Cruise vacations are perfectly suited for giving back to others because you have the opportunity to visit so many destinations. There are many schools, orphanages and other organizations that could use your help in popular cruise ports such as:
Belize City, Belize
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Roatan, Honduras, and many more.
See the country links on the side of this page for more details.
One of the first steps in giving back to others on a cruise vacation is to determine your schedule and decide when and where you want to help. We have found it to be quite easy to visit schools and orphanages in ports where we’ve planned our own independent shore excursions, either by getting our own driver or just working it into our other plans if we’re making a short stop. If you are taking a large group tour or ship shore excursion in a particular port, doing a community service visit there might be more difficult.
After doing this a number of times on cruise vacations, our suggestion would be to 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 more important because of the limited time available on shore. It's difficult to do this with school visits, but sometimes drivers and tour operators can provide information or help you get in touch. It’s highly likely, however, 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 children’s school schedules. Other orphanages are much more flexible and encourage visitors to stay and play for as long as they would like. Contact the orphanage at least two 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. They have told us that the response has been heartwarming and that many passengers have brought school supplies and other in-kind donations with them on their trips. See the country profile links on the right for more details.
As part of our research for this article, we have been in touch with many of the cruise lines about how families can help others while on a cruise vacation. Cruise line staff members alerted us that customs is an important consideration when bringing along donations on your trip. We have usually brought along a large backpack of items for each organization that we’ve visited on cruises, and that has always worked out well. We have never had a problem. 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 purser’s office on the ship and let them know. The purser’s office can then notify Customs in the port of call if that is needed. We have always found the purser’s 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 (www.travel.state.gov) 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.
Have a great time and enjoy the opportunity to travel with a purpose. Some of our most rewarding trips have been aboard cruise ships, because we have been able to visit many different schools and orphanages all in one trip. Each place that you go will be different, but they all have children waiting for your attention and help.