Want Cheaper, Longer, More Authentic Travel? Try Volunteering
Voluntourism offers extended travel without draining your bank account.
World travel can be a daunting idea. Planning takes months and uncountable hours online, searching for the best/cheapest/most authentic destinations. The fear of the unknown – new cultural norms, unusual food, complicated mass transit systems – is enough to cause most people to hesitate. And perhaps the biggest obstacle to leaving your life behind and hopping on a plane to a new part of the planet is the money.
Volunteer websites like Helpx (www.helpx.net) and Workaway (www.workaway.info) make traveling abroad easier and cheaper by partnering volunteers with locals who need an extra set of hands. Whether travelers are skilled in gardening, carpentry, cooking, writing code or managing social media, they can find someone who can use their talents.
Often, a volunteer opportunity is in a community off the well-beaten tourist paths. Not only are helpers given a rare glimpse into the lives of tight-knit local groups but they’re also welcomed as members – eating together, telling stories and sharing ideas.
In this type of “voluntourism,” hosts provide three meals a day and a bed, and volunteers are expected to work about four to six hours a day, four or five days a week, which allows the traveler time to explore and experience the new country and culture around them.
Shileah Pleasant graduated from the University of North Texas in Dallas last year and has since volunteered in three countries while traveling through Europe and Asia.
Pleasant says she’s saved thousands of dollars by volunteering and was able to add Southeast Asia to her travel route this past spring – a trip she originally didn’t expect to take.
“The major benefit is being able to sustain trips with little to no money. Money aside,” she says, “you also gain great friendships, connections for other positions and being able to make a positive difference for the people/business you’re helping.”
Ben Lear, a former Busan-based English teacher, has volunteered his time and skills in eight countries around the world.
“It’s a great way to travel and stay with people that already have a great setup. For example, stay with an outdoor couple and you have access to all their kit and knowledge, which is hard to put a price on. Ideally, they would take you to places you would never have seen alone,” he says.
According to Marie Chatard, a volunteer from France who travels between Costa Rica and Germany, “The best way to know people from the country and integrate into the culture is to work.”
She first volunteered through Workaway in 2015 as a photographer and tour guide for a B&B in Costa Rica. She returned this February to volunteer again. This time, she says, it’s “kind of a friendship situation where I help.”
Volunteers usually work with a group of other travelers, and Helpx even offers a message board for those looking for travel buddies. Pleasant says that, for her, lasting friendships have been the best part about volunteering.
“You’re always working and living with a small group of people that become really close. My co-workers in France and I not only ran a hostel together, but we also ate every meal together, went clubbing every night with guests and roamed the city during the day,” she says.
Helpers often stay two weeks or more with a host, and some even find a new place to call home.
Chatard fell in love with “pura vida” and just purchased two hectares of land in Costa Rica to one day create her own dream tree house B&B.
However, Lear says, “it’s not all roses. Communication can be an issue between hosts and helpers with what is expected, so it is important to be very clear from the outset. Check references and call the hosts to get an idea of their philosophy and temperament.”
Pleasant heeds the same warning. “Even if the hosts’ profiles say they include certain benefits, message the host and clarify exactly what you should expect,” she says.
Overall though, she says, “I would absolutely recommend volunteering. If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to travel alone and loves to meet new people, then volunteering would be a great choice.”
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