Traveling and giving

By Kevin O’Brien

I would like to know what others do in the way of traveling to other countries and taking helpful gifts to leave behind — a type of humanitarian tourism. I do not mean joining a church group or medical or dental group that is going specifically for that purpose. People can do things on an individual basis as well (although this is getting harder to do because of the limit of checking only one suitcase for free on international flights).

On our travels, my wife, Jane, and I usually take one extra suitcase each. We pack toys, stuffed animals (the biggest hit), school supplies and clothing, both for children and adults.

We get our items at the Dollar Tree, Wal-Mart (when they have their one-dollar rack of baby clothes) and yard sales. Some yard sales have wonderful things; since people discard things so quickly in the US, you can find clothes, toys and stuffed animals with the labels still on them. 

In terms of distributing what we take, we check ahead of our trip and arrange to take things to an orphanage or some other charity. Sometimes the tour company in the foreign country helps us with this or I contact the hotel where we will be staying or, often, since we are Catholic, a Catholic church in a town or city that we will visit (May ’13, pg. 29).

For example, after booking a hotel in Mexico for a stay in March ’12, the front desk person kindly made arrangements for us to visit her church. When we arrived, we went to Mass on a Monday night. The priest actually blessed the suitcases we had brought for them. I have seen animals, houses and cars blessed but never a suitcase.

Occasionally, we have given things away on the fly. In Trinidad in May ’12, I was not able to contact anyone ahead of time. When we arrived, we met a man who did work with several charities in Port-of-Spain. He took us to a few orphanages, where we gave away most of the things we had brought.

Our original plan for Trinidad was to donate our items to a church, although I had not arranged for anything. When we went to Mass, however, we learned that the priest there was just visiting. So this was not the place to leave our things because the regular parish priest was not there.

We rarely give things to individual people or children on the street because a crowd will soon descend to ask for things. I find it is best to have someone in the country distribute what we brought. We do save some items to give to hotel workers who have given us outstanding service or whom we think could just use the stuff.

Regarding airlines’ extra-luggage fees*, on a United flight to Bogota, Colombia, in March ’13, we were charged $70 for a second checked bag (not overweight). On strictly domestic flights, even the first suitcase can cost $30. (Jane and I usually do not take bags to check when we travel purely domestically.) Sometimes you can save a fee by having all the flights written on one ticket.

The extra-bag fees have been in place for about three years. For a year or two, we did get waivers for the fees by showing a letter from a church or tour company indicating the purpose of our having the extra suitcases, but it has gotten almost impossible to get a waiver. We paid extra-bag fees on our last two foreign tips.

(There are a few foreign airlines which allow two checked bags for free. One of these is Ethiopian Airlines, since many Ethiopians who live abroad bring back lots of things for family, especially at Christmas.)

In comparison, I would guess that the contents of a suitcase we take usually cost about $200, even when the items were bought at garage sales and Wal-Mart.

And our expenses include not just the items in the suitcases but the suitcases, themselves, as we wind up leaving them. In the past, we brought the empty cases back home, but if we did that now we could pay a 70-dollar fee for each empty bag. As a result, we leave the suitcases and buy new ones, usually at the Humane Society thrift shop.

Although it is more costly than it used to be, I wish that everybody could take one extra suitcase with helpful gifts. Imagine 30 people on a group tour doing that! 

As much as we do take, it is a drop in the bucket, but it is better than nothing. 

I would like to know if other people take things to donate on their travels and, if they do, what they donate and whether or not they have had any luck getting the extra-bag fees waived. Are people with organized charities such as Habitat for Humanities or Doctors Without Borders able to take extra suitcases without being charged?

I also would like to know what special experiences travelers have had as a result of their giving.


Savannah, GA

Have you packed helpful items to leave with others on a trip outside of the US? Tell us where and when that was. What types of items will be most appreciated in which countries? How did you plan or decide with whom to leave them? What advice can you offer? What story do you have to tell? Write to Traveling and Giving, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN). Photographs are welcome; include captions. Responses will be printed in ITN.

*Airlines’ fees for extra checked bags vary widely. On domestic flights in the US, the fee for the first checked bag (up to 50 pounds) can run $15-$55, with the average at $25. For a second checked bag (up to 50 pounds), it’s $20-$35, and for a second checked bag that’s overweight (51-70 pounds) it can be $45-$100. On international flights, the first checked bag normally goes for free. For the second (up to 50 pounds), you can pay $25-$70 or, if it’s overweight (51-70 pounds), $40-$300.