Differences Between A Vacation and Volunteering Abroad

I’m excited to say the first person to have written for my blog is my own mother! I co-wrote this post with her [Lynda], as she has participated in a few trips volunteering abroad. In June 2017, she visited the Dominican Republic, which will be compared to my vacation abroad in Iceland in January 2014. Regardless of the vast cultural differences between these countries, it’s been incredibly interesting to compare our overall trip and level of freedom.


Vacation Abroad in Iceland

Day to Day Activities & Culture

Vacation VS Volunteering Abroad
Fun in Reykjavik shops

Though we had an itinerary for our week in Iceland, our activities varied day to day. From visiting Gullfoss waterfall and Strokkur geyser, to visiting the Blue Lagoon and seeing the northern lights, we packed quite a bit in our 5 days in Iceland. Our first two days we were free to roam around Reykjavik. It was interesting (and really cool) to see so many people on bikes! Probably one of the top reasons Europe is generally healthier than the United States. We loved going in and out of all the little shops, trying restaurants in town, and even popping into the coffee shops and grocery stores in the city.

Vacation and Volunteering Abroad

With the help of our tour guide, Krisjan, I was able to correctly pronounce (on the first try!) “Eyjafjallajökull.” Eyjafjallajökull is the name of a volcano with a glacier on top. We also visited Skogar Museum.  It was a smaller museum; the owner collected everything himself. I’m not a fan of museums typically, but this one was very interesting. It has over 15,000 folk artifacts, and it was really interesting to see how they lived prior to technology.



Vacation VS Volunteering Abroad
Salted Cod

Since we were on vacation, we were able to experience some more traditional food. Breakfast at the hotel was a typical European breakfast with a Nordic twist and Icelandic additions. They had a variety of food items to create an open sandwich. Since this was my first time abroad at age 19, I’m sure you can imagine the confusion (and curious) look on this American’s face in regards to FISH on a SANDWICH for breakfast. Though I opted out of eating fish at 7 in the morning, it was rather refreshing to have a healthier breakfast. One of the breakfast items they provided was Skyr, which is a dairy product with a thicker yogurt texture. Their 5 flavors were a quick favorite between my aunt and me!



Transportation wasn’t too different; they had smaller cars than what we’re used to seeing in the United States. As mentioned previously, the locals did ride around the city on bikes. Though we traveled in quite a large jeep since we did a bit of off-roading to get to some destinations. One travel regret is not getting a picture of that beefy jeep! (Seriously, though, it was huge.)



Within the week we were in Iceland, we stayed in about 3 different hotels. Nothing close to luxury, but each served breakfast, and either served dinner or had a restaurant attached. I’m never too picky with hotels as long as I’m able to have a good meal in the morning! Most of our trip was spent out and about anyways.


Volunteering Abroad in the Dominican Republic

My husband and I wanted to volunteer abroad. More importantly, we wanted to make an impact for the Lord, together. My husband is a mechanical engineer, whereas I enjoy people and don’t mind hard work. His engineering skills coupled with my “how hard can it be” attitude made a construction mission trip a logical choice.

Friends of our run a non-profit called BRICKS: Building Relationships in Christ’s Kingdom through Service. They have gone on over 35 mission trips building kitchens, mess halls, bunk houses and other structures for Christian camps throughout Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Joe [founder of BRICKS] and his crew were invited to build a pavilion at a camp in the Dominican Republic, and he asked if we were interested in joining the team. We had our passports ready for an opportunity like this and immediately agreed.


The missionaries working for this Word of Life camp came from several different countries including: Guatemala, Venezuela, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, as well as the United States. Some of the missionaries were single men, but most were married couples with children. Several missionaries could speak English and helped translate, but it also gave some of us an opportunity to practice our limited Spanish.

Electricity was turned off from 6am to about 6pm in many residential and rural areas. Since the camp was in a rural area, we lost power at 6 o’clock each morning.  Only necessary items were powered by generator during the day.  Kitchen appliances and power tools for the construction project fell into this category.  The cabanas, including the air conditioning, were NOT a necessary item.  We took special care to have the air conditioning running from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am and then kept all curtains drawn and windows and doors closed as much as possible to contain the cool air.



