How to Add Volunteering to Your RTW Trip

Have you ever taken a trip that blurred in your memory after you left? Perhaps the hostels that began to seem the same, the whirlwind visiting of local sites, or simply days spent lounging on a beach or nights at the pub, ran together until you realized you didn’t have a defining cultural impression of the places you visited.

Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” By volunteering your way around the world, you can not only witness those new landscapes, but see them in a whole different way. True cultural exchanges bring the world closer together, providing lasting effects to the visitors and giving something back to the indigenous communities rather than merely taking away, or worse, exploiting them. And there is no better way I can think of for being immersed in a community than to serve it.

The influx of foreign voluntourists into isolated villages and impoverished communities provides a direct contact with alternative cultural traditions.

David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, adds another perspective – the value that is created when people of different cultures become role models for each other. The influx of foreign voluntourists into isolated villages and impoverished communities provides a direct contact with alternative cultural traditions, especially for girls. “Seeing a woman from another country bending over a shovel, digging a canal or irrigation ditch, may influence the adult women and their daughters in ways that we are not currently aware,” says Clemmons.


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Many non-profit organizations rely on volunteers to carry out their daily missions; and if you plan it right, you can work your way around the world very cheaply by doing volunteer service gigs. Here are some methods and tips for volunteering your way around the world:

Incorporate volunteering into existing travel plans

Particularly when traveling internationally, the biggest expense with voluntourism is getting there. Very few organizations will pay your airfare to get there, unless you are committed to a long-term assignment (see below). If you can work volunteering into travel plans you already have, your expenses go way down, and your chances of using volunteer work to extend your travels more cheaply, or even for free, go way up.

Volunteer for longer, rather than shorter, periods of time

There is a rule of travel that you may have already discovered – the longer you stay in one place, the more your expenses go down. You are cutting airfare and long-route transportation costs, and accommodations are usually much cheaper by the week or month. This concept applies just as much to voluntourism as it does to regular travel. Due to the amount of resources an organization has to spend to recruit and train you, costs passed along to the volunteers for their expenses are much higher when you are only volunteering for a few days or a couple of weeks. Once you start volunteering for several weeks or months at a time, the organization gets more value for your work in relation to the resources they’ve spent to set you up, and it’s more likely that you will not have to front many expenses associated with volunteering. In fact, for longer-term volunteers of a month or more, many organizations will provide you housing, some meals and maybe even a small stipend. For a really long-term commitment, say the year or two years required for the Peace Corps or teaching English overseas, some organizations will even provide your airfare.

Plan your volunteer route for maximum effectiveness

When it’s time to travel from one place to another, use internet resources and low-cost airlines to figure out the best geographical route to take. Start by searching on aggregator sites like Kayak.com, Wego.com, Momondo.com and Skyscanner.com. Then be sure and check out WhichBudget.com to make sure you are finding the best deals. Often you can just check low-cost tickets or the best deals between countries without putting in specific cities or dates. This will help you figure out the cheapest points to travel and volunteer between. For example, going from one place in Europe to another using Ryan Air would almost certainly be inexpensive; likewise, flying between dozens of Asian cities on Air Asia can be done for $60USD (50 Euros) or less. By knowing the lowest-cost transportation options ahead of time, you can then search for and choose volunteer projects in those destinations that appeal to you.

Follow your passion

While the previous tips will help you volunteer around the world for the lowest cost, this aspect is just as important for the overall value that the experience will have for you personally. Don’t choose to dig a well in Cambodia just because it’s a cheap flight from Thailand if digging a well isn’t something you are going to enjoy. Likewise, make sure that you check out the organization to ensure that it is legitimate and its mission is something you can really get behind. Choosing projects and organizations you believe in when it comes to volunteer work is the best way to make sure it will be rewarding for you, as well as to learn new skills and gain experience that will be incredibly beneficial to you in the future. If you are passionate about human rights, volunteer with refugee services around the globe. If you love children, volunteer at schools and orphanages. If you want to help protect the planet and our animal species, then make sure you choose projects that are doing that work.

Choosing projects and organizations you believe in when it comes to volunteer work is the best way to make sure it will be rewarding for you, as well as to learn new skills and gain experience that will be incredibly beneficial to you in the future.

With a little thought and planning, you could spend years traveling the world very cheaply, doing good, and getting an immense amount of joy and satisfaction in return.

Should you go through an agency or plan on your own?

Each approach has pros and cons, although ultimately it may come down to what type of traveler you are.

If your travel plans are fluid and changeable or you are an independent, backpacker type of traveler, you may prefer doing it all on your own as you go. Some things to consider are:

