Last Updated April, 2020
Are you looking to travel around the USA on a budget? Would you like to do some work in exchange for housing, food and often travel? I would love to share how Mark and I did that while having volunteer holidays and traveling through a few states.
For the first time I learned about volunteer holidays was two years ago. My friend from Ukraine shared how she got to see the United States on a budget. Listening to her stories made me think that she has seen and experienced more of America during her 8 visits than I did during my 8 years in the country.
She volunteered in 6 different states and in the end, after finishing each project, she traveled around for a few more weeks.
Volunteering in America on your vacation or holidays is a great way to see the United States on a budget while getting acquainted with the culture, way of living and country in general. It is free to apply (except a really small fee for registration) and the entire process is very straightforward.
The volunteering opportunities I am talking about do not include third parties that ask for insanely high amounts of money for their services or big companies that basically look for free labor.
I am talking about the websites that connect volunteers and hosts. You may have heard about some (or all) of these sources or maybe not. In any case, I‘d like to share how my experience with them was and hopefully it will help you have a wonderful trip too, make a difference and save money.
Why Consider Volunteer Holidays in the USA?
To See a Different Side of America
When you book a hotel or Airbnb room, rent a car and go to all major tourist attractions, you get to see only one side of America.
There is nothing bad about this type of travel but it doesn’t let you immerse in the culture, learn American traditions and get to know the country from within. Usually, as a tourist, you hop from one place to another and cover only the main attractions. You don’t really get to interact with locals, learn how life is and see hidden gems.
Even if you are an American who lives on the East Coast, try at least once to spend your vacation or holidays volunteering in the North, West or South. You’ll be surprised how much there is to learn about your own country.
To Learn More About Daily American Life
After living on three different continents and working with individuals from different countries, I learned that people around the world see America in pretty much the same way.
Perhaps because of Hollywood or media, the majority envisions that every American has as a house in the picture-perfect neighborhood, drives the newest car, lives in malls, and from time to time goes on cool road trips.
This is true to the extent. For some people, it is the reality. But there are also others – those who live in apartments, grow vegetables in the backyard of their home, have chickens, cows and lead a lifestyle that many people around the world do.
If you come to spend your volunteer holidays in the U.S., you’ll be able to see it for yourself and hang out around those people, see what they are up to, how a typical day for them looks like and what values they have.
To Save Money and See More
Usually, hosts who look for volunteers to come and help them with a project provide room and board. Sometimes they also offer a bike, canoe and in rare cases a car.
Helping only a few hours a day and having all the main expenses covered helps you save or, if you wish, spend extra on car rental, tours, and activities.
You can devote one week to one place and then two other weeks somewhere else. Or you may simply spend the entire vacation time in one place, exploring one region in detail.
We used to combine volunteering with couchsurfing. It was helping us to travel America on a budget. And we got to see more too.
How Can You Find Volunteer Projects in America?
There are a lot of various websites that connect hosts with helpers. Here is the list of sites we personally tested, used, and recommend with confidence:
For us personally, helpx.net has become our favorite source. It offers various possibilities on anything from gardening and farming to building, childcare, teaching and cooking assistance. Other sites are mainly concentrated on farming and gardening.
We don’t mind being in a garden, planting, weeding or taking care of flowers but at the same time, we enjoy various and unique tasks. So helpx worked a bit better for us, although we registered on all sites and through them found volunteering projects in other countries.
If you register on each website you’ll have access to more opportunities and secure something faster.
Our Experience When Having Volunteer Holidays in the USA
In the USA, Mark and I volunteered in three different states and in each of them performed rather unique tasks. Each place was special, taught us some new skills and left a huge impact on our life.
Now, looking back in the past, both of us can tell with confidence that we don’t mind returning and volunteering there again. If you are looking for some ideas where to go to volunteer in the States and find the projects we worked on interesting, feel free to contact hosts. I am going to leave the details below.
Volunteering in Exchange For Accommodation & Food in Utah State: Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple
When together with Mark we started our big journey in April 2017, we planned at first to travel for a few months through the USA and Canada. And only then leave the North America continent. So the first project we planned to do was in Utah. And our experience there changed the way we perceive some things in life.
I personally was never interested in visiting India until the moment I got a chance to volunteer in Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah.
There, for three weeks we were living on premises of the temple in a semi-rural environment while helping for about 4-5 hours a day five days a week and learning about Krishna movement, practices, and beliefs.
Work was easy and truly enjoyable. And it differed from day to day.
Overall, our tasks included feeding animals, building a barn for llamas, helping prepare Indian vegetarian dishes and planting a vegetable garden.
Comfortable accommodation along with all meals was provided. The food (only vegan) was very delicious, the house we lived in was comfortable and had a uniquely relaxing atmosphere. The entire territory was beautiful with mountains surrounding the temple from all sides.
Even if you don’t come to volunteer here but visit Salt Lake City area, add Krishna Temple to your itinerary list. It is open to the public on a daily basis, offers educational programs to families, vegetarian buffet for a symbolic price and beautiful grounds where you can walk and see the animals.
For more details about the project, check host’s listing.
Volunteering in Oregon: Restoration of Victorian House
Another unique and probably once in a lifetime experience awaited on us in Portland, Oregon. There, we were helping a family with the restoration of the 1890 Victorian cottage.
Our duties included woodwork, general carpentry, landscaping, painting inside and outside the house and occasionally mowing the grass. For the first time in my life I learned how to cut the wood and Mark learned how to tile a bathroom floor.
We worked alongside our host 3-4 hours a day and had two days off. Our hosts, Roy and Kim, were so generous with time letting us work less and spend more time in the city or hiking.
