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Volunteer Vacations: What You Need to Know

Many of us spend our time counting the minutes to our next vacation when we can leave our work behind. But for some, working on vacation is far more rewarding than sitting on a beach sipping daiquiris. Not the kind of work that comes from your laptop, but the kind that comes from your heart — a volunteer vacation.

Imagine teaching English to children in Costa Rica, working on sea turtle conservation in Ecuador or learning the basics of dolphin society in New Zealand. A volunteer vacation is not just a trip; it is quite literally an odyssey comprised of three parts: service, learning and subsequently getting involved back home. Think of it as a trip that keeps on giving to you and everyone around you. It’s not necessarily for everyone, but if you are intrigued, read on.

Getting Started

You should begin researching and planning your trip no less than three months prior to the planned start of your volunteer experience. The first step is to find an organization that promotes programs that match your interests. There are many organizations that will help you through every step of planning your volunteer vacation. Not sure where to start? The resourceful website has links to some of the best organizations to consider for your volunteer vacation. also lists volunteer organizations around the world.

Once you have found a company with a project that interests you, consider the caveats and other pertinent considerations. You should have access to program alumni, and you should not have to pay for program information. Do not send money until you have chosen a project and are securing your reservation. If you are browsing an organization’s website or program guide, you should see a detailed breakdown of how program fees are used; a reputable organization will use 90 to 100 percent of funds received towards the various costs of the program.

Keep in mind that some voluntourism projects do more harm than good. See Voluntourism: Does It Really Help? to learn about some of the most common pitfalls and find out which questions to ask before choosing a program.

Finally, you might see these letters and numbers: 501(c)(3). These numbers refer to a section of the U.S. Internal Revenue code that governs non-profit organizations. All companies must adhere to strict regulations to maintain their status as not-for-profit companies by filing an annual report. As an individual, you have a right to review the report. There should be clear instructions on the website on how to obtain this information.

What Can You Expect

In short, you can enact change somewhere in the world and simultaneously change yourself. As you are working, you will experience an immersion into the local culture that you would never receive on a typical vacation. At the same time those around you will get a taste of your own culture. You will meet new people and develop friendships that may last a lifetime. You will see and do something new, different and worthwhile every day.

Work and Play

You can expect to spend a lot of time working, but it will probably not feel like “work.” You will often have some of your afternoons free, as well as evenings and weekends. Local guides and program coordinators will assist you in choosing interesting activities for your free time. Since you are participating in what for some travelers is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (though many volunteers choose to repeat the experience), you should try and make the most of every vacation minute.

Note: Naturally, you’ll want to take photographs, but if you wish to photograph the local people, please ask for permission before snapping a photo. Some cultures believe that picture taking is intrusive and might violate their cultural beliefs. The organization with which you plan your trip will inform you of this and other local traditions, beliefs and customs.

Who Can Volunteer?

Just about anyone is able to participate. Because there are so many needs in our world, almost no one is discouraged from joining in on a project. Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful family experience. In general, children are welcome project participants; however, young children may require approval in advance. Volunteering is a fantastic idea for students looking for career ideas or even some experience in their chosen field of study.

There is no upper age limit, so seniors with “more life experience” are encouraged to join projects that are compatible with their physical capabilities. As an older person, you will be a very valuable project participant as there is no substitute for wisdom and experience. It’s a great opportunity for folks who may have spent years working at a 9 – 5 job and taking care of the bills but now want to use their skills in an uplifting, constructive way. A volunteer vacation is a great way to get a break from the ordinary and do something that will make a difference somewhere in the world.

Costs and Expenses

You will be responsible for all your expenses including purchasing your own airline ticket. Trip cancellation insurance is strongly recommended. To secure your reservation, a deposit is required once you have chosen a project. The costs of any visas and immunizations or other pre-trip medical costs to prepare for your vacation are also your responsibility. About now you may be saying, “I have to pay to be a volunteer?” Yes, you do, but before you shut out the idea altogether, consider what it means to be a volunteer. Remember that the organizations coordinating these projects are not-for-profit companies. Volunteering is about giving. We give to folks who need it most, and we go to help because the local people lack the resources and finances needed to get the work done.

When you have selected the organization you are interested in working with (and become a member, if necessary), you will be given a handbook with specific information about every aspect of your selected program. The handbook will have a section to help you understand the financial aspects of working with a charitable institution. Since these companies are generally non-profit, all or a percentage of your “vacation” costs, including airfare, may be tax deductible. Check with your tax advisor regarding any possible personal income tax deduction you may be entitled to.

To help cover the costs of a volunteer vacation, your handbook will often contain detailed fundraising suggestions. Many program alumni can attest to their success in raising enough money to finance all or part of their volunteer vacation experience by implementing effective fundraising techniques. In a perfect world one might think it is enough to simply want to help those in need. But the hard truth is that to affect change in the world, it costs money to get things done.

Do I Need Special Skills?

In short, no. There are minimal or no foreign language skills required, so it is possible to volunteer in almost any part of the world and be able to communicate with the local people during your trip (but knowing the language will likely help you get more out of your trip). Your project guidebook will assist you with every aspect of the volunteer vacation you have selected. When you arrive at your project site in country, you will be taught everything else you need to know in order to successfully complete your work and enjoy every day you are there.

That said, keep in mind your own skills and experience when choosing a project. If you’re not trained to undertake a certain activity at home (such as working with vulnerable children or doing heavy construction), think twice before agreeing to do so abroad. Especially during shorter placements, you’ll make more of a difference if you’re not learning on the job for your entire trip.

When you return home, one thing is certain: you will know that you have changed in some way as a result of the volunteer work you have completed. As a volunteer, you will likely have had the vacation experience of a lifetime.

What a feeling!!

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— written by Colleen R. Costello

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