  • Local, grassroots organizations are where you will find the volunteer opportunities that don’t cost you anything, and where benefits such as housing and food are most often included. These are pretty easy to find while you’re on the road; they often post at hostels, pubs, and restaurants where backpackers/travelers hang out.  These opportunities are much more difficult to find at home before you leave.
  • Another great way to find volunteer gigs on your own is simply ask around – starting at the place you are staying, the rotary club, library, newspaper, and the local tourist board (if there is one). I highly recommend an e-book called The Underground Guide to International Volunteering by Kirsty Henderson and The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook by Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift.
  • When you are talking about independent volunteering, one of the biggest concerns is legitimacy. With UNICEF and Habitat for Humanity, you can be assured of that. With smaller, local organizations you really need to do your homework first. The last thing you want is to be donating your time and work to an organization that is lining its own pockets or only putting a measly percentage of funds into actual programs.
  • Exercise due diligence. Ask a lot of questions and request full disclosure on a breakdown of exactly what all the fees they charge you are going toward. Also find out what percentage of their fees and donated funds go toward administrative costs, and what percentage goes to their clients and direct services. A good charity should have no more than 15% administrative costs and will have no problem answering all your questions and providing you this information.
  • You can also check with vetting services, such as Global Giving, that research and investigate non-profits on their own so that volunteers and donors know they are dealing with a legitimate, above-board organization that checks out. Other such organizations include GuideStar and Charity Navigator (US-based).
Choosing projects and organizations you believe in when it comes to volunteer work is the best way to make sure it will be rewarding for you, as well as to learn new skills and gain experience that will be incredibly beneficial to you in the future.

On the other hand, if you prefer the assurance of having someone else handle the details and knowing that everything is planned out ahead of time, you probably want to go through a major international NGO or an agency. The main things to know about this approach are:

  • They have hundreds of opportunities available all around the world, and it’s typically easy to search according to area of the world and type of work you want to do.
  • You can be virtually assured of a smooth, hassle-free experience, which you will be well-prepared for by the organization.
  • You’ll find everything from short to very long-term openings (for which college credit or stipends may be available).
  • While most NGOs charge no fees, it’s not unusual to find “pay to volunteer” scenarios that cover the nonprofit’s or agency’s expenses and fund the projects.
  • Going through a third-party agency is probably the easiest, most hassle-free way to volunteer around the world – but the convenience also comes at a price, as it can also be the most expensive. With them, you will be paying one all-inclusive fee that will cover not only any costs payable to the sponsoring NGO you decide to volunteer with, but also administrative fees that the agency charges to handle it all. Going this route can cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
  • Virtually all of them will require you to pay your own travel expenses to get there, but depending on the NGO and length of your service, housing and/or meals may be provided.

Some of the top agencies and searchable websites to find volunteer openings are:

To read more about voluntourism, check out the following articles and resources:

To read more from and about Shelley Seale, check out her author bio.

Photo credits:  Vincent van Zeijst,  all others courtesy of Keith Hajovsky and may not be used without permission





Leave a Comment

  • Shelley Renee said at 2013-08-21T13:20:43+0000: Thank you everyone for the comments! Love Crooked Trails and Grassroots Volunteering!
  • Shannon O'Donnell said at 2013-08-17T18:05:37+0000: Great post with a thorough overview of the really key points to keep in mind when heading out on the road. I am a big fan of independent volunteering myself and I think that with research though, there are ways to find incredibly rewarding and ethical volunteer trips anywhere in the world. Thanks for mentioning Grassroots Volunteering.org!
  • Andrea Chisholm said at 2013-08-15T01:47:22+0000: We are a family currently living in Bhutan - I am a volunteer teacher with the Bhutan Canada Foundation. It has been an amazing time for our family (we are living in a small rural village for the whole year 2013). I highly recommend an experience like this for families with young children as you get all the benefits of home (stability, routine) as well as daily cultural experiences. My latest blog post writes about the positives for our children: http://downundertothetopoftheworld.blogspot.com/2013/08/global-classroom.html.
  • Louise Vargas said at 2013-08-14T16:00:56+0000: Great article - hope it inspires many people!
  • Crooked Trails said at 2012-08-21T21:34:58+0000: Great article! We are also a non-profit org offering international volunteer opportunities with village homestays, but our focus is for those who are shorter on time. And we couldn't agree with the commenters more - it's crucial that travelers do their research and choose projects wisely to support.
  • MovingWorlds said at 2012-08-28T00:31:16+0000: I LOVE this post! Volunteering is definitely an individual thing, and it's vital that you reflect on your personal preferences and desires before finding an opportunity.
  • Tony James Slater said at 2012-07-18T08:23:00+0000: Awesome! Good, solid advice. I do as much volunteering as I can, as I travel around the world, and I've found places that charge very little or are free to participate in. It's unbelievably rewarding, and often quite difficult - just approaching it with an open mind is the first step to getting the most out of a spell of volunteering, I find! It will certainly give you experiences you'd ever get as a tourist - in my case sewing the head back onto a partially decapitated crocodile, wrestling with monkeys and occasionally getting shot at... Yup! SO worth it. :0) Tony
  • Lisa Wood said at 2012-07-19T01:37:33+0000: I would love to do Volunteer work as we travel! Such great information about how to cut costs down by staying longer in one place, and how to join organizations as its safer to volunteer in countries with companies!
  • Timo Luege said at 2012-07-19T09:59:47+0000: I think it’s great if people want to help other people and use their time to improve the lives of others. However, unfortunately “voluntourists” sometimes unknowingly make situations worse.AlJazeera recently broadcast a 24 minute video that anyone who wants to volunteer should see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-hf_snNO9X8.In addition I’d recommend reading a few articles on “Good Intentions are not enough”, starting with this one: http://goodintents.org/volunteering-overseas/guideline-1.While I don’t want to discourage anyone from volunteering abroad, you can make the most difference by volunteering in your own communities where you know the context, understand the culture and speak the language. It might not be as “glamorous” as some volunteering-gigs abroad but you’ll probably do more good.