I can honestly say that volunteering abroad was one of the best and most rewarding travel experiences I’ve ever had. Direct exposure to culture and having the chance to help make a difference to real issues – the benefits of volunteering abroad are innumerable.
Especially if you’re in the early days of your travelling career, or if you’re travelling to a part of the world you’re not familiar with, the safety net that is travelling with a large group of people and experienced companies can lead you to some fantastic stress-free experiences.
“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Why should you consider volunteering abroad?
You’ll get a real taste for the culture
Many volunteering opportunities work with initiatives set up by locals. You’ll be working alongside the people who invest in those projects daily, exposing you to the reality and gravity of the issue and a taste of local life. This, for me, is a must when travelling.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ol’ tourist attraction. They’re famous for a reason. But experiencing a different way of living, straight from someone who’s lived and grown up in that world is the culture exposure you can get.
When I was volunteering abroad in Bali (I’ll talk more about my own experience at the end), I was teaching English in a small town in the north of the island. And I have to admit, children are the best teachers. They’ll excitedly tell you about their culture, their celebrations, their rules, foods and places and history, as well as eagerly listening in return.
For example, did you know it’s custom to only ever take and offer things with your right hand in Bali? That’s not something you’d find on TripAdvisor.
Help work towards a greater goal
As I mentioned, these initiatives are often set up and run by locals, who are making a difference on an issue plaguing where they live. Think climate change, animal welfare, education, health. Not only will you be educated on these issues, but you’ll actually get to help – hands-on!
Not to mention all the surprise opportunities these experiences can bring. On the same site I visited in Bali, the locals ran an ocean conservation project building artificial reefs to encourage coral growth for the local wildlife. They also protected turtle nests as part of the project.
So, when those tiny sea turtles hatched early one morning and began their journey down the beach, I had the rare opportunity of helping them reach the sea. Did I think 4am sea turtle rescue projects would be included with the trip? No – but this is just one example (and trust me, I could go on) of the spontaneous opportunities that being involved in these communities can bring.
A great opportunity to meet people
Volunteering abroad is especially great for solo travellers. If there’s one way to make friends, it’s to live, eat and work with them every day.
Not to mention the sheer variety of people you’ll be working with – you’ll be learning about a lot of cultures! On my Bali trip, I was working alongside people from America, Canada, Germany, France, Mexico and Spain. And don’t feel overwhelmed, everyone’s in the same boat. It’s a lovely atmosphere to be a part of. So even if you’re on the introverted side (like me), it’ll be easy for you to get involved.
Things to research before you volunteering abroad
What exactly will you be doing?
Good providers are likely to have detailed information on their site, but it’s always worth getting in contact to ask more specific questions. Knowing what you’re committing to will help guarantee you enjoy your trip and the work you do whilst you’re there.
It’s also important to make sure you’re volunteering abroad with a good company. The volunteer travel industry is growing exponentially and there are some shadier companies out there. Make sure you’re working with real projects – not those who let you build a wall so it can be knocked down and built by a new set of volunteers the next day. Research is key here. So make sure you do a lot of it and trust the company you’re working with.
Do you need experience to volunteer abroad?
Most volunteer opportunities don’t need experience! Many programs will be led by locals and professionals, who will train you up and support you throughout your work. Some trips may ask for experience or qualifications – or have you complete qualifications as part of your work. For example, many marine projects will ask for a license to scuba dive. Although, they can often be gained in your first couple of days there if you don’t have one already.
Will you need a visa? What legal documents will you need to give?
This is completely dependent on where you’re going, how long you’re going for and the nature of the organisation you’re working with. Ask your volunteer company and remember that some visas will incur a cost.
You may also need other documents. If you’re working with children, as I did, you’ll likely need a DBS check which details any criminal records you do (or don’t) have. Or, for something like scuba diving, you may need to pay for licenses and training.
How much free time will you get?
Remember, it’s not your traditional holiday, don’t think you can slack off working! Most volunteering placements only require you to work a few hours of the day. But, it’s important to know what your hours you’ll be doing before you go so you can plan what you can do in your free time.
In my last volunteering project, we worked 2-5pm on weekdays and needed to dedicate an hour or so each day of free time to lesson planning. Otherwise we could make plans to explore the island as we wished.
What’s included? And how much will it cost, in total?
This is one to research as it will differ per placement, country and company. With lots of projects, your accommodation and food are provided, as well as equipment and some activities. This is one to find out beforehand so you don’t double up or come ill-prepared.
Most companies will supply you with a packing list, detailing the specific items you’ll need, such as mosquito nets or specific clothing. Also, remember to research vaccinations you’ll need before you go. These are extremely important, but can often be an afterthought with a hefty price tag.
My experience volunteering abroad
I completed a two-week volunteering placement in Bali last year. The opportunity appeared as a surprise invite from a friend, a couple of months before we were due to go.
We stayed in a small town named Tianyar, in the North of the island, and worked at one of the local schools, teaching English to local children.
Bear in mind, I’d never taught children or English before (in fact, I’d never really taught anything). And I was on a continent I’d never before ventured to. So yes, the first few days were a learning curve, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
A great bonus is that you’ll have a number of activities available, that your organisation can set up for you. And, they’ll likely run group activities outside of your working hours too.
As part of our experience, we were collected from the airport and taken to a hotel in Ubud, where we stayed for the first weekend (see my favourite free things to do in Ubud) before being taken up to Tianyar on the Monday.
The locals running the projects were extremely helpful in organising trips from the accommodation. A host of volunteer drivers were ready to take you to any part of the island. So we avoided tourist-rate taxi fees and could boost the income of the locals, many of whom were fishermen that would only work the early morning.
They also had contacts for some amazing opportunities. I have that to thank for the two best sunrises I have ever seen – one after a 2am hike up Mount Batur, the local volcano, and a 5am trip out to sea with one of the local fishermen.
The accommodation and food were fantastic and plentiful. The staff were knowledgeable and helpful. I’d done a lot of research into the company beforehand, finding reviews and stories from previous volunteers, so I went with a lot of confidence and am so glad I did. I’d always advise deeply researching the courses and companies you plan to volunteer for.
I loved volunteering abroad and I hope you will to. Wishing you the best adventures.
Love, Ella-Rose x