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Getting ready to go

Ahh… the joy of logistics. This is where you'll start to get into the advance planning for your trip. The bad news is your pre-planning steps may vary quite a bit depending on where in the world and how long you are going; the good news, though, is that there are lots of resources out there to help you.

Here are seven areas where you'll need to do a fair amount of pre-travel prep work:

Your life at home

The steps you'll need to take to keep things humming along at home while you are off in another country will vary quite a bit depending on how long you'll be gone. For example, if you'll only be gone a few weeks, you may just need to prepay some bills, put a hold on your mail, and arrange for someone to water the plants or house your pets.

However, if you'll be gone for a longer term, you may want to consider renting or subletting your home (or even selling and/or moving out). Even if you leave it vacant in your absence, you'll need to arrange to make rent or mortgage payments from abroad as well as have someone check on things periodically (nothing like a burst water pipe or broken window to ruin your homecoming). You'll also need to make arrangements for paying your bills (automatic withdrawal payments or prepaying are good options), seeking deferral on student loans, storing or lending out belongings (including your car), and selecting someone to serve as a surrogate pet owner.

In addition to taking care of your regular day-to-day life, it's a good idea to set up a network of support at home. Send a copy of your travel itinerary and contact information to a handful of close friends or family and leave a copy of your passport with someone you trust. Additionally, come up with some ways to stay in regular touch with folks at home, whether it's keeping a blog or scheduling phone or email check-ins.

Passports, visas, and other red tape

Every country's visa requirements are different—some will require a tourist visa, others a volunteer visa, and still others no visa at all—but most if not all require that you carry an official passport. To find out which if any type of visa you'll need, as well as how far in advance you'll need to begin the application process, check with your closest consulate or embassy of the country you intend to travel to. If you're going with a volunteer-sending organization, ask the staff if they provide assistance with this process; they may also be able to offer advice on the type of visa program participants usually apply for (which can cut through some of the consular red tape).

You should also plan to register with your own country's embassy abroad; this is largely so that they can contact you in emergency situations. Most national governments offer some sort of travel advice website, so to learn more about the registration process, as well as everything from passports to what to do should you run into trouble abroad, visit one of the following:

You might want to consider visiting these information sites from the University of Michigan International Center and Abroad View Foundation as well.

Your health

In order to be an effective volunteer—not to mention enjoy your time abroad—you'll need to take good care of your health. This means getting any necessary vaccinations (visit one of the links below to learn more about what vaccinations are recommended or required for the country you'll be visiting), ensuring that you have medical coverage abroad (including asking if it's provided by a volunteer-sending organization, notifying any existing insurance carrier of your international plans, and/or purchasing insurance), and taking with you enough needed medical supplies (insulin, prescription drugs, etc.) For more information on health insurance abroad, read this page by the University of Michigan International Center.

It's also a good idea to prepare to be at your optimum physical and mental health before departing; between the different diets and culture shock, your body will likely be going through some pretty dramatic changes. Prepare for this by fitting in some extra exercise while still at home (walking is a great low stress option) and, to boost your immune system, eating healthy foods rich in vitamins. If possible, try to incorporate some of the foods you'll be eating abroad into your diet before you leave. And if you are a vegetarian or vegan, be sure to research what your options will be; if you're heading to a locale where most people eat meat, you'll want to think of some feasible alternatives in advance.

You should also plan to outline a few strategies for how you might engage in personal reflection and deal with culture shock. If you regularly see a mental health provider, it'd be a good idea to jointly develop these strategies to help manage your health abroad.

For more information on taking care of your health, consider visiting the government travel sites listed above as well as some of the following:

A quick note about drugs and alcohol abroad: be very careful. Drinking too much lowers your ability to take care of yourself, potentially putting you in very unsafe situations. And many countries have strict drug laws that could land you in a foreign jail. Given these consequences, as well as your commitment to be a (non-hung-over) partner in community efforts, make good choices.

Your safety

Speaking of personal safety, while you should have already done your research to learn more about safety and security issues in your region of choice, you should also come up with an emergency exit plan. This can be following the procedures of your volunteer-sending organization (most reputable programs will have them) as well as your home country's embassy (again, a good reason to register with them) or simply developing your own exit strategy. Also, check to see if emergency services are covered by your health or travel insurance (read this article by Peter Greenberg for more information on travel insurance). Whatever the case, be clear on what to do should you run into trouble abroad.

Also, prepare to closely guard your personal information; this should include keeping your legal and financial documents in a safe, preferably locked, place while abroad as well as choosing to use payment options that protect your financial information (e.g. credit cards, Western Union, PayPal) when paying volunteer program fees in advance.

For additional tips on personal safety, visit your government's travel site or read this webpage by i-to-i.com.

Personal finances abroad

It's a good idea to carry some local currency with you (you can exchange it at a bank before leaving your home country, exchange upon arrival, or withdraw from a local bank machine; be sure to confirm that your ATM card will work abroad as some countries have different limits for PIN lengths); traveler's checks are also a safe option but may be difficult to use in rural areas. Also, most credit cards provide protection against theft; just be sure to let them know you'll be traveling abroad or they may interpret your new international activity as a stolen card and put a freeze on your account (requiring a cumbersome phone call to unfreeze).

If you'll be gone for a long period of time, consider opening a joint bank account with a trusted family member (or giving this person power of attorney over your existing account). This will enable your relative to make deposits, write checks, and perform other maintenance on your bank account while you're away. Even if your bank has branches in the country where you'll be, don't count on being able to do many of these activities yourself—few global banks treat customers with accounts from another country the same way they treat local clients.

For more information on managing your money abroad, check out this article on AbroadView.org.

What to pack, what to leave

In this case, we literally mean stuff. A good rule of thumb is to keep your baggage light; keep in mind that you'll need to carry things around as you travel and, especially if you're doing outdoor volunteer work, your clothing may look worse for wear by the time you're done. Check the expected climate for your time abroad and pack accordingly. Don't forget to bring any project tools recommended or required by your volunteer-sending organization or NGO abroad, as well as any needed household items like a pillow, linens, medicines, toilet paper, etc. Jay Wilson with IC Volunteers suggests that you also pack a few comfort items that might be hard to find abroad—whether it's your favorite hand lotion or breakfast cereal—as they can sometimes be invaluable as you navigate the ups and downs of culture shock. Another good item to bring is pre-addressed envelopes so that those you meet abroad can stay in touch with you after you return (be sure to buy international postage once you're there).


Try to keep to a minimum—or even possibly just leave at home—valuable items like jewelry and expensive electronics. Not only will these make you a target for theft but, if you're volunteering in an economically depressed area, they can serve to visually exacerbate the difference between the haves and have-nots. Similarly, try not to bring too many items that will just end up in the trash (e.g. individually or plastic-wrapped items). Having a small environmental footprint is another way of being a good partner abroad.

For suggestions on what to bring and what to leave at home, check out these books and websites:

Self-reflection

Before you go, be sure to plot out your own thoughts, goals, and motivations. Spend some time writing down your goals for your volunteer experience—what you hope to realistically accomplish, what you'd like to learn—and create a list of places you'd like to see, sites you'd like to visit, and experiences you'd like to take part in. Think of this as your own personal road map.

Finally, create a plan for your first day abroad—from getting from your home to the airport to potentially meeting a staff person or volunteer at your destination, to getting to your first night's lodging and your first in-country meal. The more details you can arrange in advance, the less stressful your arrival will be. You can then get some much needed rest before embarking on your new adventure.