Differences between vacation and volunteering abroad

The regular kitchen staff wasn’t scheduled to arrive at the camp until just before the campers did, in another three weeks.  The lady missionaries took over the cooking responsibilities for the entire construction team and missionary families. With generators chugging along in the background, they prepared some wonderful meals for us in the open air kitchen.  It was very heart warming to see that they prepared “American” food for us to make us feel welcome, such as pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, tuna salads and ham & cheese sandwiches for lunch, and pizza, spaghetti, and chicken for dinner. Though we didn’t get to try as much authentic food as I would have liked, we did have DR style soft shell tacos and tres leche cake.


Differences between vacation and volunteering abroad
We ate outside under a pavilion with a beautiful thatched roof.



The camp director picked our team up at the airport in an SUV, as it would fit the team along with all our luggage and the seven bins of tools we brought for the project.  Vehicles and driving are similar to the US; steering wheel on the left, driving on the right side of the road.  City drivers in Santo Domingo, seemed to be a little aggressive, but no more so than driving in downtown Chicago.

There were horse drawn carriages, used as taxis, in the historic district.

Differences between vacation and volunteering abroad

On our way to camp we did see several young men on roller blades hanging on to a car driving on the highway at about 45 mph.  It was terrifying to watch, but the driver and the young men seemed to be enjoying the ride as if they had done this several times before.


Day to Day

We began working at 6:30 am each morning.  Since the power was turned off in our area of the country at 6 am, this motivated us to get up a take a shower before 6 am. We worked from 6:30 am until 6:30 pm with breaks for breakfast and lunch; our dinner was scheduled at 7:30 pm.

This left us with one hour of free time after work. We could either shower and relax or swim in the ocean and nearby stream.  Some of the team members swam in the ocean, but the surf was a little too rough for me.  I chose to swim in the nearby stream once.  The water was shallow and refreshing, and it seemed to be a favorite spot for local teens and young adults, as well.  On the evening I swam, one of the local children was cleaning fish in the stream, guts and everything. This was the one and only time I swam in the stream.

Differences between vacation and volunteering abroad

During lunch breaks, my husband and I liked to walk near the stream. During our first stroll, we heard a large splash.  I thought it was a fish, but my husband thought it was something much larger.  The next day I walked by myself and saw several large lizards.  LARGE LIZARDS.  I went to get my husband as I wanted him to see this very strange sight.  He came back with his camera and took photos.  These creatures look like miniature dinosaurs.  The camp director later told us that a camp neighbor feeds them in his back yard, and that is why they are near the camp property.  In Wisconsin, we feed the geese; in the DR, they feed the giant lizards!

After taking a much needed shower after our workday, I liked to take another walk on the beach before dinner.  Since there were very few people at the camp, I could enjoy the beach and grounds in peace and solitude.  The crashing waves, birds soaring and diving, and palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze were incredibly serene, without crowds of tourists everywhere I turned.



Differences between vacation and volunteering abroad

We stayed in the cabanas at the camp.  They had double beds with sheets and a comforter and air conditioning, when we had electricity.  We each got one towel for the week.  I was very happy to have the sheets and one towel since most missionaries need to supply their own.

There were none of the typical amenities like microwave, TV with DVD player, docking station, blow dryer, and coffee maker.  This didn’t make a difference to us as we were working most of the day, and the rooms didn’t have electricity to power those items anyway.

The rooms were clean.  Since we kept our doors and windows closed we didn’t have problems with crabs getting into our room, though we had one small lizard find his way in.  With only a little direction from my husband, he quickly scurried out the door.

We were careful to use bottled water when brushing our teeth, to prevent any extreme gastrointestinal reactions. We also made sure not to flush any toilet paper as their systems may not handle the extra use. It sounds kind of strange, however, some of the other members of the work team were unaware, and they had unfortunate flooding!

