Top 5 Volunteer Vacations for Retirees

volunteers release a rescued sea turtle back into the ocean
Retirement offers the perfect opportunity to donate your time and skills to a worthy cause.
Sara Davis-Stringer/Getty Images

You've probably thought often enough that you need a vacation. But did you ever think that a vacation might need you? Especially if you're enjoying the flexibility of retirement, you can turn a vacation into a chance to donate your time and skills to a worthy cause. Plus, you may visit faraway places and meet interesting people in the process. The opportunity to work and make a meaningful contribution can be very rewarding for retirees.

A stint of volunteer service offers a lot more than sightseeing. You're more likely to learn about the local culture and get to know the people than on an ordinary vacation. You don't need special talent, but any special skills you have, such as medical expertise or computer experience, can make you even more valuable.


Don't look on volunteering simply as a cheap vacation. Most agencies that arrange volunteer vacations charge fees in order to pay for programs and accommodations. You'll also have to pay for your air fare.

You can't expect to save the world in two weeks, but if you pick a program that fits your needs and work with a well-established nonprofit agency, you're likely to have a very fulfilling vacation experience. It'll be a wonderful break from your normal routine, and you'll feel good about yourself when you return.

Read on to find out some of the fascinating vacations awaiting your volunteer time.

5: Help the Animals

bird covered in oil
Cleaning up animals after an oil spill isn't glamorous, but it can be extremely gratifying.

With so many animal species endangered these days, there are opportunities all over the world to aid research and to rescue animals in need.

Instead of spending your leisure time lounging on the beach, you could help save bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals in the western Mediterranean. A program in the Ligurian Sea employs volunteers to track and study the animals to learn how to better protect them in a designated cetacean sanctuary. An itinerary in Kenya offers volunteers 11 days of rehabilitating mangrove ecosystems -- a task that bolsters the local fish population and aids the people who depend on those fish for food. If you prefer a seaside destination, numerous programs focus on improving the survival chances of sea turtles on beaches around the globe.


Programs like these benefit from the help of retirees who have the maturity to understand that wild animals, though they need our help, are not cuddly pets. Be sure to think carefully about your comfort zone in terms of accommodations and hands-on work with animals before you commit to a program.

4: Teach Something

You've spent an entire career building your skills. A volunteer vacation is a great chance to teach others what you've learned. If you can't think immediately of a subject you can teach, think again. English teachers are among the most needed volunteers in countries where English is not the native language. Many students need a command of English as a second language to advance in their education. A working knowledge of English can help others take advantage of economic opportunities available in the tourism and hospitality industries.

English teaching assignments often require little beyond English fluency. Conversation with a native speaker is what language students need most. No need to worry about lesson plans: In many programs, volunteers are paired with trained teachers. Explore your English-teaching opportunities, and you might find yourself spending three months in the spectacular Himalayan foothills, teaching English to Nepali children -- truly a vacation to remember.


Remember: Volunteers are needed to teach many subjects other than English. Spend your vacation teaching music to Maori children in New Zealand, or teach Indian children how to swim -- a critical skill in areas prone to monsoons. Teaching makes for a satisfying volunteer vacation. It's an excellent way to make contact with people in another culture, and you'll probably learn as much as you teach.

3: Build Something

habitat for humanity volunteers at work
Lend your strength and skills to a community building project, and leave behind lasting evidence of your well-spent vacation.

It's always nice to step back and look at something you've built with your own hands. After your volunteer vacation, you could leave behind a playground, an irrigation system, or a much-needed community center. Whatever your vacation legacy is, it's guaranteed to give you a real sense of accomplishment.

Now that you no longer have the pressure of work to worry about, you might find that some physical labor is just what you need. It gets you moving and offers a pleasant break from your routine.


Opportunities abound for this type of volunteer vacation. The best-known volunteer construction organization is Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for deserving families in the U.S. and abroad. You can take part in one of their projects in almost any location you can name, and you need no special building experience or skills. Many other groups connect volunteers to worthy construction projects around the world.

2: Preserve and Discover

Preserving historic sites and digging up ancient ruins are popular activities for volunteer vacationers. The projects often need volunteer help, as funding for these endeavors does not always match their importance. For example, you might work on the preservation of the battlefield at Antietam, Maryland, one of America's iconic historical sites.

The range of archeological digs, building repairs and maintenance projects available to volunteers is practically unlimited, and could take you almost anywhere in the world. You could restore a Buddhist monastery in Nepal or excavate a Roman villa at Pottio Del Molino in Italy. Wherever you go, you'll combine healthy physical work with a hands-on learning experience.


1: Help Out Close to Home

Travel is great, but a volunteer vacation close to home can be even better. Here's why:

  • It's cheaper. You save the cost of air fare and accommodations.
  • Arrangements are easier. You can usually organize the vacation on short notice.
  • You can test your preferences. If you don't like restoring an old house or counting migratory birds close to home, you probably wouldn't enjoy a similar project in Timbuktu.

For a volunteer "staycation," all you need to do is put aside your routine for a week or a month and devote that time to a charitable project. You might join crews cleaning up city parks or building playgrounds. Maybe you'll volunteer full-time at a hospital or animal shelter. Or you could spend a holiday week preparing food at a local food bank.


Volunteering close to home also enables you to follow up on your efforts. Form an ongoing relationship with a volunteer organization by pitching in from time to time, or simply walk past a park you helped restore and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Adventures in Preservation. "Upcoming Adventures." (May 6, 2011)
  • Costello, Colleen R. "Volunteer Vacations," Independent (May 6, 2011)
  • Earthwatch Institute. "Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast." (May 6, 2011)
  • Earthwatch Institute. "Help restore important mangrove ecosystems." (May 11, 2011)
  • "Volunteer on Dolphin & Whale Research Projects in the Ligurian Sea, Italy." (May 11, 2011)
  • Habitat for Humanity. "Fact Sheet." (May 6, 2011)
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