Volunteer Abroad For Free

The idea of volunteering abroad for free is gaining in popularity.

Especially after the sticker shock when browsing organizations online who charge thousands of dollars for just a short stay abroad.

So yes, the word “free” sounds very inviting when it comes to volunteering abroad. Let’s take a look at some things involved with volunteer abroad for free.

What does “Free” mean?

First let’s define “free” in the context of volunteering abroad.

“Free” means that the volunteer does not pay a program fee to a third-party placement organization. Instead, the volunteer decides to arrange and pay for everything on their own.

As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There’s also no such thing as a free volunteer trip abroad.

The “Program Fee” model

Paying a program fee to an organization has become one of the standard options today
for newbies to volunteer abroad. The “placement” organization is typically a non-prot
entity that is independent, secular and unaliated with a school or government entity.

The program fee they charge (sometimes also called a “placement fee”) pays for a
volunteer’s meals, accommodations, airport transfers, insurance, visa assistance,
pre-departure advice, 24-hour emergency support, and the volunteer placement itself.

One way to volunteer abroad for free is to simply self-arrange your trip. This means that that you will not have to pay a program fee to an organization.

Show Them the Money

However, the reality is that unless you have the time, money and a strong personality (and some luck), self-arranging a volunteer trip overseas can end up costing the same or even more as with paying a program fee.

How can that be?

First, even if you avoid paying a program fee, you will still be responsible for paying for items that the program fee would have covered. As I mentioned above, these costs include things like meals, accommodations, airport transfers, and daily commutes to the volunteer job.

Second, there will likely be costs for you to nd a volunteer placement on your own:

1. Time

Before you leave home for your volunteer trip overseas, there will be the “opportunity cost” of spending dozens if not hundreds of hours on the Internet and phone researching and vetting potential volunteer placements abroad. 

2. Travel

Then when you finally arrive in the host country, you will have to spend money visiting those potential placements. This means paying for your ground transportation, meals, and accommodations.

3. “Optional” Donations

Most local organizations in the host countries (like orphanages and AIDS groups) “require” volunteers to make a cash donation (which can be as high as $500) in order to volunteer at their facility. These donations are usually not published or requested directly by the facilities; Instead the managers will constantly bombard the volunteer with tales about the facility’s lack of funds, until it’s uncomfortable for the volunteer NOT to donate cash or goods.

4. Emergencies

Most volunteers abroad do not experience an emergency during their trips. However there is a chance that something catastrophic will happen to you such as a medical episode, assault, theft, or natural disaster.

Would you be able to handle a an emergency on your own? Would you understand the importance of pre-departure recommendations like buying travel insurance, registering your trip with your local embassy, carrying emergency contacts on your person, and having access to copies of important documents like passports and visas?

Who should volunteer abroad for free

Volunteering abroad for free is not for everyone. But there are certain types of people and travelers who can thrive in this situation:

1. Experienced Travelers

If your volunteer trip abroad will be the first time you’re traveling overseas — especially if still a minor — strongly consider signing up with a volunteer organization and paying their program fee. Volunteering abroad for free is for those travelers who are accustomed to handling the experience of being abroad independently. This includes things like haggling with taxi drivers, finding accommodations, and staying safe.

2. Those with time on their hands

Don’t expect to quickly nd a volunteer placement that suits you, especially if you are looking for a skilled position like in health care or construction. You will need considerable time to research and investigate not only the volunteer placement itself but also the local community. Then when you finally arrive at the placement, do not be surprised if the reality doesn’t match the “brochure” — in terms of the facility’s quality and the availability and type of volunteer work.

3. Tough Cookies

As one can gather from the above, volunteering abroad for free is suited only for independent-minded self-starters. What if something goes wrong 10,000 miles from home — say with your health or the volunteer work — or if you get homesick and depressed? You must be able to handle such adversity mostly on your own. You will have to negotiate a new culture with its unique customs, work styles and health and safety concerns.

4. Unskilled Volunteers

Volunteer positions that do not require skills or experience are the easiest ones to self-arrange. The most popular ones include volunteering at orphanages, elementary schools, and with sports teams. If you are a skilled volunteer like an experienced doctor or nurse, you will likely benifitted from the contacts and support of a placement agency.

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free

So, just how can you volunteer abroad for free? Here are some methods that work:

1. Former Volunteers

Seasoned travelers are often the best resource when nding a free volunteer project abroad. They are almost always willing to share their experiences — and not just on an impersonal blog or Facebook page. Ask them to have a chat online or even try to meet for tea if feasible.

2. Social Media

Facebook and Twitter can be a good way to find free or low-cost volunteer programs abroad. But again, focus on finding former volunteers, instead of just reaching out to the volunteer placements themselves.

3. Guide Books

Travel guide books (Lonely Planet, Moon Books) are good to consult for their listings of free volunteer projects abroad. These guide books are very popular, so the listed organizations are usually ooded with requests from foreigners looking to volunteer. Contact them anyway — they may have partner organizations who could use your help.

4. Local Organizations

Contact organizations abroad directly, like schools and drop-in centers for children, to see if they have volunteer placements available for you. Send an email or Facebook message but also call them on the phone (the effort of a voice call may make the organization more willing to entertain your request to volunteer). Ask if they have had foreign volunteers before; what are the work duties; is there free room and meals?

