Volunteer Abroad

6 Ideas for Meaningful Volunteer Vacations to Take in 2022

There are so many different ways to pair your next vacation with meaningful volunteering. Get inspired by these 6 ideas to help you take the next step toward a more fulfilling travel experience.

TLDR 👀

  • Volunteer vacations differ from traditional volunteering in that they pair sight-seeing and/or adventure travel with short-term volunteer projects.
  • If you're considering taking a volunteer vacation, look for projects that maximize impact in the local community. This includes contributing skills you already have or joining projects that require little training.
  • Voluntourism can be done ethically if you do your research and plan accordingly. Working within the conservation field, helping with construction projects, or contributing your skills in IT, writing, or design are safe bets to avoid unintentionally harming vulnerable populations.
Julie L., IVHQ South Africa

Traveling to other countries is a brilliant way to get to know the world and understand how we are all interconnected. It is also an opportunity to relax, recharge, and find introspection through stepping away from your daily life.

However, the past two years have limited, if not completely eliminated, our options for travel. We've been confined to our homes and have been, understandably, very focused on ourselves and those closest to us. Our ability to give back has been stifled by this global pandemic.

But what if you could do something for yourself while on vacation and simultaneously spend your time in a meaningful way in 2022? If you add a volunteering stint to your holidays, you can do something good in the communities you visit while engaging in the self-care we all need in the face of Covid-19. You may even experience your destination at a much deeper level when you go on a volunteer vacation.

What is a volunteer vacation?

While it may sound self-explanatory, a volunteer vacation is the combination of travel with volunteering, helping to add purpose to your trip. Commonly referred to as voluntourism, travelers will find NGOs and other organizations to provide services to the communities that host their vacation. This is typically differentiated from volunteerism via the length of the trip. A volunteer vacation refers to a short-term excursion and volunteer commitment, whereas volunteerism refers to a long-term commitment to travel and service.

What is ethical voluntourism?

Voluntourism has gotten negative press (and for good reason) but it can be done ethically and responsibly in the right circumstances. Generally, pairing a vacation with helping refugees or teaching children probably isn't the most appropriate combination given the limited impact you will likely make. Working with vulnerable populations takes a serious commitment and substantial time. People in need require continuity in their lives rather than a revolving door of volunteers.

If you want to pair short-term volunteering with your vacation, aim for projects that don't involve teaching, healthcare, or childcare -- unless of course, you are a qualified professional in these areas.

What kind of projects can I participate in on my volunteer vacation?

The best types of volunteer vacation ideas don't include working directly with people and won't require a substanial amount of training. Some project types to consider include:

  • Socializing shelter dogs to prepare them for adoption
  • Helping with construction, clean-up, and/or sanitation projects
  • Collecting data for conservation efforts
  • Sorting and organizing donations for relief organizations
  • Putting your skills in writing, design, and/or IT to good use for a local NGO
  • Assisting local medical staff at a clinic if you are a licensed, experienced health professional

Those interested in volunteer vacations should strive to maximize impact while minimizing potential harm to the community served.

What is the potential impact of my volunteer experience?

You can ensure your volunteering impact reaches its maximum potential by joining projects that require minimal training or need skillsets that you already possess. When you have limited time to contribute, spending the majority of the experience training eats into valuable work time.

How long is the typical volunteer vacation?

Most US companies only offer 10 paid vacation days a year. Because of this, the typical volunteer vacation for US citizens is two weeks or less. To accommodate this, many volunteer organizations have experiences that start at one week.

If you desire to add service to your next trip overseas, read on for some inspiring ideas for the various meaningful volunteer vacations to take in 2022.

Important: The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dynamic travel landscape. The following countries are open to international travelers at the time this article was written. However, it's essential to review travel requirements and stay up to date with regulations in any country you plan to visit as regulations can shift rapidly.

1. Safari in South Africa, then volunteer with wildlife

Jade F., ISV South Africa

A safari in South Africa is a staple on most people's bucket lists. To be out in nature and get a chance to see the Big Five is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will stay with you forever. Imagine if you could dive even deeper into South Africa’s natural wonders?

Tack on a stay at one of the many projects in South Africa that work with wildlife and help to protect it. You can decide to work with primates, cats, or other species and gain a deeper understanding and insight into the problems these animals face. Your work will contribute to their conservation, and you will walk away with experiences and knowledge that you cannot gain on a safari only.

For more detailed travel information, consult the South African government website.

