Planning a mission trip to an underdeveloped nation

There are many things you need to know in order to properly plan a short term missions trip to the other side of the world, especially to developing and economically distressed nations. If you are leading a group of people into what can be an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation, you need to be thoroughly prepared every second you are there. You need to have an adequate understanding of the local culture, languages, laws, potential traveling pitfalls, and you must be prepared for any situation that may present itself. The following considerations can serve as a step-by-step checklist for leading your missions trip to ensure maximum success.

Below are some prerequisites before planning the trip:

  1. Have an in-country contact:
    You will want to have someone in the country you are traveling to that can pick you up at the airport and watch out for you while you visit their country, helping you avoid the dangers and pitfalls that only locals will know about. That person should be more than a casual connection or a friend of a friend. Preferably this person will work with your ministry or who somehow has a vested interest in ensuring your groups’ trip is a success. If you do not know anyone in the country you may want to hire a local tour guide. Here are some of the key ways this person will help you:
    1. Help you assess the dangers to avoid: Gang activity, special areas of the city or country to avoid, behaviors that can get you in trouble, or what treatment foreigners can expect in each situation. These are all critical things that you will want to know about. This connection should be able to help you sort out what is a real threat and what is over-hyped. For information about what to look out for in a country, go to the CIA’s nation profile guide or travel.state.gov’s international travel site.
    2. Money and negotiating knowledge. You paid $25 worth of local currency for that one-star hotel, was that a good deal or did you get ripped off because you are American? Having a local connection can help you sort out reasonable price expectations, which is something you will need if you want to plan an entire trip for a group of people.
    3. Feet on the ground: There are many situations both before and during your trip where having a local person on your side is indispensable. They will help solidify your itinerary and work out the details for you in advance. Once you arrive, they will smooth over any unexpected issues that tend to pop up. Who else will negotiate that boda-boda ride you need in order to avoid a 3-hour long car ride in rush hour traffic? Who else will find a different hotel for you after the one you set up cancels your reservation the evening that you are to arrive?
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2.) Visit the country yourself BEFORE you plan the trip.
 What are you doing planning a trip to take other people to this place if you have not visited it yourself? Don’t ever, EVER, (ever!) do that. Any idea that you have of how it’s going to be is just a theory up until you arrive in person and actually experience it for yourself. You need to go there and blaze the trail yourself, figuring out the answers to every question that someone in your country’s shoes might have, and taking notes.
Here is some of the critical information you will acquire experientially: short term missions

  1. Culture Shock: What local things can throw you? Maybe your host eats their food with different manners than you do. Maybe a typical church service lasts 8 to 10 hours. Does your local grocery store have a guard at the entrance with an AK-47? Experiencing these types of things will help you prepare your group so they won’t be as thrown by the experience.
  2. First-hand Preparation: By visiting the country, you will be forced to look up everything needed, such as visa considerations and traveling requirements. What shots do you need? Is your passport current? What is the exchange rate on their currency? What type of hotels and transportation do they have, if any? How much does food cost and what kinds can you expect?

Planning the Trip: So you have met all the prerequisites and you are almost ready to announce that you are leading a team to said country. You are going to want to have the following information together BEFORE you start marketing your trip.

 

**Crucial: You need to announce your trip far enough in advance to give people plenty of time to plan for it in their personal lives and save up and/or fund raise for it. A rule of thumb is that you should announce the trip roughly nine months in advance as a closed invitation and then make an open invitation at six or seven months if any spots still remain.

3.) Legal.
Have a solid contract for your team to sign that will cover you should anything happen. The contract you create should minimally have the following content:

  1. Shared Vision: Sign off on a statement of belief and submission to authority
  2. Medical Considerations: List any medical concerns and/or medications
  3. Risk Waiver: Have each person sign off that you are not accountable for any harm or damages
  4. Financial waiver: Design a payment schedule and communicate which payments are non-refundable. Spell out what happens if the trip gets cancelled/postponed
  5. Non-Substance: No drinking or drug use while on the trip
  6. No romances: No pairing off with locals or within the team
  7. Requirements: Clearly communicate all prerequisites such as passport, visa, any needed shots, insurance, etc.

4.) Itinerary Preparation.
Nobody wants a team leader who acts like they don’t know what’s going on. You need to have a clearly planned itinerary that lays out what everybody will be doing each step of the way. Here are some things your schedule should include:

  1. Have one or two major things planned each day: Activities that span the entire day are great, but it is also good to have two activities that each take up 3-4 hours. Place one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
  2. Plan out each item down to the half hour: If you cannot account for what you will be doing each and every moment of your time there, you haven’t planned enough.
  3. Details: Your schedule should be more detailed than just “Activity 1 – morning” and “Activity 2 – afternoon”. You should lay out exact times and subdivide activities into segments, such as 1. Travel, 2. Set up, 3. Activity, 4. Tear down/clean up, etc. Missing some of the times that you laid out may be unavoidable so you need to stay flexible, but you should at least have a well-planned, well-communicated schedule to aim for each day to keep everyone accountable. 
  4. Don’t overextend your team. Daily plans should include at least 2 reasonable meals, adequate breaks, and 8 hours of sleep every night.
  5. Team Connect Time: Try to leave an hour or two each day to regroup as a team so you can talk, pray together, and connect on upcoming things. It usually works well to have this meeting either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. 
  6. Plan some leisure time into your trips. Avoid burn out, and have some fun with your team by taking them to enjoy some sort of leisure activity. Go see a local attraction, visit some ancient ruins, or go on a safari. Chances are the place you are visiting has some cool things to see and it would be a pity to miss them. Your team deserves a well-earned break, so be sure to include the cost for this in the trip price, if applicable. This is especially true with long trips (more than 10 days)

5.) Budgeting.
Know your costs. You should know the exact hotels you will stay in, how much an average meal costs, what transportation costs are, and what each activity will cost. Look at Step #7 further down this page to determine what to do about the airline costs and other travel considerations.

