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Your guide to travelling and volunteering

ocean clean up efforts

Can you believe that a whopping 50% of you chose to do 3 days of volunteer work abroad over a relaxing beach holiday? This stat comes straight from our Voice of a Generation survey, so if you really don’t believe us take it up with your peers – but either way we’re really impressed! Who knew Contiki travellers had such enormous hearts? (Well, we obvs did.)

There’s nothing better than that feeling of being able to give back and knowing that your work is helping out someone else. That’s why we have our MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences: because we want to support the local communities we visit and empower the world around us. If this is something you want to do in your personal travels, perhaps on a solo adventure, then read on for your guide to travelling and volunteering. 

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What kind of volunteering do you want to do?

If you want to go travelling and volunteering, the first step is to figure out what kind of volunteering there is to do. Different destinations require different things.

Certain volunteering efforts will require more or less intensive work as well: for example if you’re building houses you’ll obviously be doing some heavy lifting and you’ll be on your feet a lot more. Teaching has its own set of challenges as well. These are all things to keep in mind when deciding what kind of volunteering it is you want to sign up to.

There’s also a difference between signing up for a month-long project vs. doing a few hours of volunteering here and there while you back-pack through Europe. Make sure you’re both physically and mentally ready for whatever kind of volunteering you decide to undertake!

Find the right programme and project for you

Match your skills and do your research – these are the two most important things when it comes to finding the right volunteer programme for you.

If you’re a strong person who knows their way around tools and a build-site, then you may be the perfect candidate to build infrastructure abroad. If you’re knowledgeable and connect with people easily, a teaching placement might be best for you. See what’s out there and make sure the projects you apply for match your skill-set – otherwise you’ll be wasting their time and your own.

Once you think you’ve found projects that match your interests and skills, DO YOUR RESEARCH! We cannot stress this enough – although volunteering seems like a wonderful thing to do on a surface level, the reality is that certain organisations end up doing more harm than good. So make sure the projects you sign up to are actually ethical, and that they will enable proper growth and development in the area. Even non-profits can be misleading, so really dig deep. 

Research the area you’re planning on travelling to and find out what core issues are hindering development or aid – these are the kinds of problems you want to fix. And make sure the volunteering efforts you’re signing up to are engaging with the local communities. This is how real change is made, so if they’re disconnected from the locals that’s probably not a good sign.

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Save up

In many instances, the reality of travelling and volunteering is not that glamorous, and that’s because it’s expensive. Not only do you have to pay for your airfare and, in many cases, for a position on the programme, you’ll most likely also have to pay for your stay while you’re there – all while working for free. 

That being said, volunteering is genuinely one of the most valuable things you can do with your time, so if you’re keen on it, save up until the day comes and feel as your heart grows and grows. This is one of those experiences that’s 100% worth it!

Note: if you are paying for a placement on the volunteering programme, make sure you know where your money is actually going (i.e. not straight into the organisation’s pockets).

Make sure you have enough time

Many people planning to volunteer abroad do so because they’re travelling for an extended period of time. Though any amount of volunteering is greatly appreciated, even for a day, you should plan ahead and make sure you actually have the time to do what you’re signing up for, especially if you’re travelling and volunteering as part of a leisurely holiday. 

Keep your expectations low

You probably won’t end up seeing results immediately, and you definitely won’t be single-handedly saving the world (sorry). It can be hard, and it can sometimes even seem like a thankless role.

And, you probably already know this, but travelling and volunteering isn’t as relaxing or glamorous as just basic travel – so make your peace with foregoing certain luxuries and make sure you are both physically and mentally prepared for such an endeavour. But, at the end of the day, if volunteering abroad is something you want to do, then you’ll be doing an amazing thing, and hopefully that keeps you going.

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Got a trip planned already?

If you’ve got a holiday planned sometime in the year and want to do some good on your getaway, hop over to Google and research local volunteering opportunities. These opportunities will most likely be a matter of a few hours, like helping clean beaches, planting trees for rewilding efforts, or working at a soup kitchen, but every little counts! You don’t have to embark on month long projects to be doing your bit.

I want to volunteer but I’m not physically able to

There are many volunteering opportunities that don’t require heavy lifting or significant physical activity. For example, teaching – as long as you can address a classroom and know your stuff this is absolutely an area you could participate in and help out! 

If this isn’t something you can do either, no worries – many charities abroad will have donation points available for you to send any amount you can, and sharing the causes you believe in to your social circles to get the word out is a huge help as well.

Sometimes when applying for a volunteering placement you’ll need to raise money. If you know anyone who is looking to do this, helping them fundraise is work you can do as well. Most volunteering organisations are non-profits and really rely on the donations of others to keep their efforts going, so this is just as valuable as being on the field.

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Why should I volunteer abroad?

Lots of reasons! Volunteering abroad in local communities is a chance to help people and animals, and even the planet, who are in need. You can help make a difference, and it’s a great way of giving back to the holiday destinations you visit. You’ll also be learning a lot about the various issues that certain populations face, which in turn can open your eyes to the larger world.

Volunteering is also great for skill-building. You can learn new trades, depending on the type of volunteering you sign up for, and it’s great for leadership and teamwork, as well as even teaching you responsibility. Not to mention, volunteering opportunities look great on university/college applications, as well as on CVs, which can give you a leg up when advancing your own career. 

Lastly, it’s a chance to meet people: either other volunteers like you, or locals. You’ll be spending a lot of time with others so you can share stories, learn about each other’s cultures, and build really meaningful bonds.

Volunteer local first

Travelling and volunteering at the same time can be A LOT, especially when you’re travelling to a country that you don’t know, and may be very different to the one you come from. You’re definitely out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be doing work that you’re maybe not used to doing, or work that’ll tire you out. 

Before jetting off to save the world, try some smaller-scale local volunteering first. You can do this on pre-planned holidays, as mentioned above, or you can do this from home. Check around your local town or city for any organisations that need your help. You’ll still be doing a lot of work, even if it isn’t half-way across the world, and this will really allow you to see if larger scale volunteering is for you.

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