What to Ask Yourself Before You Go on a Service Trip

Service trips, aka voluntourism, have become a multibillion-dollar industry. However, some service trips can hurt more than they help. Here's how to know if volunteering abroad is right for you.

Doing good while also seeing the world may sound like an ideal way to spend your vacation time or year off. In recent years, this phenomenon—known as "voluntourism"—has become a multibillion-dollar industry. From building houses in Nicaragua to volunteering at a daycare in Bali, these programs offer tantalizing opportunities for the do-gooder with a bit of wanderlust.

However, it's important to think carefully about why you want to go on these service trips and what you want to accomplish with them. After all, many service trips can do more harm than good, playing into old "white savior" tropes or damaging the infrastructure of already vulnerable places. Here are 11 things to consider before you book that flight across the world.

Service Trip

1. What are your motives for going?

Before embarking on a service trip, you should do a little soul-searching and ask yourself why you want to participate in this kind of work. It's admirable to want to help others, but do you really want to help, or do you just want to travel while also feeling good about yourself?

If you realize that what you really want is luxury travel, not to get your hands dirty and actively help a cause, then it's best to reconsider going on these trips. Similarly, if what you're looking for is intrepid adventure and life-changing drama you can brag about to people at home, you may end up being unhelpful or even a burden to the organization and people you're trying to help.

Remember, other people's suffering is not an opportunity for you to embark on your own journey of healing or self-actualization. It's especially not an opportunity for you to post cute pictures with groups of barefoot little kids.

2. Are you expecting a vacation?

Just as you wouldn't volunteer with a surgeon if you don't like blood, don't go on a service trip if you aren't cool with getting your hands dirty, working hard, and possibly seeing disturbing things. It's not a service organization's job to make sure you have a perfectly safe, smooth time while traveling: It's their job to help people who need it. If you're going to freak out about a spider in the bathroom, if you can't stand some inconveniences and bureaucratic troubles, or if you'll have a breakdown the first time you experience indigestion, you might want to pick a trip to a cosmopolitan area or wait until you develop a thicker skin. Remember, service travel is not supposed to be all about you and your experience.

This also goes for travel in general: There are always mishaps, missed buses, and dirty hostels, and if you're expecting perfection then you'll probably wind up missing out on the journey.

3. Do you understand that you're in part going to serve yourself?

Even if you're sure that you genuinely want to help people, it's important to realize that if you're embarking on a trip that combines travel and service, you're almost certainly going because in some way, you think it's serving you. Admitting this will help you check your ego at the door, as you'll know that you have to make the choice to be humble and flexible and to put others above yourself.

With this in mind, it's okay to realize that part of the reason you're going is a little selfish,and that shouldn't stop you from going. Travel can certainly be a process of cultural exchange and a study in deepening your appreciation for the earth, and volunteering can be very personally gratifying. Helping others does feel good, and it can be eye-opening and life-changing. It's also okay to go to a place in order to appreciate its beauty in addition to working to help its inhabitants; and it's okay to pursue things that widen your perspective and deepen your understanding of the world.

However, these things should never replace your commitment to helping, and no matter what, just make sure you won't be doing more harm than good.

spinoff Spinoff

4. Do you have tangible skills to offer?

If you decide that you really do want to embark on a service trip, it's important to find one where you can genuinely be useful. You should always look for programs that match up with your individual skill set.

Many aid organizations are seeking doctors, administrators, and people who speak a variety of languages, and most will list the skills they're looking for on their websites. More often than not, unskilled volunteers are more of a burden then a help.

Also, make sure that you don't volunteer for positions that you are unqualified for. Service trips are not unpaid internships where the goal is learning, so don't apply for an NGO's social media manager position unless you actually have experience with social media. Of course, sometimes aid organizations are stretched so thin that you might be useful even if you have no experience in the field; but it's important to be explicit about this when you reach out or apply for positions. It's better to be honest and say you don't have much experience but are happy to help than to stretch the truth like you might in a job interview, because that gives the organization the opportunity to either pick a better candidate or let you know they do need all the help they can get.

