Also known as Voluntourism or ecotourism, volunteer travel can be wonderful way to make a difference and have an experience you will never forget. Combining a vacation or trip abroad with volunteering on local projects is one way many travelers choose to immerse themselves in local cultures and make a difference. Returning travelers say it’s a life-changing experience.
The opportunities with volunteer travel are endless. Some travelers taking a volunteer vacation will spend their entire vacation volunteering to, for example, help rebuild houses in New Orleans or working at orphanages in Third World countries. Others taking volunteer vacations will spend a few days teaching children in remote villages, feeding lion cubs in Africa, or helping count the caiman population in a small South American country and then spend the remainder of their trip sightseeing.
There is nothing like counting birds in the Amazon rainforest or digging wells for African villages in the grips of drought as a way to really experience fascinating places and diverse people. Lots of people are familiar with the concept of church-based “mission” trips, but they don’t always know that there are plenty of secular organizations that offer opportunities as well. For example, clowning overseas with Patch Adams of the Gesundheit! Institute usually takes a week or two and no special skills except a desire to bring humor and heart to those in war-torn countries.
Be aware you will likely be required to cover the cost of travel, your stay and possibly a financial contribution toward the cause. While the time spent working is unpaid, the volunteer takes that time to become comfortable in a remote location. You will build relationships that can be of value forever and a confidence to explore more of the world.
There are MANY benefits to volunteer travel:
- Have a “real” experience – In addition to volunteering, I have done my share of tourist travel and nothing beats working side by side with locals. Tourism is sugarcoated to show you an experience created for you. When you volunteer you become a part of the community and culture.
- See the world in a new way – When you volunteer for a cause, you see the world from a new perspective. Suddenly, the challenges you feel you face in life are put in perspective.
- Meet interesting people – It never fails. Whenever I have done volunteer travel I have met many amazing people from all walks of life and all over the world.
- Meet “good” people – Not only are the people you will meet interesting, but they share a common goal with you – to do good! These are fellow travelers who have chosen to spend their time making the world a better place – there is no better bond.
- Make a difference – And of course the obvious benefit is to make a difference. Volunteering gives you an opportunity to matter in the world. Whether you are working with orphans, street dogs, teaching refugees, or planting trees – you will have mattered.
- Do your research – there are hundreds of countries and thousands of programs. Start by just poking around to see what captures your attention, but as soon as possible narrow in on a cause or country – otherwise you will never be able to decide!
- Expect some costs – You will very likely be expected to cover your own travel costs and pay a little for your living expenses, but don’t pay too much. Many people are surprised they have to pay to volunteer but these programs provide badly needed help to many organizations that can afford to have paid staff.
- Ensure there is some free time – Most programs will schedule days off in your volunteer schedule, but I would suggest confirming this. You will want to take the opportunity to explore the area you are visiting to make the most of your trip.
- Plan on working! Although you want to ensure you will have a little free time, you must go prepared to work. You are there to make a difference and the only way that will happen is by digging in and helping.