2. Learn to surf in Costa Rica, then save the sea turtles

Liberty B., The Science Exchange Costa Rica

Learning to surf is one of the coolest ways you can spend your vacation. You are at the beach all the time, you get to meet people from around the world, and you will definitely have the time of your life. Where better to ride the waves than in Costa Rica? Whether you are a beginner or a pro, you will find the perfect spot for you in Costa Rica.

However, there are also ways to give back. As a surfer, you are inherently passionate about the ocean and likely possess an understanding of the risk to sea life posed by climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Spend some more time in beautiful Costa Rica and volunteer with a project to save the sea turtles and other sea life! This is an opportunity to positively impact the ecosystem you love and gain a much deeper understanding of the issues connected to sea conservation.

For more detailed travel information, consult the official Costa Rica tourism website.

3. Trek in Nepal, then volunteer with homeless animals

A young street dog in Nepal.

Nepal is known for its impressive mountains and treks that you can take. If you visit the Annapurna, Langtang, or even Everest, you will come away in awe of the natural beauty and scale of the geography. Hiking through the mighty Himalayas, accompanied by Yaks and sleeping in tiny teahouses along the way, is the perfect way to find peace and grounding. You will get a glimpse into a different culture and the challenges of surviving in this region of the world.

Following a rejuvenating trek, head to Kathmandu to take on another challenge. Stray dogs are a sizeable problem in cities across Nepal, not only because of the public health risk. From an animal welfare perspective, the majority of these dogs suffer from illness, starvation, and cruelty. In response to this, local organizations have formed to spay/neuter homeless dogs and feed and care for the sick and injured with the hopes of rehoming them locally or internationally. Give back to the animals that give us unconditional love on your next volunteer vacation.

For more detailed travel information, consult the US Embassy in Nepal website.

4. Explore the Peruvian Amazon, then work to protect it

A suspension bridge in the Amazon Rainforest.

Although 60% of the Amazon rainforest lies within Brazil's borders, it also stretches across substantial portions of Peru. While massively important to fighting climate change, the Amazon is also home to a large population of Indigenous peoples from over 180 groups. Over 3 million species can be in the Amazon making this region among the most biodiverse on the planet.

While you're exploring this natural wonder, you can add a volunteering component to your dream vacation in Peru. One option is to join an organization tracking wildlife biodiversity, trekking through the rainforest to record species encountered and their GIS coordinates. Your work can help inform conservation policy and measure the effects of deforestation.

For more detailed travel information, consult the official Peru tourism website.

5. Sail the Galapagos Islands, then help protect them

Ana, Pacific Discovery Galapagos Islands

Ecuador is an amazing country to visit – and one of the highlights has to be the Galapagos Islands. To truly see the islands where Darwin developed his theory of evolution, you'll need to go on a boat. Hop from island to island and discover the wonders of nature. Walking with turtles, diving with sharks and seals, and stepping over iguanas – that’s daily life on the Galapagos!

If you add a volunteering stay in one of the many conservation projects on one of the islands, you can add another layer of value to your trip. Not only will you be able to see life on the islands from a different perspective, but you will also contribute to protecting this magical habitat. Make your next vacation something special and share your time through service.

For more detailed travel information, consult the US Embassy in Ecuador website.

6. Visit the natural wonders of Bolivia, then defend endangered species

Ryann V., Operation Groundswell Bolivia

Bolivia is an incredibly geographically diverse country. You can visit the jungle, climb mountains, drive on huge salt flats, and stroll through beautiful cities, all in the same country. If you are into nature, Bolivia is a wonderful destination for a volunteer vacation.

In Bolivia, you can choose from a variety of projects and help to protect the wildlife of the jungle. Imagine how much deeper your understanding of the country will become once you work with endangered species. While you learn and traverse the region, you can also give back and support!

For more detailed travel information, consult the US Embassy in Bolivia website.

Take a volunteer vacation the right way

While volunteering abroad can be a fantastic way to immerse yourself in local communities, give back to a place that hosts you, and gain valuable experiences, it's essential to do so safely and ethically. It's important to realize that the social, environmental, cultural, and political issues suffered throughout the globe are profoundly complex and systemic. Don't travel with the idea that you will save the world during your month abroad. Instead, find ethical organizations in which you possess skills that can support their efforts. Thoroughly vet the volunteer organizations you plan to work with and study the issues they are working on.

Additionally, consider your health and safety whenever traveling, including your mental health. You may work on extremely physically or mentally draining projects or be around animals that you have little to no experience with. Once you find an organization you believe in, listen and follow their rules strictly.

Whether you are a solo traveler, a couple looking to bond through travel and service, or a family wanting to give back, there are organizations spanning across the globe that need volunteers to help solve complex issues. If you're looking to get more out of your travels, consider taking a volunteer vacation.