Is a volunteer vacation for you?

Volunteer vacations have risen sharply in popularity in the past decade, with people of all ages signing on for short-term trips combining work and play.

A volunteer vacation combines service to others with an opportunity to vacation in another country.

You spend part of your days working in some capacity with some afternoons, evenings and weekends free to explore the local culture. Because volunteer vacations are generally organized by nonprofit organizations, you need to pay your own way to participate. The prices of the vacation options will vary depending on where you want to travel.

Volunteer vacations offer a truly immersive cultural experience working with local individuals daily. This gives you the opportunity to use your education and life experience to help others while having the opportunity to relax and enjoy your free time in a vacation environment. You might be teaching English, building houses or rehabilitating injured animals. If you are considering a volunteer vacation, there are several things you must consider before committing to your trip.

What is your motivation?

Ask yourself why you want to go on a volunteer vacation. Reasons are usually complex, with no one right answer. Your primary motivation must be an eagerness to serve others or improve the world in some way, but since you can do this at home, you may have other motivations. Do you want to polish your foreign language skills through an immersive experience? Are you interested in learning about other cultures? These are excellent reasons for participating in a volunteer vacation program.

Some volunteers participate in volunteer vacations because it can improve their resume or develop current or future career skills. These are valid reasons, but do not volunteer solely to put something under the “Volunteer Experiences” heading on your resume. Look for a volunteer vacation offering real world learning to further your career. Teaching a foreign language, using your engineering skills or utilizing your biology degree working for an ecological organization are all good motivations for volunteering abroad.

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You also have less ulterior motives for considering a volunteer vacation, such as a desire to relax on a sunny beach in a warm climate. Do not feel guilty about having personal reasons for your trip, as it is still supposed to be a vacation. Some volunteer programs give you more free time than others, so your expectations for the “vacation” aspect of your trip must match with the volunteer program you choose.

Are you willing to get down and dirty?

If your idea of a vacation is a five-star resort, room service and late nights with lots of drinking, a volunteer vacation is not a good fit. While you have free time, it is limited compared to a traditional vacation. The time you spend volunteering each day can range from 4 to 10 hours and it can be physically exhausting. Even if you are part of a program to educate locals about a vaccine program or teaching English to schoolchildren, you are expected to give your full energy to your work. A hangover is not an excuse to miss a day of work for which you must wake up early.

Many overseas volunteer vacations focus on building homes or improving living conditions. During these trips, you are often laboring in harsh conditions with minimal luxuries or amenities. You must be willing to go to bed each night exhausted. Also consider the living arrangements – some programs place you in local homes, which may mean no air conditioning and eating meals with the family. There are also programs that put you in hotels and give you the chance to dine out, so be sure you know what your living and eating arrangements are before signing on for a volunteer vacation.

Can you afford a volunteer vacation?

Just like any kind of travel, there is a range of prices for volunteer vacations. You can find less expensive trips if you are willing to do manual labor, volunteer in particularly impoverished countries with nonprofit organizations or you are not picky about your accommodations. It is rare for nonprofit groups to cover the entire cost of your trip, especially if it is only for a short period of time.

Some volunteer vacation prices include a contribution toward the organization’s stated mission. If you are volunteering to work at an orphanage, part of the price you pay to volunteer may go toward maintaining the facility or providing nutrition and education to the children.

Take the time to review the full cost of any volunteer vacation program you are considering. Does the price include airfare? What meals are included in the price of your trip? Remember, you have some free time and need funds to pay for any activities, food or beverages not covered by the program. Regardless of the volunteer vacation you are considering, you need to budget and put aside an emergency fund, just like you do for any vacation. Depending on where you are traveling, you may also have to pay for travelers’ insurance in case of a medical emergency. When you are planning your budget, do not hesitate to ask for more information from the volunteer group you are traveling with.

Are you the right person for the job?

You can take a volunteer vacation at any age. Each year, more people are taking advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad while serving others in some capacity, but there are limitations to consider for each program. If you want to help install irrigation systems in the desert, talk to your doctor before committing. Can you tolerate the extreme temperatures? Labor intensive volunteer opportunities mean you have to have physical stamina and be in good health. If you want to volunteer to help with research in a rainforest, keep in mind a rainforest is hot, humid and filled with potentially dangerous wildlife. In short, do not volunteer based on the location and amenities if your skills or health mean you cannot do the work properly.

Do not, however, let yourself be limited by age or stage in life when considering a volunteer vacation. There are specific volunteer vacation programs for nearly anyone, including singles, couples, families and retirees.

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