Volunteer Holidays – What You Need To Know

What Are Volunteer Holidays?

They involve spending time off work or in school holidays, usually abroad, instead of vacationing. A volunteer holiday is a way to be active and engage with your host country in more depth than from a conventional holiday. Volunteer holidays are popular with students on gap years, but people of all ages can take part, including families and retirees. You can go anywhere in the world, from the UK and Australia to Peru and Cambodia.

When did volunteer holidays get popular?

Volunteers would take trips through the 1800s to give service to those in need in the Christian tradition, which still continues today.

But volunteer holidays as we know them now came into being in the middle of the 20th century.
VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) was founded in 1958 in the UK, followed by Peace Corps in the early 60s in the USA. They took off in the 70s as activists wanted to help in the developing world in their free time.

Marketed as a way to raise money for research projects, in the 1970s people wanted to participate in projects, rather than just watching as fundraisers originally intended. More affluent travellers wanted to pay to take part in short conservation projects, and the market grew through the 1990s.
More recently, volunteer holidays have started becoming more accessible to people less well-off as an alternative travel option.

What are the volunteer holiday options?

·       Domestic: volunteering in your home country. A cheaper option that allows flexibility when you have less free time, and you can volunteer close by in all kinds of roles.

·       Short-term: volunteering from a week to a month. You don’t always need specific skills for short-term programs. Plus short-term roles can fit around life and work without having to take extra time off. You might not get to see the results of your actions over a shorter time, but you’ll still be able to contribute!

·       Long-term: volunteering from a month to several years. Long-term programs might require specific skills, qualifications, or training. Often cheaper per week than short-term programs, long-term volunteering allows you to get to know your fellow volunteers, your host community, and the project itself much better.

·       Conservation: working with animals and the environment. A great option for environmentally conscious volunteers, this can involve anything from helping with turtle hatching to building eco-hotels. You might be able to see results right away, but it depends on the project.

·       Disaster relief: helping with aid and relief after disasters. Disaster relief volunteering can be emotionally taxing and you might be required to have specific skills. But it’s very rewarding and can make a difference to people’s lives in a time of crisis.

·       Cultural exchange: visiting marginalised or struggling communities. You can help give confidence to marginalised communities, and can contribute to language and cultural preservation. Great for students of certain languages, or people who don’t have the right skills for other kinds of volunteering.

·       Teaching/IT/business support: volunteer work that isn’t physically taxing. Exciting options for retirees or people on a career break, such roles can be incredibly beneficial to local communities. Whether you’re helping local businesses set up or teaching maths to children, people with experience or knowledge in academic areas make a difference.

·       Hostel work/building/farming: physical labour jobs. If a school needs renovations and local people are too busy working to take it on, volunteers can do the work. Working in a hostel – cleaning, for example – can earn you free accommodation. Farming volunteer holidays can be an opportunity to learn about organic, eco-friendly farming methods whilst experiencing beautiful countryside.

How to find a volunteer holiday

Finding a volunteer holiday is easy these days with the Internet at our fingertips. With so many options, it can be overwhelming to know which to pick. The best way forward depends on the kind of volunteer you are, and what you want your volunteer holiday to be.

Going with a volunteer-sending organisation is one option. You’ll get plenty of guidance choosing your project, with dedicated staff helping you find your flights settle in at the project site. Sometimes they can be expensive, although low-cost options do exist. Consider where your money is going, and whether they have the right projects for your skills and interests. If you’re nervous going abroad on your own, or it’s your first time volunteering, volunteer-sending organisations can be a perfect choice.

You can also find independent volunteer roles. More confident volunteers who feel at home arranging their own travel might choose this option. When you know what country you want to go to, search for projects in the area, or contact hostels to see if they need volunteers. For domestic holidays, this can be the best way to find a role. Contacting independently can show keenness to take part. But it might be hard to find projects that are not in the most popular countries for volunteering. Try websites like Workaway to find small projects all over the world.

Travel blogs can be a fantastic resource for finding projects. Travel writers will often write about projects they’ve taken part in, sometimes in places or projects you might not have considered. Take care that they haven’t been paid to write something positive about a company. You can contact them directly, usually, to ask for an honest review.

What to expect on a volunteer holiday?

To get the most out of your holiday, know what is expected from you. Just as important is knowing what to expect: from the location, the project, and other people. Expect it to be very different from a beach holiday!

Choosing the right project for you is number one. Make sure you agree with the project’s aims, that it’s the right price point for you, and that the location is suitable for you. If you want to practice speaking Spanish, a project in South America might be ideal. If you only speak one language and don’t want to spend a lot of money, a week at a project in your home country could be better.

Be sensible with what you hope to achieve. With a short stay, you won’t always see the results during your time there, but your contribution matters. A longer stay program will allow you to see progress, but requires more commitment.

Ask about accommodation. Not all projects will have luxurious or even comfortable accommodation and it’s best to know what you’re getting in for before you get there. If you need to sleep alone to sleep well, choose a project with a private room rather than a dorm.

Top Five Projects For A Volunteer Holiday Abroad

The volunteer programmes below provide an opportunity to take part in incredible work abroad whilst being able to take part in all the usual tourist activities between volunteering:


Join an award-winning English teaching programme on the West coast of Thailand.


Experience the exotic spice city of Marrakech on the edge of the Sahara and work in a group in different settings in and outside of this majestic walled city.


Take a first step into Africa and help at poor schools in the Lake Volta region; teaching, building, in sport or at the busy state hospital close by.


Be a positive influence for children in the Incan city of Cuzco high in Andes; volunteers help with homework, games and escort children to places of interest.


Help at a variety of unique projects and charities in and outside of the colonial city of Merida on the Caribbean coast.

Need more advice?

Contact Original Volunteers to speak to a trained projects advisor who will be happy to help with any questions on how to organise a volunteer holiday overseas.

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