How to Have Your Most Meaningful Vacation Ever

Want more out of your travel experiences than just souvenirs? Pack your passion for teaching and learning, and consider a vacation that gives back.

Girl volunteers painting a vibrant mural on a sunny wall

by NEA Member Benefits

Do you love to travel but wish you could give something back? Consider voluntourism, which allows you to explore a foreign land while volunteering.

It’s a natural fit for educators, who love to both learn new things and help other people, says teacher Angela Lathem-Ballard, who has volunteered in countries such as Peru and Russia through voluntourism company Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS).

Most of us go into teaching because it’s our passion and we have a natural desire to give back to our community,” she says. “But that doesn’t just exist in our local neighborhood. It extends to the global community.”

Lathem-Ballard has volunteered as a teacher for kindergarten students on a mountaintop shantytown in Peru, where she shared her curriculum planning and design skills.

“I’ve never been the kind of person who can sit on the beach with a mai tai,” Lathem-Ballard says. “I’m looking for an active vacation where I can learn something new, experience a different culture, but also be able to have a sharing experience at the same time.”

If this sounds like your ideal kind of vacation, use these pointers from Lathem-Ballard to find the right voluntourism program for you.

Find the right program

Aim for balanced days. “The wonderful thing about CCS is that you’re not exhausting yourself. You’re working half days, and the other half is yours for language development, cultural excursions, etc.,” Lathem-Ballard says. “It gives you the best of both worlds.”

Go for at least two weeks. “Anything less and you have to leave just as you’re getting into your flow,” she says.

Ask for help. To lessen the financial load of these excursions, Lathem-Ballard was able to fundraise nearly 100% of her expenses upfront. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in funding your voluntourism trip. If asking people for money makes you squirm, you can do it online via companies such as GoFundMe, Fundly and Crowdrise.

Follow your passion. “Think about your interests and skills, and consider how they can affect someone,” she says. “But don’t be afraid to try something new. Going in with an open mind is critical.”

Learn the language. “You don’t have to be fluent, but if you invest some time in learning the niceties (‘hello,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you’), it will make your time much more enjoyable and show the locals you respect the culture,” she says.

Be brave. “Know these professional programs are safe and secure, even in developing areas. For example, CCS has 24-hour security,” Lathem-Ballard says.

Resources for voluntourism trips

Ready to take the plunge? We’ve found four great voluntourism companies that’ll help you leave the land, animals or people better off than before you arrived.

1. Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS)

With hundreds of opportunities, including more than 100 education-related programs, in 10 countries (Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana and Tanzania, to name a few), CCS is perfect for teachers who want to work with children.

For example, in Costa Rica, CCS is seeking volunteers to teach English and work on school beautification projects. If you’ve always wanted to travel to Peru, CCS has a weeklong trip this summer for 20 people.

The cost of a weeklong trip ranges from $2,480 to $2,677, depending on the destination, as of this writing. That covers most necessities (including food, lodging and ground transportation) except airfare. If 20 NEA members travel together, CCS will provide each traveler with a 5% discount, and two members can go for free! Contact CCS for more details about this educator discount.

2. HugItForward

This grass-roots organization empowers Guatemalan communities by building “bottle schools,” which are built using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash, giving locals an incentive to clean up their community and build a healthier environment.

One-week voluntourism trips are offered. Groups of 10 or more can arrange a HugItForward trip around their availability, or you can visit the organization’s partner site, Serve the World Today, to find upcoming trip dates. The cost is $1,195, which includes accommodations, meals, emergency assistance and transportation within Guatemala. Flights are separate. 

3. Wwoofing

If you’re interested in learning and sharing sustainable living practices, consider Wwoofing, which stands for World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming. Volunteers willing to work roughly four to six hours a day can receive a full day’s food and accommodation at organic farms in more than 100 countries. Tasks can include sowing seeds, composting, weeding, harvesting, and making wine or cheese.

Visit the Wwoofing website to find all available international opportunities. If you want to stay in the U.S., go directly to the USA website.

4. Road Scholar

This not-for-profit travel group is all about adult education. With 5,550 tours in 150 countries, Road Scholar lets curious adults travel the world alongside renowned experts and experience behind-the-scenes learning opportunities. Through the Volunteer Ambassador program, you can volunteer your time to promote Road Scholar’s adventures by delivering presentations to interested parties.

Travel deals exclusively for NEA members