In exchange for our work, we stayed in another Victorian home with a gorgeous private bedroom, shared with hosts’ sons’ bathroom, and had all meals provided by hosts. Roy often went on many hikes with us, shared meals and told many interesting stories.
Not so often you get a chance to live in a Victorian house. Volunteering for two weeks in Portland provides this opportunity and helps to understand how people lived during the ruling of Queen Victoria I.
We got so lucky to reserve a spot there for the month of June. Usually, the summer is fully booked, even if checking in advance.
If you are interested, take a look at this project here. I saw a few more opportunities in New Orleans, California and Louisiana that offered volunteering in exchange for housing in Victorian home. Make sure to check those states too.
Our Volunteering Holidays in Washington State: Helping an Elder Couple with Home Care
From Oregon, we continued our adventure and went to the North to a small town of Bellingham in Washington state. Volunteering there was so different from the two previous projects.
In Bellingham, we came for two weeks to stay with an elderly couple and help them with home chores.
None of us can call this experience a type of work or volunteering. It just felt like being in someone’s house and helping hosts with tasks that we usually do in our own home.
One day we were cooking, another one weeding the garden and the following day attaching mosquito nets on the windows. There were days when we were just spending time together, discussing various topics, playing games or helping with computer-related questions.
In total, we “worked” 3 hours a day and had tons of spare time to explore the area. In exchange, our hosts Lee and Rick gave us a private bedroom with bathroom and covered all the meals.
It was such a pleasure to spend 2 weeks with two wonderful people in a beautiful, cozy town. We even managed to visit Vancouver two times during our stay.
What to Know When Planning to Spend Volunteer Vacation in the USA
1. Your working hours should not be exceeding 25 hours per week
By the rule, you should work between 20-25 hours per week and have at least one full day off. However, some hosts do not bother to follow it through and ask to work 35-40 hours per week. At the same time they even refuse to provide any food.
This is so wrong. There are a lot of responsible hosts around America who take good care of their volunteers.
Never apply for projects where you’ll be more like an employee who is offering free labor. It would be much better to find a job that lets you travel instead of working for free. If someone wants you to do all the hard work and not give something back in exchange, that’s not right.
Also, your work is never really an independent assignment where hosts expect you to know every detail. It is more like the help and exchange program.
2. Discuss everything in advance and, if possible, through email
If the host didn’t mention a word about what he offers in exchange for a few hours of help (which is odd,) definitely discuss the details through the email. In this case, if later he/she won’t deliver on what was promised, you have proof.
As a matter of fact, hosts who invite volunteers, for the most part, try to do their best to make you feel comfortable and enjoy your time. But sometimes, hosts have different expectations from this program and want to take advantage of others.
It happens very rarely but it does happen. So make sure to ask every question that interests you beforehand.
3. If going to volunteer in remote areas, you do need to have a car
The only place where you do not need a car in the U.S. is a big city. But even then, all the beauty lays outside it.
If you are planning to spend a few weeks of your vacation volunteering at one place in the middle of God knows where, then spend money on renting a car. Being in or around the house is fascinating but chances are that your host lives not far from a beautiful canyon or waterfall.
And you are coming to travel and see the natural wonders of America. If you are already living in the U.S., chances are that you have a car. If you can, don’t fly but drive to the place where you’ll be volunteering.
During all our volunteering holidays we had a car with us. This is why we explored so much. For instance, some of the remote spots I am talking about in my post about summer destinations that have snow have been found during the time when we volunteered.
If you’ll choose this volunteering route, you’ll save money on food and accommodation anyway. Renting a car, if you don’t have your own, will open up a totally different world for ya. Even if going to live in a city, get a car for at least a few days.
By the way, we personally use EasyRentCars. They have amazing deals, great customer support, good features (like points, price matching, cash backs, etc.) and price drop automatic rebookings. We have booked through them a car in Spain, Montenegro and in the USA and couldn’t be happier.
4. Use your words wisely when going through customs.
If you are not American and thinking to find volunteering opportunities in the States (or Canada) through the websites I recommend (or similar to them) and coming on a tourist visa, do not mention it on the border.
If you are an American going to Canada (or vice versa,) I still don’t recommend saying that on the border too. You don’t need a visa, yes, but officers still ask a lot of questions and they simply won’t understand what you mean when saying you are going to volunteer.
One of our hosts told us that one guy was not allowed into the country after mentioning that the purpose of his visit was volunteering. Apparently, the border patrol says that everyone who comes to “volunteer” or do any work in exchange for accommodation, food or travel, is supposed to get a special type of visa.
I am not encouraging you to lie (and you won’t,) but be careful with phrasing. Sometimes your best intention may cause the worst outcome.
Technically speaking, you are not really coming to volunteer. It is called “volunteering” but in reality, this entire experience is more like an exchange program. Plus, you may be coming just for a few days or a week before you actually go to travel.
Officers never go in details and don’t bother to find out that this is a vacation with a cultural exchange. It doesn’t matter to them. Once they hear a word “volunteering” they assume you are coming through organization and must have a special type of visa and invitation.
Definitely mention where you are going to stay and where you plan to be. Just be wise when choosing words.
Some of these websites have also plenty of opportunities in other countries around the world. However, we personally didn’t have a pleasant experience, so I can’t speak of that. If you did and can share how it was for you, please do!
Did you have any similar experience? Do you have any questions on this topic? In any case, I’d love to hear from you, so don’t be shy to drop a comment!
Here are a few posts that may be useful if you are thinking to go to travel long-term: