Whether it's a sponsored cycle in Jordan or bringing water to a Costa Rican village, there are helping holidays for every taste. And some are even on the beach... Anthony Lambert reports

HOW CAN I HELP?

You could "fly-and-flop" for a fortnight on a beach - or you could spend your precious holiday making some small contribution towards a better world. Travel can do more than broaden the mind: journeys with a purpose can give a great sense of achievement. Often, these trips appeal to people who have come to a turning point in their lives.

There are dozens of possibilities for volunteers of all ages to contribute something through their time and physical effort to a project, whether dry-stone walling in Yorkshire or providing clean drinking water to a village in Costa Rica. Or you could take a "charity challenge", getting sponsored for a cycle ride through Cuba or Jordan, or a trek to Machu Picchu or the summit of Kilimanjaro.

SO I CAN GET OTHER PEOPLE TO PAY FOR MY HOLIDAY?

In a sense - but those who spend months raising cash for a charity challenge would insist they work very hard. Holidays have become significant fundraisers for charities, either through sponsored walks and bike rides or adventure holidays where a proportion of the fee goes to a good cause. Usually, the trip is organised by a specialist tour operator. The charity pays a fixed fee per person - typically £1,000 to £1,500 - which covers flights, transfers, accommodation and food. Most charities expect to make a "profit" of at least 50 per cent, by setting a "minimum sponsorship" figure of perhaps £2,000 or £3,000. The hope, of course, is that participants will raise much more than that.

ARE ALL THESE ETHICALLY SOUND?

The five principal charity challenge companies are profit-making concerns. They do help charities raise large sums, but the pressure group Tourism Concern questions whether some replicate the worst aspects of the package holiday, providing minimal benefits for local people. Prospective participants may want to make sure that their chosen holiday contributes to host communities, either by some or all of the money raised going to them or through volunteer work.

An example of the transparency to which all might aspire is the safari to Tanzania organised by African Initiatives (0117 915 0001; www.african-initiatives.org.uk). Of the £2,200 cost of two weeks in Tanzania, staying in a Masai community and walking with Hadza hunter-gatherers, £800 goes on flights and £200 goes to the village communities in addition to the £1,200 spent on guides, camps, park fees and transport, which are all provided by local communities or Tanzanian-owned companies. An emphasis is put on cultural exchange, so that participants leave with an understanding of the complex issues surrounding the survival of the Masai's pastoralist way of life.

WHAT ELSE IS ON OFFER?

To narrow the field, it's helpful to decide on a cause or an activity. Three days' walking in the High Atlas of Morocco on behalf of the Royal Institute for the Blind (0845 345 0054; www.rnib.org.uk) requires minimum sponsorship of £1,500; and a 10-day holiday in Rajasthan with five days' cycling calls for £2,500. Or how about a walk along part of the Great Wall of China? An 11-day trip costing at least £2,650 is being organised for Great Ormond Street Hospital (020-7916 5678; www.gosh.org). There is no national listing of charity expeditions, but www.travel-quest.co.uk/charity-expeditions.htm provides a good introduction.

If you would like to reduce the impact of your flight on the environment, you can purchase "offsets" from an organisation such as Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). You can calculate the carbon-dioxide emissions caused by your trip, and contribute a sum to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects - typically £10 for a long-haul flight.

HOW ELSE CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

By choosing a holiday where you volunteer your labour and abilities for the benefit of a community, scientific advances or the environment. Specialist skills lacking in the host country - such as education or medicine - are in demand for some longer placements, but most require nothing more than enthusiasm, a capacity for hard work and a reasonable level of fitness.

There is some evidence that fewer students are choosing to take a gap year. As a result, charities and organisations are looking to cater for an older group seeking shorter assignments. For example, Greenforce (020-7470 8888; www.greenforce.org) specialises in expeditions of at least a month; it also operates shorter trips working with the Masai in Tanzania and with Quechua Indians on reforestation projects in Ecuador, starting at £900. There is also a five-week visit to Nepal and Tibet to work with children in the Rural Communities Development Programme; this year's departs on 2 July, at a cost of around £1,700. For other options consult the organisations in the Year Out Group (01380 816696; www.yearoutgroup.org).

Choosing between the offers is not easy, as there are so many of them and there is no overall body that vets quality. Nor is size a reliable guide: many smaller charities do admirable work. You need to decide in what field you wish to volunteer - helping people or the myriad opportunities for conservation work - and in which part of the world.

Most shorter working holidays involve practical tasks, because people-focused charities generally expect a longer commitment. If individual relations with people in the host country are the focus of the work - acting as a mentor to children, for example, as opposed to building work on a school - clearly a long stay is preferable.

