Volunteering travel guide

2 minute summary

As the gap between “vacationing” and “volunteering” decreases, the scope of volunteer projects is widening, encompassing everything from favela football coaching to diving threatened reefs, via elephant sanctuaries and rural clinics. The message is – anyone can make a difference, whether you’re 16 or 60, and whether you have five days or five months to spare. As placements have become more inclusive, however – with fewer skills and less commitment required from volunteers – so criticism of voluntourism has grown. With a huge number of organisations now offering “life changing” trips, it’s ever more important for volunteers to fully research the projects, to ensure that any transformational experiences are for the better – for the volunteers themselves, and for the people and places they aspire to help. Because as anyone who has done it can testify, a good volunteer experience, no matter how hard you work, will leave you feeling more relaxed, more inspired and with a hundred more stories than a traditional vacation ever could.
Read more about finding your perfect placement in our volunteering abroad travel guide.

What we rate & what we don't

responsible travel's best & worst of volunteering


Marine conservation Taste of volunteering Matching skills Family volunteering

Marine conservation

Wildlife is not all about fluffy mammals. Marine conservation is on the rise – and with the chance to spend weeks living on a remote beach, nights patrolling for sea turtles, or hours underwater monitoring corals, these are some of the most diverse and worthwhile placements. Can’t dive? Many trips offer PADI certification as part of your placement.

Taste of volunteering

Vacation time is precious, and committing to two weeks of hard labour might be a bit much. But that’s where a taste of volunteering comes in. A day or two of your vacation can be spent on conservation activities or caring for rescued animals – or spend a week of a longer trip helping at a nursery or collecting data for marine research. You’ll learn about your surroundings – and decide if you fancy coming back for longer next time.

Matching skills

This is an essential yet strangely overlooked aspect of having a successful volunteer trip. You wouldn’t take over a classroom back home, so why volunteer as a teacher overseas? Using your skills – in healthcare, education, biology – or manual labour will mean you can actually achieve something worthwhile during your stay – which is better for those you’re helping, and will make you feel much happier, too.

Family volunteering

The benefits of volunteering as a family are vast. As well as spending quality time together without an iPhone in sight, your children will gain an extraordinary education from being immersed in a way of life entirely different to their own. They’ll get hands on experience of conservation – and learn firsthand about the threats facing our environment. And they’ll learn the value and pleasure of working – hard! – for a worthwhile cause.


Teaching & coaching Habitat conservation Turtle conservation Elephant care

Teaching & coaching

Teaching abroad takes many forms – from helping students practise their English, to teaching subjects that match your own skills, from science and art to music and conservation awareness. If you’re not a qualified teacher, you can work as a classroom assistant or help out with homework – or run sports coaching sessions or art workshops for kids. It’s the enthusiasm that counts!

Habitat conservation

Looking after animals in sanctuaries is all very well, but this is really just putting a sticking plaster on a wound. To reduce the need for sanctuaries, habitat conservation is essential – and the best thing is that these placements usually require few high-level skills. Fitness and a willingness to muck in are essential – as you’ll be planting trees, maintaining trails and fences or even monitoring the underwater world with diving expeditions.

Turtle conservation

It is said that seeing a huge turtle haul herself across the sand by moonlight to lay her eggs is one of nature’s most moving sights. Many sea turtle species are endangered – so the beach patrols, nest protection, hatchling releases and awareness sessions you can do as a turtle conservation volunteer are all vital to their survival. Plus, you’ll be living on some seriously gorgeous beaches.

Elephant care

The world’s largest land mammal has had a bit of a rough deal. Used in wars, logging and entertainment, as these have fallen out of favour, many elephants are now rescued or retired in sanctuaries across SE Asia. With huge appetites and in need of daily baths, exercise and clean enclosures, there is plenty of worthwhile work for volunteers, who can get up close to these gentle giants.


Orphanage volunteering Walking with lions Elephant trekking Boosting your CV

Orphanage volunteering

Though this may sound like one of the most worthwhile placements, it is actually often the most harmful. A boom in volunteers – and the fees they pay – has made orphans something of a commodity, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of orphanages, many nothing of the sort. Plus, a revolving door of well-meaning volunteers means the vulnerable children are abandoned again, and again, and again…

Walking with lions

A photo of yourself feeding a baby lion will wow friends back home – until you realise what might happen to the cub once your safari is over. Habituated big cats can never be released into the wild, and when the cub gets too big to be safely handled it’s not cost effective to keep. To put it bluntly – there’s a good chance it’ll end up on a private hunting reserve.

