5 Tips For Volunteering Abroad
Our guest writer and seasoned volunteer Astrid shares with us her best tips to have a great experience when volunteering abroad, based on her personal experience.
5 Tips For Volunteering Abroad
Volunteering abroad can be a life changing experience, one of the most rewarding experiences you can do on your travels. Before you head off here are 5 tips for volunteering abroad to make the most of your experience.
My volunteering journey first began on my gap year back in 2013 where I fell in love with this form of travel and seeing another part of the world. Since I first volunteered abroad, I have gone on to help in many more countries around the world, learning so much on each project, about myself, others and the world.
I also become a better volunteer on each project, learning from previous mistakes I perhaps made on previous projects. So that you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did, use these 5 tips for volunteering abroad to have the most amazing volunteer experience abroad.
Introduce Yourself To Everyone
During your time volunteering you will befriend so many people, from fellow volunteers to locals you meet. Friendships blossom and it is not uncommon for volunteers to make life long travel buddies planning second and third trips together.
The easiest way to make friends on a project is to personally introduce yourself to everyone within the first twenty-four hours! Make sure that everyone knows your name. It can be awkward volunteering and living next to someone but feeling unconfident to talk to them because you’re not sure of their name. Some people may feel rude asking after already spending 24/7 together.
Learning greetings in the local language can help you befriend locals easily, they will appreciate you going through the effort to learn some phrases in their language. This is especially important on projects further away from cities, in small towns and villages where English isn’t as widely spoken.
Pack The Right Things
Check the weather a week before travel to ensure you pack suitable clothing. Don’t rely on advice from an organisation or other volunteers on what clothes to pack, the weather can be unpredictable and change at any moment. Check the forecasted weather for the following week and pack suitably, even if this means having to 'panic buy' layers at the last minute.
Night time temperatures catch a few volunteers out, some countries are gloriously sunny and warm during the day but after the sun goes down so do the temperatures, dropping to below zero. The Kenyan plains and Ugandan hills are both higher than they seem and it’s not uncommon to put on sweaters and hats in the evening.
Don’t forget to pack
A towel, travel towels are popular among volunteers, they’re lightweight, small and quick drying.
Supplies for volunteering, not just donations to hand over but also activities to do with the children.
Some accommodations will need you to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.
Dry shampoo for when you can’t jump in the shower in the morning.
Baby wipes especially if you are going to a dusty country like Kenya or India or will need to wipe children’s hands.
Mosquito repellent unless want your trip ruined by being bitten all over.
Alternative money to cash: a debit card, preloaded currency card etc.
Some go-to snacks from home, especially if you have a food allergy and may miss out on some meals or for treats if you are staying for a long time.
A large open bag like a ‘bag for life’ to carry all of your supplies to and from each project as it’s hard to fit everything in a regular backpack without getting crushed.
An unlocked phone allowing you to buy a local sim and communicate easily with project coordinators and use internet, not relying on Wi-Fi.
Live Like A Local
It is tempting to go to the most luxurious bar and restaurant, especially if the exchange rate is in your favour making everything much cheaper than back home. This can be exciting, I encourage you to go out on special occasions but doing it every night can add up quickly turning your affordable volunteer trip, expensive.
Some of the best evenings on a volunteer trip are spent with the other volunteers cooking, eating and chilling together. Eating out at restaurants for all three meals a day can add up quickly and put a massive dent in your funds.
Don’t go somewhere simply because it’s in the guidebook, don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track and explore the places locals recommend. It pays to do your research for the best things to do and there is no one better to ask than the locals. Perhaps even trade an excursion or tour for spending the weekend with a local family to get a better understanding of their life and culture.
Prepare For Culture Shock
The conditions in less developed countries are shocking compared to those in developed ones. Be prepared to see schools with no text books, pens or paper and sometimes no teachers. Hospitals have no funding pay their doctors and nurses, let alone purchase new supplies and equipment. This means that scalpels and scissors are rusty, and beds are broken and few. Although it is not a surprise that underdeveloped countries have very little and conditions are poor, many charities bring awareness to this and do good to combat it, the culture shock is indescribable until you are there seeing it with your own eyes.
Being invited into local families’ homes and eating with made me aware of the real poverty and famine in these counties’, children sleeping on the dirty floor and eating a hot meal every other day.
The difference in culture often helps volunteers appreciate the lives they lead, becoming less obsessed on living the perfect lifestyle and more focused on living in the moment, appreciating the life they currently lead. Witnessing locals with so little and still finding reasons to laugh and smile can help put into perspective the need for material possessions. Volunteers return from projects with a better understanding of the world, welcoming other lifestyles and learning from them.
Don’t Plan Ahead
Despite what other blog posts will tell you, never, never, never plan ahead. You will waste money, be tied into commitments and miss other, possibly better opportunities.
I wasted so much money on trips and excursions booking through UK companies, sometimes even with a discount. I felt a mug when I arrived in the country and saw local tour groups running an identical trip for a fraction of the price. On numerous occasions I had spent a couple of hundred more than the person sat next to me on the trip because I booked through the UK. I soon learnt my lesson and after my gap year (which is when I made this crucial mistake) I never pre-booked anything more than one night in a hostel again.
It is not just the money you save by not booking in advance and when you’re there, it also gives freedom. If all of the volunteers are going off down to the beach or to the city centre for the weekend, there is nothing worse than having to go solo on a tour and missing out of adventures with new friends.
My biggest fear before I embarked on my gap year was that if I didn’t have my accommodation pre-booked then I would end up sleeping outside on the streets. When I arrived in my first country I knew I made a mistake. There are many affordable guest homes, hostels and even some hotels which don’t post rooms online which I had missed out on.
Resources For Volunteering Abroad
As well as the above 5 tips for volunteering abroad, below are some handy resources for volunteering abroad to help make planning your volunteering trip that much easier!
Original Volunteers – affordable volunteer sending organisation based in the UK
Trip Advisor – for information and advice on local tours at your destination
Sky Scanner – probably the easiest site to find cheap flights worldwide
FCO – government travel safety information with country-specific updates
Fit For Travel – NHS site lists immunisations needed before travel
Why don’t you use these 5 tips for volunteering abroad and plan a trip to a distant land yourself, helping to build and develop a local community overseas. The experience is like no other! Volunteers learn about themselves, the world and another culture from around the world. What are you waiting for? Begin planning your trip now!
About the author
Astrid Halliday loves travelling and especially getting away overseas to help build and develop a community. Volunteering many times all over the world, she loves sharing her passion and encouraging other to travel in a similar way.