9 travel tips for your volunteering, gap year or service learning trip abroad

Travelling overseas can be an exhilarating prospect, and provide some exciting times - but you’ll need to put careful thought into both your packing and your mindset, depending on where you’re going.

As the saying goes, good preparation is half the work. The more you prepare and confidently consider the different scenarios you might find yourself in while abroad, the less worry and stress you’ll have and the more you can focus on the positives of your great overseas adventure. 

It’s easy to feel panicky about the amount of preparation you feel you have to do – but remember that you can only prepare so much, and some things must just be left to chance, to unfold when you get to your host country for your voluntary work program. That’s part of the adventure! You’re not going on a NASA rocket to a different planet – you’re right here on Planet Earth, just in a different country!

Some things might catch you by surprise and present more of a challenge than you expected when you envisioned your volunteer vacation, sabbatical or gap year. Clever planning will help you cope with whatever comes your way.

Traveling abroad to participate in a service learning program or volunteering experience is a unique adventure – for one, you’re expected to work and not just lounge at the pool drinking fancy cocktails. You’ll be experiencing the everyday life of the local population, which probably won’t be much like a typical resort holiday. The good news? It will be better!

Helping at an animal shelter in Romania or building a school in Ghana will require you to think about issues such as health, protective clothing, how to deal with a different climate, hygiene and other aspects. You should be mindful of questions like “What should I pack for the volunteer project? 

Many of our volunteers at Khaya Volunteer Projects have asked these questions - what can they bring? How can they best prepare, to make their trip an even bigger success? Even though we send quite extensive information guides with lots of tips and recommendations on how to prepare (drop me a mail if you want a copy), it’s a subject that is pretty specific, depending on where you will be going and who you will be working with.

Let’s take a look at some things to keep in mind before your volunteering or gap year trip overseas.

1. Bring simple, useful items – remember, most volunteer programs lack basic materials

Volunteering your time as a sports coach might make you want to consider bringing a simple tool like a whistle. Believe me, it will help when 200 lively kids are running around like mad, chasing the only ball you have to your disposal! Which, of course, is another item you might want to bring: some balls and a good pump to inflate them. If you’ve got some old soccer boots lying around and have space in your suitcase, that’s another item to consider. There will be a child that will feel like a lottery winner when they receive soccer boots at one of our projects in Africa. Don't just hand it out though - discuss this with the coordinator to see how your donation can be put to the best use possible.

2. Educational materials make all the difference

If you’ll be volunteering overseas at an educational institute or school, you might want to consider bringing school stationery. Have you got family and friends who want to donate as well? Think about calculators, rullers, basic maths sets - all items of great value when donated to those that really need them but can't afford them. Remember to follow this basic guideline when planning to donate to an education volunteering program, whether for children, teens or adults – ask your volunteer organizer or project supervisor before you donate. They will know where the needs are greatest, and how to handle your donation.

3. Only bring what you have available - don't buy things to bring

Rather bring the money and see where the biggest needs really are. Talk to your volunteer organization and project coordinator before buying locally. Consider donating the funds, rather than buying and donating goods. Read my previous article about donating the right way if you want to know more.

4. Don’t pack everything but the kitchen sink!

You don't have to empty your local department store before setting off. You can buy most things everywhere in the world. Nobody really needs pants that can be zipped off to make shorts, or boots that are made for serious mountaineering (unless you actually plan to summit Kilimanjaro or do lots of tough hiking). Mosquito nets are pointless in countries with no mosquitos – at Khaya headquarters, we have a cupboard of unused nets left behind by over-cautious travelers. Also, you don't have to wear only khakis when traveling to Africa – frankly, you’ll just stand out as a gullible tourist! Check out our tips on how to pack effectively for a volunteering trip.

5. Ask your volunteer organization for a needs list

Check with your volunteer service provider for an updated “needs list” for the project you’ll be at. Any organization that knows what it’s doing will be able to provide you with a list of items the projects need – from large to small. That old laptop or camera you have lying around might actually be of incredible use, rather than something else that might seem more obvious to you.

6. Don't just bring things YOU like

Plan carefully and think thoroughly about the needs of the project,and how your donations will be perceived, and used. A suitcase of stuffed toys can be put to great use if you volunteer at a children’s home or school, but are you just handing out toys so you can feel like “Volunteer Santa”? Is your gift really doing any good? Do they really need your toys - or do they need hygiene products more? Do you have enough items to give to every child in the creche or classroom or teen group, so as not to cause upset and jealousy? 

7. Pack lightly – you’re not going to Mars!

We have shops here in Africa with everything you could need or want. And nobody ever needed 5 pairs of shoes for a 4-week trip abroad – unless you want to donate them to someone who needs them more than you do. Less is more! Remember - the heavier you pack, the more uncomfortable the journey. Keep your personal items to a minimum – there will be washing machines, and you can easily buy an extra t-shirt or pair of underwear anywhere you travel in the world.

8. Get informed - read up on your host country before travelling

Understanding a bit about the history of a country or region goes a long way towards understanding the conditions and customs there. Respecting other cultures, and showing people you actually know something about them, will create situations where they might be happy to share more about their lifestyle with you. 

9. Learn a few words in the local language

Saying “Molweni” (“hello all” in isiXhosa) will create some smiles and appreciation at your efforts to learn, and it fosters good will and further communication. 

These are a few pointers from my personal experiences – I’m sure there are lots of other great words of advice, so feel free to add any in the comments or contact me directly.

Happy traveling and see you in Africa.




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