  1. Clearly define what is covered: Does the cost of your trip include airfare? Does it include all room and board, all meals, and all activities? The more you include, the easier it will be for your team to not worry about such things while there and stay focused on the mission, but that also means you need to have it all taken care of.
  2. Add profit to the overall trip cost: If you are trying to make a profit by taking people on missions trips then you want high mark ups, but even if you are a non-profit, you should still set up the individual trip cost in a way so that after roughly 4-6 people commit to going on the trip, there is enough profit to pay for 1 leader’s trip as well. This is called your “breakeven” point. Some team leaders will cancel the trip and refund initial earnest payments if not enough people have signed up to be on the team. Also, you may want to place an upper limit on the amount of team members that can sign up. That upper limit will be determined by various capacities such as accommodations, transportation, and/or the number of leaders going on the trip.
  3. All money for included items should preferably go directly to you. It can get messy and create liability issues when you have to pass the trip’s finances through someone else’s ministry or church so try to keep it all under yourself if possible (assuming you have your own insured organization). If it goes through some other entity, be sure to have a written agreement in place and regularly check in with them to receive all payments sent through them, and watch out for money transfer fees.
  4. Offer to convert money for the group before the trips starts. If you can convert the money while in America, go for it. The problem is that many developing countries currencies aren’t carried because they are too volatile, so you will need to wait until you are in-country to convert. Check the current exchange rate and try not to lose more than a couple of percentage points in the transaction. Foreign Exchanges at airports can offer convenience and a decent exchange rate so don’t overlook them. Know what the current exchange rate is by visiting iban’s exchange rate page.

    TIP: Bring brand new large bills because your money will often receive lower exchange rates if it is old, wrinkled, small bills.

  5. Have a (cash) slush fund: This should be included in the profit from team members that have paid for the trip. Have extra money on hand for unexpected expenses. It should be cash that you have converted into local currency, an ATM may not be available. Besides, have you ever waited in line at a bank in a developing country? You’ll want to set aside at least an hour or two.

6.) Make all the arrangements.
Book those hotels, tell the pastor of the church you are coming, and collect payments from your team. Some trip leaders leave airfare out of the cost and allow the group to buy plane tickets individually, however, there are benefits to including airfare and traveling together as a group. If you decide to include airfare, be sure to not underestimate the predicted cost of those plane tickets. 

7.) Purchasing Airline tickets.
There are generally two ways you can go on this topic. The first option (and recommended) is to use a travel agent to book your plane tickets. The cost-per-ticket when going through an agent is usually only a little bit more than the market rate, so it is well worth it to allow them to take care of it all. If you decide to go with the second option of booking the tickets yourself, there are too many considerations for this blog to walk you through. It’s certainly doable (we do it every time), but it will take dedication and knowledge to not mess things up. I would recommend reading an eBook about the topic or doing your own research.

8.) Prepare a packing list for your team of must have items.

  1.  Sun Protection: Sunblock is especially important for nations close to the equator. Unless you want members of your team bed-ridden by day number 3, force them to wear sun block. They may think they can handle sunburn or tell you they want to work on their tan, but a solid 12-hour day in the sun with no protection can cause sun poisoning or worse. Trust me on this, don’t let them leave until they SPF-up, or have a shade hat.
  2. Plugin Converters: Remember you will likely need to convert electricity outlets, so buy converters before you leave and confirm which type you will need at this website: World Standards Voltage by Country
  3. Plenty of changes of clothes: Don’t underestimate how much you will sweat and quickly make your clothes sweaty and smelly. Unless you know where a washing machine can be accessed while in country, have your team bring plenty of changes of clothes.
  4. Snacks and water filter: Having a granola bar handy in the event that you all unexpectedly have to skip a meal, and/or lose your appetite, can be a lifesaver. Also, if your team has never visited this country before, they should be aware that there are likely amoebas and bacteria in the water that their body is not used to, so having a filter straw for their water bottle can spare you from some unexpected trips to the toilet.
  5. Bug spray: Bugs are a fact of life, and the country you are traveling to might have many of them, so be sure to have some good protection against those pesky mosquitoes.
  6. Medical Insurance: I would suggest making insurance something that your team takes care of individually as you are not responsible for their health and safety. Everything done while on the trip is “do at your own risk” (it’s right there in the contract, right?). Still, it can be very helpful to have some good suggestions for your team on how to get travelers insurance coverage while they are traveling with you. We would recommend Safety Wing, they provide insurance to just about every country you can imagine, and their rates aren’t too bad either. For example, getting $250k worth of coverage ($250 deductible) for 10 days in Africa for a 35-year-old man is less than $14. Not too bad for that kind of peace of mind.

    TIP: If you plan on rehearsing through ministry programs and plans that will be carried out, then be sure to meet regularly with your team before the trip. If there is no specific rehearsing to do, then be sure to meet at least one time with your team as a group a month or two before you leave. Have some ice-breakers to get to know one another, go through the itinerary, and pray together – you’ll be glad you did! This is also the time to confirm everybody already has their passport, visa, shots, and all other requirements needed for this trip.


    The final ingredient to leading a mission trip? A good attitude.

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