You’ve saved some money and chosen your volunteering placement. Now the real planning begins! Making sure you’re properly prepared can feel pretty overwhelming. To help you out, here are a few things to consider before you go volunteering abroad.
1. How much money do I need?
Hopefully you’ve got some savings to pay for your placement, but remember to calculate how much you’ll need and how long your savings are likely to last. Check what’s included in the cost of your volunteer placement (different volunteer companies will vary) and make sure you have enough left over for beers, transport, additional activities – plus a little extra in case of emergencies.
Research the cost of living too – £100 will go a lot further in most Asian countries than in Europe. You don’t want to arrive at your destination and realise you can’t afford to enjoy it properly. Similarly, if you’re in a remote place, you might find yourself without access to cash points. Plan ahead so you don’t get caught short. It’s no use having £1,000 in savings if you can’t access the cash when you need it.
2. Do I have subscriptions to cancel before I go?
It’s easy to sign up to contracts and subscriptions and then forget about them. But when you’re volunteering abroad, every penny counts. So cancelling any unnecessary subscriptions, memberships or gym passes can be a good way of making your money go a little further.
3. Argh, what should I pack?
Everyone’s placement will be different so think about what’s appropriate for your trip. For example, if you’re travelling somewhere without safe drinking water, bring a LifeStraw to stay hydrated without buying plastic bottles every day. Likewise, only packing bikinis and short skirts isn’t the best idea for somewhere women dress conservatively or if you’ll be doing manual work. Similarly, if you’ve secured a corporate placement in the city, a suit is a good idea. You get the picture.
4. What do I do with all my stuff?
Chances are you’ll be heading off with just you and your backpack (even if it’s so full it looks like it might burst at the seams). So, for the things you leave behind: can you sell them or donate to charity? It’s a great opportunity to get rid of all that junk you’d forgotten was sitting at the back of your wardrobe.
5. How will I communicate?
If you’re travelling somewhere English isn’t the first language, learn a few local phrases before you go. Even if the locals speak some English, they’ll appreciate you making the effort.
Once you’re on the road, you’ll want to contact home. Before you leave, check if your phone will work in the country you’re visiting or whether you can buy a local SIM card on arrival. Bring a portable battery charger and don’t forget the correct plug adaptor for your destination. Your phone is no use if you can’t charge it!
6. Remembering to take malarial pills every day is a pain – do I really have to?
As my housemate used to tell us repeatedly after she recovered from malaria in Africa: “malaria is no joke”. Check whether the area you’re visiting is a high risk malaria zone and, if so, speak to a specialist travel nurse about anti-malarials. Ditto other vaccinations. Find out which tropical illnesses are common in the area you’re visiting and organise suitable vaccinations. It’s just not worth the risk.
7. Some of the “boring stuff” is really expensive – should I even bother?
Let’s face it, it can be tempting to scrimp on travel insurance – or skip it altogether – when you’re worried about money, and just hope nothing goes wrong. If it does, trust me, you’ll be pleased you spent some money on adequate cover.
There will be lots of other “boring extras” (vaccinations, visas, hiking boots, mosquito nets) that can add a hefty amount to the cost of your trip. Think carefully about what you’ll need; when you’re stuck in the jungle being massacred by mozzies, that £30 you didn’t want to spend on a mosquito net won’t seem like so much money after all.
8. Do I need a visa?
For some countries, you might need to apply for a visa, particularly if you’re planning on staying longer term. While many volunteer placements might advise you on the type of visa you need, most won’t organise your visa for you. Check if you’re responsible for the visa process and, if so, do your research carefully. Remember, you might have to leave your passport at the embassy for a few days for processing so try not to leave your application until right at the last minute.
9. What if something goes wrong?
Not everything is going to go exactly according to plan – particularly if you’re going away for a long time. Your bus might break down, you might get lost or a storm might ruin your plans for a weekend of sunbathing. And that’s OK. Treat it as part of the adventure and enjoy the ride. And if something bigger goes wrong? That’s why you have insurance.
10. What am I going to do when I get home?
The last thing you want to think about before you’ve even left is what you’re going to do when your trip is over. But time really does fly when you’re having fun and before you know it, your flight will be touching down back home. To make sure you’re prepared for the next step, try to have an idea of whether you’ll be going back to your studies, looking for work etc. to make it smoother when you do get home.
Don’t forget, volunteering abroad can be a great addition to your CV by proving you have experience for the field you want to move into. Whatever you have planned next, good luck!