When picking a service trip, examine your skill set and choose accordingly. For example, if you have legal experience or are bilingual, migration organizations across the US are always looking for attorneys and translators. If you have experience with outdoor work, then a rebuilding initiative might be good for you—but if you're just going to spend half the day in the shade, then you may want to reconsider. Remember, unless you're paying to be there, these service organizations are sacrificing their valuable money for you; and regardless, they're sacrificing their time and energy to host and train you, and you're occupying space in someone else's home.

If you realize that your skill set doesn't match up with an organization's goals, then it's usually better to just donate or otherwise support the cause from home.

5. Are there any opportunities closer to home?

Before you fly halfway across the world and burn gallons of carbon dioxide to spend three days picking up trash on an island, you may want to check for opportunities closer to home.

Many NGOs and volunteers end up doing more harm than good because they don't work closely with the cultures they're in, and instead attempt to impose their own cultural beliefs on other countries, thus rehashing the old "white savior" complex that led to the colonization (and subsequent devastation) of so many places.

For example, many NGOs and missions have run "brothel raids," breaking apart sex work institutions in third world countries—but this act often costs workers their jobs, leaving them unable to feed their families and sometimes forcing them to participate in even more illicit acts. This is why, in terms of voluntourism, it's sometimes better to stick to what you know instead of bumbling around with no understanding in an unfamiliar place.

If you're determined to support a cause in another part of the world, sometimes fundraising and political activism can be the best way to go. Instead of running down to the U.S.-Mexico border to loiter in a car by a chain-link fence for a few days, heading to Washington to lobby or just calling your representatives and making your voice heard can make more of an impact.

Service Trip Yes, you can volunteer in New York City.Image via CNN

6. Are you going to respect the customs of the place you're going?

This should go without saying, but you need to change your behavior to accommodate the culture where you're going, not the other way around. If you're asked to cover your head, don't embark on a rant about why head-coverings aren't okay. If someone came to volunteer in your town not wearing clothes, would you be comfortable with them walking around naked all the time?

Always follow the golden rule—do unto others what you would have done to you. Imagine if you were in a refugee camp because your homeland was devastated by a natural disaster, and then imagine how you would feel if a wealthy volunteer suddenly flew in. Maybe you'd be grateful for the support, but you wouldn't want them to snap photos of you without your permission.

As a volunteer, you need to listen to others more than you speak, interact with people, and make them feel supported. Hear their stories and prioritize their voices and wishes above your own. Don't offer pity, because too often volunteers infantilize the operations they're trying to help: offer your solidarity and support, and just treat everyone like a human being.

This is why it's a huge plus if you speak at least some of the native language of the place you're going. Especially if you're working directly with people, you should be friendly, relaxed, conversational, and not bogged down by your own emotional baggage or inability to take care of yourself. You can process your emotions on your own, but they should not be a priority when you're actively working with vulnerable populations.

It's also important to make sure that the people you're working with actively want help. Have the people put out requests for aid, and is the organization working directly with the community—or are they hand-in-hand with a corrupt government or trying to profit by funneling rich Americans into an impoverished area?

7. Are you being mindful of the environment?

Unfortunately, flying has a hugely negative impact on the environment. To mitigate this, you can choose to pay a voluntary carbon fee to offset your emissions, or find alternative methods of travel. Once you arrive, try to take public transportation as much as you can, and leave as little behind as possible. Sometimes, tourists can destroy the natural landscape where they're staying without even meaning to, so it's beneficial to find an organization that's conscious of its ecological impact.

Even if you're just going on a vacation, it's not a bad idea to spend a little time cleaning up the land you're staying on. For more information on eco-friendly travel, check out ecotourism.org. You can also choose to participate in an environment-focused volunteer trip. In general, be mindful about what organizations and businesses you choose to support, and buy locally as much as possible.

Sustainable travel is the way to go.Image via Medium

8. Can you stay for an extended period of time?

If you're committed to traveling far away, using your skills, and working with the local community, then it's best if you can carve out some time to stay for a long period. It always takes a few days to get settled in and to get over jet lag, so weeklong vacations really don't allow enough time for you to have any significant impact. If you can stay for months or a year, you can really begin to understand how the organization you're working with runs, and you'll develop knowledge of local customs and circumstances that you can use to benefit the work you're doing. You'll also be able to connect with the local community, making it clear that you actually care and are there to help.

At the very least, you should stay for a couple of weeks; if not, you may want to reconsider whether you'll be more of a help or a hindrance to the organization and the people you're working with. After all, they may have to pick you up from the airport and drop you off, or at least they'll have to spend time helping you get adjusted, which takes away time they could've used to do the work.

9. Is the initiative you'll be working with going to have a long-lasting impact?

When picking a program to volunteer with, make sure that the organization is working to involve the local community and is building a foundation for long-term improvement. Another option is to dedicate your skills to a local organization or business that's already tied to the community. You can learn a lot by talking to people and asking how you can best be of assistance.

Most humanitarian crises are caused by deep-rooted structural issues, so putting in a few days of manual work is like putting a band-aid over an open wound. You should work to understand the economic, political, and sociocultural factors that created the circumstances you'll be witnessing, and be critical of any organization that promises superficial-seeming aid. Be wary also of work that, the moment you leave, will be undone by the same factors that created the problem in the first place.

If you have the ability, try to ensure that your (positive) impact will remain intact after you leave. For example, if you start a music lessons program for a shelter, find other teachers who can continue after you're gone, or work with programs that create jobs for locals.

10. Are you prepared for what you might experience?

If you're going to a dangerous place, make sure you'll be safe and understand what you're getting yourself into. In addition, make sure you've prepared yourself for any violence or suffering you might see. Don't glamorize others' pain or search for "authentic," dangerous situations. Regardless of where you go, make sure you take care of yourself and balance work with rest and self-care.

But also prepare yourself for witnessing incredible resilience and forming deep, profound bonds with others. Service trips can be intense experiences in many ways, so be open to anything and prepared for everything you can think of.

11. Are you participating in orphanage tourism or other damaging initiatives?

In general, volunteering with kids is not always the best way to go. Sure, you might've read some stories about other travel-volunteers having adorable bonding experiences with cute little children in faraway places, but remember, it can be difficult and upsetting for children when people keep coming, giving them little gifts, and then leaving. This can be especially traumatic for orphans, who already have lost so much; if you go to spend a day with one and then they never hear from you again, this will just cause more pain.

There are a lot of other potential issues with voluntourism. For example, the presence of volunteers can put too much weight on infrastructure or already scarce resources. Voluntourism can also reinforce paternalism, pressuring locals to feel grateful and indebted while making them feel victimized or infantilized.

In 2012, the novelist Teju Cole developed the term "white savior industrial complex" to describe the kind of voluntourism that makes volunteers feel good about themselves by simplifying problems that are really far more complicated than they seem. "How, for example, could a well-meaning American 'help' a place like Uganda today?" Cole writes. "It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I've seen many) about how 'we have to save them because they can't save themselves' can't change that fact." He also encourages big-hearted Americans to look closer to home, stating, "Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy."

12. Have you done your research?

Research is the number one most important thing that you need to do before you embark on a service travel trip. You need to learn as much as you can about the organization you're going to be working with. Do they work with the communities instead of dropping in and attempting to redesign them on a foreign power's terms? Do they treat people with humanity? What were other volunteers' experiences? What is their leadership like?

You should also do your research about the place you're going. Most social issues cannot be divided into a good-bad binary, and many conflicts have deep, tangled roots. If you're going to a politically charged area, you need to be aware of the circumstances that resulted in the current environment. You should also research the culture, learn at least some of the language, and research where you'll be staying so you can bring everything you'll need.

