Let me tell you something – wanderlust ain’t no joke. I know it’s cliche, and I’m guessing you know a girl who wears flowy pants and headwraps with it tattooed on her (I’m one of them). Despite that, it is a genuine feeling, like a combination of adrenaline, awe, fear, and excitement wrapped into this euphoric package. Once I started traveling and felt that rush, I was hooked. I wanted more, I needed more. But how could I get that feeling without breaking the bank?
If you read my article Travel with Purpose: Destinations on a Dime I talk about how my plans to join the Peace Corps after college were foiled by my massive student debt. This is where it all began: that urge to travel meets giving back. I knew I wanted to see everything, but I did not want to feel like a tourist. I began research on travel with purpose, and came across multiple articles on volunteer tourism.
What is Volunteer Tourism?
Volunteer tourism is exactly what is sounds like: going abroad and volunteering your time and efforts to help a cause. Opportunities include teaching local children, animal conservation, environmental conservation, and much more in locations all over the world. It is not a glamorous experience (though I do recommend tacking on a couple extra days to relax and explore the location) but it gives you so much more than 7 days in a beach chair ever could. While you may be the volunteer, you will receive so much more than you give.
What to Volunteer for
There are a variety of projects to volunteer for. As a diver who aspired to be a marine biologist in a past life, animal and ocean conservation seemed the best fit for me. I wanted a project that had no relation to my career but instead focused on my passion and would bring some balance into my life. For that reason I chose to work on a leatherback turtle conservation effort, patrolling the beaches for poachers and relocating eggs to a safe environment.
While my project selection is based on my passions, figure out why you want to volunteer and what will make you feel fulfilled. Skills gained from these projects can help you with your career, but they don’t necessarily have to.
Finding the Right Organization
For my first experience with volunteer tourism I used International Volunteer HQ. I found them through a simple google search, and later found out that they are the middleman between you and the volunteer project itself, which is usually independently run. After reading a bunch of reviews and asking a million questions I signed up for my first volunteer tourism experience in Costa Rica.
Once you know the type of project you’d like to volunteer for, do the research to find the right organization. Sometimes that’s a middle man, and I definitely recommend using them as they made my first volunteer tourism experience so much easier. Other times you will work directly with the project themselves. Either way make sure you read reviews, confirm they’re a legitimate business, and ask as many questions as you need before committing.
Make it Cost Effective
Costs per location and project differ and usually include a place to stay, meals, and processing fees for the middleman. Flights are not usually included in project fees. I was able to keep costs low by using credit card points to book my flight and selecting a project within my budget. Since you are typically busy with the project (and sometimes in remote locations) you won’t be spending a lot; I found that my two weeks in the village of Parismina saved me money compared to what I would spend at home – project costs included.
If there is a project you love but seems out of budget, you may be able to save money by going directly through the project organization and cutting out the middleman. This is what I did for an elephant volunteer project in Thailand, and it saved me $300 right away.
I hope this overview of volunteer tourism is helpful, and I will be adding more details on these trips to the upcoming Destinations on a Dime posts. If you have any questions feel free to comment below!