- 1 ➭ Passport & Visas
- 2 ➭ Travel Insurance
- 3 ➭ Health Check
- 4 ➭ Booking Flights & Transportation ✈
- 5 ➭ Transfer to Project Site
- 6 ➭ Booking Accommodations
- 7 ➭ Money 💵
Check that your passport is valid and will be during the time of your trip up to 6 months after your return. Most countries mandate this.
Contact your own embassy to tell them about your whereabouts. If they offer an enrollment program that records where you are going, then do it.
Get the contact information of your embassy in the country that you are visiting. Take this information with you along with the other important documents that you will travel with.
⚠ Don’t just rely on electronic copies but print out documents. We were with one traveler who somehow lost her travel emails and had to ring back around to agencies for all her booking information again. A tall order when she was traveling for 3 months to a number of destinations.
|🔗 Useful Links|
If you are heading out to volunteer, a lot of people ask whether you should get a tourist or a work visa. Your organization should provide you with information on which visa you will need. In most short-term volunteering cases you only need a tourist visa. The reason for this is that you won’t be paid a salary and therefore you will not be taking money out of the country.
An important side note: When you are researching ethical volunteer placements, do check whether the company is using paying volunteers rather than denying paid salaries to the locals. Check the organization’s impact on local communities.
» Does your passport automatically provide you with visa entry?
» How long does your visa last for and will you need to apply for an extension either before you go or in the country at an embassy?
» Do you need to apply before you go or is it an easy process at the destination airport?
» How long in advance can you apply for your visa?
⚠ China, for instance, is within one month before travel otherwise the visa expires even if not used.
» How much does the visa cost if acquiring it at the airport and do they need you to pay in local currency?
» Are you connecting/transiting through countries that require visas and connection time?
⚠ Once when transiting through Boston, we had to apply for a further visa. Our wait time was 4 hours for the connecting flight. The same happened when returning home via New Zealand from Australia. So make sure you have spare funds in case this happens.
» Can you apply online or do you need to visit physically an embassy? How long will it take to have your passport returned?
» Have you allowed for contingency time for applications and returns of documents? Check the websites to understand what normal processing times are and whether there are any circumstances at the time which may delay it.
Depending on the purpose of your travel (e.g., tourism, volunteering, work), your insurance needs may vary.
A volunteering placement within wildlife reserves requires a coverage that insures you for unforeseen animal encounters or illnesses –i.e., zoonosis (e.g., rabies, leprosy, influenza). So, understand where you are going, what activities are involved and read the small print to make sure you are covered appropriately. Otherwise, you may be paying through the nose for a product that is useless when you need it the most. Even the most comprehensive backpackers’ insurance may not cover you sufficiently.
Free time arranged? Off to do water sports or paragliding or what classes as ‘adventure’ or dangerous activities? Make sure your insurance covers you for this.
You don’t have to take up the insurance that the company you’ve booked with offers you so shop around. Start with good information or comparison sites such as the one below. It will give you a good base to start from and gives some advice on exclusions.
|🔗 Travel Insurance Examples|
Once you’ve found a few services/sites to compare, do give them a call as they can offer specialist advice based on your activities and may recommend cheaper but still comprehensive cover.
Remember that a volunteer who does manual labor or who is in proximity to wildlife will need a more comprehensive cover than the average tourist/traveler. Even your backpacker’s travel insurance will not be sufficient for undertaking work abroad.
Never embark on a journey abroad without first checking that you are physically fit to do it. Prepare for what you will do over there, making sure you have the correct vaccines, medication, insurance if anything unexpected was to occur…
|🔗 Useful Links
✧ International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers — Packed with great information including a list of names and addresses of English-speaking doctors and clinics worldwide.
Prepare fitness-wise, and go the extra mile to train according to the level of difficulty advertised by the organization you will spend time with.
If you are volunteering, note that some volunteer companies require proof that you are fit to undertake the work. A note from your general practitioner or a form that s/he will fill and sign often suffices.
Don’t leave it to chance. Get that vaccine, for your health and for the sake of the people around you.
