Low-Cost, High-Reward Mini-Retirements: Explore the World with International Volunteering


One great method for taking an expenses-paid “mini-retirement”–or adding more time to your travels without adding costs–is to work with an international volunteer organization.

Some volunteer groups charge a participation fee, but there are some that will cover your food, housing–and provide you with good meaningful work–at no cost. I would like to share with you a few stories from friends who have all taken mini-retirements with Hands On Disaster Response, one such group.

Marc Young, Volunteer

A Little Back Story

Breakdowns of any sort can be great experiences: nervous, communication, etc. They allow us to return to center and to refocus on what it is that truly matters. For Tim, it was a one-way ticket to London in June 2004.

My breakdown came just a few months later and took me to Thailand to find anyone or any place I could help recover from the Tsunami that had just destroyed tens of thousands of homes and lives. I had been living in L.A. working as a freelance designer, treading water and occasionally getting mouthfuls of it, and my adventure to Thailand was a conscious decision to give up treading and to dive down deeper to explore just what was around me…
What was meant to be a one-month trip to volunteer and travel turned into 5 months in Southern Thailand and, ultimately, an international relief organization. It is from this organization that the stories come from below:

Michael Babel – Grad. Student, Licensed Massage Therapist, Life Coach
Michael Babel - Grad. Student, Licensed Massage Therapist, Life Coach
Michael, far right with cast of play he organized in Biloxi, MS.

From Michael:

I first connected with HODR in Biloxi Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I was originally volunteering with another group but was looking for something more hands-on, and came upon Hands On a few towns away from where I was working. I arrived at 7:30am and was out cutting trees by 8am; it was love at first sight. I just returned from my 4th project with Hands On and, in spite of the disaster it will imply, I look forward to the next time.

Travel a lot of the time has to do with funds, how much money there is available to sustain one’s traveling habit. HODR helps me travel longer with less funds, allowing me to experience so many amazing moments…

In the Philippines “The realization that if we weren’t there, no one else would be.” In Biloxi “The moment when I realized the streets were clean, things were in piles, our efforts were making some difference.” In Bangladesh “Taking a boat 22 hours down a river, being the only white and English-speaking person on that boat, and being dropped off at a dock at the edge of a jungle.” In Peru “The night we went around the campfire and asked where people were from and there were volunteers from over 30 countries present.” In Bangladesh: “I gave a little boy some colored pencils and he burst into tears and hugged my legs.”

Jeff Johns – Student & Photographer
Jeff Johns - Student & Photographe
Jeff, crouching center with crew of volunteers in St. Domingo, Philippines.

From Jeff:

When I am not chasing HODR around the globe I am a full time Visual Journalism student in Ventura, Calif.

After the Tsunami in 2004, I was looking on the internet for any aid group that was accepting volunteers and that didn’t make it almost impossible to sign up. Hands On was the most impressive and human organization. No applications, no fees, no interviews. Just show up and get to work. It takes a special kind of person to travel to the far ends of the earth to work your butt off with complete strangers, I guess that weeds out the whackjobs. Well, the bad ones… I plan to graduate from Brooks in 2 years and when I do, plan to spend at least the next 5 years disaster hopping with HODR. There is nothing like free life experience!

I arrived in Thailand with a ticket home in 3 weeks. I left 4 months later. I went to Biloxi for just one week. A week after my return home I raised money and roadtripped from L.A. back to Biloxi with my roommate. All other trips I have changed and extended my trips at least by a few hours. With an experience that is human and real, it is almost impossible to tear yourself away, no matter what the living conditions might be or where in the world you are.

The first time, on my first deployment, that I saw a tear on the eye of a woman who just told me we were the answer to her prayers it really hit me. I’m not a religious man, but to realize you might be the answer to someone’s prayers is a powerful thing.

Also, although there is an ever-growing group of volunteers I have worked with before and now consider family, the experience of meeting complete strangers one week and not remembering your life without them a week later is an intense and amazing experience.

While in Bangladesh the bus system shut down for a morning because the driver had been bitten by an unruly passenger. Also, in the Philippines and Bangladesh, taking breaks with sweaty, dirty volunteers to have tea. I mean, there are so many funny and memorable moments with Hands On and there is no way to explain them. They wouldn’t’t seem funny to anyone else. You really have to be there.

Eric Zdenek – World Traveler
Eric Zdenek - World Traveller
Eric, far left with volunteers taking a boat trip on an off day in Thailand.

From Eric:

I make money by helping my bros run a Christmas Light company in LA (Sept thru Jan).

