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. Tim…great article!

    I have been hoping for a blog article like this. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer 95-97 (Tanzania), I believe that experience was the shake up that my head needed….some of which, not realized until later.

    Vacation from bills, the normal meaningless ‘emergencies’ of western world and the like were things that I enjoyed most. Being outside of a person’s previous life is very unique and puts things in a great perspective. My wife and I plan to volunteer again in the next few years.

    @ken – organizations like the Peace Corps will cover everything for you…health ins. etc..all are taken care of. Your MBA and entreprenurial drive will suit some of the small biz development programs that have begun in the past decade.


  2. This sounds fantastic and a great low cost way to see the world.

    I have to echo the thoughts of Seamus above though, I have a 3 year old. My wife or myself would have to alternate looking after him rather than doing the disaster relief work. Unfortunately, there will probably be disasters in 10 years we’ll be able to take him to.

    I am really interested in doing this now though.


  3. I spent a couple of weeks with Hands On in Biloxi, MS following Hurricane Katrina and they really are a great bunch of guys. This is an organization that’s smart, nimble, and unlike most other groups of this kind, it doesn’t have any religious affiliations. Darius and Dave were experts at leveraging the personal expertise of each volunteer, and made it point to place everyone in a role where they would be the most productive. Most of my work was focused around coordinating the pick-up of supplies being airlifted to Gulfport by another fantastic organization, Angel Flight. It was amazing two weeks, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer.


  4. In BusinessWeek’s August 2007 report on “The Future of Work” people were asked, “Do you live to work or work to live?” 84% ages 35-44 reported they work to live, as did 72% of those ages 55 and older.

    While many organizations have responded with “flexible” workplaces and on-site amenities (childcare, drycleaning, banking), others have stepped up in bolder ways – by offering sabbatical programs. Often paid with full benefits, many people use these opportunities to volunteer. A full list of companies with sabbatical programs can be found at yourSABBITICAL.com.

    Some companies align with a volunteer project and employees apply. IBM’s Corporate Services Corps is an example of a kind of corporate peace corps. Launched last month, the program had over 5,000 applicants. (100 were chosen)

    With sabbaticals as an emerging trend, more people than ever will have opportunities to volunteer and still return to their careers enhanced with richer life experiences.


  5. Room to Read Org

    Would like to participate in the actual building/construction of the schools. How do I volunteer my service?


    Hi Brad,

    I just sent your comment to Emily at R2R, and she should be in touch :)



  6. @Sheamus: LOL at having to “drag” your kids out of school to go on a global learning adventure! I don’t know many kids here in the US who would put up much of a fight to learn in freedom from the system :p If you’re really concerned about them getting behind their age-segregated “peers,” there’s always the option of homeschooling (although I don’t recommend a rigid “school at home” program unless you want to put a huge damper on the whole experience.) What better way to learn 4HWW principles than by real world example? As we all know, they don’t teach this stuff in conventional school!

    I know this post is a little belated, but one of the participants in Oprah and Eckhart Tolle’s last webclass on “A New Earth” mentioned volunteer work at Idealist.org. I found a section on Family Volunteering on site which includes lists of family-friendly organizations. Don’t know much about it, but the layout is nice and overall, it looks promising. Also, don’t forget Tim’s Dec. 21st post on “Escape 101″ and traveling with (or without) kids. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way!

    Celebrate Life & learning in freedom ~ I AM!
    Penne and the folks at the CanDo! CO-OP :D


  7. I’m sitting here in Beijing waiting to hear if Hands On will be deploying to Sichuan or not. I had a wonderful experience with them in Bangladesh at the beginning of the year and now I’m hooked.

    For me it’s the best of both worlds – I get to help out in ways I normally wouldn’t consider, get involved in communities in a more intimate way and meet lots of great people all while earning money.

    I don’t earn money with Hands On but because I earn money online whether I put in the hours or not, having my food and expenses covered means that I come out of a volunteer experience not only having had a great time, but also with more money in the bank.

    I would still volunteer with Hands On even if that wasn’t the case but it certainly is a pretty great bonus. It gives me more money for my future travels and I can donate more money to the organisation as well. Win win!