Image via Projects Abroad

If after reading all this, you still feel like a service trip is the right choice for you, then absolutely go for it. In a world where so many people are hurting, solidarity is vital, and the impulse to help others is always an admirable characteristic. When volunteers work alongside affected populations to consciously rebuild and support a better world, mutually beneficial bonds can form and lasting change can occur.

For more information on the problems with voluntourism, check out the book When Helping Hurts. Other thoughtful voluntourism initiatives include The Wandering Scholar, Atlantic Impact, and World Learning.

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It's no secret that the restaurant scene in New York City is one of the most impressive in the world.

Whatever you could want to eat, you can find it in New York—meaning that even if you have a slightly restrictive diet, like veganism, there's plenty of options for you. Local fast-casual chains like By Chloe and Superiority Burger are making New York one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world, but the deliciousness doesn't stop there.

Between Manhattan and Brooklyn, there's been a boom of vegan restaurants that'll satisfy any craving. Here are just a few of our favorites.

Blossom(Upper West Side + Greenwich Village)

vegan restaurant

With two locations serving both Uptown and Downtown, Blossom is a go-to for local and tourist vegans alike. They offer an elevated dining experience (and a wide-spanning takeout radius) that puts a cruelty-free spin on classic main dishes like chicken piccata, rigatoni, and grilled salmon. Complete your dinner with a fresh, fruity cocktail and tiramisu—but reservations are strongly recommended beforehand.

Jajaja (West Village + Lower East Side)

vegan Jajaja

Jajaja is the ultimate heaven for Mexican food addicts. Get your fix of south of the border staples like burritos, street tacos, and enchiladas that'll make you second guess whether or not it's actually vegan (pro tip: The nacho portion is large enough to be a meal for one person). They also have a small but mighty menu of tequila and mezcal cocktails to kick off a night of LES bar-hopping. It gets crowded here quickly, though, so try to schedule your dinner early.

Urban Vegan Kitchen(West Village)

Urban Vegan Kitchen

We get it—eating vegan can get kind of bland sometimes. But that's not an issue at Urban Vegan Kitchen, the type of restaurant that'll have you wanting to order one of everything on the menu (but we recommend the "chicken" and waffles). Co-owned by the founder of Blossom, they boast a menu that's just as edgy and exciting as their decor. Their space is large too, making it a crowd-pleasing option for a slightly larger group.

Champs Diner (Williamsburg)

Champs Diner vegan

Located near the border of hip neighborhoods Williamsburg and Bushwick, Champs is a favorite of many young Brooklynites. Their menu is full of vegan alternatives to classic diner fare like breakfast plates, cheeseburgers, and even milkshakes that taste mysteriously like the real deal, while the decor puts a quintessential Brooklyn edge on '50s digs. Who said going plant-based had to be healthy all the time, anyway?

Peacefood (Greenwich Village)

vegan Peacefood

Conveniently located just a stone's throw from Union Square—near both NYU and the New School—Peacefood is a hotspot for college students, but vegans of any age are guaranteed to enjoy their menu. They specialize in comfort food items like quiche, chicken parmesan, and chili with corn bread—all plant-based, of course. While their "chicken" tender basket is to die for, make sure to save room for dessert here, too; Peacefood's lengthy pastry menu is a dream come true.

Buddha Bodai (Chinatown)

Buddha Bodai vegan

Dim sum restaurants in Chinatown are a dime a dozen, but Buddha Bodai takes the cake for the best veggie-friendly experience in one of New York's most bustling neighborhoods. Bring your family or friends along with you to enjoy this massive menu of buns and dumplings stuffed with any type of mock meat you could want. This is also a great option for gluten-free vegans, too, as much of their menu accommodates a gluten-free diet.

Greedi Kitchen (Crown Heights)

Greedi Kitchen vegan

Crown Heights might not be the first neighborhood people think of when it comes to dining in Brooklyn, but Greedi Kitchen is making the case for delicious restaurants in the area. Inspired by its founder's many years of travel, Greedi Kitchen combines the comforting flavors of southern soul food with the added pizazz of global influences. Try one of their po'boys or the crab cake sliders. Trust us.