Travel with a copy of your vaccination records. Some volunteer agencies or countries will require you to prove that you are properly vaccinated before you go or at the point of entry. This is the case for instance with yellow fever vaccination proof required when you travel to multiple countries. If you can’t present a proof, then you might be refused to enter the country.
Generally, your organization or health centers will advise you of what vaccinations you need depending on your destination and the proximity to wildlife. You MUST allow plenty of time to get the vaccinations. For example, Hepatitis B requires several injections spaced out over a period of time.
The UK and the US have walk-in travel centers for advice and treatments rather than needing to book doctor’s appointments. In the case of the US, check if your insurance covers for vaccines. If your insurance does not cover vaccines you’re in for a money ride (they cost an eye). On the other hand, you don’t have much choice: never take the risk to go without the proper vaccines for your sake and the sake of the people around you.
⚠ One of us at EwA once did plan Hep B injections a little too late. The last injection was required when she was traveling. Luckily she was in Zimbabwe and not fully remote. The host organizers were able to arrange a visit to the pharmacist and the clinic once she arrived. She had let them know in advance of arriving.
One note for those of us volunteering close to wildlife: Do not dismiss that rabies vaccine.
⚠ While volunteering abroad, once one of the locals had rescued a young pup abandoned at the side of a road. It looked like it had been abused. Within a few days of care, it started to show some unusual behavior. This was the day before this volunteer traveled to Samoa. Luckily the host organizers were able to arrange vaccinations which for rabies required 3 spaced out shots. The first injection was done in the country on the way to the airport. And the volunteer took the remaining 2 shots in a flask filled with ice in her backpack through Australia and Fiji and onto Samoa. Then she made her own arrangements with local hospitals and clinics for the nurses/ doctors to administer the next ones. You can get vaccinated in-country but why risk it. It would have been much simpler to get the preliminary vaccine in the first place. Lesson learned!
Simply check both with your health insurance and your travel insurance, and see what is covered and not. The easiest might be to call them. You might need an extra level of protection on a per travel basis depending on the risk involved with your trip.
⚠ [Disclaimer] Our tips below are based on our own experience. You should always check with a registered health practitioner for advice specific to you. Even natural essential oils can have a contra-indication on certain medications you may already be on.
➢ Eat yogurt for two weeks before you leave. This builds up friendly bacteria in your system, which may help you tolerate unfamiliar/new foods and drinks.
➢ Do a little cure of supplements 2 weeks before leaving. Help build your immunity system.
➢ Note that overusing antibacterial gels may impact your body’s natural immune defenses.
✓ Check your first aid kit and make sure you have at least your basics stocked: plasters; bite creams; antibacterials and antiseptics;anti-histamines; general painkillers, diarrhea medication.
✓ Are you on any regular medication? Take a supply and then some extra and make sure your host company (if applicable) are aware.
✓ Water purification: Water is a huge issue and a disease, parasite spreading vector. Check with the in-country organization or agency if water is likely to be an issue. Most places in our experience account for this and provide filtered/purified water. Pack extra water purification pills (and use them if needed) in case you can’t boil water on site or have no guarantee that the water is safe to drink.
This is always a big one for most travelers to remote destinations so we decided to provide a separate section. Even if your destination is not a malaria country, you don’t want to be bitten and suffer from the debilitating itchiness, lumpiness or infected bites some people suffer from.
Some top tips and recommendations –although no one has yet found the universal cure!:
➢ Take Vitamin B tablets daily and from a few weeks before you go.
➢ Put a few drops of citronella in your shampoos or on soaps and use this before you go.
➢ Bring some lavender essential oil. Yes, you may smell like a granny but it has natural anti-bacterial and insect repellant qualities. Plus a drop or two on any bites can relieve itchiness.
➢ Tea tree oil or thyme oil on bites also provide relief as natural antiseptics and antimicrobials (and actually can be used on scrapes and cuts to help avoid infections also).
➢ Take your antimalarials without fail. Some countries have over the counter malaria treatments if you think you have contracted malaria, but not all. So be prepared.
