimizing the environmental impact. Predictably, it wasn't long before preeminent wildlife protection groups declared that all this eco-touring was having an adverse impact on some ecosystems after all - partly due to irresponsibility on the part of some for-profit ventures, and partly because of the sheer volume of travelers in popular areas - and the enthusiastic champions of eco-tourism went back to the drawing board to standardize certification requirements for green travel outfits. It turns out even eco-tourism can be unsustainable when practiced recklessly.

Ethical challenges aside, however, the tourism industry is still one of the largest in the world, providing jobs for an estimated 200 million people. Traveling is also a powerful force for education, cultural exchange, grassroots network building, and personal growth. Acknowledging tourism's potential benefits, a number of progressive organizations have made it their mission to promote the kind of travel that enriches local economies, builds human connections across distances, and preserves and protects the environment.

DIY

If you're concerned about how your travels will affect the environment and local economies, there's no better way to control the impacts of your trip than planning the trip personally. Search a directory of global destinations at Planeta.com, or, if you already know where you want to go, find a hotel that meets the standards of the Green Hotels Association.

If you're traveling by plane, car or bus and you're not completely broke by the time you get home, be responsible and offset your travel emissions. By making a donation to renewable energy initiatives, you can counterbalance some of the effects of greenhouse gases that were released during your trip. Web sites like American Forests and Climate Care have "calculators" that will determine your atmospheric footprint and how you can offset it.

Jump on the bandwagon

Pre-organized trips might be more attractive if you don't have lots of time to plan, or if you're not comfortable relying on your own limited knowledge of a region to plan the trip alone. Protective parents and partners might also be satiated if they believe that their loved ones are in the hands of competent professionals. Some package-deal groups recognize this and play up their safety precautions on their web sites.

Organized trips can also offer access to places and people that globetrotting individuals might have a harder time finding on their own. Global Exchange Reality Tours are designed to provide participants with "experiential education" in 35 countries, including a cross-country bicycle tour in the U.S. and tours in California and the U.S.-Mexico border. The trips range from $850 to $3000, so they may not be optimal impulse spring-break purchases. To sweeten the deal, Global Exchange will help college students obtain course credit for their travels, which involve meetings with landless workers' movements in Bolivia, Sinn Fein and Unionist/Loyalist party members in Ireland, social justice groups in South Africa, and more.

One viable strategy for more ambitious travelers is fundraising before you get on the road. The global volunteer-vacation group i-to-i claims that almost two-thirds of all their trip participants do some sort of fundraising, from hosting an event to pitching local businesses. I-to-i even offers free fundraising advice to visitors on its web site. Here's the catch -- you have to first register for a trip and pay a hefty chunk of the total price tag, and only then will i-to-i supply you with the letter of support that will validate your fundraising efforts. If you don't actually have the money to pay for the whole trip, it's a little risky to register for a trip and then pray that fundraising will cover your costs.

There are dozens of similar organizations that run eco-minded package trips, all for a range of prices and with a variety of projects and destinations. Since most of these groups have a strong web presence, researching them is easy. Some examples -- Ecovolunteer, Coral Cay Conservation Expeditions, and Altruistic Adventures.

When you can't buy … barter

If most vacation packages seem hopelessly out of your price range, despair not; it's possible to travel on a shoestring if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty. While you may not be able to offer much in the way of money, you might be interested in trading, say, a few hours of work each day in exchange for your accommodations. The truth is, for every pricey, luxurious eco-trip out there, there is an equally exciting service vacation that is far more affordable.

To some, these options may sound less like vacations and more like the kind of thing you take a vacation to escape from. But they are a sustainable, affordable way to enjoy some time in unsullied parks and wilderness, and their adherents swear by the gratifying and therapeutic nature of the work itself.

Sierra Club's Outings program organizes a slew of trips each year, from the affordable activist and volunteer trips around the U.S., which start around $400, all the way up to $5,000-plus safaris in Botswana and naturalist boat tours of Antarctica. Young adults between 18 and 25 who want to go on national service trips may be eligible for assistance from the Sierra Club's Sharon Churchwell Fund, which was established to help young people afford the costs of volunteer outings. Similarly, Sierra Club's Morley Fund sponsor's outings for teachers and educators who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

Perhaps the best deal of the lot, World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network of organic farms around the world that welcome travelers in exchange for help on the farm. In the U.S., WWOOF-USA issues a quarterly directory of participating farms in every corner of the country. WWOOFs in other countries serve the same function -- to link interested travelers with interested farms, and let the parties do all the arranging. The costs? A registration fee between $20 and $50 U.S. and the cost of transportation to the farm. I recently watched several of my closest friends flit off to harvest organic grapes in Italian wine country for several weeks on end, and all of them returned declaring themselves "WWOOFers for life."

The American Hiking Society's volunteer vacation program is a close second in terms of affordability; its week-long trips run $130 a pop. It's entirely up to you to decide how strenuous you want your trip to be, as well as whether you want to keep travel costs low and pick a site near you, or throw down for the transportation to a site in Puerto Rico or Hawaii. What isn't negotiable is the labor you'll have to put in to earn your spot at the campfire: a few hours each morning restoring trails, plus your fair share of campsite chores.

For more information on planning a sustainable vacation, see New American Dream and Responsible Travel.

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