Screamer’s Pizzeria (Greenpoint + Crown Heights)

Screamer's Pizza vegan

We know what you're thinking: Pizza without real cheese? Call us crazy, but Screamer's does vegan pizza to perfection. If you're into classic pies like a simple margherita or pepperoni, or you want to branch out with unexpected topping combinations, Screamer's is delicious enough to impress carnivores, too (pro tip: the Greenpoint location is small and serves most pies by the slice, while the Crown Heights location is larger for sitting down).

Learning a second language is one of the coolest and most rewarding things you can do in your spare time.

However, if hopping on a one-way ticket to your country of choice isn't an option for you, it can be difficult to find an immersive experience to learn, especially past high school or college.

The next best thing is language-learning apps.

We wanted to look at the top two: DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone. Duolingo is the new kid on the block; one of the top downloaded, this free app is a favorite. Then, there's the legacy option: Rosetta Stone. For over 20 years, they've been developing their language-learning software, and their app is the most recent innovation.

They're both great options, but keep reading to figure out which one is the best for you.

Key Similarities

  • Both claim you'll expand your vocabulary
  • Both are available as an app for iOS and Android users
  • Both have a clean user interface with appealing graphics
  • Both have offline capabilities (if you pay)

Key Differences

  • DuoLingo has a popular free version along with its paid version, whereas Rosetta Stone only has a paid version
  • DuoLingo offers 35+ languages, and Rosetta Stone offers 24 languages
  • Rosetta Stone has an advanced TruAccent feature to detect and correct your accent
  • DuoLingo offers a breadth of similar vocab-recognizing features, and Rosetta Stone offers a wider variety of learning methods, like Stories

DuoLingo Overview

DuoLingo's app and its iconic owl have definitely found a place in pop culture. One of the most popular free language-learning apps, it offers 35 different languages, including Klingon, that can be learned through a series of vocabulary-matching games.

DuoLingo offers a free version and a version for $9.99 a month without ads and with offline access.

Rosetta Stone Overview

The Rosetta Stone app is a beast. There are 24 different languages to choose from, but more importantly, you get a huge variety of methods for learning. Not only are there simple games, but there are stories where you get to listen, the Seek and Speak feature, where you go on a treasure hunt to photograph images and get the translations, and the TruAccent feature, which will help you refine your accent. Whenever you speak into the app, you'll get a red/yellow/green rating on your pronunciation, so you can fine-tune it to really sound like you have a firm grasp of the language.

Rosetta Stone costs just $5.99 a month for a 24-month subscription, which gives you access to all of their 24 languages!

Final Notes

Overall, these are both excellent apps for increasing your proficiency in a new language! They both feel quite modern and have a fun experience.

When it comes to really committing words to memory and understanding them, Rosetta Stone is king.

DuoLingo definitely will help you learn new words, and the app can be addicting, but users report it as more of a game than a means to an end.

With Rosetta Stone's variety of features, you'll never get bored; there are more passive elements and more active elements to help you activate different parts of your brain, so you're learning in a more dynamic and efficient way.

The folks at Rosetta Stone are extending a special offer to our readers only: Up To 45% Off Rosetta Stone + Unlimited Languages & Free Tutoring Sessions!


So You Want to Try Workaway

Want to travel cheap, meet locals and kindred spirits, live off the land, and possibly change your life? It might be time to try Workaway.

Sitting in a house on a hill in Tuscany, Italy, watching the sun set and listening to the sound of music coming from the house in which I was staying almost rent-free, I wondered how I had gotten this lucky.

Actually, it was really all thanks to one website—Workaway.info.

Workaway Workaway

Workaway is a site that sets travelers up with hosts, who provide visitors with room and board in exchange for roughly five hours of work each weekday. The arrangement varies from host to host—some offer money, others require it—but typically, the Workaway experience is a rare bird: a largely anti-capitalist exchange.