We did not have hot water for showers, but after a long day of work in the hot, humid weather, the lukewarm water temperature was a welcome relief! Fortunately, my husband and I had cell phone reception anywhere on the property, but several team members had to go out on the beach to get reception.

Volunteering Abroad in Dominican Republic

It was very satisfying to see so much accomplished in just five and a half days. Our main goal was to build the structure, while the local crew came after we left to install the roof. We went from huge piles of steel to a large pavilion, and we had time to build bleachers and install a basketball hoop. This was far more than just a structure. It was a place for hundreds of children to play and learn about the Lord.


Have you ever visited another country to volunteer?

Vacation vs Volunteering Abroad


  1. Love this comparison! Honestly both are great for different reasons. The last few years I’ve mostly volunteered abroad and just love getting off the grid to enjoy the local culture. But there are times where vacation is what I want and that’s what I plan! Great post 😉

  2. What a fun post to read =) as lovely as it is to vacation, loved reading your mom’s experience of volunteering. I’d really like to give it a try sometime … also, how amazing it would have been to see a volcano with a glacier.. I’m not even able to spell it out..let alone pronounce it! Kudos on that =)

  3. Nina Danielle

    It’s really neat to read the comparisons. What really comes across is how both are awesome choices, it just really changes your trip! i.e. one is for you to have fun, the other is to serve (and hopefully still enjoy yourself). I think that feeling of leaving knowing that you accomplished something like your Mom described must be really wonderful.

  4. Yes volunteering is not a proper vacation 😉 but then it gives a strong meaning to any travelling experience and something utterly positive. My most memorable volunteering experience was in Australia in a wildlife sanctuary – I was pregnant with my first and looking after kangaroos and koalas has been such a joy ! I took a proper vacation though after!

  5. Thank goodness there are people in this world that volunteer for all sorts of worthy causes. It must be particularly difficult to volunteer and then, not be able to go back to home and your own comforts. However, it sounds like your mom met some terrific people.

  6. Yes, I agree there is a significant difference in vacationing and volunteering…both with their inherent benefits. I love giving of my time, but I’m reticent to buy a volunteering experience. I would rather find them when I arrive.

  7. Vacation and volunteering are definitely two different types of experiences. Especially when you are talking about the Dominican Republic and Iceland. Great you are able to do both. I’ve never volunteered while travelling, only worked along the way but I understand it would be such a great, immersive experience, especially with what you were doing.

  8. I wouldn’t mind doing either of these kinds of trips! While volunteering abroad is often more exhausting and less plushy, I think it usually gives you a better chance to get to know a destination. It also creates more impactful memories too!

  9. It’s good to see more intermingling of cultures. America is being colonised by diverse folk from all over the world, bringing their strange ways, odd faiths, and tasty food. Looks like you’re lobbing a few shots in return!

  10. I never volunteered abroad but I can totally relate. I’m nomadic and I’m still working, Im just doing it from a beach. People thing I’m always vacationing and having fun, but they don’t see all the work that goes into it.

  11. We also thought about volunteering abroad but we still haven’t found the right one for us. It was very interesting to read this article and the way you compared it to your vacation, and in such detail! It gave us a lot to think about!

  12. I really like your comparsion. I think traveling both as a tourist and volunteer has their positive sides. I like both.
    P.S: Yes, we nordic people likes bicycles and skyr 🙂 We could not breath without it 🙂

  13. Great post. I haven’t been a volunteer but I have done an internship abroad which I loved due to the fact that you get to know the locals, their culture and a different work ethic. I have learned so much and would recommend it to everyone.

  14. Thank you for the comparison. Volunteering abroad definitely seems like more work than a vacation. I think if I were to volunteer, I would stick closer to home because I’m sure there is PLENTY to do here! Volunteering abroad does give you a good view into “normal” life in the country though!

