Making a Difference Through Volunteer Vacations


Using vacation time to give back to those in need.

Today, many wealthy families look beyond standard luxury getaways and opt for an increasingly popular high-end volunteerism trend: volunteer vacations.

Volunteer vacations enable families to help a local community while experiencing a unique destination and its culture. Whether traveling abroad or lending a hand close to home, volunteer projects are plentiful and perfect for families or one-on-one experiences with children and grandchildren.

Here’s how to find the volunteer opportunities and destinations right for your family.

Get Started With Professional Advice

Booking a volunteer vacation through a travel service can provide much-needed professional guidance and structure. Global Volunteers, founded in 1984, laid the foundation for volunteer vacations. It is a short-term volunteer service and nonprofit network that leads more than 200 service teams in 100-plus communities worldwide.

The organization matches volunteer skills and interests to best benefit the needs of under-resourced communities. “We don’t function like vacation tours,” says Michele Gran, co-founder and senior vice president of Global Volunteers. “We ask how you want to contribute and what skills you are willing to give to local people for two or three weeks.”

Global Volunteers provides in-office consultants to assist prospective volunteers and “on-the-ground” staff to deliver programs. The standard program lasts for two weeks and spans from teaching English in Greece to building brick-and-mortar houses in the foothills of Appalachia. Upon arrival, volunteers experience a full-day orientation discussing cultural norms, work methods and an overview of the local community.

Hands Up Holidays, a luxury travel company specializing in expert-led sightseeing and community development, shares a similar philosophy. Local English-speaking guides help clients explore chosen destinations while teaching the language, cultural norms and etiquette.

“We help clients utilize the skills and knowledge they’ve developed over the years,” says Christopher Hill, founder and chief experience officer. “They are able to leave a legacy by making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.”

Choose the Trip That Fits Your Comfort Level

With so many destinations and humanitarian projects, it’s important to narrow down interests.

Volunteer service organizations allow potential volunteers to meet with consultants or fill out detailed online questionnaires to understand their motivation for volunteering. Hands Up Holidays requires volunteers to fill out a survey of more than a dozen questions ranging from education level to amount of travel experience. But ultimately, the destination and project is up to the vacationer.

Learn how one woman bonded with her grandsons through volunteer vacations

Volunteer Vacations in Action

It was easy for Mary Ann Novotny to encourage her two 16-year-old grandsons, Jordan and Joshua, to accompany her on two separate volunteer vacations to Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico. Novotny, a retired teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota, traveled with each grandson individually through a Global Volunteers program that teaches English in classrooms.

The success of the trips stemmed from open communication with Novotny’s grandsons from the very beginning, which led to an incredible learning experience that strengthened their relationships. “Make it clear that it’s a commitment more than a vacation,” she suggests. “Give them the opportunity to make their own decisions or say ‘no’ when they don’t want to participate in an activity.”

Before planning a volunteer vacation with a child or grandchild, consider volunteering locally to see what interests them. “But don’t get uptight when things don’t work according to an itinerary, as that could turn off young volunteers,” Novotny advises. “Sharing something so unique and deep makes for an extra bond with your family member, no matter the timeframe.”

A major consideration for choosing a trip is activity level. Nearly half of Global Volunteers’ projects are extremely active and hands-on, such as youth recreation projects, childcare programs and summer language camps. “We take people who have a desire to contribute to a local community and make them as effective as we can,” Gran says.

For those who prefer a less physically intensive experience, Hands Up Holidays’ programs balance volunteer work with vacation time. For a typical nine-day vacation, the first three days are dedicated to exploring the destination with a guide and learning about the community. The next three days focus on volunteering and interacting with local people through projects like community repairs and renovations or environmental conservation. During the final three days, volunteers reflect on their experience, relax and continue to explore with their guide.

Many volunteer vacation programs also oblige when it comes to hotel accommodations. For popular Hands Up Holidays destinations including Belize, Morocco, Costa Rica and India, volunteers can choose accommodations based on their level of comfort, up to four- and five-star hotels.

Because many volunteers are unfamiliar with international travel, Global Volunteers offers options where they can eat in restaurants, stay in hotel rooms and still make a valuable contribution. “We understand people have various tolerances, but that doesn’t mean the needs you’re helping with aren’t critical,” Gran says.

Stay Safe While Volunteering

Whether you choose to volunteer in less predictable environments or are more comfortable in developed regions, consider these safety precautions:

  • Has the U.S. Department of State issued travel warnings (long-term conditions that make a country dangerous enough to avoid entirely) or travel alerts (short-term conditions that pose significant risks to U.S. citizens)? Check for updates at
  • Does the hotel provide 24-hour security? Most reputable volunteer organizations have established relationships with hotels, which can help ensure guests’ safety.
  • Is the food safe? All food for Global Volunteers travelers is prepared in restaurants or by its cooks.
  • Do special safety accommodations need to be made for the group? Elderly people or children may require adjusted safety procedures. Many families are concerned with taking children to malarial areas, for example. So Hands Up Holidays provides options in malaria-free parks, such as Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.
  • Are you in good enough health to travel? “We recommend our clients get specific advice from their physicians before traveling,” Hill says.
  • Is there safety in numbers? Participating in group activities not only provides the protection of a larger crowd, but also allows volunteers to bond with one another. In addition, volunteers traveling with established organizations benefit from guides familiar with the communities, as well as from orientations that provide in-depth safety information.

With proper planning, volunteer vacations can be an invaluable and safe learning experience shared with the entire family.