Traveling doesn't have to be only fun -- it can also do good. We're not talking about supporting communities through eco-tourism, or providing a hand on organic farms through the WWOOF (www.wwoof.org) program. You don't have to get that rustic. You can stay at a comfortable apartment or budget hotel in North America or Europe and still know your travel dollars are helping others.
Untours (tel. 888/868-6871; www.untours.com) is a travel agency providing independent journeys with safety nets. They rent out fully-furnished apartments in Europe, provide airfare (if you want), and have an English-speaking staff person meet you at the airport to take you to your rental and answer any questions you may have. You'll also usually get an orientation session about your destination and a chance to meet the other tourists staying at Untours apartments in the area.
Most importantly, the money you pay to Untours doesn't go to the owner's vacation home or to stockholders' return on investment. It goes to the Idyll Development Foundation, a nonprofit offering microcredit loans to socially responsible businesses around the world. Idyll's loans are extremely low interest, usually at the US inflation rate, and they go to organizations that don't have the collateral necessary to find funding through other means.
Untours founders Hal and Norma Taussig live on Social Security income and Norma's pension, sinking their after-tax profits into the foundation. According to Untours spokeswoman Elizabeth Killough, the Taussigs are devout (but not evangelical) Christians who asked themselves, "what would Jesus do?" and realized, Jesus would give his money to the less fortunate. The Taussigs' generosity has even gotten them into trouble with the IRS, which once fined them because the agency didn't believe Hal Taussig didn't draw a salary; he now collects a small paycheck, which he signs over to the foundation every two weeks.
Hal Taussig checks out loan recipients personally, Killough said. Grants go towards training welfare recipients to become home health care workers in Philadelphia, towards providing non-rapacious banking services to the poor in Haiti, and towards no-interest loans used by minority-owned construction firms to rehab abandoned apartment buildings in Chicago. About 75% of Idyll's loan recipients are in the US, and loans often turn into grants if the recipients can't pay them back.
Untours are reasonably priced, as well. Apartments in Leiden, Holland, a canal-laden university city near Amsterdam, run from $899-$1,459/person for two, depending on the time of year. That translates to $128-$208/night. Airfare from New York or Boston will add $400-$600 more per person. That's in line with reasonably priced Leiden hotels like the Marienpoel and the De Doelen, which charge $126-$150/night for a double room. And "normal" hotels don't come with Untours' support services, orientation, or easy access to local English-speaking staff.
Untours general manager (and Taussig nephew) Bryan Taussig Lux says the best-value tours right now are in places where you don't need to rent a car, because of high gas prices. That means Leiden, Switzerland, Prague and Budapest are all hot. (We covered Untours' Prague packages recently.) In notoriously expensive central Switzerland, you can get two weeks in an apartment for two for $144/night including support services and a railpass. Untours' more rural retreats, such as in the south of France and in Spain, include very well-priced car rentals but like all European drivers, you'll get hit hard by $6 a gallon for gas.
Untours' website shows off all their apartments, giving tips on the landlords, local transportation, and handicapped accessibility. Find out more at www.untours.com.
Here in North America, we've found a few hotels run by worthy nonprofits. Our favorite is the Swans Suite Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Formerly owned by a local real estate magnate, it was willed to the University of British Columbia upon his death -- so all the profits from the hotel and its attached pub and restaurant go to support higher education. And you're not giving up any creature comforts here: while the Swans' prices fall just at the high end of the budget range, you're treated to apartment-style living with bits of their 1,600-piece art collection in every room.
In the 1970s, the Village People famously said it was fun to stay at the YMCA, and it's a good deed, too -- the money from YMCA and YWCA hotels goes to those organizations' charitable activities. We can recommend two sets of "Y's" enthusiastically, in Vancouver and New York.
Just across the Georgia Strait from Victoria, the Vancouver YWCA runs a tight and tidy budget hotel in a new tower building. You have your choice between private bathrooms, "semi-private" baths shared by two rooms and hall bathrooms; the building also has several communal kitchens, laundry rooms, and TV lounges, though most rooms have their own cable TVs. The Y is not only one of the best values in Vancouver, it's the most honorable: your money goes directly to programs helping local children, families and single mothers get and stay on their feet.
In New York, the YMCA offers gyms and summer camps to more than 150,000 kids yearly, as well as running several budget hotels. The best of the bunch is the West Side YMCA, in a safe, upscale area right by Central Park, Lincoln Center and the new Time Warner Center. The West Side Y is clean, cheap and huge, with room prices starting at $75/night, bathrooms down the hall and cable TVs in every room.
The New York City YMCA organization also runs one of the city's best-kept secrets in budget lodging: the Greenpoint YMCA, tucked away in a Polish neighborhood right up against hipster Williamsburg, a 10-minute walk and 7-minute subway ride away from Union Square. It's a basic place and could definitely do with some renovation, but it's clean and well-kept by an honest, friendly staff. Spacious "Deluxe" rooms go for $58/night or $350/week for one person; bathrooms are down the hall. (We don't recommend the tiny, cell-like Economy rooms.) Most notably, you may be able to find rooms here when other New York budget choices are sold out. Book rooms at New York YMCAs at www.ymcanyc.org. And sleep soundly, knowing your money is going to a good cause.
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