08/04/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Four Steps to Planning a Volunteer Vacation


If you love to travel, meet new people and experience different cultures, volunteer vacations are a great way to see the world. I've volunteered in the Canary Islands, Mexico and Jamaica. So, when I visited Thailand recently, I stopped by the local orphanage to check out a volunteer opportunity.

You don't even have to plan a separate trip or take more time off work. You can simply check into opportunities while you are on vacation.

While in Thailand I left the resort as a tourist and worked with the locals, which opened my world up to parts of the culture I'd never have experienced otherwise. It's easy to think "vacation" has to be synonymous with "relaxing" but I challenge you to open up your mind (and heart) to experiencing all you can while you're abroad.

Here's what you can do before you leave home or even once you get there:

1. Pick an organization

I visited Vengping Children's Home while traveling to Thailand. (Check out what they're doing.)

Meeting with the staff, touring the facility and talking with the volunteers, I felt comfortable staying there and recommending friends to stay there.

Consider picking an organization that you've heard of from others who've spent time there, so you feel safe. It's easy to reach out on social networking sites and get recommendations and suggestions.

2. Fund a trip

Most places where I've volunteered provide free room and board. If you can't afford to fly to the destination, maybe ask friends, family and philanthropy organizations, such as churches, to support your volunteerism. How about using a credit card where you get free miles?

3. Explore

One of the best parts of volunteering is meeting the locals and immersing yourself in the culture. Traveling with other volunteers and locals definitely gets you off the tour bus and engaged in the country.

When I visited Vengping, the girls working there told me they had three days off each week to explore the jungles, beaches and cities. It's a blast having other workers and locals as enthusiastic and adventurous guides.

4. Be the change . . . (you know the rest of the Gandhi quote, right?)

Every time I've volunteered I received more than I had given. I've come away learning to live my life simpler, enjoy the moments and keep things in perspective.