Volunteer Housing, Insurance, & Stipends

So you’ve got your sights set on a really great volunteer opportunity – it’s in a field or interest, at an interesting location, and the job is something that you’ve always wanted to do. Congratulations! You’re one step closer to realizing your volunteer abroad dream.

Now what? Once you have secured your position, there are two major items that should be on the top of your to-do list: Housing & Insurance. Taking care of these details can help answer two important questions that you will likely be asked by your mother, father, grandparents, girlfriend, boyfriend…you get the idea. Those two questions are: But where will you live? What happens if you get hurt?

Volunteer Housing Overseas

Luckily, as volunteer abroad jobs are becoming more and more popular there are an increasing number of cheap (and safe!) options for people looking for a place to stay while volunteering abroad.

The first step if you are just getting started with your planning is to read the fine print of your volunteer overseas job.

There are some organizations (the Peace Corps, UN Volunteers, Winrock International) that include either housing or a stipend for housing in their volunteer package. Some volunteer programs that charge a fee (Cross Cultural Solutions, United Planet, GVI) include housing in the price of the experience. Many others leave the issue of housing completely up to the volunteer, but may offer assistance finding lodging, or can at least point you in the right direction. It is up to see to figure out which situation applies to you.

Did you Know? Some host families will invite volunteers in their homes free of charge in exchange for a few English language lessons.

The following are some common examples of volunteer housing options:

Home stays: Local families take in volunteers in exchange for a small stipend. They will typically cook your meals, clean up after you, and might ask you to speak to them in your native language for fun. Home stays are a wonderful way to ensure that you become well acquainted with local culture, and your host family can serve as an invaluable resource as you acclimate to your new community. Most organizations that don’t provide housing will have a network of families available for home stays, and will even help you with arrangements before you arrive.

In-kind lodging: This is a somewhat broad category of housing that applies to all kinds of organizations: orphanages, community centers, farms eco-lodges – many of these organizations will actually invite volunteers to stay with them in house in exchange for their volunteer work. In these circumstances, you will likely be staying with a group of fellow volunteers – this is a great option for those who want a build-in social network as a part of their volunteer experience.

Youth hostels: Youth hostels are incredibly popular among young travelers, as they offer a simple, cheap place to stay for a few nights at a time. But some hostels also offer longer-term stays – cheaper than a hotel, but probably more expensive than a home stay. Hostelling International maintains a comprehensive list of hostels around the world and even if it might seem out of your price-range at first, it’s generally worth it to call the hostel directly, and find out if you can stay there in return for a few hours a week working the front desk or washing sheets. Hostel World provides reviews of hostels, and reading through the site might help you get an idea of how feasible it would be to negotiate a long-term stay.

Alternative Types of Housing for Volunteers

The common examples listed above are just those – examples. Since the Internet is available to connect people in new and interesting ways, some alternative housing options for international travelers have emerged, that might be of use to volunteers – particularly in the short-term.

WWOOFing: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It is an international network of organic farms that offer free housing (and organic food!) in exchange for free labor from travelers. This can pretty much take care of both your volunteering and housing needs in one feel swoop! Some travelers with take advantage of the free housing provide through WWOOF, while simultaneously seeking out additional volunteer opportunities in the area.

Couch Surfing: Couch Surfing is an international nonprofit that connects travelers around the world with free places to stay. If you are a traveler who wants to participate, you create a profile and open your home to travelers passing through your community. In exchange, you can find your own open couch when you take your own travels. In order to maintain a sense of community (and safety), “couch surfers” rate their hosts and their stays so that other travelers passing through will know what to expect, and you can have someone to “vouch” for the safety and security of your host. While this set-up is really intended for short-term stays, couch surfers have been able to find free lodging for stays up to 4 weeks.

Hospitality Club: Very similar to couch surfing, with an emphasis on the cultural exchange that accompanies welcoming an international traveler into your home. While the Hospitality Club website doesn’t have exactly the same community-feel as couch-surfing it is possible to report inappropriate hosts or guest to the website managers, so there is some level of safety built into the system.

Volunteer Health Insurance

Much like housing, health insurance is an absolute must for any volunteer job abroad. There are two circumstances (maybe 3) under which you might already be covered for insurance while abroad. First, your host organization purchases insurance for you (this is actually more common than free housing). Second, you are covered under your general health insurance (this is muuuuch less common). The third possibility involves how you pay for your airfare- some credit card companies actually provide very basic travel, accident and health insurance if you buy your airline ticket using their card. This really underscores the importance of thinking about housing and insurance before anything else!

Quick Fact: Hospitality Club actually started as a way for people from the same native country to find each other while traveling!

If insurance isn’t provided, and you aren’t covered under your current plan, there are options. The travel health insurance industry is HUGE. But before you buy a plan, there are a few things to consider.

  • Paying an additional premium to extend your current coverage: This is usually a more costly, but much more convenient option than buying an entirely new plan. Definitely ask you insurance company about adding travel coverage as part of your research.
  • Adding health insurance to your travel costs: Much like the credit card trick above, it can often be fairly inexpensive to add travel health coverage if you are already buying a ticket (think of it like booking a hotel, airline ticket and car rental at the same time). Just don’t make a rash decision. Before you are about to click “Book Flight,” look into what type of coverage is offered by the travel country, and make sure it aligns with your needs.

What are your needs? First of all, health insurance is not negotiable for volunteers. While most travelers are concerned about keeping costs low, scrimping on insurance shouldn’t be an option. Having a health issue of any magnitude while volunteering abroad can be incredibly scary – not to mention costly. If the worst happens, it is often difficult to make decisions if you aren’t familiar with the language, customs, or how much health care typically costs in the host country. Comprehensive health insurance gives you a little piece of mind if you do have deal with a health-related emergency.

The best resource for choosing the right travel insurance (after asking your host organization for suggestions!) is this comparison engine. Make sure that you understand what is covered. Will they evacuate in an emergency? What is the deductible? How long will the coverage last? What about pre-existing conditions? These questions (and many more) are essential to choosing the right plan. And you would be surprised at home affordable the plans can be!

Quick Summary:

  • Housing and insurance are essential to planning your volunteer overseas job.
  • Home stays are the best way to immerse in cultural and practice a new language.
  • WWOOFing, Couch Surfing and Hospitality Club are no cost options for lodging abroad.
  • Health insurance is often included in a volunteer program, but if it isn’t there are plenty of low-cost options for coverage.


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