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Intrepid traveler and international volunteer, this week’s guest post has been written for us by Emma Higgins of Gotta Keep Movin’.  

Emma is basically a rock-star!  An incredibly inspiring travel writer, it took her a long time to achieve full-time vagabond status, however with a range of work exchange, volunteering, and jobs she picked up along the way, life of never ending travel became a reality!  Today she writes for us about why volunteering is an awesome way to travel.

I’ve been travelling around the world for 4 years now and I don’t think I could have done any of it without volunteering. Furthermore, I don’t think I would have had half the amazing experiences that I have had if it weren’t for volunteering.

From learning how to make cheese in Canada, to helping fight the problem of street dogs in Peru, volunteering has taken me on some incredible journeys.

Volunteering has so many benefits

So many people think that the benefits of volunteering only really lie in the fact that you’re helping people less fortunate than you. When people think of the words ‘volunteering and travel’, they usually see visions of malnourished orphans in deepest darkest Africa and picture people building a school for them.

Whilst these placements do of course exist and helping people is a serious benefit of volunteering, there are so many other things that can be considered great about using volunteering to travel.

Making volunteering friend in Bariloche, Argentina

Making volunteering friend in Bariloche, Argentina

One serious perk is that if you find free or low cost placements, it can save you a lot of money on the road, keeping you travelling for longer. Many of these kinds of placements that you find through websites such as HelpX or Workaway work on a subscription basis. You pay around $20 for a one- or two-year subscription, then flick through the worldwide opportunities and email the placements directly once you have chosen them.

The placements are work exchange programs, so you offer whatever work they’re asking for in exchange for a free bed and food. Some of them ask for a donation towards food costs – in most cases this is very minimal, and this tends to only really be the case in the poorer countries where they really can’t afford to feed extra mouths. However, there are thousands out there that don’t charge a penny, and projects can range from working on organic farms, to buzzing city hostels, animal shelters, community living projects, and almost anything else you can think of.

Volunteering even gave me the chance to go to a pig auction in Canada!

Volunteering even gave me the chance to go to a pig auction in Canada!

When I first heard about these placements I thought they sounded way too good to be true. How can some volunteer companies charge thousands for 2 weeks, and these charge absolutely nothing for the same kind of thing? Well, the reality of that never ceases to amaze me, and has no logic whatsoever, but that’s just the way it happens. Having gone through work exchange websites for all of my volunteer placements, I can very happily testify that there really are no catches or hidden fees, which makes it such an affordable way to globetrot.

Aside from that, the benefits on volunteering keep rolling in. You can learn some amazing new skills through specific projects, see the real side to a country instead of the cookie-cutter version, meet likeminded travellers instead of the same backpacker over and over again, and even use volunteering for something as simple as getting into shape. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of voluntourism.

Finding a volunteer placement you’ll love

Once you’ve decided that you want to volunteer around the globe, it’s pretty overwhelming knowing where to start. In terms of where you want to go, that one is completely on you as there are placements all across the globe. Some areas are better than others for certain types of volunteering, such as poorer countries for very powerful humanitarian work, or areas where the land is plentiful for intense farming work.

If you have an idea of where you want to go, start thinking about where your interests lie and the kind of things you’d like to gain from a volunteer project. Perhaps there’s one skill that you already have that you want to develop whilst you’re on the road, such as an artistic skill or more experience working in hostels. Maybe you feel like trying your hand at something completely new to you, which is also fine as many placements will take on anyone as long as they seem to have a genuine willingness to work.

Volunteering friends in the middle of no where, British Columbia

Volunteering friends in the middle of no where, British Columbia

Sometimes it can be pot luck with work exchange programs. From the profiles on these websites you should be able to get a pretty good insight into what the people are like, and most will have pictures and reviews from previous volunteers. Email the placements and ask as many questions as you like to get to know what you might be letting yourself in for. A good host will encourage someone to ask as much as possible, as they’re after reliable volunteers and much as you’re after a reliable host.

One word of caution – there are dishonest volunteer placements out there that are not what they say they are. Always make sure you do as much research as possible into a placement; if their profile on the website has no picture or info it could be an alarm bell, and never be afraid to email with questions. If their answer is vague an uninformative, I would skip over that placement altogether. Once you do more volunteering, you’ll recognise these bad signs much quicker and steer clear of shoddy placements easily.

I've learnt how to cook all kinds of things through cooking with families whilst volunteering - here's my Spanish tortilla

I’ve learnt how to cook all kinds of things through cooking with families whilst volunteering – here’s my Spanish tortilla

Unique experiences

Volunteering abroad gets your travel experience out of the guidebooks, off the beaten path, and out onto a road of indescribable adventure. There are very few ways in the world of travel nowadays to blaze your very own trail through a country or continent, a trail that no one else has followed ever before, but volunteering is one way you can do just that.

