Updated: Dec 28, 2005
Untrained volunteers, e.g. those without medical skills, disaster relief skills, diaster managements skills, etc., are generally not accepted by most of the international NGO's on the ground in Pakistan, even if you paid your own ticket and took care of yourself, etc. Maybe if you showed up there you'd have a much better chance, but my impression is that they work in coordinated small teams doing trained work in various locations and don't need random volunteers. Many of them are working in meta-relief roles, helping coordinate and supply local Pakistani groups.
Local Pakistani groups seem very willing to accept anyone with a desire to help and there are many doing all kinds of work. Hiking supplies into the mountains, working in offices, helping with your English skills, supporting staff in hospitals and camps, etc. Here is where your less specific skills (like hiking, mountaineering, carpentry, office support, cooking) may be useful.
The Joint Action Committee (JAC) is a coalition of many (~100?) local groups and seems to be the one to get in touch with to do work. I believe they are the centralized place to check in as a volunteer. Last I heard there were about 100 volunteers, some of which were internationals. The info:
(Their website seems somewhat incomplete; I found several phone numbers and emails; most confident at the top:)
Sungi Development Foundation
House # 7, Street 10
Contact person: Mr. Francisco
(0300) 854 5171
Toll free number: 0800-22444
Essentially, get in touch with them via email, get yourself a letter to your consulate for your visa (see below), and check in at that building when you arrive.
Note that on their websites JAC and other Pakistani groups are generally addressing their audience as fellow Pakistanis, not internationals.
Keep in mind with various earthquake-related readings to always check the date of whatever report you're reading; the earthquake happened on October 8th and the situation in the first few weeks was much different than the current, less search-and-rescue-oriented one (though emergency relief still seems the high priority.)
If you decide that going to Pakistan is the best way you can help (as opposed to donating the cost of the ticket), you can raise awareness and donations before you go and spread the word when you return, thus hopefully outweighing the financial/environmental cost of your transport. I found this surprisingly easy.
I've been told that not speaking any of the local Pakistani languages is not a problem if you'd like to volunteer.
Islamabad/Rawalpindi is the closest big city and the technological hub of the operations.
Islamabad was not severely damaged and is a functional city with food and accomodation easily available. JAC can book a hotel for you.
Vegans/vegetarians are advised that food is relatively easy to find but not esepecially nutritious. It's apparently not as easy as north India. Vegans are advised that it's more or less rice and dhal, and that can even be hard to find sometimes. We'll see.
I've heard several reports of volunteers coming up from India but I have no information on the logistics.
Currently it seems that you must have a letter from an NGO to get a visa (at least at the LA consulate if you're flying in to Islamabad and you state your purpose as relief work, as I did.) Generally, visas to Pakistan cost $120 for US travellers but the fee is supposed to be able to be waived if you can obtain a letter from an organization stating your affiliation and intent to do relief work. The LA consulate would not excuse me from the fee, however; maybe JAC/Sungi is not granted that prestige? Such a letter shouldn't be hard to obtain. JAC/Sungi will fax a letter for you. The Pakistani embassy is at:
The Pakistani Embassy has several consulates around the country; you send your application and passport to the consulate to which your state is assigned.
Visas take 5-7 business days (at the L.A. consulate, anyway) if you send them by mail. If someone locally can walk the application in (no special paperwork or letter required to make that happen) then turnaround can be same- or next-business-day, especially if you email them and let them know what you're up to.
If you're in their service area, I recommend communcating with the LA embassy via email. Phone communication was difficult and the information was partial and occasionally wrong unless you talk to the Consul or Vice Consul in person. If you need fast info, though, you might have to use the phone.
If you hook up with a group ahead of time, ask that group about expediting your visa process.
I got a round-trip changeable ticket from San Francisco through London Heathrow to Islamabad for $1500 US on British Airways; my travel agent said it was the best deal she could find, including other airlines with humanitarian cause discounts, flying through Bangkok, etc.
Use a travel agent for the ticket. I'm online savvy and though I came close on price she got me a lot more flexibility.
British Airways generally allows two 70-lb (32 kg) pieces of luggage to be checked and a 13-lb (6kg) carry-on. Several airlines are allowing excess baggage if it's for relief work. ("Pakistani Airways has waived all excess charges, Emirates has given us 20 kg extra allowance, and Gulf Air has awarded us 10 kg extra each.")
Make your own decisions about vaccinations; there are lots of reports of tetanus outbreaks that I've read and I'm sure there are other diseases that are much more common now. Cholera and Typhoid vaccinations have been recommended.
The Lonely Planet Thorntree forums seem to have a number of people communicating about the situation: http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/categories.cfm?catid=16