Elephant trekking

Many so-called elephant sanctuaries are actually glorified circuses, where elephants paint, perform and carry tourists on their backs. Any sanctuary that promotes elephant rides does not have the animals’ best interests in mind; they will have been badly abused to persuade them to carry tourists. The placements available through Responsible Travel have all been screened for their commitment to animal welfare.

Boosting your CV

With the exception of longer term or highly skilled placements, volunteering should never be all about your CV. Roles can be challenging, satisfying, enjoyable – but the key question is not 'what will it do for me?' – but 'what will it do for others?' Projects must exist for communities, not volunteers; any valuable skills you gain will be a bonus – not the focus.

Why go on a volunteering vacation?

The most obvious answer to this question is – to make a difference. To improve the life of someone, or something, somewhere in the world, and return home with a bit of a rosy glow. Some people have a particular skill that they would like to share, others have a particular attachment to a certain corner of the globe and would like to give back.
But there are as many reasons for volunteering as there are volunteers. Some people are fed up of run of the mill vacations, and want something a little more challenging than basking on a beach. Others would like to pick up a new skill – whether that’s scuba diving or Spanish – and what better way to hone your talents than by putting it into practice straight away?
You may just fancy doing something completely out of the ordinary for a couple of weeks. You could find yourself living aboard a research ship in the Mediterranean, documenting whale and dolphin sightings. For something a bit grittier, head to a favela or township to coach football, cricket or martial arts – it’s a two way learning experience, as the local kids get to grips with a sport, and you’ll learn about life for the 99%.
Generally, we would discourage would-be volunteers from doing a placement purely to add to their CV – volunteering should really be about benefitting local people and places. However, there are certain skilled vocational placements, such as healthcare, teaching and research, where individuals, perhaps part way through their studies, can gain real-world experience while putting their skills to good use. And of course, skilled professionals are always welcome – such as teachers on long summer vacations, or corporate workers on a career break who can share their IT, marketing or startup knowledge with small businesses overseas.

Brief history of volunteering vacations

Traveling overseas to help those perceived as worse off than ourselves has a long – and always contentious – history, which can be traced back to missionary groups heading into the depths of Africa and the Amazon to convert and “civilise” indigenous communities, while bringing them western education, sanitation and healthcare. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Taste of volunteering: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] [Matching skills: U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region] [Family volunteering: USFWSmidwest] [Teaching & coaching: Frontierofficial] [Habitat conservation: USFS Region 5] [Turtle conservation: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region] [Elephants: Steve Wilson] [Orphanage volunteering: US Army Africa] [Walking with lions: Robert Engbert] [elephant trekking: The Travelista] [Boosting your CV: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] [Why go: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]
Written by Vicki Brown
Whale & dolphin research in Ligurian Sea, Italy

Whale & dolphin research in Ligurian Sea, Italy

Whale and dolphin conservation trip

From 795 6 Days ex flights
Marine conservation vacation in Thailand

Marine conservation vacation in Thailand

Join a community conservation project on a tropical island

From £795 7 Days ex flights
Volunteer with monkeys in South Africa

Volunteer with monkeys in South Africa

Help re-habilitate orphaned monkeys in beautiful rural South Africa

From £847 14 Days ex flights
Rainforest conservation in the Amazon, Peru

Rainforest conservation in the Amazon, Peru

Conservation in the Amazon

From £1695 14 Days ex flights
Borneo Wildlife Volunteer Project

Borneo Wildlife Volunteer Project

Encounter orangutans and elephants in the Bornean jungle.

From £1295 12 Days ex flights
Thailand wildlife sanctuary volunteering holiday

Thailand wildlife sanctuary volunteering vacation

Volunteering break at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand

From £974 14 Days ex flights
Family volunteering with turtles in Costa Rica

Family volunteering with turtles in Costa Rica

Family turtle conservation volunteering in Costa Rica

From £709 7 Days ex flights
India sports coaching volunteering

India sports coaching volunteering

Coach a variety of sports to children in India

From £945 14 Days ex flights
Marine conservation in Belize

Marine conservation in Belize

Monitor reefs in the Caribbean

From US $1330 5 Days ex flights
Namibia wildlife sanctuary volunteering holiday

Namibia wildlife sanctuary volunteering vacation

Care for rescued animals in Namibia

From £935 14 Days ex flights
Volunteer with turtles in Costa Rica

Volunteer with turtles in Costa Rica

Protect nesting turtles on Costa Rica's beautiful beaches

From £969 7 Days ex flights
Photo credits: [Page banner: US Army Africa]
Convert currencies