12/10/2012 13:24 BST | Updated 12/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Why Volunteering Abroad Shouldn't Cost the Earth

For many students, spending a period of time volunteering abroad seems like a uniquely attractive prospect. Whether it's a gap year spent working with the poor in Africa or a couple of months in Eastern European orphanages, volunteering is a great way to gain important life skills and do some good in the world at the same time. It's perhaps unsurprising then that so many companies now cater for this growing market, but what is surprising is the extortionately high cost of participating in placements like this.

A simple internet search brings up thousands of volunteering opportunities. For a two week placement in Thailand building classrooms you could be looking at spending £699, which doesn't include flights, food or even a ride back to the airport when you've finished. Of course as with anything it does pay to shop around. The next company in the search results which specialises in projects in Africa charges a £125 "booking fee" plus £115 per week to work with street kids in Kenya. Again, this doesn't include flights, visa costs, insurance, transfers or all of your meals. A more cynical person might wonder where all this money actually goes.

So why exactly is it all so expensive? At the end of the day these organisations, like any businesses, exist to make money and the service they provide is undoubtedly a good one. Many people are nervous of travelling alone to unknown continents, so it's much more reassuring to have someone organise it all for you, meet people before you go, and know that if there are any problems, there's someone to call. That's understandable, but you can't help but feel these companies are taking advantage of genuine young people who want to make a difference to those less fortunate than themselves. How on earth can it cost so much to stay in a country where most people live way below the breadline? If housing is so cheap, and you can get a good meal a day for 50p, where did this £699 come from? The need to cover your own costs is undeniable, the locals shouldn't have to pay for you to be there, that's not the point of volunteering, but there's a line between paying your way and lining the pockets of an internationally based agency.

More and more people are beginning to despair at the exorbitant costs of volunteering abroad. Is wanting to donate your time and skills to a worthwhile project without paying any more than you have to such a ridiculous idea? After all, you are working for free. There are lots of people who feel this way, and we're starting to see former volunteers setting up their own organisations aimed at enabling young people to volunteer around the globe without it costing them an arm and a leg. Idealist, an American based organisation funded by donations and grants, aims to create a world where "every person who wants to help another has the ability to do so". They provide links to volunteering opportunities from every corner of the globe, and while some do charge a fee, there are literally thousands which don't.

Idealist aren't the only ones to offer this service though, Help Exchange (or Help X as it's known) offers free volunteer work overseas in exchange for room and board. These tend to be less typical placements than you might associate with gap year volunteering (lots of farms and hostels), but for people looking to travel inexpensively, it's a gold mine of opportunities. All volunteering placements are reviewed by people who have already stayed there and you're given the hosts contact details so you can get in touch before agreeing to anything. All you have to do is make your way out there. Although in some extremely poor countries it's not unheard for the hosts to ask to a small daily contribution towards the cost of having you, it's nowhere near what the mainstream agencies charge.

The sheer cost of volunteering overseas puts many young people off, but with free volunteering organisations everyone's a winner. The charity or project gets an enthusiastic young person and the volunteer only has to pay the actual costs of their placement. As someone who has participated in a free volunteer program, I can assure you that it's incredibly satisfying. Not only that, but because I didn't have to spend my life savings on the trip, I'll definitely be doing it again next summer, the only question is where.