5. Just Show Up

Consider simply flying to the host country and arranging everything after you arrive. Have a list of local organizations in hand and literally knock on their doors and tell them you’re looking to volunteer. Don’t have a list? Hang around venues with foreigners like cafes, gyms and bars. Ask locals (hotel front-desk, taxi drivers, waiters) where you can volunteer. These communities abroad are very small — you will find something quickly.

(Volunteer Abroad for Free — PDF)

University Travel: 10 Ways Students Can Globetrot for Free

Freelance travel writer and food blogger Lauren Razavi outlines 10 ways students can travel around the world for free (or almost free).

Lauren posted these ideas several year ago, but I like them so much that I wanted to share them again. 

And although Cosmic Volunteers volunteer programs abroad are not free, I still believe in sharing ideas on traveling abroad for free. We travelers are all about helping others abroad while learning about different cultures.

So, if you are ready to start thinking about and maybe even planning your summer for 2018, here are some ideas to explore about how you can travel around the world for free.

1. Cultural Exchange and Study

Each year, government departments and private organizations fund a limited number of undergraduates to go on cultural exchange programmes.

One good example is the China Study Tour run by the Confucius Institute. The study tour immerses students in the cultures and traditions of China. In order to keep the tour as affordable as possible, the Confucius Institute subsides the cost of accommodation and activities included in the tour program.

2. Teach English Abroad

Teaching abroad is a great option, especially if you are interested in going to southeast Asia.

There are small schools and community centers in places like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines that would be glad to have you for the summer. Your role would most likely be as an unpaid teaching assistant who practices conversation and pronunciation with young children.

I suggest looking online for small schools and child-advocacy organizations in the host country, then contact them to see if they can use your help. Some may even give you free accommodations and meals all summer.

Also look at directories like Go Overseas and Go Abroad to find “free” or very cheap placement organizations. 

Most teaching positions abroad in summers are unpaid. You typically need to commit to at least a 9-month stay in order to get paid actual wages.

3. Travel Grants

There are organizations whose sole purpose is funding travel. The application process is stringent, so it is not an easy task. But the mere exercise of putting your thoughts together on paper and doing an interview can help you understand your own reasons for travel. One organization is the SPRET Educational Trust. They assist with contributions towards the cost of travel, residence and attendance at conferences, lectures and educational courses.

4. Enter competitions

This one is a long shot. But yes, there are companies running contests with prizes to fund travel abroad. If you’re a poet and you know it, there’s the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. Also photo contests are everywhere these days. InternationalStudent.com runs a travel video contest with a $4,000 prize — that’ll buy a lot of Pho in Vietnam! (deadline is October 13 so hurry). ACIS Educational Tours has a $1,000 scholarship contest based on your artwork, photography and writing that describes how “…different cultures, communities, and places from around the world impact your daily life.”

5. Study abroad

Some degree courses automatically include a term or year away, but there are opportunities for any undergraduate to spend time abroad as part of their studies.

Launched in 2009, The Bridge Year Program by Princeton allows a select number of incoming students to begin their Princeton experience by engaging in nine months of tuition-free, University-sponsored service at one of five international locations.

Here is a list of colleges where freshman year study abroad is common.

6. Become a tour guide

Consider leading others on their own sightseeing trips abroad as a tour guide. Contact tourism boards and offices, hotels, cruise ships and and smaller tour companies.

For this type of work, you will need excellent English and an upbeat and friendly personality. You will also have to learn about — very quickly! — the local culture and sightseeing spots.

A downside to being a tour guide abroad is that you will probably be taking away work from a native-born tour guide who needs the work much more than you do.

7. Hitchhiking and Couchsurfing

Hitchhiking is now illegal, and certainly discouraged, in many parts of the US. But hitchhiking abroad is not only legal but a perfectly normal and safe part of life.

Especially in rural areas abroad, hitchhiking is often the only way for most people to get around.

This was me hitchhiking a motorcycle ride in the rural beach town of Monterrico, Guatemala in 2017:

Also consider Couchsurfing where you stay a local person’s house for free. Why? People like meeting others from different cultures, and what better way to entice them than to give them a free room!

8. Work on a farm

I’ve casually met tons of farmers around the world who would love to host you in exchange for your labor.

There are organizations online that have formalized the process of connecting travelers with farming work abroad. The most well-known is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

The local farms (mostly organic) usually provide food and accommodation and maybe even a small stipend — all in exchange for your (hard!) labor. WOOF does charge a small upfront fee for membership — but I think it’s worth the peace of mind know that the farm has been vetted by WWOOF.

9. Charity

Make your trip a charity event, then fundraise from the community. Many young people start with asking family and friends for funds.

Consider a faith-based mission trip — they continue to grow in popularity. Most of the congregations I know are very generous with cash donations, especially if you are partnering with a congregation abroad. It is relatively easy these days to find a congregation in places like Ghana and Guatemala who would welcome you to share your faith (and donations) with them.

For secular ventures, potential donors may be more likely to sponsor you if they know you are volunteering abroad with a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity so that their donations are tax-deductible. Try hard to do some sort of presentation to your donors when you return home.

10. New Friends

Make friends with people at your university — especially students from different countries. Those students aren’t hard to find these days — International students studying abroad on US campuses has been increasing annually forever.

Go to events on campus organized by international students. Perhaps volunteer alongside them. Get to know them, ask questions, learn about their life and culture back home.

Let them know you are open to invites to visit their home country in the summer. They’ll probably be proud to have you come and act as your tour guide.