Four ways to do good while traveling

At a pretty early stage in my life I noticed that I want to do more than travel around and be a tourist. I didn’t just want go to a country, have a good time, use lots of resources and then leave after one or two weeks. It felt much better to contribute in some way apart from spending money. Here are four ways for you to do good while traveling and make your trip much more meaningful.

The following four ways to do good while traveling give you the chance to get socially involved and make your journey much more meaningful. You also get a better insight into the culture and can connect with locals.

1 Join a volunteer activity

There are plenty of ways to become a volunteer on your trip. Volunteering basically means to help out in a project either every day or depending on when there is help needed. There is no payment – you gift your time and hand. Volunteer can mean supporting an animal shelter but it can also be building a garden/home or go on plastic clean ups.

Read more about my previous volunteering experiences and get inspired!

The first few days in a volunteer program for me were usually demanding and often I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. On my first day at Pete’s Mission in Pai, Thailand for example I was overwhelmed when I met the wheelchair dogs for the first time. Or when I saw dogs that just came to the shelter with terrible wounds. Don’t be afraid of these feelings! It’s absolutely normal as you’re getting out of your comfort zone and facing a new challenge. What also comes with this experience though is growth and knowledge. First you make baby steps and get used to the people/animals and tasks. But with time you’ll develop a routine and sooner than you think you find yourself introducing new volunteers and explaining them all the processes.

Volunteering at PACS Koh Phangan
Volunteering at Phangan Animal Rescue for Strays
Koh Tao Puppy looking at me
Seeing these animals happy is the best reward
How to find a volunteer activity:
  • Go with an organization that combines a trip with volunteer activities: In fact, when I started solo traveling I always spent the first few weeks in an organized volunteer program to get used to the country and to meet new people. It made the whole arrival and solo travel after smoother. I volunteered in a school in Bali with Auszeit Weltweit and learned heaps about the culture and language. It made me much more aware of how to behave and be respectful in other cultures.
  • Do some research and find a local project: Once you’re at your destination just google “Volunteer [Koh Tao]” and you will probably find a few local projects where you can help out.
  • Have a look at websites like workaway to find volunteer programs in exchange for accommodation and food.

You don’t really have time to volunteer but still want to help?
Become a flight volunteer and take an animal to its future home!

2 Reduce & remove plastic waste

Reducing plastic waste can be done every day during your trip. But it does take some effort! Especially when traveling to countries where it is very popular and almost unavoidable. Even I thought sometimes that it doesn’t matter whether I reduce my plastic use or not. Driving past so much trash on the side of the roads, watching people not caring about littering at all, seeing hotels packing cutlery into plastic foil … aren’t they all aware of the plastic problem in this world? It made me sad and discouraged me to make a difference.

But then on the other hand, people joined me when I started picking up trash on beaches. I inspired others to buy reusable mugs and straws. We created a clean up group while I was staying on Koh Tao to remove plastic waste from the island. Even though the change one person can make seems to be quite small in the beginning, it can have a huge impact!

Monkey see, monkey do. By reducing your plastic waste and sometimes helping to remove the waste on streets and beaches you inspire people to do so as well! This is where the huge impact starts and you cause a chain reaction. It does require effort – to bring a straw or mug with you – but it helps a lot. I saw mountains of trash while traveling and realized that some countries just can’t cope with all the litter.

Enjoying sunset at Zen Beach, Koh Phangan with reusable mug
Bringing my reusable mug everywhere
Reusable straws in cafes in Pai
Reusable straws can be used in cafes as well

To give you some ideas on how to reduce your plastic waste while traveling:

  • Say no to plastic bags – bring your own! If you do get a plastic bag, try to reuse it as often as possible.
  • Buy your own metal/bamboo/glass straw and put it in your every day bag.
  • Bring your own reusable bottle or mug. With Trash Hero you can get free refills all over the world.
  • If you get some plastic cutlery don’t throw it away, reuse it!

In situations where I can’t avoid to have something wrapped in plastic I try to reuse it. I still have my “biodegradable” plastic spoon from three years ago with me and use it whenever I don’t have cutlery with me. On a plane I say no to the plastic cup and ask them to fill it into my mug instead. With a little creativity there are plenty of ways to reduce plastic waste. And what might seem exaggerated and dumb in the beginning can start a bigger movement at a later point. I mean, how did reusable straws or mugs become popular in the first place? Be the inspiration and change you want to see in the world!

3 Do some research before your trip!

By doing some proper research before your trip you can act more respectful and kind in a foreign culture. Why bother? Because you won’t leave a bad impression and make the locals think good of tourists instead of being annoyed by them.

Doing research means inform yourself about the culture, specific problems in that country and how to behave and dress in a respectful way. You’re a guest in another country so behave as if you were visiting someone for the first time.

temple outfit Thailand
What an outfit to go to a temple can look like: Covered shoulders, chest and long skirt

This is so important because sometimes we forget that normal behaviour in our culture can be insulting in others. To give you some examples:

  • Pointing your feet at someone or putting your feet on a chair or table are considered extremely rude in Thailand. For many of us? Totally normal.
  • Kissing and hugging your partner on streets or in restaurants? It’s not really polite in most South East Asian countries to express private affection in public.
  • Whenever you go to a holy place like a temple make sure to cover up your sholders, chest and knees. Otherwise you won’t be allowed in.

These are just three out of many examples we might not know without doing proper research beforehand. Making sure you consider the local do’s and dont’s is a very respectful and polite way to go around the world.

4 Save resources

Last but not least you can do good by saving resources like: water, plastic, food and energy. In the Western world we don’t even question having water, electricity and lots of food – it’s always there. Which almost draws a wrong picture, as these resources are precious and shouldn’t be wasted. No matter in which country you are.

Even more important it is though to save resources in countries where the access to water and electriticy is more restricted. Maybe start asking yourself these questions regularly:

  • Do I really need to take a 5-10 minutes long shower?
  • Do I really need to order more food than I can eat just because it’s cheap?
  • Is it necessary to buy bottled water or could I rather invest in a refillable bottle?
  • Does the AC have to be on? And if yes, did I make sure to close all windows and only use it until the room cooled down?

It helps to question your behaviour and whether you really need certain things or at least to a specific extent. Especially when you’re on islands just remember that they probably have water delivered from the mainland and the powerplant is using fuel to run. The more you use, the more they need to produce.

It’s about the small steps

These four ways to do good while traveling are probably only a few out of many. If you have more ideas please share them in the comments below! Try to make baby steps to become a bit more aware of other cultures and resources. Especially through volunteering you’ll also get an insight into the local challenges and ways of thinking. First it might be a drop in the ocean but small steps will be one big step after a while. It’s about inspiring others as well!

One might argue to have the best impact you could also stay home and focus on local projects. Yes, why not? But: People have traveled a lot and will probably continue doing that. What a great positive impact we could all have though if each of us tried to do a little good while traveling.

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