5 Thing NOT to Pack when Volunteering Abroad

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.).

Departure Day from Home

Today is the big day! You’re finally ready to leave home and fly abroad for your volunteering trip!

This will undoubtedly be a day filled with mixed emotions – both for you and your family and friends – as you’re about to have an experience that few others ever will.

You should of course be feeling major excitement for the adventure you’re undertaking.

Like most other volunteers though, you (and your family) will also likely have some level of fear and anxiety. That’s perfectly normal, so don’t worry so much.

Then, as you finally settle into your seat on the plane, you should also be feeling a genuine sense of relief. After months (maybe even years!) of planning and preparation for this trip, you are literally and figuratively ready for take-off!

From a practical perspective, there are some things you need to keep in mind.

Tips for Your Departure Day:

1. Don’t leave home without these 3 things

  • Your passport
  • Money ($100 in cash & ATM card)
  • Prescription medicine(s)

Everything else can be replaced relatively easily, such as clothes, toiletries, even electronics like cameras and cell phones.

2. Weigh your luggage

Before you leave home, weigh your luggage (including carry-on bags). Every airline has its own weight policy, so check with your airline. Assume that the airline will be very strict with luggage weight rules. If you’re luggage is overweight, expect the airline to charge you a fee.

Most airlines allow two checked bags on international flights, with a maximum weight of 50 lbs (23 kg) per bag.

Alternatively, if your bags are overweight, you can remove items from your bag until you’re under the weight limit. You can then give those items to your family – assuming they’re still at the airport to see you off after check-out. (If you’re bringing 100 lbs of luggage though, you’re bringing way too much stuff!)

Luggage Cosmic Volunteers

3. Arrive early at the airport

Most airlines officially advise travelers to arrive at the airport at least three hours before your international flight’s departure time. However it is best to extend this to four hours, in case of unexpected traffic delays on your way to the airport. The worst-case scenario should be – you arrive 4-5 hours before your flight, leaving you with a bit more time to kill. This is much better than missing your flight of course!