Because demand for places has increased so much, there can be competition for them, particularly on longer assignments or those where costs are subsidised by the host organisation. Even on week-long placements, they want to know that you are suitable for the assignment, that you will be able to live and work in a team, and that you will not pack your rucksack at the first sight of a large, unfamiliar insect near your bed.

Opportunities for people with handicaps are limited, but recently a blind water technician from Britain created a new well in Ghana. International Voluntary Service (01206 298215; www.ivs-gb.org.uk) welcomes applicants with disabilities.

WHAT'S INCLUDED IN THE PRICE?

Almost invariably, board and lodging, transfers from the nearest railway station or airport and the presence of a trained leader. Flights to the country are not included. Most holidays require at least a willingness to share washing facilities and sleeping accommodation, and some require you to bring a tent. Food is usually sourced locally and fresh, and some try to provide organic produce. Cooking and cleaning duties are shared.

You will need no specialist equipment beyond clothes and footwear suitable for the nature of the work. However, legal considerations can prevent organisations providing such things as sun cream, antihistamines or painkillers, so you need to take a precautionary kit.

CAN I VOLUNTEER IN BRITAIN?

Yes. The principal provider of working holidays is the National Trust (0870 429 2429; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/volunteering), which offers almost 450 holidays in lovely surroundings, usually staying at Trust base camps with bunk beds in dormitories. They are divided into age groups (such as 16-18 year olds, 21-40 and over 40s) and have such themes as gardening, construction, helping at events and even combining work with such outdoor pursuits as sailing, canoeing and pony trekking. For those who want comfort after a hard day's work and a meal prepared for them, the Trust offers "premium holidays" at the well-appointed Victorian Craflwyn Hall in Snowdonia.

For something different in Wales, Kids' Week on the Ffestiniog Mountain Railway has become a remarkably successful way of introducing youngsters to volunteering on heritage railways, with or without their parents (01766 770860; www.ffestiniogvolunteer.org.uk). During a week in August, they work on concreting, painting wagons and installing new lighting in the locomotive works, with activities each night, including a beach party and a barbecue. The cost, covering accommodation in a hostel with "house parents" and all food, is £65.

To get back to the land, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, 01273 476286; www.wwoof.org) puts people in touch with more than 300 organic farmers in the UK and across the world who offer accommodation and food in exchange for work on the farm, which might entail sowing, fencing, milking, packing or weeding.

WHAT ABOUT CONSERVATION WORK?

A good starting point is the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (01302 572244; www.btcv.org/shop), which sends 140,000 people a year to 350 destinations in more than 25 countries as well as many projects in Britain. These include weekend breaks, which is a good way to put your toe in the water: dry-stone walling in Swaledale costs £60, and you might be glad of the superior accommodation to return to after two days clearing out a Norman moat in Warwickshire (£90). Fortnight-long BTCV holidays range from working on wetland protection schemes beside the Ammersee in Bavaria (£385) and tree-planting in New Zealand (£650) to helping with giant panda conservation research among the Qinling mountains of China (£750).

The chance to learn techniques involved in restoring a 16th-century farmhouse and its surroundings in the mountainous Cevennes National Park in France is offered by Chemin Nature (00 33 4 66 41 03 88; causses-cevennes/chantier-nature). You can learn the art of cutting and placing slate roof tiles, building stone walls and creating nature trails. The cost is €15 (£11) a day, including transfers to and from the nearest railway station.

The umbrella organisation in France, Rempart (00 33 1 42 71 96 55; www.rempart.com), co-ordinates more than 200 volunteer work initiatives known as chantiers. A quarter of the 3,000 volunteers who participate each year are from outside France, and English is usually spoken by the leaders, though a knowledge of French is obviously helpful. Board and lodging is €5-€8 (£3.50-£6) a day.

CAN I COMBINE AN ADVENTUROUS HOLIDAY WITH VOLUNTARY WORK?

The Imaginative Traveller has launched a new nine-country programme combining volunteer work with an adventure holiday, called Imaginative Volunteers (0800 316 2717; www.imaginative-traveller.com). An 18-day trip combining house-building in Mongolia with a camping trip on the Ongi River and Great White Lake, and a visit to the ancient capital of Kharkhorin costs £425. Or you could spend 21 days in Peru, helping families of Inca Trail porters improve their village facilities, followed by a trek along the trail and a visit to Lake Titicaca; this costs £1,020, including internal flights from Lima.

The interest expressed by Saga's customers who visited projects funded by the company's charitable trust in Peru, Sri Lanka and South Africa has prompted the company to set up active holidays, ranging from one week to three months. Saga (0800 015 6981; www.saga.co.uk/volunteer) provides the same accommodation for its South African volunteers as for its conventional holidays.

If you want to combine the comfort of high-quality accommodation with an opportunity to work on local humanitarian, social or environmental projects, Different Travel (0780 313 3609; www.different-travel.com) offers projects ranging from building houses to clearing the seabed in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Hands-up Holidays (0800 783 3554; www.handsupholidays.com) has a similar approach, usually placing a week's work in the middle of a two-week holiday in such diverse destinations as Fiji, Guatemala and Tibet.

