Volunteer, and travel the world for free

Charity work could be the ideal way to cut the cost of travel, say David Prosser and Hayley Rutter
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With much of Britain basking in the summer sunshine, millions of people are counting the days until their annual break. But holidays are expensive, and many of us, too, are increasingly concerned about the damage that travel is doing to the environment.

With much of Britain basking in the summer sunshine, millions of people are counting the days until their annual break. But holidays are expensive, and many of us, too, are increasingly concerned about the damage that travel is doing to the environment.

However, there may be a single solution to both these problems. The number of people who are cutting the cost of travel by doing some sort of voluntary or conservation work while away is soaring. There are now opportunities for people of all ages, and both short and longer trips are available.


All sorts of charities now offer "experiences", lasting from a few days to several weeks. The idea is that you sign up for a particular challenge - to cycle from London to Paris, say, or to trek through the Himalayas. Assuming you raise sufficient sponsorship money, the charity picks up your expenses.

Raising the money can be a challenge in itself - £2,500 is a typical minimum. Part of the cash goes towards covering the costs of the trips while the rest ends up in the charity's coffers. And Erich Reich, managing director of Classic Tours, which organises trips for a wide range of charities, says it would be wrong to think of the trips as free holidays. "This is an outlet for people to get fit, to raise money for charity and to form a bond with the rest of the group," he says.

Classic Tours is running a variety of trips this year, involving biking, trekking, hiking and running in countries all over the world. Some are run in conjunction with specific charities, while others are "open challenges". In the latter case, you nominate the charity.

Reich adds: "We are also doing more and more corporate challenges, where companies sign up with us and organise trips for staff to raise money." Classic Tours has worked with both Vodafone and McDonald's, for example.

If you are concerned about raising money for British charities while overseas - particularly if you're on a trip in the developing world, say - Charity Challenge could be a good bet. It works with charities in local countries as well as those back home.

Classic Tours: 020-7619 0066, www.classictours.co.uk;

Charity Challenge: 020-8557 0000, www.charitychallenge.co.uk


Bunac offers a range of services to younger travellers - often, but not always, students looking to live and work abroad during overseas vacations. Its primary role is to arrange work permits and visas for those who want to travel to countries including the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Once travellers arrive in the country, Bunac's local offices can provide further support.

The company has a directory of employers who have used travellers in the past, so many are able to arrange jobs before they leave home. It also participates in the Camp America scheme. Bunac's Haydn Park says: "Many people work for a set period with the specific aim of raising enough cash to pay for travel for an extended period once the job ends."

However, Bunac charges for its services - you will usually have to buy flights through the company. A typical USA package, for example, including flights, visas, insurance and registration fees, plus access to Bunac advice and information, costs about £800.

The service is also restricted to younger people, due to countries' work permit restrictions. These vary around the world - in Australia, for example, Bunac's upper age limit is 30. In the US, where immigration and visa rules have been tightened following September 11, only full-time students travelling during a university vacation can apply to Bunac's programmes.

Bunac: 020-7251 3472;



"VSO has become a euphemism for any work that people do abroad, but we are a specific charity that places volunteers with local colleagues in countries around the world where they can share their skills," says Catherine Raynor of Voluntary Service Overseas.

VSO operates by recruiting a pool of professionals - the average age of its volunteers is 38 - whom it then allocates when opportunities come up. The upper age limit is 75, but all volunteers must pass a selection process.

"We are looking for people with specific skills and experience," Raynor explains. "Much of the work we do now is organisational development, so people who have managerial experience are particularly useful."

VSO does still run one-off projects - it provided teachers for schools in Rwanda when the country was recovering from the genocide, for example. But its placements tend to be more strategic - like the former head teacher it currently has advising the Ethiopian education ministry on curriculum issues.

Placements are typically for two years, though some one-year jobs are available. Volunteers can express a preference for where they want to work, but there are no guarantees.

In return, they get travel expenses, free accommodation, and medical and travel insurance. They are also paid a salary, comparable with what locals would earn in a similar job.

VSO: 020-8780 7600;



Saving the world has never been more popular. Companies such as Earthwatch, The Leap, Global Vision International and the Ecovolunteer Program offer a range of opportunities to work on conservation projects around the world.

Strictly speaking, these companies offer little in the way of free travel. You pay to go on their trips and the prices can be quite high, reflecting the fact that travellers get to visit far-flung places that would generally be off-limits. However, many people seek sponsorship and bursaries before they travel. Most projects will then cover your accommodation and living expenses.

