Ask Trip Coach: Volunteer vacations

By Brad Tuttle
October 3, 2012

We're here to help you do good and have a good time—all at the same time.

Send us your questions on voluntourism, a.k.a. volunteer vacations, in which travelers spend their days working for the benefit of others. Why? Because while every trip has its rewards, helping others can be rewarding on an entirely different level.

Voluntourism opportunities are literally available all over the world, and volunteers might spend their time teaching, building, painting, or helping kids or animals. They can work in cities, villages, rural areas, or totally out in the woods. Some travelers want volunteer work to occupy their entire vacation, while others are more interested in a little altruism on the side, offering their services for a day or two during their stint away from home.

With so many possibilities, questions are bound to arise, such as:

What are the best resources for finding volunteer vacation opportunities?

How do you figure out which volunteer trip is right for you?

How much should you expect to pay? (Volunteer vacations are generally not free, and can sometimes be pricey.)

How can you make sure that your time and energy will have the most impact?

Please send us your questions regarding volunteer vacations and we'll answer the best ones in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel.

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TripAdvisor plays it a little too straight

Is it just me, or could TripAdvisor do more to court gay and lesbian travelers? The giant of user-generated hotel reviews doesn't let you filter reviews by sexual preference—to zero in on reviewers like yourself—the way it allows users to filter reviews by special categories like business, family, couples, friends getaways, and solo travel. The site also seems to shy away from officially acknowledging the presence of the LGBT community. It goes without saying that gays and lesbians travel for business, with families, and so forth—so many of TripAdvisor's filters have broad appeal. But LGBT travelers have unique concerns. When we're picking hotels, for instance, we often wonder whether the front-desk clerks are well trained and well mannered. If they aren't, they'll make a silly mistake when a same-sex couple asks for a single king bed: They'll act weird about it. And weirdness is exactly what I want TripAdvisor to help me avoid. I've also noticed that the U.S. division of TripAdvisor has never put out a press release or marketing campaign acknowledging gays and lesbians. A month ago, its U.K. branch produced its first list of the Top 10 Gay & Lesbian-Friendly Hotels in Europe, and I hope this anticipates a formal acknowledgement of the crowd here in the States, too. How about a simple Top 10 List of Gay-Friendly Hotels in America? All I wish is for the Internet's leading hotel review site to do as much to welcome LGBT travelers as nearly every airline, hotel chain, and major destination does. Online travel site Orbitz has a microsite for gay travelers, as does Travelocity. Major airlines have LGBT marketing, such as American Airlines' Nearly every major U.S. and European city seems to have a webpage or a brick-and-mortar kisok dispensing LGBT travel information, such as Seattle's and London's gay-tourism portals. In fact, the U.S. travel industry as a whole has a proven track record of being much better about courting the gay customer than other industries. To its credit, TripAdvisor allows its users to post info about LGBT travel on its site, particularly in its Gay Travel Forum. Users have posted travel guides ranging from the best LGBT-friendly lodging in New Hampshire to the most LGBT-friendly neighborhoods in Paris. For instance, guides on Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dublin, Ireland, have lots of helpful info. But allowing your users to ask each other trip-planning questions on your Travel Board is nothing special. What's more: While thousands have participated in TripAdvisor's forums, I bet most TripAdvisor users aren't even aware the forums exist. The site could do more to promote these forums. As of today, on the homepage for TripAdvisor's forums, the Gay Travel Forum isn't listed. (Though things like "Rugby World Cup 2010" are listed.) You have to click "see all" to find it. Some people might say, you can't measure "gay-friendliness," but there are proven proxies for estimating it. Reviews are one way. If TripAdvisor started collecting user-information on how gay-friendly a hotel is, it could build a powerful database. It could add a checkbox on the review form giving a reviewer a chance to mention their interest in LGBT friendly hotels. Another way to judge a hotel is by how it treats its staff because that affects how the staff treats the guests. Will the housekeepers give a same-sex couple second looks? They probably won't if the hotel makes a policy of not discriminating against LGBT staff. TripAdvisor could add a little tag to the listing for any hotel that has been TAG Approved, namely a hotel vetted by an independent organization for its employment policies, services, and support returned to the LGBT community (and not for pay-for-placement deals). At the end of the day, this is a missed business opportunity for TripAdvisor—gay travelers seem to travel more than the average American and should be a growth market for the site. Parent company Expedia was the first major travel site to offer specific content for the gay and lesbian travel market back in 2001, which leads me to think its TripAdvisor division is simply making an oversight. What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

