Volunteer Travel: How to Plan a Meaningful Trip and Give Back at the Same Time

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Experiencing new cultures or cities with friends and loved ones is eye-opening, enriching, and challenging in ways that help develop our characters and help us grow as individuals.

Though some folks might choose to travel for rest, rejuvenation, or the opportunity to adventure somewhere new, you might also use your travel dollars and vacation days on an intentional trip, such as volunteering, giving back to a community, or serving others in times of need.

At Million Mile Secrets, many of us have had the privilege of engaging in “VolunTourism” on many occasions.

For folks who might consider fundraising or contributing to non-profit work while traveling, using points and miles earned from the best travel credit cards for flights or lodging can have a significant impact on making these life-changing voluntourism trips even more accessible!

Emily Had an Excellent Experience Volunteering on a Farm in Costa Rica

I’ll share our personal experiences (and lessons learned!) while discussing opportunities to make an impact while traveling.

Responsible Travel:   How to Find an Organization That Actually Makes an Impact & Doesn’t Harm the Environment

As the late Mahatma Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Travelers are seeking opportunities to make an impact with their time while traveling and learning about other cultures and environments.  And more than ever, people are considering how their traveling might have a larger effect on the destinations and people they come into contact with.

These encounters can also lead to transformative experiences for the traveler – expanding their worldview, teaching them a new skill or craft, or encouragement to be cognizant of their everyday life choices back home.

Team Member Jasmin and Her Family Volunteered at a Mission to the Indigenous Aeta People in the Philippines

On the other hand, some opportunities catering to well-intentioned tourists and volunteers can simply be moneymaking schemes or actually work against the causes you want to support.

The first decision for any aspiring travel volunteer which cause, destination, or organization aligns with what you’re personally trying to accomplish or are passionate about.  For some, this decision may be informed by cultural or  religious beliefs, or by circumstances or disasters that warrant additional help or outside assistance.

My Good & Bad Experiences With Voluntourism

My wife went with her school to support a community’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.  She and her team of 10 people volunteered to distribute aid, clean up schools, and generally serve the local citizens however they could in their brief week-long visit.  This trip was coordinated by a school partnership with a reputable, local resource – which made trusting the receiving organization far simpler.

On the other hand, I’m embarrassed to admit my wife and I visited the once famous Kanchanburi “Tiger Sanctuary” outside of Bangkok, Thailand, as part of our honeymoon in 2015.  We spent time bathing and playing with the tigers, feeding them, watching them play, and watching them train with staff.  We were sad to hear the “sanctuary” was shut down shortly thereafter for inhumane animal treatment and allegations of abuse.

Always Research the Organizations You Volunteer for! I Found out Too Late – Don’t Make My Mistake!

We read about the tigers possibly being drugged, but also heard from others who visited and (seemingly) reputable websites which disputed those claims and assured visitors that the animals were well cared for.

Although we loved our visit, got cool pictures, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary (the tigers we encountered were incredibly energetic and youthful), we were sad to think our visit might have furthered the cause of mistreating these majestic animals.  The lesson learned as a result was that the more intentional and dedicated research we can do in advance, the better!

If you’re passionate about the idea of your philanthropy or voluntourism being truly effective, check out When Helping Hurts – a great resource on the topic of creating long term, sustainable change!

Choose an Organization to Handle the Logistics (and Ethical Investigation!) on Your Behalf

Several companies offer a service to research voluntourism opportunities and match you based on the goals or causes you are most passionate about.  This means whether you want to work to alleviate poverty, preserve endangered species, or simply help renovate a school or community center, there’s an organization somewhere that would love to have you visit and volunteer.

A few of my favorite websites for checking out reputable volunteer opportunities include:

There are also organizations that would love to have you visit them, learn about their mission, and volunteer to help further a given cause.  But you’ll have to do the investigation yourself, and reach out to organizations and causes individually.  This can be tougher from a booking perspective, but rewarding if you have a charity, organization, or cause you want to devote your time and efforts to.

Habitat for Humanity Is a Reputable Organization Where You Can Help Build a House as a Voluntourist!

Examples of trustworthy causes and websites that would love to have you volunteer are:

1.   Endangered Wildlife

As you likely already know, “Humans are the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species through poaching, habitat destruction and the effects of climate change.”

But incredible work is being done across the globe by informed volunteers to revert these changes, support endangered species, and work toward creating a sustainable future for incredible animals.

Whether you’re passionate about a specific animal species or family, or if you just want to make a positive impact for endangered species somewhere, there are numerous resources that can recommend tangible actions you can take.  These include traveling to unique locations to build and protect animal habitats or rescue missions, or working alongside local governments or agencies to prevent or discourage poaching practices.

For more information on some of the organizations and causes that support these efforts to protect endangered wildlife, check out the following websites:

2.   Endangered Habitats and Ecosystems

A similar, but different type of voluntourism might include volunteering to restore or protect a specific habitat or ecosystem, such as oceanic conservation or protecting the Peruvian rainforests.  These can be tailored or more niche opportunities depending on the conservation efforts you’re passionate about—but the need is equally as urgent.

