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Vacation is a time for kicking back and relaxing, but it can also be a great opportunity to give back. Volunteering while on vacation can be as simple as donating extra goods, spending a day prepping meals, or helping at a school. Once you see how easy it is to give back, you might want to make it a regular part of your everyday life at home, too! Before you do, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind before you sign up to volunteer while traveling.  

RELATED: How to pack for a volunteer trip

Start local

It’s a cinch to volunteer in your own hometown. A Google search is a great way to discover both online and virtual opportunities in your own backyard. Plus, volunteering can take as little as a few hours and can fit into almost any family’s schedule. Not only is volunteering at home a good way to get an idea of how you and your family would like to volunteer while traveling, but also a great way to enhance your local community.

list of nice things to do when traveling

Photo: Pattie Cordova

Know your limits

Once you have decided that you want to incorporate volunteering into a trip, you’ll want to evaluate what exactly you can and are willing to do. Make sure that you are not overextending yourself and that whatever you choose fits into your budget, time frame, and willingness for the kids and family you’re traveling with. You might want to start small and build up from there.

Donate clothes to local communities when traveling.

Photo: Pattie Cordova

Research organizations

Research and contact organizations in your destination to get a feel for what is required and needed. We found that churches are always a good starting point. They often have a better feel of what the community really needs. This may be clothes, school supplies, and basic toiletries. Always contact beforehand since their needs may vary based on the time of year. During the cold months, for example, sweaters and blankets may make more sense than shorts and sandals. You might also want to ask at the front desk of your hotel and see if they partner up with local organizations. Some resorts, like the Grand Solmar at Rancho Los Cabos, organize monthly events with local organizations. 

Also, don’t forget that volunteering doesn’t necessarily mean just helping other people; sometimes it can also be helping feline friends! We visited the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in Rome for this purpose and loved that it was kid-friendly and had an option of being able to support the organization from abroad via a monthly contribution.

cat sanctuary in Rome

Photo: Pattie Cordova

Check that your chosen charity is legit

While there are hundreds of thousands of organizations around the world working hard to help people and animals in need, there are also a fair number of people who will try to take advantage of others under the guise of a charity. Be sure to check BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, or GuideStar to see if the charity you’re interested in helping has a good reputation and spends their money wisely.

Know the local laws and regulations

On one of our trips down to Mexico, we took gifts, school supplies, and snacks for kids. I contacted a local church and made arrangements to drop them off. At the border crossing we were asked to declare any goods we had. Since we had many new items we were sent to inspection. There, they told us that because the goods were new, we were required to pay tax on the items. It’s a very valuable lesson and thus, you might want to check local jurisdictions for taxes and guidelines on new and used items. Luckily, in this instance, I had the phone number of a church priest and he was able to verify that the goods would be donated and not sold. Getting a letter from the organization requesting goods can help to eliminate this issue at customs. 

Learn basic cultural customs and differences

It’s a good rule to research and learn more about local customs when traveling. This is especially true when volunteering abroad. Research which types of foods are preferred, clothing styles, and always learn how to say basic words in the local language. I always get a kick at how people in Mexico are more open to hugs and closeness, so if you’re traveling to Mexico, don’t be afraid to give a hug when greeting someone if it’s safe and appropriate to do so. 


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