You can enjoy an unusual style of foreign travel inexpensively -- or at least get a hefty tax break -- if you're willing to volunteer your time, your home or your knowledge.
With the lowered value of the dollar, many would-be international travelers are looking for ways to stretch their budgets. Discount hotels and cheap restaurants are typical places to save, but you can save big bucks and enjoy a really different vacation experience through a cultural organization -- or even the federal government.
There are hundreds of organizations, many accessible online, that provide valuable travel services, but it's important to do your homework before you sign up, says Kam Santos, the director of communications at Cross-Cultural Solutions.
"There are a number of questions to consider when you're choosing (an organization)," Santos says. Make sure you know about an organization's credentials and how fees are allocated, for example. Try to get references to see how other participants view the program.
For programs that include staying in other people's homes -- with or without hosts -- safety and trust are important.
"You want to find out if the accommodations are comfortable and secure," Santos says. "Who will you be living with?"
Some organizations do in-person interviews to vet all prospective hosts and travelers. Others require you to do your own checking but provide tools that allow you to talk with the hosts and with others who have stayed with particular hosts or in particular homes.
If you're content with high prices, tour buses and impersonal accommodations, these trips might not be for you. But if you're looking for something new and are willing to give a little, you're likely to get back a lot, Santos says.
Here are five ways you can experience unusual travel in a foreign land while minimizing your costs.
AgritourismSample organization: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, known as WWOOF.
Where: more than 80 countries.
How it works: You provide the brawn; it provides the benefits. WWOOFers agree to help their hosts with farming duties for an agreed-upon number of hours (usually about four) each day, and hosts provide meals and sleeping quarters.
Responsibilities may include typical farming activities such as weeding and harvesting; they also may involve minor construction work or other tasks. Operations range from small hobby farms to commercial operations.
Benefits: You'll likely see a part of the country few tourists visit and learn a lot about organic growing. Because WWOOFers often stay with families, they can get an inside perspective on an area and tips about the places locals love to visit when they've got free time.
If you come at harvest time, you can expect to enjoy some fantastic meals.
Drawbacks: Though there's a huge range among the farms, don't go into your stay expecting four-star accommodations. Some farms may require you to stay in a tent.
"If you're not comfortable at a youth hostel, you might not like this," says WWOOFer Margit Johnson, a retired college administrator. "It's pretty close to the earth."
Costs: You pay for access to the list of WWOOF hosts in a given country; costs range from about $15 to $70. Once you've found a farm that fits your needs, there's no money exchanged between hosts and guests.
Other notes: No farming experience is required to WWOOF, though an interest helps. In general, the WWOOFing crowd tends to be 20-somethings eager to explore the world.
Also check: Agritourism World offers updated listings of farms around the world that are open to the public. The farms offer everything from you-pick apple farms to dude ranch vacations. For the most part, expect to pay for the privilege of working.