How to Volunteer and Still Make Time to Travel
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work doesn’t make for a very good volunteer…
But you also want to take advantage of being in a new place to travel, experience the local culture, and see new sights.
Here’s how you can make sure you maintain a balance between your work and finding time to travel.
Find Out Your Work Schedule
First things first — you need to find out the hours and days you’re expected to work.
This could vary greatly depending on what kind of work you’ll be doing, so get the scoop early on.
Will you be working weekdays? Weekends? Mornings? Nights?
Approximately how many hours per week will you be expected to work?
This information will help you understand when your free time will be.
For example, if you work on weekdays, you’ll have weekends free; if you’re working in the mornings, you’ll have the evenings free, which could mean an easy exit during the afternoon on Friday for a long weekend trip.
Will Your Time Off Be Flexible?
Your programme coordinator will also be able to let you know about the structure of the volunteer programme. They can also lend insight on how previous volunteers found time to travel.
Though you’re there to dedicate yourself to your volunteer work, your programme may offer you the freedom to take a few holiday or personal days so that you can explore the local scenery, culture, or wildlife on your own time.
Additionally, find out if your volunteer organisation offers any organised trips, excursions, or activities.
These can be particularly fun as a way to meet other volunteers in the area.
It may also push you to try an activity you might not have otherwise been a part of.
Research and Plot Out Local Holidays
Just like you would do at home, make a strategy to take advantage of local holidays and long weekends.
Do research online or contact your programme coordinator to find out if you’ll have extra time off on public holidays. Then you can get an idea of which weekends you might be able to take a longer trip and start planning.
For example, in most Latin American countries, people get up to an entire week off during Semana Santa, the “Holy Week” before Easter Sunday.
As you can imagine, this is one of the most popular travel times in the region.
Many countries and cultures celebrate numerous festivals and holidays throughout the year, so find out which ones will be happening while you’re there.
Research Local Destinations You’d Like to Visit
This might be the most fun part of the planning process!
Take advantage of online travel forums, guide books, personal acquaintances, and any other resources you can find to start daydreaming about all the wonderful places you could potentially visit.
Next, based on how far these places are from your home site, plot out how long you’d need to visit each one.
For example, the next town over could surely be a day trip; the city a couple of hours way could comfortably be a weekend trip; but visiting the faraway coast could require up to a week in order to make the trip worth it.
Also keep in mind transportation options for each place, weighing up the cost, time, and relative comfort of each option.
Some people with a tighter budget might be willing to sacrifice time and comfort in order to save money by taking a longer bus ride. Others might be happy to shell out for a plane ticket in order to get there quicker and more comfortably.
It all depends on your personal preferences, and the state of each mode of transportation in your destination country.
Once you’ve got an idea of some places you’d like to visit, you can also try to roughly line up each trip with the dates of local holidays or when you can expect to have some time off.
For example, if there’s a destination you simply must visit, but you know you’ll need a whole week to go there — save it for a long holiday or other strategic time off!
Communication Is Key
For safety purposes, always tell someone where you’re going, including your local programme coordinator.
Make sure you provide your travel details:
1. Your transportation information (bus, train, or flight details)
2. Accommodation information (hotel address and contact information)
3. Departure and return dates
If you’re considering taking a trip that might infringe on your work hours or require you to take some days or hours off, always check in first with your programme coordinator and supervisor at work to make arrangements.
Just because you’re volunteering doesn’t mean your work is less serious.
Show the same respect for your colleagues and beneficiaries as you would at home.
Consider a Stay-cation!
If your free time is limited, the reality is that you may not be able to see the entire country or region.
Remember that you came to volunteer and lend your time and skills to communities in need — a thorough tour of every destination in the entire country would have been a very different type of trip.
With that being said, the richness of the community and culture in your home site is a world unto itself!
Don’t get so distracted by the itch to travel that you miss out on all the beauty and opportunities all around you right at home.
You might be surprised at how much there is to learn when you immerse yourself as deeply as possible in your new culture.
Hang out at local cafes, observing people, the language, their customs and the food.
Spend time connecting with your colleagues, neighbours, and new friends. Learn more about their culture firsthand.
You can practise making local foods, taking advantage of having authentic, fresh ingredients available.
Learn traditional dances or listen to local music (and make notes so you can download or bring some home with you).
Remember that just spending the afternoon sipping tea with your neighbour could very well be a richer and more memorable experience than snapping hundreds of photos of tourist attractions all weekend!
Keep It Balanced
As with most things in life, one of the most important parts of volunteering is maintaining balance, including between your goals as a volunteer and your goals as a traveller.
With the right research and planning, you can certainly get to see many other places in your region — places that you might not have ever imagined actually going!
Just remember that expanding your horizons can take many forms, whether it’s an exhilarating weekend trip or just immersing yourself in your own home site community.