I did four Workaways the summer I traveled in Europe, and then one at a monastery near my home in New York the summer after. Each experience, though they lasted around two weeks each, was among the most enriching times of my life—and I'd argue I learned almost as much through those experiences as I did in four years of college.

There's something extremely special about the Workaway experience, though it's certainly not for everyone.

Workaway Isn't for Everyone: What to Know Before You Go

I loved all the Workaways I went on, but the best advice I can give to anyone considering going is: Enter with an open mind. If you're someone who doesn't do well with the unexpected, if you're not willing to be flexible, if you're a picky eater or easily freaked out, then it's likely that you won't have a good experience at a Workaway.

There are exceptions to all of this. At the Workaway I stayed at in Italy, one of the travelers was suffering from stomach bloating, and the host helped cure her with a diet of miso. (I'm not saying you should go Workawaying if you're ill—this traveler's mother also came to oversee everything—but still, you never know what you'll find).

Workaway WoIsango.com

You should also probably be willing and able to actually work at your Workaway. These aren't vacations, and some hosts will be stricter and less forgiving than others regarding your work ethic. If you're someone who has no experience with difficult farm work, for example, it might not be a good idea to do a Workaway on a farm.

How to Choose a Host

The Workaway website boasts a truly overwhelming number of hosts. You can narrow your search down by location, but you can also search key terms that can help guide you in the right direction. You might search "music," for example—that's how I found the Italy location. You'll find hosts in busy cities and in the most remote mountains of India; you'll find opportunities to tutor and explore. You'll find shadiness, too, so trust your instincts.

Take time to actually read the host's entire bio before reaching out. Read all the comments, too, and if you're nervous or a first-timer, only reach out to hosts who have exclusively glowing reviews. I had the best experiences with hosts that had left extremely detailed bios—that showed me they were likely going to be dedicated hosts.

I also chose hosts whose bios gave me a good feeling, something like a spark of electricity or recognition. This instinctual method might not work for everyone, but it certainly led me in the right direction in all of my Workaway experiences. My Workaways gave me some of the best memories and deepest relationships of my life, and that was partly thanks to the fact that I chose places that were good fits for me.

For example, I chose to stay alone with a wizened academic in France. Something about his bio and descriptions resonated with me enough to trust him. (I also read some of his many thousand-page-long treatises on peace and compassion and decided that if someone could write this and be a psychopath, this wasn't a world I wanted to live in anyway). It was the right decision—and the two weeks I spent there were some of the most enlightening of my entire life.

When you reach out to a host, particularly if it's someone you really want to stay with, it's a good idea to frame your initial contact email as a cover letter of sorts—make sure you explain who you are and personalize your letter to fit each host.

Ixcanaan A Workaway painting experienceWorkaway

Travel Safely

Especially if you're traveling alone, it's always a good idea to choose a host whose page has tons of good reviews. Aside from that, a quick Google search and a scan of any social media pages related to your potential host can't hurt.

Ultimately, Workawaying requires a certain amount of trust and faith on both the host and the traveler's parts—you're either trusting someone to stay in your home or trusting a stranger to host and feed you.

But that trust, in my experience, also results in rapid and deep connections unlike anything I've experienced in the "real world." When you go and share a home with someone, you're also sharing yourself with them, and in that exchange there are the seeds of a powerful bond.

Participate Fully

Wherever you go, you'll want to open your mind and participate fully. Adjust yourself to your host's lifestyle, not the other way around, and take time to get to know your host and the others around you.

You might find that you become someone you never knew you were. As a lifelong introvert, I somehow managed to develop close relationships with many of the people I was staying with.

This might be because most people who are at Workaways are seeking something for one reason or another. In my experience, you find lots of people who are at junctures in their lives, seeking connection and meaning. With the right Workaway, you might just find it.

Workaway The Broke Backpacker - WorkawayThe Broke Backpacker