  8. for Ken Schulz
    Try contacting Dr Greg Ash at http://www.noahorphans.org.za as Noah may well be happy to benefit from your skill sets.
    NOAH currently assists 48,000 children orphaned by aids and has to grow rapidly to hope to meet the need. You will be impressed with this organisation.
    Best of luck
    Sandy Potter


  9. Hi!

    Awesome post! I am dying to enter the wonderful world of volunteer work!! I have a 4 year old son (who will be 5 in August) and though he will go to school and live the “normal life” during the school year, I want him to join me in volunteer work during the off time. I think it would be beneficial beyond words and a great adventure for both of us. I saw the comments about the parent/teenager teams, what of parent/child teams? ..


  10. Volunteer Opportunities (only low cost !!)

    Have you ever tried to find a place to volunteer but found the costs just too high???

    Check out http://www.hopenhome.org

    HOPE and HOME was created to combat this exact problem – seeking international volunteers to help empower the people of Nepal aspiring to improve their own situation.


    THANK You

    HOPE and HOME – Nepal


  11. Would you like to volunteer while travelling/trekking in Nepal? Volunteer in Nepal with orphans, poor street children and/or victimized women for a day, a week or a month at Fresh Nepal. Volunteer in various projects at the orphanage which include teaching, health care and/or office work. Spend time with the children (orphans) playing and doing activites with them. Please visit http://www.freshnepal.org


  12. Hi, great article.

    I am 26, male and from the United Kingdom. Never been away by myself before and think that this would be an ideal way to build up to something like that.

    Can you recommend a good charity etc that someone from the UK should try?


  13. I had a volunteering experience too, which was terribly useful and mind-changing.

    I live in Europe, Hungary, and when I finished college (as electrical engineer) I hopped on a plane to London for 3 months. Not too long, yes, and not a very huge distance (2000km from home), but changed my whole life. Hungary vs UK is maybe equivalent to US vs Europe.

    I recommend it everybody.


  14. Thanks for such a great article! We’re looking for volunteering projects after one we were going to do fell through because of fudning shortages. This has given us some excellent resources!!


  15. Can you respond about one sentence in the 4HWW book?
    (Just to attract attention: I am 100 years old and today is my birthday.)

    “Join two or three related trade organizations with official-sounding names.” Does it mean to join the memberships of organizations by paying the fee? If not, can you be an angel and give an example with joining Association for Conflict Resolution (http://www.acrnet.org/), which is mentioned in the book?

    Thanks so so much!

    Feng from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium


  16. “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.” ..what an arrogance of white people….last chapter of the white man´s burden…


  17. I am currently on vacation where I sat through a timeshare presentation for free show tickets. ( I didn’t buy the timeshare) The hard closer basically told me I had no plan and would never be able to travel. Well looky here, it can be done. Ron ( the hard closer) I know people that are doing it without buying your freaken timeshare


  18. I have been thinking along these lines myself recently. Rather than just having a holiday and seeing the sights I think I would like to be able to help out somewhere and make a difference. This article is a great starting point to discovering where you can do this.


  19. Maybe I’m the only one, but it leaves me with a weird taste in my mouth when I hear disaster-aid volunteering being touted as a “free travel opportunity”. Hands On sounds like a fantastic organization, but it’s kind of awful to sell it as a way to see the world. Isn’t it? Don’t you feel like you’re capitalizing on people’s need and despair? People who volunteer for this should be in it to help (which it sounds like they are), not to drink beer on the beach in Thailand (which it sounds like you are trying to get).


    • @Varia
      Is an act of good done to satisfy an ego, of any lesser value than one that is selfless? Assuming the act of good is performed to the same level.

      I’m not saying it isn’t a little weird, but if the “ability to travel the world for free” gets people to a village in a remote country and putting in daily meaningful work to help others… than I’m ok with whatever motivation got them there.


  20. Last week, I went on tour that I found out through GoVoluntouring.com. We were counting bats in Cuba. It was a bit pricey for a week, but definitely an awesome experience, since you basically can’t work with bats in North America due to White Nose Syndrome. I plan to go back to do some caving next trip.

    I looked up teaching English in Thailand for my next adventure. Generally, I’m not much of a traveler, but the volunteering aspect immerses you in the experience, rather than being a passive observer. I just picked up the Voluntourist, by Ken Budd, which I hope you cover in your book club Tim.