What does Meaningful Travel really involve?

by Travel Paulie on July 27, 2010

I’ve been ‘on the road’ for nearly 7 months already and I’ve had a whole plethora of experiences since I started. I wouldn’t substitute my time spent so far for anything, since just now in my life it’s what I want to do.  But what is this so-called “meaningful travel” malarkey all about?

This article will hopefully clear up some of the obscurity for those people who are interested, and offer for you a bit of insight so you can decide if this approach is something you would like to consider for yourself.

Word count: ~1100;  approx. reading time: 5~10 minutes.

What is meaningful travel?

Does meaningful travel differ from volunteering?  Aren’t they just the same thing?  And what is volunteering itself anyway?  I’m just going to offer up some straight definitions to kick this off:

  • A Volunteer – is someone who offers up their (spare) time/expertise into the services of a socially conscious project or organisation.  They do not receive monetary incentives and also do not pay to offer their time.
  • Socially conscious – a socially conscious project or organisation is one that is primarily working for the benefit of the community, local or otherwise.  That is, working with the goal to raise the standard of living for the target community in an ideally, environmentally sustainable manner.  Basically, an organisation that does good things!  I’m sure we can think of many global corporates that are not socially conscious.
  • Travel – (in the context of this article) is the act of moving yourself temporarily from one place to another by foot, land transport, air and sea for the purpose(s) of exploration, business, experience, relaxation, curiosity, investigation, and other such goals.  There’s no need to have a passport to travel.
  • Meaningful travel – is the act of travelling with the primary purpose of volunteering.
  • Voluntourism – is an subset of the tourism industry.  It is the business of supplying a travel service to individuals/groups that contains a element whereby they do work with an organisation/project/business in the destination location.  This, to me, isn’t volunteering since it is fee-based, and so it also doesn’t fall under the scope of my definition of meaningful travel.  You could argue that it is “meaningful” and it is “travel”, but then and that’s why there’s a comments section below.

Many definitions to take in, but give them another quick read over once more and I’m sure it’ll fall into place for you.

So am I really undertaking meaningful travel?  I think so, and here is why…

At the time of writing I have been on the road for 203 days.  Of those 203 days, 62% of the total time spent has been primarily for the purpose of volunteering.  I have excluded days spent travelling to and from these places to be as accurate as I can.  Assuming a day was spent for each travel hop, that leaves the total time spent so far in “non-meaningful travel” 30% (of the 203 days).  This 30% includes time attending 2 weddings that took place in March and April so of course that’s not to say it wasn’t meaningful, it just doesn’t fall under the definition above for the purposes of this article.

What does this kind of travel involve on a practical level?

Here is a quick summary list based on my experience so far:

  • Research and Networking; lots of it.  I find projects and go to them, or find projects where I have already planned to go.
  • Independently arranging travel itineraries.  I don’t go to travel agents and book an all-inclusive 2-week stay at the ABC Exotic Spa Resort.  I take flights, buses, trains, and walk to wherever I need to go.  Accommodation may be provided/arranged by the organisation with which you will work, but if not, you’ll need to book yourself something, or just find it when you arrive – I will usually book something for a day or so and then just find the cheapest place I can find and move over.
  • Work.  Whatever you have committed to doing, you simply get right down to it.  There is no fanfare, just plain ol’ get your hands dirty helping wherever you can.  If you’re volunteering, you can expect to earn not a penny for your services, and if anything have to pay for some things yourself.  If there are no whiteboard markers, just buy your own for example. I have never been provided with any remuneration for my work, except the odd welcome dinner here and there.
  • Report.  I have needed to report and summarise some of the work that I’ve done in the past, especially that of an IT related nature where there is hand-over involved.  It’s just good practice and it helps the person who follows on after you to pick up where you left off.  As you can imagine in the world of volunteering the turnover rate is very high and mitigating those issues is important.

Can you do it too?

Of course!  It’s not for everyone, but there are various approaches to it.  For example, if you want to take the voluntourism approach, then you should.  But enter these programs with the knowledge that your money spent isn’t going towards the organisation with which you will be working.  Yes, part of it will, but it pays to be an informed consumer in this case.

To do volunteering and travel on-the-cheap involves a fair amount of leg work on your part.  My current motto, for want of a better term, is to be a no- or low- impact entity where I can be, in terms of time, money and other resources.  This involves trying to be as independent as possible, as early as possible; covering costs incurred due to my joining their organisation; and leaving it in a better state than that which I found it.  If I can do that, then I feel I’m fulfilling my ‘meaningful travel’ mandate.

Give it some thought.  Perhaps there’s scope to introduce volunteering into your life.

A future article will discuss other options within the areas of volunteering and travel.

If you are travelling, either volunteering or otherwise, I’d love to hear you views and opinions on this.  Does volunteering have to be unpaid to be volunteering?  Does meaningful travel have to involve volunteering to be meaningful?  Any tips for finding the elusive free volunteering?  Any and all feedback is welcome in the comments section below.  Please also feel free to share this article with friends and people you think would be interested to read this.  You can do so using the Facebook link below.

  • Paul,
    Nice article. Yes, volunteering has to be unpaid to be volunteering in my book but where do you draw the line? Are VSO or Peacecorps “volunteers” simply low paid workers, since they get all their expenses paid, flights, living expenses, training etc, but have to pay for extras. What about regular working for low pay then? Could I choose to work somewhere in UK/US/developing world, and receive low pay but not expenses and still be called a volunteer? What’s the difference?

    As for finding elusive free volunteering posts – it ain’t easy.

    • Hey Clive,

      Thanks for the comment and compliment. I think for VSO and Peacecorps, they’re another class of employee. Low-paid do-gooders? 🙂 But no, I don’t view that as volunteering. It’s not a negative slight on them by any means, and I may do something like that myself in the future, but what you and I are doing is different to that.

      If you’re getting significant financial benefits to do the work you’re doing, and especially if you wouldn’t do the work otherwise without them, you’re not volunteering.

      Ultimately it is my goal to create a “social business” that can afford to pay contributors, perform the same sort of work (if not better) than an NGO and channel profits back into the “business”. A long way off that for sure…

      And finding free volunteering can be painful to say the least 😉

      Cheers for your feedback!

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