What to Look for in a Family Volunteer Vacation

PBS travel expert and mom Colleen Kelly explores the world of voluntourism—and how to plan the right trip for your family.

volunteer vacation family Shutterstock
It’s Thanksgiving season, and I’ve been thinking about how fortunate my family and I are while contemplating more ways for us to give back to others. Since we’re lucky to travel a great deal, “voluntourism” has caught my attention: a trip combined with volunteer opportunities. I’m not alone; according to a Tourism Cares survey, 81 percent of participating millennials who traveled in the past two years volunteered during their trip. The really good news? There are opportunities for service at every age, and for every comfort level. Here are some ideas for getting started.

You Can Give: An Hour or Two

I’m so impressed by how many organizations are helping families do simple (but meaningful!) acts of kindness when abroad. One option: Look up your site on Packforapurpose.org. The nonprofit pairs you with schools, animal clinics, or orphanages that need supplies. Purchase and pack the requested items in your luggage, then donate them when you arrive.

You Can Give: An Afternoon or More

There are also many ways to volunteer for part of your trip. I think this is an excellent idea, since it allows you to see how your kids do before planning an entire trip around giving back. For example, in Orlando, older kids (12 and up) can spend a morning serving breakfast at Give Kids the World, a nonprofit “storybook resort” for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Carnival Corporation’s Fathom recently began offering “Travel with Purpose” cruises, such as one to the Dominican Republic, where families can work on volunteer projects with island residents. Back on the ship, travelers can learn more about local culture with regional cooking or language classes. You get the benefits of the cruise, plus so much more.

You Can Give: Your Entire Trip

Ready for a vacation wholly dedicated to service? Projects Abroad creates custom itineraries in 30 countries for families with kids as young as 4. Opportunities range from working on an organic farm in Togo to caring for sea turtles in Mexico to playing soccer with schoolkids in Argentina. Or check out Global Family Travels, which organizes immersive trips in which families spend several days living within a community in countries like Nicaragua or India and help with projects like building a library. Whatever you choose to do, I’m sure you won’t regret it!

Before You Go 

  1. Consider Age. These trips are really best for older elementary kids and tweens.
  2. Plan Ahead. To get the most from your trip, introduce the country or region to the kids: Consult maps, explore books and videos, sample foods of the region, and even consider an online language course.
  3. Crowdsource. Once you decide as a family on a destination and project, consider asking family and friends to donate supplies that you can bring along.

Volunteer Vacation Colleen Kelly Portrait
Get More From Colleen: Check local listings for her show, Family Travel with Colleen Kelly, on PBS. Or visit her online at familytravelck.com or on Twitter @familytravelCK.