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How to have a meaningful vacation

Want to volunteer your services, or have an educational trip? Check out these suggestions from TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.

Like to travel but want a more meaningful experience?

You’re not alone. In their "Voice of the Traveler" survey, the Travel Industry Association and market-research firm Synovate report that volunteer vacations and educational travel are on the upswing.

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg offers his tips on some of the best examples of meaningful travel:

Airlines mileage plan donations
Many airlines allow travelers to donate their mileage plan points to charitable causes.

For example, Northwest Airlines’ KidCares program, provides travel to children 18 and under who are unable to receive the needed medical treatment in their home area.  (Travel is granted for the child and one adult.)  For many families in this situation, the cost of air transportation can be overwhelming, especially when health insurance does not cover travel. The KidCares program accepts mileage donations only, no monetary donations.  Mileage donations to KidCares are made by Northwest WorldPerks members and are matched by Northwest. During its eight-year existence, the program has provided travel for over 1,000 children who have needed medical care outside of their home area.

For more information on the AirCares program, visit under the tab called "About Northwest.” Also, miles can be donated by calling 800.328.2881.

At American Airlines you can donate miles to charities such as Miles for Kids in Need and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. You can even earn miles by donating to UNICEF or the National Parks. Visit for more information.

Other airlines that donate miles to Make-a-Wish Foundation include: America West Airlines,  British Airways, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.

Cash donations
Since 1994, American Airlines has raised more than $2 million in unused currency and donations from its passengers to support UNICEF programs worldwide. American and its partner airlines have accounted for more than $25 million for UNICEF in the past five years. So the next time you are flying internationally look for the envelopes to turn your unwanted change into food and more for those in need. Speak to your flight attendant about making a donation prior to landing. There will also be donation boxes at many Admiral Club locations worldwide.

Many hotels offer guests a feel-good experience that goes above and beyond room service and other first-class amenities:

The Somerset on Grace Bay – Turks & Caicos: This luxury beachside resort hotel in Turks & Caicos in the Caribbean works closely with Potcake Place, the local rescue and adoption agency for T&C's abandoned dogs. Known locally as "potcakes,” these abandoned dogs are increasingly prevalent on the islands and are typically docile, adorable and helpless.  For guests who are interested, The Somerset can arrange a private playtime with Potcake Place's newest foundlings. Potcake Place even handles all customs paperwork so U.S. guests can adopt their new puppy and fly them back home without complications.

Hotel Provincial – New Orleans: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the owner of the French Quarter's quaint Hotel Provincial spent days driving from shelter to shelter in search of his 45 employees. Now that he's found them all, Bryan Dupepe Jr. wants people to know the city is still alive and kicking — but does need big-hearted volunteers to help with the rebuilding process.  In response to the outpouring of goodwill, Hotel Provincial offers a special rate — $79 per night — for tourists who come to the city to volunteer.  Guests can get their hands dirty helping out by day, and take in the sights and sounds of the hopping French Quarter and Bourbon Street by night, all without breaking their budget.

Hotel Monteleone – New Orleans: The historic Hotel Monteleone has a Volunteer Tourism package that connects groups and individuals with service projects such as replanting City Park, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, restoring libraries, painting in schools, and other good works. Other New Orleans hotels are also involved in charity travel.

Omni Hotels - California: Omni Hotels of California (Omni San Diego Hotel, Omni Los Angeles Hotel, and Omni San Francisco Hotel) has a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The hotel group offers a package  called "Groups for Giving" that allows groups holding conventions/meetings at their hotels to spend one day during their trip with Habitat for Humanity building a home for those in need. This is possible in San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco; the package includes box lunches, bottled water and hardhats with Habitat for Humanity logos on them that volunteers can keep.

Doral Golf Resort & Spa & Marco Island Marriott – South Florida: At Marriott’s Doral Golf Resort & Spa in South Florida, visitors are invited to take part in a morning beach cleanup at the Biscayne Nature Center.  At Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa, "volun-tours" can lend a hand at the local YMCA of Marco Island with landscaping or beautification efforts.  As a thank you, Doral Golf Resort & Spa will provide "volun-tours" with complimentary breakfast, while Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa will provide charitable vacationers a 15 percent discount at the spa to soothe sore muscles.

Donating hotel points
Like airlines, many hotels allow you to donate unused award points to Make-A-Wish.  Here are some of the participants:

Best Western International Hotels Gold Crown Club International Call: (800) 780-7234.

Hyatt Gold Passport Call: (800) 51-HYATT (800-514-9288).

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Call: (888) 625-4988 Click on the Starpoint Awards tab.

Volunteer vacations
Airline Ambassadors International is a group founded by an American Airlines flight attendant and staffed by volunteer airline flight attendants, pilots and regular travelers. The group has delivered more than $18 million in aid to orphanages around the world ( Airline Ambassadors runs about six to eight special missions each month, and participants pay their basic costs. But it's the value here that really counts — what you give, and give back, to people who really need the help. 

Here are some examples of recent trips.

  • Argentina — The team delivers much needed food to disadvantaged children and their  extended families in Buenos Aires and holiday gifts to children in remote villages of Patagonia.
  • Bolivia — A team travels to Bolivia to deliver aid to school children, a shelter for the elderly, and the Center for the Blind and hearing impaired.
  • Botswana — A team travels to help out orphans at the Dula Sentle.  TODAY's own Ann Curry is very involved with the orphanage.

The volunteer travel organization i-to-i sends thousands of people each year to important projects around the world. Currently, they offer 500 volunteer projects in 23 countries. Volunteers work on community development, conservation, teaching, building, media, health care and sports-coaching projects.  More at

These can involve:

  • Caring for those affected by the AIDS pandemic in South Africa
  • Working with sea turtles in Costa Rica
  • Building homes for underprivileged families in Honduras
  • Preserving the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador
  • Teaching English in India
  • Coaching soccer in Brazil
  • Clearing 25 miles of beach after the Asian tsunami

Global Volunteers
As its name suggests, this organization recruits, trains and puts volunteers to work, and has been doing so since 1984. Volunteers pay upwards of $2,000 for longer programs, but discounts are available for those who head over with a friend or are students. The variety of programs around the world means there's likely to be a program that appeals to your particular interests or skills. More at

Here are examples of recent programs:

  • Brazil — Befriend and teach children of poverty in Salvador, a coastal city in Bahia state.
  • Costa Rica — Lend a hand on construction and landscaping projects in villages in the renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest region.
  • India — Care for at-risk children in the Chennai area. Volunteers work at a children’s home and several schools.
  • Romania — Give your heart and hugs to vulnerable babies and toddlers at a "failure to thrive" clinic in rural eastern Romania.
  • Tanzania — Lend a helping hand on labor projects in rural communities in the Iringa district of south central Tanzania, from building wells to teaching in local schools.

Earthwatch Institute
Lions of Tsavo (Kenya) and Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon are just two examples of the many trips that the Earthwatch Institute offers. Working with locals in Kenya, volunteers aim to protect the mighty maneless lions. This includes field research tracking the animals, but also helping set up a long-term solution: allowing locals and animals to live together in peace and prosperity. In Peru, volunteers journey deep into the Amazon by foot, riverboat and plane, toward the remote salt licks and centuries-old trees where macaws make their homes. The volunteers help scientists not only understand the birds, but understand the growing impact of tourism in the region. These trips, like others, typically take about two weeks. They are an interesting, unusual way to experience the African savannah or Amazonian rainforest, and also offer learning experiences and a chance to give back and help protect the Earth. More at