If you think vacation should be limited to poolside piña coladas with a stack of the latest People magazines, then voluntourism—part vacation/part volunteering—may not be the ideal way to spend your holiday. If, however, you love to give back while building a new skill set, traveling the world, meeting new people—and possibly saving a chunk of change—then pack your bags! Voluntourism could be just the thing to feed your sense of adventure.
Less Green, Not Free
If you’re thinking, “Free vacation! Sign me up!” Think again. Sure, you can save money by volunteering on vacation, but there almost always are costs involved. The trips are usually set up like all-inclusive vacations where you pay one price up front for accommodations, meals, transportation and activities. Depending upon the program, you may be sleeping outside in a tent or retiring each evening to a plush hotel. Once you have found a program, get all costs upfront, including travel, food and lodging, and any program fees.
DOs and DON’Ts of Voluntourism
Before you decide to make your vacation volunteer-centric, there are some things you should know. It may be a very rewarding experience, but it can also be work—often with different cultural and living standards than you’re used to at home. And even the most legitimate-sounding agencies can be out to take your money. So you’ll want to do your homework beforehand. Here are just a few things you should consider before you commit.
- DON’T forget this is your vacation, so make a list of volunteer activities you think you’d enjoy, along with locations you’d like to visit. Do you like working with children or animals? Have you always wanted to visit South America? Maybe you’d like to work on an organic farm?
- DO consider your comfort level. Volunteer vacations vary widely in terms of activity level and the amount of hours you’re expected to work. Nearly half of Global Volunteers’ projects are extremely hands-on, while Hands Up Holidays’ programs mix volunteer work with luxury accommodations and recreation.
- DO your research. Choose legitimate companies and sites that have a good track record and check reviews of others who have used their services. Some good sites are WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), GoVolunteering, American Hiking Society, One World 365 and BUNAC.
- DO choose an organization that shares your goals and values—one that can also benefit from your unique skills. Read the mission statement for each organization so you understand their long-term goals.
- DON’T treat the trip as your personal PR campaign. It’s fine if you want to document some of your trip, but as the Onion puts it, this should not be about elevating your status on Facebook. Do it because you truly want to do it; not so you can brag about it when you get home.
- DO consider your traveling companions when booking. Some companies like Elevate Destinations offer family-friendly volunteer trips, while others like Catholic Volunteer Network may be a good fit for a church group or those with like religious affiliations.
- DO be gracious and try to assimilate to the culture you’re visiting. Eat what they eat, speak what they speak (or make an honest and polite attempt), and get to know them for who they are.
- DON’T forget travel and health insurance, especially if you’re travelling to another country.
- DO consider “experteering”—volunteering by using your already-honed, real-world skills—through organizations like MOVING WORLDS.
- DO play it safe. If you plan on traveling overseas, check the U.S. State Department’s list of countries under travel warnings and alerts, and contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see what immunizations, if any, you may need.
- DO get opinions from other travelers. If they’ve done the trip before, ask how it was, what kind of training and support they were given, and what the living conditions were like.
Open Minds Only, Please!
Lastly, keep an open mind. Voluntourism is not just about giving back; it’s about exploring new cultures, new people and enjoying in a shared experience. If you pack lightly and leave your expectations behind, you just may find that you’re the one who benefits the most in the end.
Examples of Voluntourism Opportunities
- Planting coral reefs off the coast of Costa Rica
- Helping scientists save endangered sea turtles from extinction
- Working in a family crisis center
- Rebuilding trails in Appalachia
- Helping with programs for disadvantaged youth in Guatemala
- Working on an organic farm