Whether you’re organizing an educational spring break for your family, a retiree looking for a productive ways to enjoy your golden years, or simply interested in purpose-driven travel, finding a volunteer trip that’s right for you that also has a positive impact on the destination gets complicated.
We’ve pulled together a guide to planning a volunteer trip with help from REI Adventures general manager Cynthia Dunbar. Since 2010, REI Adventures has offered trail-maintenance volunteer trips to destinations including Machu Picchu and Torres del Paine. The travel company also won the “Best Trips That Do Good” category of our annual Traveler’s Choice Awards the past two years in a row.
“I think it’s important for companies to be able to offer these to their customers as a way of taking care of the places that we visit that may be threatened because of tourism,” says Dunbar. Here’s how to plan a volunteer trip you’ll really love.
Step 1: Decide whether you want a volunteer vacation or you want to volunteer on vacation
Most good volunteer trips require a commitment of a week or more. It takes time to settle into most projects and be able to contribute effectively. (Here, we’re focusing on the trips you could take with a standard two-week vacation; anything longer requires different considerations and should be planned accordingly.)
You may be happier simply planning a vacation, then investigating volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits when you arrive. Many conservation-minded hotels now organize beach cleanups or tree-planting activities. In some destinations, you can even find volunteer tours. For example, Taiwanese tour operator Topology offers a “Sweet Potato Mama” experience, during which travelers hawk sweet potatoes with a street vendor for an afternoon. It’s part of a self-reliance project that supports single mothers and is really about supporting the project through the cost of the tour, but working with the women fosters the kind of connection that many seek when volunteering.
Be sure to check up on the credentials of any short-term volunteer opportunities you find—most reliable ones are run by established nonprofits or government-supported foundations.
Step 2: Identify a cause that speaks to you
If you do want to spend a week or more working on vacation, you’ll feel most fulfilled if it’s doing something you care deeply about, whether that’s animal welfare, scientific research, teaching, or more. “A lot of the customers that travel on our volunteer trips are very involved in the environment and taking care of nature,” says Dunbar, “especially in those iconic places that people love and oftentimes love to death.”
Additionally, many volunteer projects—especially those involving teaching and healthcare—need skilled volunteers. If it’s an area you’re passionate about and have experience in or are licensed in, your work will have a greater impact.
Step 3: Know what to expect
Many volunteer trips do include some sightseeing, but be aware that most of your time will likely be spent volunteering.
“We bookend our trips with visits to different iconic local sites and opportunities to experience some of the local culture,” says Dunbar, “but the bulk of the trip is hard work.” On one of these trail maintenance trips with REI Adventures, guests pack a brown bag lunch in the morning, go out on the trail and work all day, and “come back pretty dirty and tired at the end of it.”
However, you’ll also get to experience the destination in special ways. On REI Adventures’ volunteer trip to Machu Picchu, guests may clear plants or do landscaping work in parts of the park that most visitors never see. And it’s easy to bond with locals (with anyone, really) after sharing a hard day’s work. “We always gather for a really lovely meal at the end of the day,” notes Dunbar, “and a lot of times the park rangers come and join us.”
Step 4: Find the right company to travel with
The most difficult part of planning a volunteer vacation is choosing the right project. There’s a dark side to this industry that involves unscrupulous operators and unnecessary projects that actually drain communities of resources rather than helping them.
The easiest way to avoid that is to book through a trusted travel company that shares your values. They’ll have already done the legwork to find ethical, responsible projects to work with.
“It took us a long time to find the right partner to work with to provide trips,” says Dunbar. “We wanted one that really took care of nature and the outdoors and aligned with REI’s giving philosophy.” That organization is ConservationVIP, which was started by a group of volunteers who were former park rangers in the U.S. national park system.
“ConservationVIP had a background in understanding how people could give back [in parks] . . . and had a lot of great training on how to do trail maintenance and trail restoration and trail construction.” It also had experience working in international national parks, such as Torres del Paine, which REI customers love.
A few well-established travel companies that offer volunteer trips include:
World Expeditions Elevate Destinations GoPhilanthropic Travel
If you’d rather find a project on your own, Go Overseas and GivingWay are both excellent search platforms that allow you to filter by trip type, destination, duration, traveler type, and more. MovingWorlds is a matching service that connects you with nonprofits and other social-impact organizations based on your expertise.
Whatever organization you travel with, Dunbar advises that you understand their ethos and their impact. “And make sure you’re supporting an organization that’s using sustainable tourism practices and that works with local guides, small in-country operators, and local-owned restaurants and hotels,” says Dunbar. “Things like that really make a difference in small communities.”
Step 5: Ask the right questions before booking
“In my experience,” says Dunbar, “a lot of people aren’t quite as physically and mentally prepared for the full days of work [as they thought they were].” Read your itinerary a few times, then reach out to the company and speak to someone directly.
“For us, and I’m sure other travel companies feel the same way,” says Dunbar, “we want this to be a really great experience for customers.” So ask all the questions you may have. It’s even more important than usual to know you’ll be comfortable with the experience, and that you understand how to prepare for it emotionally and physically.
“It’s really a different experience than someone might have, say, trekking the Inca Trail with us,” says Dunbar. “You might not see as much as you might if you were going to be doing a full-on 10-day trekking trip in that region, but you really get a sense of satisfaction of accomplishing something at the end of the day.”
>>Next: How to Help the World When You Can’t Leave the House
Maggie Fuller Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.