This is arguably the worst part of preparing for any trip, especially when you’re traveling internationally to a new climate and culture that you don’t know much about. First, start by researching the weather where you’ll be at. Take note of what you’ll be doing on your trip. If you’ll be spending more time hiking through rain forests or under the beating sun for hours in a dry climate you’ll want to pack differently. Pack only what you need. On a volunteer trip, (or any trip for that matter) do yourself a favor and don’t pack options. Lay out one outfit for each day, better yet, choose neutral articles that can be mixed and matched. You can survive 7 days with 2 pairs of pants, trust me. When traveling internationally it is especially important to know how people dress there and what is considered appropriate. The US is one of the most laid back countries when it comes to what is acceptable for men and women to wear in public. Ask your program director what you can and can’t wear in your destination country and stick to that. For more organization and packing tips check out our PDF.

Knowing the language basics

Not all phrases are created equal. There will be things that are much more important to be able to communicate when you are in another country, so no need to take a crash course in the local language, although it will help you if you do. You really only need to know the basics:

  • Hello, Goobye, my name is
  • Simple etiquette words, such as excuse me (you will use this one a lot!), please, thank you and you’re welcome, I’m sorry
  • How to ask for directions
  • Where is the restroom?
  • How much?
  • I do not understand
  • Do you speak English?

For everything else pack a small dictionary or download a language app on your phone. There are also many translator apps, such as Google translate, iTranslate, and iHandy Translator.

Asking a lot of questions

The organization you are doing your volunteer traveling through has done this before. They can answer any of your questions relating to what to bring, wear, do, and are the best resource for questions. Ask them what they need and what else you can do to help. They want to answer your questions and by letting them know how excited you are to be going on this trip they will be happy to help. Don’t be afraid to ask about the program fees or dangers of your destination countries. They are there to put your mind at ease and help you prepare for the volunteer trip of a lifetime.

Doing your homework

Be an informed traveler, not only about the region you’re traveling to, but the volunteer project you’ll be working on. Prepare yourself for the conditions you will be seeing. If it’s a construction volunteering trip, be prepared to meet people without homes. If it’s a medical trip, know that you’ll be meeting people who may have never received care before. This will not only make you a better volunteer worker if you have done some research into the problem and solution you are providing, but will help with the culture shock especially if you are going to a third world environment that is exceptionally different than anything you’ve ever seen before.

Familiarizing yourself with the transportation

Is there infrastructure for public transportation or does everyone ride on the back of mopeds to get around? This will save you a lot of stress when you get to your destination country and realize where you need to go is 20 miles from where you get dropped off. Flagging down a taxi is an option in most places but may be the most expensive of your options. Many countries have apps that show you the public transportation systems routes and times, googlemaps also has this feature. This may require you to think about your transportation pretty far in advance, but will be worth it when you’re stuck trying to read a bus map written in Portuguese.

Bringing and Buying

Consider leaving things out of your suitcase that you may want to buy locally either to support the local economy or to have something to remember your trip or bring back to friends. If your suitcase is hard to shut before you leave the country, it will be almost impossible to bring anything back without leaving things there. A hack to help leave yourself room is to bring goodies that are only from your hometown or home country to share with your host family or community you’ll be staying in. For example, most of Europe doesn’t have peanut butter, so I packed several jars in my suitcase to give to my host family as a gift from America. Not only did my host family appreciate the gift but the extra space and weight room in my suitcase allowed me to bring back European chocolates and souvenirs from my travels. Also, do some research on how much cash you’ll need and what currency you’ll be using. Some places accept the dollar as the same standard as their host currency, but be aware of the exchange rate and foreign ATM fees. Most banks will charge a fee for using your credit card to make transactions abroad or withdrawing money from a foreign ATM, so check to see what options your bank has for international exchange. Having a credit card with a chip and pin is also a safer and more widely accepted credit card type, though not frequently used in the US, so you may have to apply for one. Lastly tipping varies depending on where you are. This is a great infographic to know what is acceptable where you’ll be going.

Setting up plans for communication

If you’re volunteering internationally or in a place where your cell signal won’t reach (can you hear me now?) you’ll want to set up a plan for communication with your family or other members on your trip. If you have a smartphone there are several apps that run off of wifi and make communication simple and easy. Facebook Messenger works on wifi and allows you to direct message anyone on Facebook without dealing with all of Facebook’s other capabilities. Imessages also work on wifi and do not require having cell service if you are messaging iphone user to iphone user. Other apps that allow messaging and video chat on wifi include Whatsapp and Skype. The most important thing to remember is to turn your data and roaming off if you are leaving the country. You will never need to turn it on to use wifi, they work independently, and even if you are not sending texts or making calls your roaming bill will be racking up a charge the longer you leave your data on out of the country. There are some international plans that allow a set amount of data usage while out of the country, personally I was out of the country for four months and never needed it, but if you really think you will just contact your cell phone provider to talk about these options.

Looking up the popular attractions and things to do – but make loose plans

Have an idea of what things you might want to do and see in your free time before you even go on your trip, but be open to a change of plans. When traveling anywhere abroad it is inevitable that trains and busses will be missed, delayed, or just won’t come at all. Embrace the unreliability of public transportation especially in developing countries. The best way to deal with these road bumps is to take them in stride. Your entire experience abroad is a learning experience. Being able to adapt your plans will allow you to be a lot happier and have a lot more fun. Can’t make that trip to the beach on your off day? Check out that local cafe that’s been catching your eye all week.

Getting wonderfully lost

Most likely your volunteer travel will take you someplace you have never been before, know little to nothing about, and will be drastically different than anything you’ve ever done before. Embrace it. Put yourself in the people’s shoes that live in those conditions and environment. Expand your worldview, and be prepared to realize some things you thought about the world may be wrong. Also, don’t be afraid to get lost. When I was in Venice I followed the winding canals into the depth of the city with not a clue to where I was or where I was going, and found the most beautiful cathedrals and authentic cuisine not populated by hundreds of other tourists. Explore the area where you are. Don’t wander the streets of Guatemala alone at 2 am, but branch out from your normal routine of work site to hostel or hotel. Take a new path, but always be safe while doing it. Taking the initiative to explore will only heighten your experience and take you to places you never would have guessed you’d end up.

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