For example, someone passionate about protecting and preserving our oceans might volunteer with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.  Volunteers with the ONMS might participate in a variety of ways such as diving, beach cleanups, identifying whale species, assisting with water quality monitoring, and many more opportunities.  And I’m sure you’d get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way!

There are a whole host of organizations dedicated to the cleanup and preservation of our oceans, but a few of the trusted groups we know of are

Likewise, you might feel a special calling to assist in the preservation of the world’s rainforests.  As you may know, deforestation is a growing issue caused almost entirely by humans and growing agriculture around the world.  If you want to volunteer to prevent deforestation, there are various programs in rainforests and countries around the world that would gladly receive your efforts and time.

A favorite resource of ours can be found at WorldWildlife.org.

3.   People/Communities in Need

I’m a huge advocate for any type of voluntourism, but the efforts closest to my heart involve working to serve people and communities in need.  This is a broad grouping of volunteer efforts, but can include anything from:

  • Building homes for the underprivileged
  • Volunteering to distribute food or medical aid where necessary
  • Working to partner with sustainable businesses to encourage long-term change in communities

In 2014 I had the privilege of traveling to Calcutta, India to volunteer briefly at homes established by Mother Teresa for mentally and physically disabled individuals.  It was important to me to work with a group that was serving others, making lasting change, and not inadvertently creating dependencies that were unhelpful in the long term.

I desired to love and serve the individuals who lived at these homes – as well as spending time with and encouraging the hard-working staff who had devoted their lives to caring for the less fortunate.  It was incredibly challenging, joyful, and rewarding, and the long hours of manual labor were nothing in comparison to getting to sit with, talk with, and hear the (sometimes painful) stories these individuals endured.

This is just one example of an organization or volunteer opportunity that is working, in one city in the world, to be part of a greater solution – to care for and love others as we might care for ourselves.  It was a joy to spend vacation days, miles, and points not to sit at a luxurious beach (which I also love!), but to learn a new culture and engage with individuals and situations not in my comfort zone (after all, my Bengali is virtually nonexistent!).

Volunteering Abroad is a Fantastic Way to Learn About New Cultures and People Groups

Although there are endless opportunities to support our global community through financial giving, support/mission trips, or other types of philanthropic work, some of our favorite resources or websites include:

How to Use Miles and Points to Book Your Travel and Support Volunteer Efforts

I hope you’re able to spend time thinking, researching, and investigating where and how you might want to engage in voluntourism and give back to our global community.  And once you’ve decided, now comes the fun part – planning your trip!

Redeeming points and miles to their fullest value can help alleviate the financial costs from voluntourism.  After all, reducing your travel and lodging costs can either make voluntourism more financially accessible, or allow you to give more freely to support and further the causes you care most about.  Especially for groups of trips that rely on fundraising efforts, utilizing points and miles can reduce a trip’s financial requirements.

In general, I recommend you start planning for flights first.  Similar to taking a vacation, traveling for voluntourism will almost always require the largest purchases to be flights – and hotels/lodging second.  So any way you can use points and miles to get free or reduced flights is a huge win!

I would also recommend you start planning and building a strategy for your trip as early as possible – as flight prices are often cheapest and award flights are most readily available.

Using Miles and Points Earned From the Best Travel Credit Cards Can Take the Sting Out of Your Voluntourism Expenses
Note:   Depending on your destination and voluntourism adventure, the points and miles required for your flights may vary.  As always, I recommend you start by checking out our list of the best credit cards for travel!

Then, move onto to hotel/accommodation planning and think about where you’ll stay on your trip.  Many voluntourism activities come with lodging included as part of an overall package, so be sure to check out the details depending on the specific trip you want to take.  Or even consider camping if you want to truly spend as little out of pocket as possible!

If you’ll be traveling to remote locations, you might find fewer chain hotels to redeem your points for free nights.  But large cities around the globe offer tons of opportunities for voluntourism, and cities are often a great option for redeeming points to save big on hotel stays.

You might also be traveling with friends, family, or a team of volunteers, in which case it might make the most sense to book an Airbnb or VRBO in order to secure lodging to comfortably fit several guests.

Bottom Line

Regardless of how or where you want to volunteer, I can’t encourage you enough to find a goal, cause, or organization that you support or are passionate about and take the first steps toward contributing to that cause.

Voluntourism has grown immensely in recent years – and for good reason.  Many of us travel to expand our horizons, learn more about other cultures and people, and challenge ourselves to be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic of others.

While you’re planning your trip or your voluntourism adventure, redeeming miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help fund your trip and reduce your out of pocket costs.  Then, you can have additional funds to donate directly to causes you care about – or be able to plan a return visit even sooner!

Please mention in the comments if you know of organizations that are responsible and trustworthy!

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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