How To Volunteer Abroad For Free

Volunteering abroad can truly be the trip of a lifetime. Developing professional and personal skills whilst giving back and developing a community. However high programme fees excluding flights can discourage people venturing abroad.

Why Are There So Few Free Volunteering Options?

Searching for ‘free volunteering abroad’ can bring up very few genuine results. Small charities and projects have much smaller advertising budgets if any at all compared to volunteer organisations which may charge thousands per week which can be found unsurprisingly all over the internet.

Here are some other reasons free programmes are hard to find:

  • No Money To Host Volunteers
  • Volunteers Need Adequate Support
  • Flights Impossibly Expensive

Most regions of a country where volunteering is most needed are under developed and need financial aid themselves.

Quality programmes often include accommodation and a support teams’ wages and often need to be paid for throughout the year, ready to receive volunteers at any time.

Whilst it is possible on a longer stay for most people to manage with more humble accommodation and without a local guide, in fact there are year long programmes in Europe where volunteers are expected to locate the charities, introduce themselves and complete all documentation, it is not a realistic option for anyone with only a week or two spare to spend a week or more settling in.

Airfares to Africa can be anything between £400-£700. The average volunteer can only spare two weeks. A flight is a big investment for a small charity to make. In developing countries, one airfare may pay a local teacher for four months. Questions would certainly be asked if British state schools and charities paid thousands of pounds for flights for international short staying volunteers.


Understanding The Costs

To help reduce the amount spent on volunteering abroad, understanding where money is spent helps minimise the outlay. Total trip costs can be divided across the following:

  • Programme Fees
  • Airfare
  • Miscellaneous and Hidden Costs

Reducing Programme Fees

Some programmes don’t charge programme fees but may be highly selective and require lengthy commitments of between six months to two years. These aren’t practical options for most students or anyone squeezing in volunteering on a break from work.

Short – term volunteer organised programmes, which are the most popular type of trip taken, typically charge programme fees although there are still huge variations even between low cost providers.

Low cost organisations charging fairly priced programme fees of between £50 and £100 a week do exist, you just have to look a bit harder searching, on the second or third page of search results.


Airfare Costs

International flights around the world come with a heavy cost. Here are five ways to reduce expenditure:

  • Use your own air miles that you have collected over time, these can reduce the cost of your flight considerably. Friends and families can also donate.
  • Ask the airline for free baggage allowance. They can say only say no. A letter from your volunteer sending organisation may help.
  • Fly somewhere closer to home. You don’t need to stay in Europe, flights to Africa can be considerably less than Asia and Latin America if you fly off season.
  • Travel outside of peak season when possible. Flights taken between July 20th and September 10th can double in price. If you must travel in the summer, try to arrive in June or the start of July if possible.
  • Use a recommended flight provider. There may be a reason one is recommended. Even if they are not cheaper, they may be able to find a faster route with a better airline for the same price, this may actually save money as you won’t be spending money on long stopovers in airport cafes and duty free.
  • Check if there is a budget airline for the region you are flying to. For example, it may be cheaper to fly to a major Asian city with one airline followed by a regional budget airline for the last short hop to your destination.

Adding Up The Hidden Costs

There will be some expenses which you may overlook as they’re not as obvious, but if forgotten they can cause budgets to soar and as there are so many, it is easy to overspend.

Decide in advance how much you can realistically afford or would like to spend. A project which offers a free stay may require more expenditure than on a programme with weekly accommodation and support fees.

Miscellaneous costs include:

  • Travel Insurance. Essential for any travels abroad. Without it, expect to pay between £100 and £300 for a straightforward hospital stay.
  • Immunisations. Ask your local doctor or travel clinic in advance if any vaccinations are free and those which are absolutely essential, sometimes travel nurses will suggest everything on the list even if the risk is low for the specific region visited.
  • Medication. Malaria tablets can be bought over the counter at a larger chemist, ask for the cheapest options.
  • Currency. Airport exchange rates are typically much lower than high street money convertors.
  • Airport Drop off and Pick Up. Travelling abroad begins at your front door. Pre-arranging transportation to and from the airport in advance will lower the cost.
  • Airport and Airplane food. Eating before you get to the airport and purchasing your meal when you buy your flights will be much cheaper than not planning and simply eating when you’re hungry.
  • Toiletries. There is always something missing, shampoo, conditioner, sun cream, mosquito repellent. Corner shops know tourists forget these items and charge more for them. Do not be surprised to find a bottle of factor 30 suncream abroad for £40.
  • Daily Expenses. Depending on the location, £5-£10 a day should be plenty for food and transport.
  • An emergency fund is essential. You never know what unexpected surprises may happen just like on holiday.
  • Accommodation. Trips planned through an organisation often include accommodation, either at a volunteer house or with a host family. Independent volunteers may have to account for accommodation themselves.

Volunteering Supplies

Some resources for volunteering will need to be bought in your home country and taken with you. In-country supplies may be cheaper and lower quality or more expensive because of import taxes or virtually impossible to find. Even where supplies might be bought in-country cheaply, for short stay volunteers it is not ideal to spend a day or more shopping before you can get started. This will especially be the case in Africa or remote parts of Asia.

A reputable volunteer organisation or experienced charity should be able to advise you on what you should bring from home from the experiences and recommendations of previous volunteers. Teachers should always arrive with some A4 paper, pens and felt tips. Building volunteers should bring protective gloves, strong shoes and a wider rimmed sunhat. Animal volunteers need sets of working clothes which they don’t mind getting drool on or animals ripping.

Likewise personal supplies for travelling, such as: new luggage, new clothes, new toiletries, new camera, treats and food items or a guidebook can all add up and few are really necessary.

Apply For Grants and Scholarships

Consider applying for grants to reduce costs even further. Check out our blog post on travel grants for volunteering abroad and general travel. Grants vary in prices from £50 to £1000.

Scholarships and grants are limited and highly competitive. Applications can take time to complete. Including: written proposals, personal essays, video submissions, letter of recommendations and interview.

Certain scholarship applicants have requirements post trip and ask volunteers to produce a report on their experience. Applying early for numerous options optimises your chances of obtaining funding.


Long Stay Volunteering

With any organisation, programme fees usually reduce after the first two weeks becoming considerably reasonably for stays of between 8 and 12 weeks. In addition, long stay volunteers adjust to the money and often become as frugal as the locals.

A £5 meal may seem very expensive after a couple of months. It is not uncommon for longer stay travellers staying in one place to know where to eat for less than a pound or receive free meals in return for private tuition or other favours.

If you work hard and got along with your hosts and in-country staff, a project may invite you to carry on the good work at no weekly charge. Sometimes this comes as an extension of your trip whilst other volunteers may return home and then fly out again the following year.

Help may be in the form of cleaning, cooking, administration, shopping or in a leadership and management role, perhaps organising rotas, organising new arrivals, workshops, fundraising or project and community events.

How Much Should I Expect To Pay In Total?

On affordable programmes it should be possible to cover all the essential costs: flights, programme fees, visas, insurance, transfers and personal spending for between £1000 and £1500 for a placement between 2 and 6 weeks.

Don’t let it get between you and your goal to make a difference!

Original Volunteers have programme fees starting from as little as £12.50 a week.

For further advice on how to find the right project for your budget:

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