Photo by ollie harridge.
You Can Practice Your Skills or Learn New Ones
If you have a specialized skill set, a volunteer vacation can be a good way to put your skills to use in another country. For instance, if you’re a doctor you can volunteer your skills to a vaccination shelter. If you’re a teacher, you can teach. You don’t always need special skills though. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about carpentry, for example, you can build a house on your volunteer vacation. If you’re a student, volunteering on a scientific exhibition can add flavor to your resume and experience in the field.
You Can Write Off What You Do Spend
Of course, one of the biggest factors in choosing a vacation is cost. Some volunteer vacations will still require a hefty up-front charge to participate and don’t include airfare. Others are totally free while you’re participating. The price difference is directly related to the work your doing, the insurance required, and the materials needed. Teaching English to a farmer in Poland isn’t all that dangerous, but diving into the sea to film turtles hatching is.
That said, any money you do pay can be written off as a charitable contribution on your taxes. As a general rule, you can write off any expenses you pay to the organization as long as they’re a non-profit. Any non-profit you enroll in will have a 501(c) designation somewhere on the website. You can also search the government’s registry to make sure the organization qualifies as tax-deductible. Your airfare, Visa, and travel-related expenses are also tax-deductible if you volunteer an average of eight hours a day.
If you’ve decided a volunteer vacation might be a good idea for your next trip, it’s time to get to research. Let’s look at a few of the sites you can use to find opportunities and verify you’re volunteering for an organization you’re comfortable at.
Photo by KOMUnews.
How to Find a Volunteer Job That’s Right for You
Planning volunteer vacations can require a bit more work than you may be used to, depending on how you normally plan your vacations. You won’t find a bunch of deal aggregation sites that filter everything for you in a neat pattern. Instead, your best bet is to go directly through the non-profit. Here are a few places to get you started on your search:
- American Hiking Society: As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to wander off into the American wilderness and go hiking, you might as well improve on the trails and area as you go along. From my own experience, volunteering with the American Hiking Society is a blast for a number of reasons. If you’re a beginner camper, it sticks you with people who know what they’re doing so you can learn the ropes. The work itself is as simple as constructing steps or transporting vegetation. You pay a $245 membership fee, but everything is free, including meals, boarding, and park fees.
- World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms: This one is simple: work on a farm and get free boarding and food for your stay. You can do this around the world and for the most part, you know exactly what to expect. It’s not easy work, but it might be worth it for the savings.
- Habitat for Humanity: Remember when we mentioned building houses earlier? Right, this is where you volunteer to do it. Experience isn’t as necessary but you should be physically capable.
- Global Volunteer: This site isn’t exactly the cutting edge of travel booking, but it gets you the information you need. As the name suggests, Global Volunteer is best for global trips and is at its best at providing information about volunteering in Africa and Asia. The work ranges from teaching English to building homes.
- Sierra Club: If you’re the type of person to spend your vacations outdoors, the Sierra Club’s offering might be appealing. They usually cover the rooms, food, and materials you need, but they can get pretty costly. The benefit? On top of volunteering you also get to surf in the oceans off New Zealand or service trails in Hawaii.
- Idealist: Idealist is a massive database of volunteer opportunities from around the globe. It’s not geared directly toward volunteer vacations, but as a search engine, it’s a good place to start and find the non-profits working in the country you’re interested in visiting. You can find temporary volunteer opportunities that offer housing and food.
- VAOPS: The site is not pretty, but what it does, it does well. Instead of concentrating on the middleman (and adding cost), VAOPS gives you links directly to the charities so you can plan through them. This means you can find zero cost trips easily. Transitions Abroad is a similar service.
- STA Travel: If you’re a student or teacher, you can use the already cheap STA Travel to find and book a volunteer vacation. These are typically on the pricier side, but include more “adventure” style vacations where you’re chasing down sharks for rescuing turtles for a week.
If you’re using one of the above search engines, keep in mind it’s possible to use them as a suggestion as opposed to a booking agent. If you find a cause you’re interested in and a location you’d like to go, try visiting the non-profit itself to see if you can schedule directly through them.
If you are planning on leaving the country, don’t forget that aside from a Visa, you also might need vaccinations. The CDC provides a list of what you need. You should also do a little research into the non-profit to make sure it’s legit. Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and The Better Business Bureau are good places to research before making plans.
Now that we have an outline of the resources available, let’s go ahead and plan a sample trip and see how much money we can save in the process.
Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prarie.
Book a Trip to Hawaii and Save $1,000
While I’ve done smaller jaunts in North America, I’ve never gone for the full-force two-three week volunteer vacation across the globe. Personally, I’ve always had a desire to visit and work at the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine, but since I imagine most people don’t share that desire, let’s go with something a bit more exciting: Let’s plan a volunteer vacation to Hawaii.
