Cruising can be a perfect way to take a volunteer vacation because ships visit many ports where people urgently need help. A number of cruise itineraries are good choices for cruising on a mission, particularly those in the Western Caribbean and along Mexico's Pacific Coast. There are schools, orphanages and other organizations that could use your assistance in popular cruise ports such as:
∑ Acapulco, Mexico
∑ Belize City, Belize
∑ Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
∑ Cozumel, Mexico
∑ Ixtapa, Mexico
∑ Montego Bay, Jamaica
∑ Nassau, Bahamas
∑ Ocho Rios, Jamaica
∑ Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
∑ Roatan, Honduras, and many more.
One of the first steps in designing a cruise volunteer vacation is to determine your schedule and when and where you want to help. Itís quite easy to visit schools and orphanages in ports as part of your own independent shore excursions, either by getting your own driver or by working it into other plans. If you are taking a large group tour or ship shore excursion in a particular port, a community service visit there might be more difficult.
Choose your ports and organizations before your visit, contact the organization in advance to determine the best times to come by on the day you are in port, and then make arrangements for transportation ahead of time if possible. For cruise ship passengers, contacting organizations in advance is critical because of the limited time available on shore. Itís likely that with a little research, you will be able to find a school, orphanage or other organization that will fit into your schedule perfectly.
Many orphanages request advance contact if you would like to spend time with the children and only allow visits during certain hours based on the childrenís school schedules. Other orphanages are more flexible and encourage visitors to stay and play for as long as they would like. Contact the orphanage at least three weeks in advance to find out their policies, determine their current needs, and to mutually decide on a time that will work best for you and the orphanage staff.
In some locations, such as Jamaica and Guatemala, tour operators catering to cruise passengers offer the opportunity to visit a local school or orphanage as part of their shore excursions. Many passengers have brought school supplies and other in-kind donations with them on their trips. See the Family Travel Network story link below for more details.
As part of my research for this article, I have been in touch with many of the cruise lines about how cruise passengers can help others while on vacation. Cruise line staff members pointed out that customs is an important consideration when bringing along donations on your trip. Here are a few recommendations that have been supplied by the cruise lines:
∑ Make sure you can carry the items off the ship by yourself. A backpack or duffle bag generally works well.
∑ If you are planning to donate items, stop at the purserís office on the ship and let them know. The purserís office can then notify Customs in the port of call if that is needed. We have always found the purserís office to be very helpful.
∑ Customs in each port may be different. Some ports will just let donations go, others may charge duty.
The Tips for Traveling Abroad section of the U.S. State Department website is a good source of information on Customs laws and rules for Mexico and the nations in the Caribbean and Central America. Customs laws are different for each country and knowing some of the nuances might be helpful. For example, in Mexico, customs laws dictate that a maximum of five toys can be brought into the country at one time.
By special arrangement, cruise lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean have taken larger donations into ports, such as computers, large quantities of books, and other items. Notify the cruise line well in advance if you are bringing along large quantities or bulky items. In addition, many airlines provide extra baggage weight allowances for charitable donations. If you are interested, check with your airline to see if they need a letter from the organization to which you are donating in order to give you a luggage waiver. Most organizations will be happy to give you a letter if you let them know in advance.
If you're looking for specific ideas about places to visit and give back, take a look at the Together for Good website at www.togetherforgood.org.