You can hop from placement to placement, discovering hidden gems so off the tourist trail that the locals don’t even know what a backpack looks like, so far from the hostel lifestyle that no one even knows what the hell beer pong is. Get out there into the volunteering lifestyle, and just let the world reward you, time and time again.

Wearing the sexiest of hair nets making cheese in Canada!

Wearing the sexiest of hair nets making cheese in Canada!

Emma has been writing and travelling on and off since 2009. Her blog, Gotta Keep Movin’ is full of stories and advice from her trips, which include Europe, India, Morocco, South America, the USA and Canada. Her main focuses are budget travel and volunteering, and she has been involved in sustainable farming in Argentina, animal shelters in Peru, and even tried her hand at making goats cheese in British Columbia.

Follow her travels on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest

    24 Comments

  1. Great Post! And everything of this is so true!

    • Thanks Zof – she’s an amazing writer and an inspiring traveller!

  2. Awesome post and resources, though helpx has been down the past couple of times I tried to check it out. I’m getting ready to volunteer in Mexico this winter and not sure where it’ll take me. But we’ll certainly see! :)

    • Keep us posted, sounds like a great experience!

  3. Our two EUropean volunteering stints are some of the most memorable experiences we’ve had on this trip. I’m hoping to do more of it in the future!

    • Volunteering is such a memorable way to see the world – some of my best travel moments have been while volunteering :) Let me know if you would like to share your experiences – always open to guest blogs :)

  4. Great info, I’ve looked into volunteering abroad a few time, but so many opportunities are soooo expensive! I’ll have to check these out. Thanks!

    • Definitely – I too originally thought volunteering overseas was incredibly expensive, but it’s all about which organization you go with and which projects you choose :)

  5. Some really great resources and ideas. Volunteering abroad would be a really neat experience (and different every time). Thanks!

    • I hope you have the chance to experience a volunteer placement for yourself – make 2014 your year! Feel free to contact us should you need anymore tips or advice :)

  6. I think it’s important that you touched on dishonest volunteer placements, but I noticed you didn’t mention the fact that when tourists volunteer in developing countries it often takes away paid job opportunities from locals who need the income. I hope that voluntourists ask themselves if their “volunteer” work could actually be done by a local person (even if some training is required), and if so I would encourage them to leave that work to a local person who needs it. Someone who wants to make a difference can always make a donation to a group who trains locals in the skills currently being offered by foreign volunteers.

    • Thanks for your comment and highlighting a really important issue. We’re so quick (me included) to jump at an opportunity to both travel and “help” that sometimes we look past potential problems like this.

      My sister recently volunteered in an orphanage in Cambodia and saw first hand the greed and complete corruption which went on – and how none of the money sent to the orphanage was actually used for the benefit of the children. We were told if we wanted to help not to send money but instead physical objects and toys. She said the main benefit in them being there was that the children experienced kindness. Sad.

      You raise an excellent point about taking away paid job opportunities from locals – obviously this goes against the very point of being there in the first place. Will be keeping this in mind for future volunteer placements and be more mindful of the potential impact our presence in a location can have.

  7. Great post. We love volunteering but didn’t know about these websites. Will be checking them out!

    • Hope you can find something which suits you! Happy and safe travels :)

  8. Wonderful information. We looked into volunteering at one point but could only find opportunities that were really expensive. I appreciate the resources here,

    • There are definitely a LOT of expensive volunteer programs out there, and it’s fairly difficult to find cheaper/free alternatives if you don’t know where to look. Hope the resources help!

  9. Great post – I will try helpx and workaway for sure – it sounds like a great way to save money whilst also meeting and helping local people, learning new skills and having unique experiences.

    • Definitely check them out – and have a blast on your travels! Glad we could provide some useful tips for you :)

  10. It must be incredibly rewarding. I love the feel-good feeling of doing something to help others, no matter how small it is. Just the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done something to make someone’s life that little bit better, makes it all worthwhile.

    • That’s exactly it – and volunteering abroad is so great because it combines that rewarding feeling with the opportunity to see and explore the world!

  11. I’m inspired to go volunteer! The best part might be the people you meet, even if it’s only a short volunteer session.

    • I’m so glad Todd! And absolutely, the best part truly is the people you meet, regardless of for how long you travel :)

      Happy travels and I hope you have the opportunity to volunteer somewhere sometime soon!

  12. Thank you for sharing this article.

    • You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed the post :)

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