Family volunteering vacations travel guide

2 minute summary

We are not sure that ‘vacation’ is the right word, really, when it comes to family volunteering abroad, given that its etymology is ‘a day of exemption from labour’. Because although this family volunteering vacations guide will take you on a journey of exciting projects that you can contribute to around the world, the focus is definitely on work.
However, vacationing is also about escaping the norm, and these trips certainly do that. After plenty of hands on experiences working with animals and their habitats, there are relaxation times built in too, of course. But these are trips where you are participants rather than simply guests. You aren’t just joining lots of family volunteers either, but a mix of scientists, conservationists, adult travelers and many more. The world of conservation projects abroad is varied and wonderful and you and your family will not only have an exciting and educational adventure by joining it; you will also be conservationist converts for life.




Sri Lanka Marine conservation in Thailand Bears Horse rehabilitation

Sri Lanka

A country where you can do either sea turtle or elephant conservation, work and live with local communities, and yet it is still often upstaged by Thai volunteering projects. The culture and natural heritage here is so rich, the trip is inspiring from beginning to end. And Sri Lankan culture celebrates family, so the welcome is beyond humbling. And, if you have cricket bat and ball for free time, beyond fun.

Marine conservation in Thailand

Wildlife is not all about fluffy animals. And marine conservation is not all for adults either. Volunteer with marine wildlife and sea turtles – or if you are a diving family, or want to learn, you can help with coral reefs in Thailand. On a remote island, away from tourists but totally immersed in the all important world of marine conservation. And a tiny island community with the biggest welcome.


Head to the Wild Taiga of Finland or the Carpathian Mountains of Romania where, if you go into the woods, you are definitely in for a surprise. Not a picnic however, but tracking and monitoring bears, building hides, sleeping out in hides in Finland and, in Romania working to rehabilitate mistreated bears in a sanctuary.

Horse rehabilitation

Working with horses that have been neglected or mistreated in South Africa involves having to ride them along long beautiful beaches. Tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Many people come to South Africa for volunteering projects with monkeys, which are superb, but if your children are obsessed with horses and would work from dawn to dusk just to be with them, this is a dream volunteering vacation.


Elephants Turtles in Costa Rica Little monkeys Work ethic


The world’s largest land mammal has been used and abused over the years be it through war, for logging or performing for tourists. The result is proliferation of sanctuaries which help rehabilitate and bring them back to the wild. Thailand and Sri Lanka offer contrasting projects in beautiful countries. For something completely different, head to Namibia for time in the desert working with these great beauties.

Turtles in Costa Rica

Already one of the world’s most eco and family friendly destinations, this makes volunteering vacations here so much easier than some other far flung places. Staying in local communities well off the tourist trail, turtle conservation are the leading volunteering projects here. Go on beach patrols, protect nests, and release hatchlings by night. With lagoons and surf to swim in and hammocks to swing in by day.

Little monkeys

This is probably one of the most hands on family volunteering vacations, working in a monkey rehabilitation center in South Africa, you and your kids get to spend precious time caring for primates. Bottle feeding baby monkeys and getting them ready to return to the wild, there’s not a dry eye in the house. And in country with so many other family adventures on the doorstep when the work is done.

Work ethic

You and your family will be joining real conservation projects, with scientists, naturalists and local experts. There really is work to be done. These aren’t vacations with a bit of ‘feel good about yourself’ tasks thrown into the itinerary, when really all you want to do is get your PADI. For that, you want to go on a diving vacation. It’s fun, often life changing work, but it is work.


Orphanage volunteering Walking with lions Pushy parents Elephant trekking

Orphanage volunteering

We don’t feature any orphanage volunteering trips and if you come across any elsewhere, do think very carefully and read up on it thoroughly first. The boom in fee paying volunteering travelers has made orphans something of a commodity. In some countries ‘orphanages’ are suddenly opening, many nothing of the sort. Plus, care of vulnerable children should be carried out by highly trained experts. End of.

Walking with lions

It might feel irresistible to hug a cub or feed one with a bottle, but the chances are that trips advertising such proximity with cubs are working with ‘canned hunting’ profiteers, the cubs being sold on as adults so that they can be shot by tourists who pay a fortune to do so. The fact is, if the lions are being habituated, they ain’t never going back into the wild. Read more about canned hunting.

Pushy parents

‘It will be brilliant for your personal statement, darling’. This is just the wrong approach. These vacations are all about the project, not preening your little ones for Oxbridge. They are about having a fulfilling family time as a result of working with and living in a community. Leave all pushiness behind and let the conservation experts lead the way. The natural way.

Elephant trekking

Sorry, but it really isn’t cool. The sad thing is that some elephant ‘sanctuaries’ are actually glorified circuses, where elephants paint, perform and carry tourists on their backs. If it is pushing elephant rides, it definitely doesn’t have conservation at its heart. Because these elephants have been trained in a very unnatural and often very cruel way to perform. Say no to trekking and read more on our stance about elephants.

Why go on a family volunteering vacation?


For most families, in reality, volunteering while on vacation is not simply out of a desire or need to ‘give something back’ or to put one’s skills to good use in an environment or community where they are needed. They are also about introducing children to a completely different world, giving them a chance to learn about wildlife and the environment, and some encouragement to break the moulds of consumer and indeed digitally driven life. As well as becoming involved in wildlife conservation, you will be staying inside a local community and so having to adapt quickly to a new culture and language is a must. This is an added attraction for many families, although not for everyone. So, if you know that resort vacations are your thing, you might want to think again.
Many families also want to spend quality time together contributing to a genuine conservation project, sharing that feeling of achievement when they have spent a night ensuring that all the baby turtles that hatched that night made their way safely to sea. Or that the monkeys you have been bottle feeding in order to rehabilitate them after being mistreated as ‘pets’, can finally return to the wilds of South Africa. And which family could possibly resist the chance to go camping in the Namibian Desert as part of a project to track and observe elephants? The question is not so much ‘why go on a family volunteering vacation?’ but more ‘why the heck would you not?’
Age ranges vary according to the activity. When tracking elephants in the wilds of Sri Lanka, for example, there is some serious jungle trekking to be done so volunteers should be a minimum of 10 years old. If you want to contribute to horse rehabilitation in South Africa, you need to be 12. But many other projects will welcome much younger children, and are always open to discussion about your children’s interests or your concerns about energy levels required.
Anne Smellie from our family volunteering vacation expert, Oyster Worldwide: “Ages range depending on the volunteering, but most kids get the most out of it if they are 10 years plus. There are some projects where you can get involved if you are younger, but from a personal point of view, I don’t know how easy that would be for a family and how easy it would be for the children to remember it. I think one of the important things about family volunteering is that there are lessons learned from it and everyone can understand what they are doing and contributing to, and why it is so important. So, I think to be able to do that, you need to be a little bit older. “
Photo credits: [Top box: Oyster Worldwide] [Marine conservation in Thailand: Amila Tennakoon] [Horse rehabilitation: South African Tourism] [Elephants: serg-zastavkin] [Turtles in Costa Rica: Frontierofficial] [Little monkeys: Kwang Cho] [Work ethic: Mount Rainer National Park] [Orphanage volunteering: Beth Kanter] [Pushy parents: Oyster Worldwide] [Elephant trekking: Beyond Neon] [Why go and Anne Smellie quote: Oyster Worldwide]
Written by Catherine Mack
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Surkov Vladimir]
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