Volunteer Vacations 101

Give back while you travel.

By Stirling Kelso

Travel is stuffed with buzzwords these days—local, authentic, personal, insider—and one type of vacation covers all those bases: volunteer. Whether you center your vacation on doing good works or dedicate just a few days to a cause, in traveling this way you are sure to meet locals, learn about the regional community and environment, and give to others.

Voluntourism has become popular, creating a range of work opportunities from community-building and cultural-preservation projects to research studies on the environment and how to make people more aware of wildlife. Not all trips are created equal, so it’s important to look for companies that present their trips honestly. Looking to combine a leisurely vacation with a few volunteer experiences? Many tour operators keep that balance in mind. Others ensure that all your time and funds go to a particular cause.

Here’s a short list of our favorites experiences, along with helpful resources.


After taking a handful of underwhelming voluntourism trips, Kathryn Pisco and her husband, Mike, launched Unearth the World, which pairs travelers with vetted nonprofits across the globe. What sets it apart is its commitment to transparency—you know exactly where your money is going—and cross-cultural exchange. Before you join Unearth the World’s trip to Zambia, for example, the company educates you on the country’s customs and language so you know what to expect. Once there travelers build homes for families affected by HIV and AIDS in Mwandi, a small fishing village.


With Adventure Life you can work at a biology research station in Pacuare Nature Reserve, in Costa Rica. While the outfitter throws in fun perks, like a candlelit dinner and riding horseback on an organic tropical fruit farm, most of the trip is dedicated to protecting leatherback turtles from poachers by carefully relocating their nests.


Foodies should consider a trip with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, under whose auspices travelers get room and board in exchange for work ranging from sowing seeds to making compost. The destinations aren’t half bad: You can pick olives on an orchard in Italy or coffee beans in Costa Rica or tend a vineyard in Healdsburg, California.

Additional Resources:

Adventures Less Ordinary

Flip through this e-book to read about conscientious volunteering and travel.


This web-based app connects travelers to nonprofits around the world. You can search opportunities by country or interest.


On this comprehensive website you can read the latest suggestions on where to go and educate yourself on debates about volunteer vacationing. It also issues a quarterly newsletter.

Adventures Less Ordinary
No address; no phone; inspiredchallenge.com; e-book, free
Adventure Life
712 W. Spruce St., Missoula, MT; 800-344-6118; adventure-life.com; from $1,875
No address; no phone; trip180.com
Unearth the World
P.O. Box 13263, Chicago, IL 60613; 872-206-8900; unearththeworld.com; from $325 USD
No address; 011-961-78555756; voluntourism.org
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
No address; no phone; wwoof.net; food and board for 35 hours of volunteer work, free
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: March 2015