If you don’t have much in the way of funds, volunteering is an excellent way to get started on your budget travel journey. If you’re a kind-hearted person and a hard worker, you can go almost anywhere for pretty darn close to free.
I explored thirteen US states for free during a service year as a disaster relief worker and trail crew member. I have a friend who lived in Nepal while rebuilding after an earthquake, others who helped build NGOs in Africa, Japan, and Eastern Europe, and a couple who spent a month helping out on a monkey sanctuary in Costa Rica.
Sound like fun? I think so. But there’s a catch. If you’re concerned with the social responsibility aspect of “voluntourism” and you should be read this article to ensure you’re doing it right.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are my top free (and some “paid”) volunteer travel experiences.
Your local community
Seriously. The best place to find an extraordinary, off-beat service experience is in your back yard. You’d be amazed how much service work is being done right under your nose if you take the time to look. I wish I’d learned this lesson much sooner.
I love the example of Kate Mante, who at age 50, spent a year traveling her native New Jersey volunteering at a new organization each week. It was a unique and impactful experience for her, and I’ll bet it cost a lot less and did more good than a week-long trip to Kenya.
Often called the Domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is the grandbaby of the Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Since the 1930’s, its offerings have expanded considerably from swinging a pickaxe with a bunch of sweaty guys in the backcountry.
Fundamentally an anti-poverty initiative, AmeriCorps pays a living stipend and (usually) transportation costs for full- and part-time positions all over the USA and in the territories. You can pay nothing to shoot off to an adventure as a back-country trail blazer in Montana, a microlending guru in a revitalizing Rust Belt city, or an event organizer at a community farm in California.
Most positions also give you an education award upon completion, which you can use to fuel further adventures. I’m using mine to attend two months at a wilderness survival school in Maine, called Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. It was a hard choice between that and a month spent sailing around Argentina with NOLS.
Did you know that New Orleans is still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005? The impacts of natural disasters continue for years and even decades after the media has stopped caring. Short- and long-term relief organizations are always looking for volunteers. Here are a few organizations I’ve worked with:
- All Hands and Hearts (US and global)
- Habitat for Humanity (US and global)
- St. Bernard Project (US)
- Nechama (US)
I have personal experience with all the organizations on this list and wholeheartedly recommend them. All of them will put you up and feed you for free (provided you’re working, of course), typically with weekends off for exploring. Some will even pay your transportation fees to get to work sites across America and around the world.
My personal favorite way to travel. Most work exchanges come with basic but satisfying room and board, a smorgasbord of other travelers with endless stories to tell, and the chance to learn new skills. Opportunities range from storefront help and personal assistants to private yacht cooks and farm hands.
I once spent a week in the New Mexico desert building a house out of lava rocks and mud. The position came with free accommodations in a well-appointed stable, gourmet Southwestern meals shared with my hosts and other volunteers, and a great tan. Unfortunately, no showers, but the off-grid homestead was on the banks of the Rio Grande, so you can bet I took every opportunity for skinny dipping.
My favorite exchange platforms are Workaway and WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), because they’re huge, have good search engines, and employ a rating system and reviews so you can vet hosts. You can also find plenty of private opportunities. I’ve negotiated work exchanges for an apartment in an inner city, as well as room and board during a winter farmstay.
If you’re a hard worker with a good heart, there are adventures waiting for you just about everywhere.