How to choose a volunteering vacation


There are a bewildering amount of options for budding volunteers – and it may be hard to know where to start. But when thinking about how to choose a volunteering vacation, most placements break down into one of three main categories – animals, people and habitats. Within those areas, you’ll need to think about how hands on you’d like to be – do you want to have plenty of contact with the animals, or do research and monitoring from a distance? If you’re looking at community work, you may want to jump straight in and run some after school workshops – or stay behind the scenes and build a well. Your skills and previous experience will also shape the role you work in, and you’ll want to think about your living conditions – are you happy to rough it in a village hut with no hot water? Or would you rather retire to a comfortable guesthouse at the end of a hard day’s slog?
Finally – think about the duration. Generally, we’d encourage anyone working with people to stay a month or more, to give you the chance to build up relationships. Conversely, if you’re planting trees, it doesn’t matter if you stay a day or a month.
We’ve outlined our main placement types below, to help you decide how to choose a volunteering vacation.

Wildlife conservation

“Wildlife conservation” conjures up images of bottle-feeding cubs and cuddling chimps – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Wildlife conservation volunteers should understand that protecting wild animals means keeping them wild. It involves conserving our natural environment and the wildlife that lives in it, something that is hugely vulnerable to harm by human activity. This in turn enables you to learn, spend time in the company of fascinating conservationists, and still have plenty of fun.

Marine conservation

Marine conservation is aimed at anyone with a passion for the ocean; enthusiasm is valued over experience and you don’t need a scientific background. Placements take different forms – data collection and monitoring are generally the aim, but this can take place during beach patrols, from the deck of a boat, or underwater. Experienced divers can jump right in; beginners can include a PADI course in the trip, with the chance to gain more qualifications along the way. Many intensive diving trips are based in fairly remote regions; while your lodging may be basic, your surroundings and experience will be 5*.

Volunteering with animals

Volunteering with animals includes domestic animals as well as those in their natural habitat. As well as working with the Big Five in Africa, sea turtles in Central America and koalas and kangaroos in Australia, volunteer placements also include rehabilitating neglected South African horses, and looking after rescued dogs and cats on a tropical Thai island. Placements with domestic creatures tend to be much more hands on than wildlife conservation roles – with more opportunities to feed, cuddle and care for the rescued animals.

Volunteering with children

Volunteering with children can take many different forms, from assisting in a crèche in a Rio favela to reading to kids around Zambia on a book bus. The variety of placements means you can choose one which matches your skills and interests – with opportunities to teach, offer sports coaching or lead after school arts and crafts sessions. Those with more enthusiasm than experience can assist local teachers and care workers, chat to kids in English or prepare healthy food and help with homework. Placements last from a week up to several months – giving you plenty of time to make a difference to young lives.

Teaching abroad

Volunteer teachers can choose to work with adults or children. Placements take two main forms. Qualified teachers can prepare and lead their own classes in their subject of choice – frequently English as a foreign language – for a minimum of one month. Inexperienced volunteers can assist local teachers in the classroom – this may involve helping students improve their English skills through conversation, or organising games and other activities. Some trips include more training than others – some even incorporate a full TEFL course to set you up for a teaching career.

Community projects

Volunteers often find that community projects are some of the most rewarding, as they are working alongside the people they are assisting. Some placements focus on education – with adults or children – which can include sharing practical skills such as horticulture or small business advice, as well as more traditional subjects such as English conversation and sports coaching. Other placements can be specialised, such as healthcare roles, while unskilled volunteers can make a valuable contribution by renovating classrooms, planting trees, and constructing freshwater facilities.

Healthcare volunteering

Basic healthcare is something many of us have the luxury of taking for granted – but in developing countries, people are not so lucky. In remote areas facilities can be extremely limited; a situation compounded by a lack of sanitation knowledge and safe drinking water. These placements are ideal for medicine and nursing students to gain hands-on experience in their specialist areas; some are also suitable for unskilled volunteers who are able to offer basic sanitation advice, first aid or gather information on local health issues. Healthcare placements are hard work – but incredibly rewarding and greatly needed.

Habitat conservation

Habitat conservation vacations are amongst the most flexible and require few skills – just about anyone can get involved, for as long or as little as they want. Conservation takes in landscapes from the Amazon rainforest to the Scottish Highlands, and the work involved is just as varied. Tree planting, forest maintenance, surveying, species identification and trail maintenance are just some of the tasks that volunteers can take part in, alongside skilled conservationists. Even a couple of days as part of a longer vacation can make an impact, as there is no need to build relationships with a community or learn about animal welfare; this is highly recommended if you want a taste of volunteer life.

Internships & career breaks

Volunteer internships and career breaks offer a number of benefits to the volunteer – as well as the people and environments they are working with. Some placements involve formal training, such as a game ranger course in South Africa, or offer valuable field experience for healthcare students, for example. Career breaks tend to be aimed at professionals who can take a more active role in teaching, training or childcare, while internships can be for recent graduates or people with an interest in a subject to enhance their knowledge – particularly around conservation and wildlife.

Sports Coaching

Sports coaching has a number of benefits for local communities. As well as promoting a healthy lifestyle, it gives often disadvantaged children a way to enjoy and express themselves – children who may not have had much of a childhood due to the need to work in the home or care for siblings. Placements for qualified coaches focus on a variety of communities, across slums and favelas, to isolated rural villages and refugee and immigrant communities. Coaching football in Brazil or cricket in India is sure to create memorable experiences – or you can try something a bit unusual, such as surfing, ballet or martial arts.

Tips from our volunteer vacation experts


Anne Smellie, from our supplier, Oyster Worldwide, shares her advice on how to choose a wildlife conservation vacation: “Think about what you’re passionate about, but above and beyond that, book your trip with an organisation that you trust, that has a good reputation and that – very importantly – has been out on the trips that they champion. The animal welfare and wildlife conservation world is sadly peppered with opportunists trying to pull the wool over volunteers’ eyes as to what it is they’re actually helping to achieve on a conservation project, but it is very difficult to pull the wool over someone’s eyes who has actually been there first-hand and has experienced everything that happens there.”
Becky Edwards, from our supplier Pod Volunteer, advises unskilled volunteers on how to choose a wildlife conservation vacation: “If you are an unqualified volunteer, it’s really important to establish that. You shouldn’t be doing a skilled role unless you have the skills already or are given them on arrival. In our projects, if skills are needed on the ground they would be included within our training. So in terms of looking at different options, one of the key things is to ask as many questions as possible. That’s key in terms of choosing the organisation, but also the project that’s right for you. They should be able to answer the question – if no skills are needed, then why? Why is that ok? That’s something we often get asked, and it’s not a problem as we pick projects specifically and find unskilled roles in places where that works. We wouldn’t work somewhere that it didn’t.”
Photo credits: [Top box: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] [Wildlife conservation - double: U.S. Department of Agriculture] [Marine conservation - single: Public.Resource.Org] [Volunteering with animals - single: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble] [Volunteering with children - double: David Katarina] [Teaching abroad - single: Children's Organization of Southeast Asia] [Community projects - single: USAG- Humphreys] [Healthcare volunteering - double: Moving Mountains Trust] [Habitat conservation - single: Daniel Thornton] [Sports Coaching - single: Frontierofficial] [Internships & career breaks - double: Chris Eason] [Becky Edwards quote box: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade]
Written by Vicki Brown
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Photo credits: [Page banner: US Army Africa]
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