This month: Daily travel deals

The U.S. Travel Association and American Express have teamed up with almost 50 travel destinations and brands to offer a month of daily travel deals, called Discover America Daily Getaways. Every weekday at 10 a.m. until June 4, a set of discounts—on everything from hotel stays and car rentals to attractions and travel packages—will go live at, offering up to 50 percent off the price of selected getaways from that day's travel partner. Among the companies represented are Marriott, Hertz, and Universal Studios. One great thing about the site is that it shows how many of each getaway is for sale and highlights exactly how much you're saving. For example, Friday's partner, Carlson, is offering one night at any Country Inns & Suites hotel in the U.S. for $50, a savings of $35 (517 are available), and one night at any U.S. Radisson hotel or resort for $80, cutting a third off the normal price of $120 (50 are available). Another perk: If you find a deal you like, just click "View Details" and it tells you exactly what you're getting and how long you have to use it (most deals are valid at least through the end of the year). You can set up an e-mail alert to remind you when a certain offer goes live, or sign up for daily e-mails to keep track of all the getaways. The Daily Getaways promotion also features an auction component that allows American Express cardholders to bid on once-in-a-lifetime packages to cities across the country (similar to what you'd get if you took one of Budget Travel's Dream Trips for 2010 domestically). Starting bids range from $300 for the two-night Grand Canyon Experience package to $5,500 for the four-night Celebrity Las Vegas, which includes tickets to four shows, a $2,500 shopping spree, and a celebrity makeover, among other perks. A new auction goes live each weekday at 10 a.m., with bids accepted until 10 p.m. MORE Real Deals: Every day, Budget Travel editors handpick the best vacation packages


San Francisco: 5 best May values

Bay to Breakers Marathon The annual Bay to Breakers 12K race* is a quintessential "only in San Francisco" experience. More mobile party than sporting event, the marathon draws more than 50,000 participants (some runners, mostly walkers) who start at the Embarcadero and head through Golden Gate Park out to the beach. Costumes are a must and range from Elvis impersonators to superheroes to Star Wars storm troopers—and some people wear nothing at all (don't say we didn't warn you!) Last year more than 100,000 people showed up to watch the show. While corporate sponsor ING has more recently tried to put an end to the public drinking—no more kegs on wheels—revelry is guaranteed. Top places to watch include Alamo Square, the front of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, and the Finish Line on the Great Highway on the beach. May 16, 8 a.m.-11 a.m, *Whoops, we originally said "marathon." Yerba Buena Outdoor Concert Series The free weekend outdoor concerts at Yerba Buena Garden's grassy lawn in downtown kick off this month. The series showcases an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, and world music, plus traditional and modern dance performances from cultures around the world. This month includes shows by renowned Arabic musician Bassam Saba (May 22, 1-2:30 pm) and a Taiwanese dance performance (May 9, 1-2:30 pm.) Come June, Yerba Buena offers lunchtime (12:30-1:30 p.m.) concerts as well, drawing gaggles of office workers looking for an outdoor mid-day break. Mission, Folsom, 3rd and 4th streets. Capsule SF Design Festival This street fair of independent designers in Hayes Valley features clothing, house wares, jewelry, kids clothes, and more by 130 local designers, many of which you might know from Check out these gold arrow necklaces by Oakland artist Nous Savon, vintage-inspired house wares by India Rose, and clocks made from recycled bicycle parts. This is definitely not your mother's arts and crafts fair. Hayes Street and Octavia, Sunday May 23rd, 11 a.m.–6 p.m., free. A New Taco Truck Wake up your taste buds with Curry Up Now's new food truck featuring a rotating menu of Indian street food with a California-Mexican twist (up for a chicken tikka masala burrito, anyone?). You can find the truck during lunchtime rounds in the Financial District. For current locations, follow Curry Up Now on Twitter. From $4.25. Half-priced Tickets to Wicked During the month of May, you can get half-priced tickets to Wicked, the Tony and Grammy award-winning Broadway musical. The show ends September 5, 2010, so act fast. Purchase through,, and Ticketmaster Charge-By-Phone and use the promo code 4WEST. You can also get tickets in person at the Orpheum Theater Box Office 1192 Market Street, 415/ 551-2000, tickets start at $44.

Travelers paid $7.8 billion in airline fees in 2009

You knew the figure was going to be big. But $7.8 billion!?! The Associated Press reports that overall, the $7.8 billion charged in "ancillary fees," which includes charges for checked baggage, seat assignments, food, pillows, reservation changes, and anything else travelers pay over and above the standard flight price, represents a whopping 42 percent increase from the previous year. The fairly obvious takeaway is that the act of nickel-and-diming travelers is increasingly a core part of the airline business model. Some airlines use fees more than others, as shown in a Bureau of Transportation Statistics report, which forms the basis of the AP story. Delta reaped in the most ancillary fees last year, to the tune of $1.6 billion, including $481 million from baggage fees. But for insight as to which airlines utilize fees the most in proportion to their overall revenues, check out BTS's Table 1B. There, you'll see that ancillary fees account for about 21 percent of Spirit Airlines' total operation revenues. That's 10 percentage points higher than the number two carrier on this list, AirTran. And this was well before Spirit announced it would begin charging for carry-on bags. Delta's fees, by contrast, represent 9.1 percent of total operating revenues. And Southwest and JetBlue -- both once routinely described as "no-frills" carriers because they offered few amenities, but which both allow passengers to check at least one bag free of charge -- collect roughly 6 percent of their operating revenues from fees.