How Volunteer Vacations Work

Taking a volunteer vacation gives you the opportunity to recharge while helping others. It's the ultimate win-win scenario!
Taking a volunteer vacation gives you the opportunity to recharge while helping others. It's the ultimate win-win scenario!
Frank and Helena /Cultura/Getty Images

Vacations are a tricky thing. Sometimes you arrive at your destination with an itinerary that will guarantee no actual rest. But other times you end up bored out of your mind on day two. If you're lucky, you will have a good time, great weather and will feel refreshed when you return. These days, there are endless vacation packages and cruises from which to choose. But many of these journeys will come with a hefty price tag and a barrage of hidden expenses along the way, such as meals, entertainment costs and a sack full of trinkets for your friends back home. Feelings of guilt at spending an armful of money for a holiday when others are struggling financially can ultimately rob you of the rewards of your respite.

One way to ensure you have a good time -- guilt-free -- is to plan a volunteer vacation. You may ask, "Why would I want to work on my vacation?" The thing is that you aren't actually working -- you're giving back to a community, the environment or a special family. Research has shown that volunteering can improve your health, extend your life and lower the risk of depression [source: CNCS]. The simple truth is that it feels good to help others.


Travel company has been studying vacation time for nearly a decade. According to its 2009 survey, nearly 34 percent of Americans give back three vacation days a year. There are a variety of reasons why people don't use their vacation time, but most people are cutting short their vacations or not going at all due to pressure from work [source: Expedia].

Your vacation time is yours to use. It's budgeted into your salary, and it's one of your benefits. Just as you would probably not give up your health insurance, you shouldn't feel guilty about taking your time off. If you need a reason to vacation, volunteering may be the best option for you. In this article, we'll discuss planning a volunteer vacation and explore opportunities in Africa, the U.S. and in Latin America.



Planning a Volunteer Vacation

When most people think of volunteer vacations, they envision going abroad. In order to plan for a volunteer vacation in another country, there are some things you will need to take into consideration. Most importantly, if you don't already own a passport, you need to apply for one now. It can take quite a while to get a passport unless you have an emergency situation that may allow you to obtain one quickly [source: USDS].

In preparation, you'll also need to:


  • Check with your host country to learn about any health requirements you may need, such as vaccinations.
  • Budget for fees that may be required by other countries upon entry. You may have to pay additional fees for cargo you are bringing for your volunteer work.
  • Study the weather and political climate of any country you're visiting, so you are prepared for whatever may happen while you're there.
  • Plan enough vacation time to account for time change adjustments or jetlag.
  • Decide whether you want to plan the trip yourself or go with an established volunteer organization.

Even if you are planning on volunteering locally or in one of the other U.S. states, you still need to plan ahead. You don't want to take a week off thinking you can help out at the local children's museum only to find out it's closed that week for renovation. Call ahead to check with the organization to see when they can use help before you run your chosen dates past your boss. If you're planning to travel, you'll need to research where you will stay, what expenses you might incur and exactly what will be expected of you once you are there.

Now that you've learned about the prep work, read on to learn about volunteer vacationing on the African continent.


Volunteer Vacations in Africa

Africa is an amazing continent. Its breathtaking, wild terrain is filled with fascinating wildlife, remote villages and beautiful people. For decades, people have been encouraging volunteerism and fundraising efforts in the various countries of Africa. There is a lot of work to be done and you can help.

The overriding need in many African countries is education and prevention of HIV/AIDS. According to the World Health Organization, 60 percent of reported HIV/AIDS cases come from sub-Saharan Africa [source: WHO]. Volunteering to help with HIV/AIDS patients comes in many forms. If you have medical experience, you can volunteer to help by setting up or working at a local medical facility. You can also work towards HIV/AIDS prevention by volunteering to teach sex education classes.