I first got hooked up with HODR when I canceled a 9 month trip to Italy to work with then Hands On Thailand after the Asian Tsunami in 2005.

At the time most of the resources Hands On received went directly to the effort, but for some of the longer term workers, deals were struck for discounted accommodation and meals. In part by being in deserted towns (towns often are after disasters) and by receiving aid from HODR, I was able to comfortably stay in Thailand for just over 4 months.

I have had the opportunity to explore a fair amount of the world considering my slightly unripened age of 25, but nothing I have done or seen even comes close to my experience with the fellow volunteers of HODR. It truly is the most rewarding form of traveling, giving its patrons the opportunity to meet the best of peoples, help others in the worst of times, and leave a village or town better off then when you arrived. I will never forget my time with HODR in Thailand and I look forward to many more opportunities to travel and volunteer with HODR.

Perhaps the single best day of my life occurred while working with HODR on Phi Phi island when a close group of 5 volunteers (Michael, Sunisa, Lizzy) took a day trip to the uninhabited bamboo island for the night. We brought with us some beer, bread, nutella, and a celebration bottle of champagne. Not having enough food for the night, we found dozens of crabs on the beach and chose to grub on them rather than not eat that night. We fell asleep after an amazing sunset and woke up to an even better sunrise. Talk about paradise!

Volunteering Mini-Retirements

If you can afford the travel costs to a HODR project, then all but beer money or personal expenses are covered. We have had hundreds of volunteers extend their travels aboard because they were able to stay with us for another week or month and not increase their costs dramatically. More information can be found on www.HODR.org.

Benefits of International Volunteering:
– Cut Travel Costs
– Be Immersed in a Different Culture
– Meet Fellow World Travelers
– Challenge Your Mind & Body

Here are several other reputable organizations–some may charge participation fees–that offer international volunteering experiences:

Burners Without Borders

Following the 2005 Burning Man event, several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild their devastated communities. After several months of working along the Gulf Coast, BWB has set up a project in Pisco, Peru to assist with earthquake relief work.

Project HOPE

Nearly 50 years ago, Project HOPE was founded on the willingness of doctors, nurses and other medical volunteers to travel the globe on a floating hospital ship, the SS HOPE, to provide medical care, health education and humanitarian assistance to people in need. While we now operate land-based programs in more than 35 countries, Project HOPE has again returned to sending medical volunteers on board ships around the world to provide medical assistance, long reaching health education programs, vaccinations and humanitarian assistance.

International Relief Teams

International Relief Teams mobilizes volunteers and distributes medical supplies to support the organization’s four missions: 1) domestic and international disaster relief, 2) medical education and training, 3) surgical and clinical outreach, and 4) public health. Since 1988, IRT has provided more than $5.6 million in volunteer services, and more than $112 million in medicines and supplies to families in desperate need in 42 countries worldwide.

Relief International

Relief International is a humanitarian non-profit agency that provides emergency relief, rehabilitation, development assistance, and program services to vulnerable communities worldwide. RI is solely dedicated to reducing human suffering and is non-political and non-sectarian in its mission.

About the Guest Author, Darius A Monsef IV
Darius a ultravagabond in training, creative consultant, entrepreneur (COLOURlovers and others) and co-founder of Hands On Disaster Response.

Posted on: April 1, 2008.

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79 comments on “Low-Cost, High-Reward Mini-Retirements: Explore the World with International Volunteering

  1. Thanks Tim for giving me the opportunity to share with your readers my non-profit and some ideas on how to get a little further and see a bit more on a budget.

    If any of you have questions about volunteering internationally feel free to drop a comment here and I’ll respond with however I can help.


  2. I like the idea of ‘using’ volunteer or charity work to travel the globe but it’s almost impossible when you have a young family. Either one has to be extremely selfish and go it alone, thus depriving the children (albeit temporarily) of a parent, or (what is possibly worse) drag them out of school and take them with you. I wonder if the benefits of seeing the planet and other cultures outweigh those of playing ‘catch-up’ to their classmates for the following X months.

    We all make choices at points in our lives that may end up becoming a bit of a burden, but while, as said, I like the idea of the examples above, I fear my hands are somewhat tied by circumstance.


    • Home school your kids and give them practical experience with other places and cultures that can’t possibly be taught. With a young family it’s even better, because what really are they missing that they couldn’t catch up on with a couple tutoring sessions? They will probably be ahead of the game because they will have been exposed to other languages and different ways of doing things.


  3. Nice article Tim. I read about this in your book and have already started to plan my volunteering trip. Check out my blog when you get a chance…hopefully I can interview you for it.