➢ Locals may have their own remedies and repellents e.g.tiger balm (however use with caution and with practitioner advice).
➢ Spray up! As eco-friendly as possible of course. But remember that mosquitoes can get used to the same type of repellants so take a range of different products.
➢ You can buy pre-treated hats which are good for up to 30 washes. Then you can treat them yourself. You will still need other forms of repellant though.
⚠ About that mosquito net… if you wish to donate it when you leave, fine. Realize 2 things: some mosquito nets might not end up being used as mosquito nets but as fish hauling nets in some locations. And if your net is treated with permethrin (and most are to protect from malaria-carrying insects) then it can (and will) have devastating poisoning effects on the streams and rivers in the few cases where they are used for fishing. Permethrin belongs to the family of synthetic chemicals called pyrethroids and functions as a neurotoxin, affecting neuron membranes by prolonging sodium channel activation. It is not known to rapidly harm most mammals or birds but is toxic to fish and cats. In cats, it may induce hyper-excitability, tremors, seizures, and death. In general, it has a low mammalian toxicity and is poorly absorbed by the skin. So now that you know: Do not donate them without having some guarantee that you won’t end up being responsible for a local ecological disaster. To be exact, it’s not necessarily a widespread problem but it has happened in Zambia and few other locations. So better safe than sorry – now you know and can evaluate the situation accordingly.
The easy option is to research reputable travel agents and let them do the work for you in finding the cheapest or most efficient routes. However, you will still need to do some homework.
If you’re doing all the flights yourself then check the reputation of the airlines, and always allow yourself enough time to transit. There are many good airline rating sites, and we personally use airlineratings.com, as well as we look at their rating on various travel sites for the sake of cross-checking information.
If you’re traveling to remote places, make sure you know not just the spelling of airports or locations but the airport abbreviation to make sure you arrive at the right destination.
If you are joining a volunteer mission, make sure to ask the organization about best flight routes, and make sure you get that destination airport right.
Things that can go wrong:
✘ Not allowing enough time to transit, especially if it’s a large airport.
✘ Not allowing enough time for security.
✘ Not realizing that your onward flights are from a different airport –In some countries, you may need to travel from the international arrival point to a different local airport.
✘ Not realizing that you need to pick up your bags at transit point –Not all airlines will transfer your bags for you. Always ask at check-in so that you’re prepared.
✘ Not realizing you need a transit visa and having to quickly apply before the flight.
✘ Flight delays and cancellations meaning you can miss your onward flight. You can choose to book all your flights with the same airline which will cover this eventuality.
The same generally applies to booking trains.
As for transfer to hotels, to a project, or other locations in the hosting country: make sure you read about what to do and not, or to ask how to organize your land transportation with the tourist or volunteer organization that you are working with. No 2 cab companies are created equal: Be aware of possible taxi scams depending on your destination, and learn to recognize the ‘good’ ones from the ‘bad’ ones (usually travel guides or sites warn about such situations and give you tips on how to identify them).
What happens when I get there? Will the airport be busy? Will I get picked up?
We’ve heard of lots of people panicking about the ‘what happens next’. It can be a daunting thing especially if you’re traveling alone and your destination is some small airport in a location not many people have heard of and where your language is not really spoken.
So relax, think about what you need to prepare (including your mindset) and then do your preparation:
» Has your agent told you if you’ll be picked up? If yes – make sure you have their contact details written down including local area code.
» If not, can they advise of safe options for transport? Better to pay out a little more for a registered car to meet you than a local bus if you feel unsure.
» Check the local language – will you be able to communicate easily in case of need. Write down a few phrases you might need or take a phrase book.
» Write down all your contact details on paper.
» Take your phone with you – or at least a cheap travel phone so you can buy a local sim card.
» Have some ready local cash on you in case you need to go to a public phone booth. Smaller airports normally have a booth manned in case of local contact needs and will hand over a mobile to use for one-off calls in exchange for a small fee.