Earthwatch's Zoë Gamble says: "We have 140 projects in 50 countries around the world." Unlike many other companies, Earthwatch, a not-for-profit organisation, offers short trips as well as extended stays, so people can combine trips with their annual leave. Its projects last from three days to three weeks and range in cost from £165 - for three-day UK projects - to about £2,000 for working with polar bears in Manitoba.

Its work is almost all environmental: you can work with endangered species such as the Namibian black rhino, or research climate change.

Earthwatch: 01865 318838; www.earthwatch.org; Ecovolunteer Program: 0117-965 8333, www.ecovolunteer. org.uk; Global Vision International: 0870 608 8898, www.gvi.co.uk; The Leap: 0870 240 4187, www.theleap.co.uk


Prince William spent time in Chile with Raleigh International during his gap year, but the charity doesn't only work with young people. It recruits two groups for each 10-week project. Its project volunteers are aged between 17 and 25, but it also needs supervisors, aged 25 and over.

Raleigh's Madoc Threipland says: "For our supervisors, we do look for certain skills, but they might be as specific as an ability to teach sea kayaking, or as general as project management." The typical age of supervisors is 35, he says, though it varies enormously. "They are often professionals wanting to take a short time out or look for a change in direction."

To go on a Raleigh trip as a volunteer, young people must raise £2,995 plus the cost of their flights, though certain bursaries are available. Supervisors also have to pay - their fund-raising target is £1,100 plus flights. Again, though, many people raise money through sponsorship.

Raleigh International: 020-7371 8585, www.raleigh. org.uk


Hundreds of organisations specialise in setting up voluntary work overseas. Most make a charge, which it may be possible to pay through fundraising. Young gap year travellers are particularly well served, but older people have increasing numbers of options.

Gap Activity Projects falls into the former category, while a new website, Goldengapyears.com, is aimed at older travellers. i-to-i is another specialist in the market - it sends about 2,000 volunteers to 450 projects each year.

If you have a specific skill, particular projects may suit you. Coral Cay Conservation, for example, runs conservation projects for divers. Worldwide Volunteering lists 1,000 voluntary organisations and can help you match your skills with a placement.

Coral Cay: 0870 750 0668, www.coralcay.org; Gap Activity Projects: 0118-959 4914, www.gap.org.uk; Goldengapyears.com: 0113-266 0880; i-to-i: 0800 011 1156, www.i-to-i.com; Worldwide Volunteering: 01935 825775, www.worldwidevolunteering.org.uk

'My daughter wants to be a vet, so this experience was really valuable'

Beverley Smith, a teacher from Darlington, travelled with her daughter Indikah to the Okovango Delta in Botswana last year on an Earthwatch project working with crocodiles. "My daughter was 16 and she wants to be a vet, so this kind of experience was really valuable," she says.

Beverley and Indikah's tasks included catching smaller crocodiles by hand and checking larger specimens caught by the scientists on the project. "Our skills were built up slowly and there were lots of opportunities to get hands-on experience.

"Earthwatch also gave the volunteers a lot of information about why they were doing the project and research," Beverley adds.

Beverley and Indikah stayed in a tented village in large tents. The trip cost them £1,600 for two weeks, but Earthwatch provided detailed packs with suggestions on how to fund raise. Although the Smiths chose to pay the costs themselves - partly because of time constraints - Beverley thinks most people would be able to use the packs to raise sponsorship.

'Fund raising is hard graft, plus there is all the training'

Justine Russ, the events project manager at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has just returned from looking after a five-day cycle trek from London to Reims, in the Champagne region of France - the trip has so far raised around £60,000.

"We started doing this sort of trip around 11 years ago and they raise substantial sums because everyone who gets involved with an event contributes a significant amount," says Russ. "That's just the start of the benefit, because people also take between six and 18 months to raise the sponsorship, during which time they're out in their local communities talking about the BHF."

In the case of the most recent bike trip, the BHF asked riders to come up with at least £1,200 of sponsorship. But for longer trips, or travel to more exotic regions, the minimum may be as high as £3,000.

Some trips are very ambitious - the charity is currently planning a trek to Everest Base Camp in 2007, for example.

Russ says many travellers choose to pick up the costs of their trip themselves, so that every penny of sponsorship raised goes to the charity. For others that isn't possible, however.

Either way, the charity wins - its has raised £3.6m from events since 1994 and is aiming to raise £523,000 this year.

"It really isn't a free holiday," Russ argues. "The fund raising is hard graft in itself, and most people do a lot of training - then there's the challenge of the trip itself."

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here