Step 1: Find a Volunteer Opportunity in Hawaii
Let’s start with some quick numbers. An average price for a hotel on one of the islands of Hawaii is around $100 a night (though you could easily find a more expensive hotel). A flight will cost about $850-$900 from the U.S. during most times of the year. So for a trip to Hawaii for one person and not included meal expenses we’re looking at around $1,450.
Searching the sites above, I came up with two appealing options:
- Sierra Club’s hiking and service in Kauai ($945 + airfare): This trip requires moderate work on trails in a national park across a seven-day period and includes meals, in country transportation, and boarding. The work takes about eight hours a day and involves picking up trash, moving rocks for trail posts, and removing exotic plants. Three of the days are devoted heavily to work, while the rest of your time can be spent however you see fit. It’s more expensive than the cost of a hotel, but gets you to the outdoors with people who know what they’re doing.
- American Hiking’s Iao Valley State Park vacation ($245 + airfare): This trip also requires some moderate work on trails in a state park. You will be doing the same type of work as the Sierra Club for about eight hours each day. The price includes meals, permits, and boarding. As the cheaper option, this is the most appealing. A shared cabin isn’t a hotel, but if you’re in Hawaii, you shouldn’t be spending too much time indoors anyway.
Deciding on the location and volunteer work is just the first step. Unlike a regular vacation, volunteer work requires you to apply to make sure you’re capable of doing the work. This application process typically takes a week and can be submitted online. These aren’t hard hitting questions. They typically cover your experience, physical condition, and volunteer history. Not having experience doesn’t immediately bar you from participating, but the application process works to vet people who might be in over their head. Make no mistake about it, this will be work no matter what type of volunteering you do.
Before you settle on your plan, request an information packet and itinerary for your visit. This will help you make your final decision and guarantee no surprises will ruin your trip.
Once you hear back from the non-profit and are accepted, you can book your flight through any channel of your choosing. If you’re getting picked up at the airport by the volunteer service they’ll give you a time slot to shoot for. The same goes for the returning flight. Check out ultimate travel hacking guide for a few useful tricks to get cheap tickets.
Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner.
Step 2: Figure Out What You Need
Working in a foreign place is difficult enough as it is, but doing it without the proper gear is going to make your life miserable. You will receive a packing list from the volunteer organization of everything you need. Follow this as closely as possible. In addition to normal vacation items like clothes and a toothbrush, we’ll need: a sleeping bag, rain jacket, hiking boots, mosquito repellent, and a day pack for this trip.
Photo by Nestor Lacle.
Step 3: What To Do When You Arrive
For many of these vacations, you get picked up at the airport with a group of other participants on the first day. They take you to the volunteer site and let you unwind before giving you an orientation on the program. Depending on where you are and what type of work you’re doing, this will vary from a primer on cultural customs to a brief walk around the work site.
In our American Hiking Society example, we’re not getting picked up at the airport. According to Google Maps, no good bus system gets us from the airport to the volunteer site, so we’ll take a cab. At $3 a mile, a cab will cost about $24.
Once we arrive, we get checked in and go to the cabin to meet the rest of the volunteers. For the next week, we’ll be cleaning up trails, taking hikes, and enjoying the wilderness of Hawaii. Meals are provided by our host, as is a plan for every day of the week. Sure, a big chunk of our day is work, but at least we’re in a great location.
The Final Cost Breakdown
Before we break down the cost, we need to add a meals to the regular vacation. For three meals at an estimate of $10 a meal, we can add an additional $200 to the minimum cost. Every trip is going to net different results, but it’s a fair starting point.
But we’re not done yet. We volunteered for the full duration of our stay in Hawaii so the entire trip is tax deductible.
Donations to the American Hiking Society are completely tax deductible. This includes the plane fare, cab, and any additional fees incurred. For a full list of what you can deduct from your volunteer vacation, check out the IRS Publication 526 or get in touch with a tax professional. Your tax situation is different from mine, but for someone like me, a $1,100 tax deduction can add an estimated $400 to my rebate. This drops our basic cost to $700. Not bad for a week long trip to Hawaii.
Volunteer Vacation: $700
Regular Vacation: $1,650
Volunteering on your vacation isn’t for everyone. Nor is it for every trip you take. It is a good way to explore a part of the world you would not otherwise see or be able to afford. If you’re a student, it’s a great way to get experience in the field by volunteering on a science expedition. Even as a working adult, these experiences are worth your resume. Personally, I see it as a way means to go on a trip and interact directly with a culture or landscape without the need for rental cars, bus schedules, or complicated itineraries. Plus, if worked right, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.