  4. Wow… what a great post. I have always thought that I might want to join the Peace Corps. after college or as part of a grad program, but if it turns out that I can’t make that sort of commitment, some of the opportunities you mentioned sound amazing.

    Tim, your content is always great, but the ‘social awareness’ posts that you put up on occasion are always my favorite.


  5. Hi Darius,
    It is true, breakdowns are a source of great transformation. If you let them they help you let go and listen what you REALLY need and usually it is a wake up call on how blessed you are.

    I am excited about seeing there are possibilities beyond the “normal” vacation. Mind you scuba diving is fun but it can be even more fun to touch other peoples lives and scuba dive! Looking forward to looking into these ways low cost travel for girl like me who is on a budget.



  6. Jen,

    I regret that I wasn’t able to get any stories from some of our female mini-vacation volunteers, because some of them have spent more than 1 year living and working with us in countries all over the world… Maybe sometime soon I’ll be able to post an update with your story.

    By joining up with a volunteer group it can create a nice home base for a majority of your travel time and allow for mini excursions out to do other more typical touristy things like scuba diving.

    Hugs Back, Darius


  7. Tim,

    I’m glad your talking about ‘outsourcing’ your charity dollars, a natural extension of 4HWW principles. Here’s the straight dope: Beggars in places like the Philippines ain’t sippin’ brewed coffee on the side of the road with a pack of cigarettes.

    True story: A 28 year old self-made millionaire (born poor), Dylan Wilk*, had a eureka moment while in the Philippines that he could sell his BMW to *house* 80 families. The guy is a modern day Bhudda, in my book. He’s since given his life to the cause.

    He’s actually *in* the US right now touring to raise awareness about this organization. When I was visiting a GK village in ’05, there was a team of MIT grad students studying it’s phenomenal success.

    *Just google him. The organization is called GK. With the Tour going on, it’s a great time to spread the word.


  8. Wow, what great timing! I saw an ad for the Peace Corp today and starting wondering what other organizations I could go to volunteer overseas. Thanks Tim!

    – Morgan


  9. Ok Jen & other female readers… one of our longest-term female volunteers found some time during her travels to pop into an internet cafe to share a bit of her story:

    Suzi Lee – Catering/Special Events

    When I am at “home” in Cali, I work for catering companies and wineries working special events in the wine country.

    I “found” Hands On when I was planning a trip back to Thailand a month after the 2004 tsunami. I was researching online some volunteer opportunities in Thailand, knowing I wanted to do something, anything to help the victims of this terrible disaster, including the local friends I had met 6 months prior on a previous trip. With the help of two other friends from around the globe, we discovered Hands On Thailand on a Google search. One friend, living at that time in Brunei, met me in Thailand and we volunteered together. She stayed a week, and my “10 day commitment” turned into 3 months. I am now on my 5th out of 6 deployments for Hands On.

    I always extend my traveling time to be with Hands On. I travel the globe on a one way ticket, knowing inevitably the project will extend and I will want to stay until the end. If given the opportunity (say, no simultaneous deployments), I stay at the projects from beginning to end.

    I would have to say the most meaningful time I have spent at a Hands On deployment would be the entire three weeks I spent in Alimsog, a sleepy fishing village an hour or so away from San Isidro, where we were based in the Philippines. The entire village, accessible only by boat or a long walk up and over perilous cliffs, extended with open arms their amazing hospitality, warmth and kindness. I felt loved by all, children and adults alike, and even took part in their graduation ceremonies at the end of the school year. True selflessness and generosity prevailed. The compassion and caring I found in this tiny little community, both to myself as well as amongst the residents was unparalleled.


  10. An organization I have worked with that would be a great opportunity for your readers is Partners of the Americas. Formed in 1963 under John F. Kennedy as the Alliance for Progress, the program has morphed over the years into an international non-profit. They focus on developing programs in the following areas:
    * Civil Society & Governance
    * Exchanges & Fellowships
    * Gender & Equality
    * Youth & Children
    * Agriculture & Environment

    Many volunteers go for 2-4 week projects. In my experience, the organization arranges for volunteers to stay with a host family which covers lodging and food expense while giving the volunteer a chance to really experience life in that country.

    Each state has it’s own chapter which works directly with a specific country in Central or South America. To find out more and get contact information for the chapter in your state, go to http://www.partners.net.

    – Brandon W


  11. Tim,

    Really great article. My wife and i have been exploring the world while volunteering for a better part of the last three years. It is an AMAZING experience that i would highly recommend to anyone (in small doses or big ones).

    Be Free!