THE RAINFOREST IS MORE MY HABITAT

The specialist in rainforest work, helping people in South-east Asia and Latin America to develop alternative sources of income, is Trekforce Expeditions (01444 474123; www.trekforce.org.uk). The organisation works only in the rainforest, and its expertise has been used in projects with the Royal Society and Natural History Museum. Prices for a four-week programme start at £1,600.

CAN I HELP OUT AFLOAT?

Marine conservation is big business, and many organisations offer coastal projects involving turtles, fish and seabirds. A specialist is Blue Ventures (020-8341 9819; www.blueventures.co.uk) which has won awards for responsible travel and focuses on conservation of coral reefs in Madagascar.

One of the most challenging is supporting field scientists on a floating boathouse and laboratory on the Solimoes River among the Amazon rainforest, studying pink river dolphins. Offered by Global Vision (0870 608 8898; www.gvi.co.uk), it costs £1,195 including transfers from Tefe airport.

You can experience life under canvas while looking after a less able-bodied shipmate aboard the two tall ships operated by the Jubilee Sailing Trust (0870 443 5783; www.jst.org.uk). There are no passengers aboard and everyone takes part in crewing the ships to the limit of their abilities. The Tenacious sails in British coastal waters while the Lord Nelson ventures as far as Genoa and Antwerp. Costs start at £499 for a five-day trip from a UK port, and nearly all voyages are less than two weeks. A historic Norwegian wooden fishing vessel is home for 12-day dolphin-monitoring expeditions from Almeria on the south coast of Spain, offered by Earthwatch (01865 318831; www.earthwatch.org) from £995.

THAT SOUNDS SCIENTIFIC

Yes, the Earthwatch Institute is the largest provider of field assistants to scientific teams. It offers 137 different projects worldwide that address such issues as conflict between humans and wildlife, endangered species and habitats, climate change and resource management. In Britain you can study mammals in an Oxfordshire wood (six days, £315), join a grey seal survey in Cornwall (eight days, £495) or collect data on minke whales and bottlenose dolphins off the Aberdeenshire coast (12 days, £695). Further afield, you can help make recordings of Russian folk music as part of the work assisting an ethnomusicologist in the field (12 days, £1,050) or monitor crocodiles at night in the wetland habitat of Monte Cabaniguan in eastern Cuba (14 days, £1,525).

CAN I ORGANISE A TRIP MYSELF?

Scientific expeditions are not easy to arrange, but many other options are open for "casual" volunteering as part of backpacking trips. For example, in Peru and Ecuador the South American Explorer's Club ( www.saexplorers.org) has lots of volunteering projects coordinated from its offices in Lima, Cusco or Quito. You can help inner-city children or work on farms - in return for paying your board and lodging.

For more structured planning, the Expedition Advisory Service at the Royal Geographical Society (020-7591 3030; www.rgs.org/eac) has unrivalled experience to draw upon for those wanting to make their own arrangements.

WHAT ABOUT LONGER PLACEMENTS?

One advantage is that the longer the stay, the cheaper the cost per day or week. Gap Year for Grown Ups (01892 701881; www.gapyearforgrownups.co.uk) offers placements of four weeks and upwards. The organisation's most popular project is volunteering at a Kenyan orphanage, followed by voluntary work in India.

IS THERE AN AGE LIMIT?

There is usually a lower age limit for overseas trips of 18; on those that accept younger people, parental consent is often needed. Some stipulate an upper limit, largely because of insurance reasons; 81 is the limit for BTCV holidays, for example, unless a medical questionnaire can be satisfactorily completed. Others set no limit providing you are able to obtain travel insurance.

Families with children aged 11 or over are welcomed on several Earthwatch expeditions (01865 318831; www.earthwatch.org), investigating an ancient civilisation on the Mississippi, the coastal ecology of the Bahamas and a mammoth graveyard in South Dakota (13 years up). Contributions range from £1,250 to £1,500.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The booklet Year Out (01380 816696; www.yearoutgroup.org) has a comprehensive list of questions that can be asked of any volunteer holiday. For charity challenges, Blood Sweat & Charity by Nick Stanhope (Eye Books, £12.99) distils the experience of hundreds of experts and participants. The advertising pages of Wanderlust and Geographical magazines contain many useful ideas.

The only national database of volunteering opportunities at home and abroad is operated by YouthNet (020-7226 8008; www.do-it.org.uk), and InterVol (0845 601 4008; www.intervol.org.uk) matches skills and preferences with countries and opportunities. Although the website www.gap-year.com is aimed at longer placements, it lists many organisations offering short projects.

Additional research by Jenny Minard

Comments