» Don’t worry if the car is a little late. It’s usually ‘local time’ which means they don’t aim to be late but that things like traffic, road tolls, airport congestion can make it a problem. A number of times we’ve had to wander up and down the greeting crowd of taxi drivers and other people meeting arrivals peering at signs to see if our names were there it too numerous to mention. You just get used to it and it’s all part of the experience.
» On the topic of taxis – if you have been told you’ll be met then don’t be tempted to jump in a taxi if they are late. They will (a) charge you tourist rates (b) may not be registered and therefore not safe (c) will subject you to ‘stay at my friend’s hotel’ ‘go to this restaurant’ all the way!
⚠ A tip on your bags/ the weight if you are being collected by local staff: Consider how much and how bulky your luggage is. We went to Indonesia one time and were picked up by a staff on a scooter. We had a large backpack and a smaller one which worked out OK with the 2 of us on the scooter and with walking some of the ways due to road surfaces. Another girl later came with 4 or 5 cases (she came with equipment for the staff as she had worked with them before) however it took 3 of us to get her from the main road to the office.
Besides volunteering, you might want to do some exploration on your own and roam around. The easy option is to work with a reputable travel agent and let them find for you the type of accommodation that suits your needs at your destination. However, bear in mind that travel agencies have a set criteria for accommodations they arrange bookings with. There may be other cheaper options that you would be comfortable with.
But these days, many of us rely on the many travel websites to find little that little gem of an accommodation. We prefer the companies who provide online guide services so as to avoid wasting paper. At EwA we are of that kind: we ‘crawl’ the web and look for good customer ratings –e.g., Hotel.com, Booking.com, AirBnB (when available). We key our search with terms such as ecolodge, safety, nature, and cross-validate the results across different sites. Eventually, we interact directly (via email, phone call) with the manager(s) of the hostel/ecolodge/hotel to evaluate the reliability of the place –besides correspondence also creates a more personal connection that is valued in many countries.
Make sure to record and bring with you the accommodation registration number and/or confirmation email/letter.
Even if your trip is all inclusive you will always need a bit of ready cash so check what will be available at the local destinations.
» Local currency:
➢ Check how much you are allowed to take into and take out of the country.
➢ Check if there is a specific date of printing required e.g. Uganda will only take notes printed after 2010; even Hungary won’t take old notes.
➢ Check availability of cash machines in-country.
➢ Check the local economy and the impact on getting money in the country.
⚠ Let’s take the case of Zimbabwe (2016). The situation is a little complex, but in brief, due to exports or money going out of the country there is a physical lack of US dollar availability. So even if you have funds in your account you can’t take the money out of an ATM or a bank as it’s simply not available.
» Bank cards with international symbols for withdrawals.
» Credit cards.
» Specific traveler currency cards such as Caxton. You can limit the amount of money on the card so if it gets lost or stolen you haven’t lost all your funds.
» Traveler’s cheques.
In all cases, ALWAYS allow yourself a range of options, as depending on where you travel, cards and ATMs might not be reliable. And make sure to not leave cash readily accessible (use money belts, etc.)
Remember that in many countries, that tourist or eco-volunteer organizations staff don’t get a great salary. It may not be expected to give tips, and some places might even actively discourage it (as not being a tipping culture). If it is expected, be prepared to tip. Follow the rules strictly. Don’t try to give when it has been said to not tip, this can be seen as extremely rude (and is also a manifestation of a neocolonialist sentiment). If you want to contribute to a better welfare, there are many other ways such as a donation to a school or education of kids, micro-funding of women-led organizations, etc.
There are no hard and fast rules on this. Travel companies provide some guidance depending on your length of stay. And if you are volunteering with an organization, simply ask the organizers.
If tipping is de rigueur, then people to tip might include (amounts vary depending on the country):
➢ Your volunteer manager –anything up to $50 USD for a 2 week trip.
➢ Rangers you’ve spent more time with –$10 to $20 USD each.
➢ Cleaning staff if they have them –$10-$20 USD each.
➢ Local restaurants if you have this opportunity –10% of the bill.
➢ Family you’ve been housed with –anything up to $50 USD for a 2 week stay.