5 Thing NOT to Pack when Volunteering Abroad

Chloe Chen San Francisco Airport

When preparing for your volunteering trip abroad, it may be tempting to pack as much as possible.

After all, you’ve probably never been to the host country, and you want to make sure you have absolutely everything you need for the trip.

The truth however is that less-is-more when it comes to packing when going abroad.

Here are five things you should NOT Pack when volunteering abroad:

1. Adapters

Do not bring adapters for electric outlets abroad. For example when you need to charge your tablet at your host family, the plug that came with the tablet may not fit into the wall outlet. In this case you would need an adapter. Buy an adapter in the host country. It cost about $1 USD and will definitely be compatible with local outlets.

2. Guide Books

Don’t get me wrong — I love travel guide books. I just don’t see much use for them DURING the trip.

They do generally have good maps (especially Lonely Planet). My favorite part of every travel guide book is the section on local scams and dangers. The books of course also have great practical information on topics like visas and currency, as well as crash courses on the country’s history and culture.

The problem with guide books? Burying your head in one.

Some travelers actually end up spending more time reading the guide book in their bedrooms abroad that actually walking outside and experiencing the country first-hand! I walked through Trafalgar Square once and saw a guy sitting down reading a Lonely Planet book. An hour later, I walked by the same guy — and he still had his head buried in the book! Not good, man.

Here’s some advice on how to step away from the guidebook.

3. Neck Wallet

If you’ve done any international traveling, you’ve probably seen travelers wearing neck wallets. The idea is to keep valuables like your passport, cash and credit cards safe and secure when traveling — by wearing them in a wallet around your neck.

Know what though? Leave the neck wallets at home! They look corny, and they’re an easy, visible target for pickpockets. Money belts are no better either.

I told a teen volunteer in Guatemala this summer — If I have to carry large amounts of cash on a given day (say over $100), I put the cash in my sock, in case I get robbed. He thought it was gross. It is of course, but it gives me peace of mind. (I still haven’t been robbed abroad after 17 years of travel though.)

4. Cell Phone

Yes, bring your smart phone from home. But use it mostly to take photos and to stay in touch with family back home for urgent issues (like plane delays or health emergencies).  

Better to buy a local cell phone to use as your primary way to talk and text with locals like your host family, coordinator and friends. Why? A local cell phone will be guaranteed to work; it will cost you no more than $30; and you will not have to worry about your expensive smart phone from home getting lost / stolen / damaged. Smart phone use is also an easy and tempting way to isolate yourself from local life — which is a bad thing on volunteering trips abroad.

5. Santa Clause Gifts

Bringing gifts and treats from home for people abroad may seem like a no-brainer good idea. But like with so many other aspects of volunteering abroad, things are much more complicated.

Foreigners showing up in poorer communities on a regular basis with “stuff” creates a Santa Claus mentality, where locals come to expect the same from future volunteers. It encourages kids to beg. Plus sweet treats like candy are bad for kids’ teeth.

If you must donate, we suggest donating cash — discreetly — to local projects that truly help locals and have a proven track record. And make sure you are present when the cash is being spent (on school supplies, food stuffs tuition, etc.).