  15. I’ve never volunteered before, but its definetely on my to-do list. Great post, its very well written and reflects to the reader the great differences between vacationing and voluntering. When on holiday, all we think is about “our” experience whereas when voluntering we undertand that this is not about us but them. Safe travels! – Mariella

  16. Nerissa

    How incredibly satisfying to know that you were part of building that structure that’s going to improve the lives of others. The two things I love most is travel and charity work. Loved this!

  17. Christine

    Volunteering in another country is on my bucketlist. Seems like a wonderful and rewarding experience. I enjoyed reading about your experience and it has inspired me to do this sooner rather than later!

  18. Joanna

    It is definitely a huge difference between traveling as a tourist and volunteering abroad. I have never volunteered but I have friends who did, in the refugee camp from Athens, and the stories I’ve heard from there were heartbreaking.

  19. I haven’t volunteered before, only vacationed. It definitely sounds as though they are two very different experiences! Perhaps you get to experience local life and meet more people when volunteering. It’s something I’ll have to do one day. Thanks for the inspiration!

  20. Volunteering can be so rewarding. Back in 2009-2010, I lived in Malaysia and Indonesia for over a year and traveled around to tiny little villages to raise funds for cancer patients and endangered species in Borneo. Needless to say that it was one of the most exciting experiences in my life. Being able to help a fellow human is such a beautiful way to contribute to the community. Great post 🙂

  21. Sia

    i’ve always found it interesting to hear stories about volunteering abroad. I bet that being in such a diverse team with people from all over the world is so enriching! It could offten be a challenge but also a very rewarding experience.

  22. Rhiannon

    I volunteered in Peru in 2011 and Nepal in 2013, and your mother’s experience reminded me so much of my own! Especially the electricity thing – in Nepal it went off for 16 hours a day (!!) normally at night, so you’d have to sleep in the tropical heat with no AC or fan. Because there was no electricity, every night at 7pm all the children and families living nearby would gather together in one room to watch the latest episode of some reality dance show. It was so lovely to be a part of!
    Volunteer trips and vacations are so, so different from one another – but, having done both several times, I can honestly say I enjoy them both equally!

  23. Last year, we did some volunteer work in Cambodia working at an orphanage. Honestly, though, I don’t know what to think about our experience. We don’t know if we were helping or if we were being detrimental to the cause. We thought we had done our research but later that came into question. It made the experience very conflicting and many times, we didn’t feel good. Later on, we talked more in-depth with those who run the orphanage and I think later, we felt like we made the right choice, but even now we still have our doubts.

    It sounds like you had a good experience though. I’m sure the kids will enjoy having a space to play. We also went to Iceland and that was definitely a vacation.

  24. I think this is a great discussion to have with people who are volunteering abroad. I personally haven’t volunteered abroad before, mainly because I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think the bottom line is that anyone who is wanting to go on a volunteer trip needs to make sure to do their homework. What do they want to get out of it? How are they actually going to help?

  25. Cali

    I love that you did a joint post with your mom! As an avid traveler, I think it is nice to have different types of experiences on trips. It mixes things up and keeps you more appreciative of your experiences.

  26. Interesting post comparing these 2 very different ways of travel. We often thought of volunteering but always felt a bit concerned about the lodging, especially not having AC in tropical setting. It was nice to see that some volunteering organization offer it 🙂

  27. No I haven’t personally volunteered abroad but I have a couple of good friends that have. They both volunteered in Africa at orphanages and found the experience to be life-changing. It is something that I might like to take on in the future. Well done to you for doing this.

  28. I’m sure it is very different to be volunteering than on vacation, even though it is an equally great opportunity to see a new country and their culture. I actually volunteered in Iceland.. ha ha.. and I love the experience. There were days when I was hoping I was on a vacation instead but I would have missed many cool things that way.

  29. Really fun post. It’s always nice to compare the different types of travel we have available to us. I really liked how this post was broken into the 2 sections so we could really see how they’re the same and how they’re different. Makes me want to do both trips though!

  30. Volunteering abroad is a great way to experience the country a bit more. I know people who have used the website Work Away to find opportunities. I did some volunteer work in Nicaragua and it is the same there. There are cold showers and you cannot flush TP.

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