Service Trips: Why They Matter & How to Find One

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Do you daydream in class about busting out of your seat and actually learning from the world around you? Service trips are an amazing way to make an impact and change your own perspective in the process.

Experiential learning might not be in your average school curriculum, but when on a service trip, you will learn skills as varied as mixing concrete, caring for elephants, or surviving in the wilderness. Plus, a service trip that involves travel is both a great way to bring your next geography, language, or history course closer to home, as well as to create a more dynamic future resume or personal statement.

While there are a million causes to choose between when it comes to dedicating your time, you won’t run out of inspiration once you choose a service trip adventure. 

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic woman standing on the beach at sunrise

The sun always rises on service trips in the DR.

What are service trips?

Volunteer service trips are full immersive experiences that will challenge you to surpass your comfort zone, learn about a different environment, and give back as you create a brand new sense of community.

Each service trip typically revolves around a theme that ties together travel, volunteer work, community engagement, and cultural exchange. For example, environmentally-minded travelers might gravitate towards turtle conservation in Costa Rica while future doctors or public health practitioners might head to Zambia to aid in medical relief. In the process of giving back and working alongside local communities, you’ll gain a tangible understanding of a local or global issue through seminars or presentations, group activities, and tours to relevant sites.

Let us do the work for you — get matched with service trips

What’s the difference between service trips and volunteering abroad?

Service trips and volunteer abroad opportunities differ in two major ways. Firstly, service trips are generally offered in groups of participants, whereas volunteer abroad opportunities can be open to individuals who wish to participate in ongoing volunteer efforts.

Service trips are organized for groups of students or professionals of a particular age or background, so they offer more comprehensive support and guidance when it comes to travel, supervision, visas and insurance, and program activity. They are then a great stepping stone for you if you’d like to do more independent volunteering abroad in the future.

Once you’ve participated in service trips abroad, you’ll have all the logistical experience to partner with an organization in the future and create your own personal program both before and during your volunteer abroad experience.

Secondly, because service trips operate with more of this programmed structure, they also provide more of a structured educational background to your volunteer activity. Rather than just working with one volunteer organization of your chosen passion, a service trip might introduce you to several communities and volunteer opportunities in the given time frame that all tie into your general theme of exploration. In addition, the planned activities outside of your direct service hours will also inform your understanding and provide different perspectives for you to consider. 

[How to Volunteer in Another Country]

Bustling city street in India

Tikka your time to get to know everything about service trips in India.

Are all service trips abroad?

If you feel passionate about a particular issue in your country or simply want to give back closer to home, service trips are definitely NOT restricted to faraway destinations. Instead, search for programs or create your own to dive into your passion in your home country. A non-international service trip is an amazing way to gain a deeper understanding about your own nation or to explore a different region or environment.

Are you from a rural area? Look into service trips abroad that focus on urban education or agriculture. Are you from the mainland United States? Check out programs in Hawaii or Alaska that will give you a totally different understanding of what it means to be American in the 49th and 50th states. Even if your service trip adventure takes you only a short trip from wherever you call home, what matters is how much both you give and take from the experience.

[Bookmark your favorite service trips and compare side-by-side]

How can I find service trips?

While there are more and more volunteer service trips offered each year, finding the right adventure for your interests and goals takes some dedicated research. Start your search by asking people you know, whether that means friends, older family members, friends of friends, or advisors at your school or university.

Connecting with alumni who have already done a program with a particular organization is a great way to get the inside scoop and see if you are passionate about the destination and theme and if you will feel comfortable with the agenda. Then hit up Google and GoAbroad to check out up-to-date program details and stalk all the amazing photos of your peers engaging with the wonders of the world.

If you’re concerned about financing your service trip, there are plenty of scholarships or creative fundraising ideas to explore. Whether applying or asking for funding, it’s important to consider your goals for why your chosen service trip matters to you and why you want to invest your time to this particular cause. Brainstorm what you hope to contribute during your trip and what you hope to gain and do after to continue your dedication to this cause. Even if these thoughts first cross your mind to gain funding, they’ll also inform, shape, and guide you as you embark on your service trip with intention and focus.