If medical work is not your thing, you can volunteer in Africa to help communities overcome poverty through education and training opportunities [source: UNV]. You can volunteer at a school, provide continuing education for adults, teach English as a second language or provide books and recreational items for teachers and students. Another way to help is to enhance the community through digging wells, opening community centers or building homes and businesses. You can also work with the United Nations World Food Programme to provide food and nutritional information to countries throughout the continent [source: WFP].

If you aren't ready to travel abroad, you can volunteer locally. Read on to learn about volunteer vacations in the United States.


Volunteer Vacations in the U.S.

A trendy buzzword that's been popping up all over lately is staycation. A staycation is a vacation where you stay at home. The idea is that you save money while enjoying your time off from work. But all too often, having a week off work with nothing to do can lead to anxiety about what you could be doing in the office. You can easily avoid feeling guilty or twitchy by rolling up your sleeves for some good old-fashioned volunteer work.

If you want to volunteer within your own community, you can reach out to the school systems, senior centers, parks services, libraries or medical facilities. You can also team up with established volunteering organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity or the American Red Cross. Check your local newspaper for upcoming events that could use a pair of extra hands. You can also use volunteering search engines online to find out where the needs are greatest. Think about what you enjoy the most, and go find an opportunity to share your skills. For example, if you enjoy reading, you could volunteer to record audio books and other written materials for the blind or those with reading disabilities [source: RFBD].


If you're itching to get out of town, you can spend your vacation time helping communities hit by natural disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, more than 1 million volunteers headed to the Gulf Coast region to help clean up and rebuild the communities devastated by the gruesome storm [source: Lopez]. Pick your destination, and contact the tourist association, city government or local newspaper to learn about volunteering needs in the region.

Want to head south of the border? Read on to learn about volunteer vacations in Latin America.


Volunteer Vacations in Latin America

Latin America consists of Central and South America. This wide swath of land includes Mexico, multiple islands and the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. If you are particularly interested in volunteering to help with the environment, Latin America is the place to be.

Volunteering takes many forms. In addition to the type of work you can do in African countries and the United States, in Latin America you can also take a volunteer vacation to work on sports coaching, eco-tourism, environmental issues, media and technology training, and conservation [source: uVolunteer].


If you are interested in plant biology, plan a trip to the Amazon rainforest. It's estimated that 50 percent of all pharmaceutical medications taken today were first derived from plants [source: BBC]. On your volunteer vacation, you could work with an organization that is dedicated to preserving natural habitats and studying the health benefits of plants and trees. You can also contribute by helping communities learn about sustainable living through farming or money-generating cooperatives [source: VLA].

Because of its proximity to the world's oceans, Latin America also offers a wide range of oceanic volunteer opportunities. You can volunteer to work with research expeditions that study whales, dolphins, sea turtles or sharks [source: Oceanic Society].

Whether you only have one week to spare or six weeks of accrued time off, you are sure to find the right match for your allotted time and personal passions when planning a volunteer vacation. When you return, you can rest assured knowing you spent that time giving rather than simply spending.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AHS. "Volunteer Vacation Schedule 2009." 2009. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • BBC. "Medicinal plants 'facing threat.'" BBC News. 01/19/08. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • CNCS. "The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research." 04/2007. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • " International Vacation Deprivation™ Survey Results." 2009. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • Jennings, Rob. "Retired Parsippany cop will be paid $354,703 in unused time." The Daily Record. 05/02/09. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • Lopez, Korina. "Katrina volunteers come to stay." USA Today. 01/14/08. (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • Oceanic Society. "Adopt a Dolphin." (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • Oceanic Society. "Research Expeditions." (Accessed 05/03/09)
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  • USDS. "How to Apply for the First Time (In Person)." (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • uVolunteer. "Volunteer Abroad in Latin America." (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • VLA. "Projects." (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • WFP. "Countries." (Accessed 05/03/09)
  • WHO. "HIV/AIDS epidemiological surveillance report for the WHO African Region: 2007 update." 2008. (Accessed 05/03/09)