Sea lion on the rocks in Aramoana, New Zealand

You’ll have to sea it to believe with service trips in New Zealand

Who can do service trips abroad?

Lucky for the world, age is just a number when it comes to finding service trips abroad. There are hoards of different programs catering to different needs. Popular ones include…

  • Service trips for high school students. Many high schools across the U.S. will coordinate independent service trips for teens. These are typically short-term and highly supervised, often including a homestay and structured projects.
  • Service trips for college students. Different university organizations or religious institutions will coordinate service trips abroad for college students, generally over semester breaks. Alternative spring breaks are common.
  • Service trips for young adults. If you’re a young professional who wants to use your precious vacation time to give back, consider finding service trips for young adults. The older we get, the less intense the supervision will be, allowing you to grow as an individual and traveler while still contributing meaningful work.
  • Service trips for adults. These cater to the 35+ crowd and offer less hands-on babysitting than programs for youngsters without sacrificing social opportunities and impactful projects.

[The ABC’s of Volunteer Trips Abroad]

The coolest service trips on EVERY continent

Once you’ve picked your passion, now it’s time to determine your destination. Don’t just spin a globe and blindly point! Take a moment to research where your service interest and wanderlust intersect to get and give the most impact during service trips for young adults.

1. Caribbean: Life in the Bateyes, Rustic Pathways

Dive deep into the culture of the Bateyes AKA settlements built around sugar mills in the Dominican Republic. Rustic Pathways takes you to the heart of these communities to learn from each other as you work side-by-side to improve living conditions. Then reward yourself by exploring Santo Domingo and relaxing on white, sandy beaches.


La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa rica

You’ll find your own fortune as a volunteer in Costa Rica.

2. South America: Surf, Service, Soccer, Language & Leadership, Global Works

Get active as a volunteer with Global Works’ Costa Rica program. In just a few weeks, you’ll grow both your adventure and professional skills with this well-rounded and jam-packed program. Plus, you’ll gain 50 community service hours to boost your resume!


3. Europe: Sicily Discovery and Service, Travel for Teens

This unique Travel for Teens program is a family affair as your group comes together in a homestay with a warm and welcoming Sicilian family. With community service during the day set against the backdrop of breath-taking views and homemade Italian food at night, you’ll be singing “that’s amore” about your Italian adventure from Day 1!


Walking down bright turquoise mosaic steps in Caltagirone, Italy

Take a step in the right direction with service trips abroad. 

4. Africa:
Madagascar Wildlife Conservation Adventure, Frontier

Madagascar is home to an amazing diversity of species and the famous “I like to move it” lemurs from none other than the movie Madagascar. What better way to discover and save the wildlife than by contributing to important research with Frontier, a GoAbroad Top Volunteer Abroad Organization of 2016? Service trips to Africa don’t get any better than this.


5. Asia: Volunteer in Dharamsala, India, Cross-Cultural Solutions

Cross-Cultural Solutions provides a comprehensive service trip to India that combines both volunteerism and tourism to fulfill all your dreams of exploring the subcontinent. When not snapping selfies in front of the Taj Mahal, you’ll learn Hindi and work with local populations in a personalized volunteer placement based on your interest. 


6. Pacific: New Zealand & Fiji Summer Program, Pacific Discovery

Perfect for high school graduates, gap year, or college students who are looking for a fun and meaningful summer, this 4-week Pacific Discovery combines service-learning and adventure travel on two of the Pacific’s most beautiful and unique islands. Get in touch with your wild side as you explore the environments and ecology of Fiji and New Zealand by foot, bike, boat, and sea!


Women walking with children down road in Madagascar

You’d be mad to pass up service trips in Madagascar.

Ready for international service trips?

Service trips for young adults —or any age, really — are a great way to launch your career as a traveler and a learner as you engage and learn from the world around like never before. On a service trip you’ll see your impact when it comes to others first-hand, but the bigger impact on YOU comes later, perhaps even after you get home. Are you ready?

Your ideal service trip is out there — you just have to find it

Topic:  Travel Tips