By JACLYN SNOW
If you’ve always wondered how so many young people afford extended travel, look no further for your answer than here! In my last article I wrote about how to travel for free doing work exchange (or “volunteer-for-stay”), by which you exchange your services for free accommodation and meals while you travel, and gain an incredible cultural experience in the meantime. Now that you have an understanding of how to use work exchange to travel and the best websites to find these opportunities, we can go more in depth on the topic. This article will tell you the most popular types of work exchange available, mine and other travelers’ personal experiences with these types of exchanges, and also note a few ethical considerations in using work exchange to travel for free.
Travel for Free with the Top 5 Types of Work-Exchange!
Home-stays: A home-stay is an arrangement where a traveler is invited to stay in a family’s home and share their meals in exchange for providing some type of service. Depending on the arrangement, the travelers’ responsibilities may include child care, pet care, preparing meals or cleaning. Many families are also eager to host travelers just to help them practice or learn a language!
I enjoyed a two-week home-stay in Italy with a family in April 2016 where I had the opportunity to take day trips all over the country, as long as I was home in the evening to help the family practice English over dinner conversation, and tutor one of the children for an hour a day. I was not responsible for any cooking or cleaning (although I helped as much as they let me), but they valued my presence because I helped them practice a language which is becoming increasingly important in a competitive work environment.
Walking along the ancient city ramparts with the family I worked for in Spain.
Later in the year I spent three weeks with a family in a small town an hour north of Barcelona, Spain. I had the days to myself until I picked the children up from their summer camp down the street, cooked lunch, and spent time playing and practicing English until their parents returned home. It was an especially interesting cultural experience for me because their native language was Catalan, I only know un poco de Español, and the family had little practice speaking English before they hosted me. I was free in the evenings, but my host family was kind to introduce me to their friends and invite me on their many social outings. One weekend my host family went out of town, and I was invited to go with their friends on a stunning boat trip up the coast of Costa Brava. I loved my home-stay experiences and would recommend them to any traveler who wants to immerse themselves in authentic local culture while spending little to no money.
Hostels and Hotels: Many hostels and hotels are happy to provide travelers with food and accommodation for a few weeks up to a few months in return for 20-25 hours of work a week. Smaller hostels may just have a bed available in a dormitory for travelers who will help with cleaning, while bigger hostels offer a variety of positions including receptionist, web developer, social media manager, party promoter, bartender, cook and/or cleaner. Doing work-exchange at a hotel may be more quiet and provide you with your own room, while working for accommodation at hostels is best for energetic and sociable travelers who want to stay in a lively and fun environment. I stayed at many hostels during the 14 months that I backpacked, and at least a quarter of them had people living there in exchange for work. Very rarely did I meet people who felt overworked in these positions, and most of them loved the experience most for the friends they made while working there. Sam Harrison, a young French traveling writer, had a wonderful experience doing work-exchange at a hostel in Buenos Aires. She says, “I volunteered at a hostel for 3 months in 2014. I worked at reception, set up breakfast, did some laundry and helped the guests out with any questions. I also covered two night shifts a week, where I was the one responsible for waking up and letting guests in or out if they checked out between midnight and 8am. It was a great experience, and 3 years later I’m still friends with some of the people who worked there with me.”
Farm-stays: Organic and non-organic farms all around the world offer opportunities for travelers to live and work on their farms. Travelers are expected to help with farm tasks such as caring for the animals, gardening, harvesting, cleaning, cooking, and sometimes specialized tasks such as building, carpentry, or helping to create an irrigation system. Work is usually 4-6 hours for five days of the week, and in return the traveler is provided with all meals, a warm bed, an immersive cultural experience, and the opportunity to learn about anything from eco-practices to power-tools.
This is the cabin built and lived in by volunteers at the farm where I worked in Bosnia.
I never thought I was the type of person capable of farm work, but in February 2016 I accepted a volunteer position at an organic farm in Bosnia. I lived in a two-story log cabin (which had been built by volunteers before us) with three other volunteers, and we all worked together to take care of the three stallions, 50 chickens and 40 black boars, in addition to cleaning the main house, building additions to the farm, and taking care of the greenhouse. In the evenings we would enjoy family meals, sing and play instruments, watch movies from a big projector, and in our time off we were free to ride the horses, explore the property, and take weekend trips together to awesome nearby cities where we were given suggestions of what to do and offered a place to stay if our farm hosts had family who lived there. During my farm-stay I learned so much about Bosnian history and culture, how to care for animals and organic farmland, how to cook delicious Bosnian dishes, how to safely use power-tools to build, and I left feeling that I had gained many practical life skills and a great sense of empowerment that I am capable of accomplishing anything I set my mind to. Read more here about my transformative farm-stay experience.
Language Programs: Many language immersion programs around the world offer free housing, meals, and amenities in exchange for a week of basically socializing with interesting people in your own native language. Many business professionals, ambitious young people, and people working toward moving to a foreign country will sign up for programs where they can practice a foreign language consistently by spending time talking to people for whom it’s their native language. Some of these programs house travelers in upscale hotels where they are expected to spend a certain number of hours per day speaking with guests in the program. Others are hosted at fairly isolated resorts with a group of locals matched with an equal number of volunteers who spend a full week on what feels like a paid vacation except for the regimented social schedule.
View of a nearby village from the English immersion program I did in Romania.
I completed three weeks of English immersion programs, one in Prahova, Romania in March 2016, and the rest with in La Alberca, Spain in July 2016. Both programs had luxury accommodation, hearty gourmet meals of local cuisine (the one in Spain included unlimited local wine as well), access to a swimming pool, castles and incredible landscape within a close range, and optional parties on many nights. My absolute favorite part of these programs was really taking the time to talk to people deeply and without judgement, exchanging our cultures, stories, hopes, fears, beliefs, and humor with a group of phenomenal people who impacted my life in a beautiful way that I will never forget. I had some of the best travel experiences imaginable on these programs without even spending a dollar.
Animal Care Stays: A great deal of animal rescue facilities, sanctuaries, and rehabilitation centers seek volunteers to help with the work in return for lodging, sometimes food, and a fulfilling experience helping animals. Many of these organizations are dedicated to helping animals who are injured, would be hunted or poached, or are suffering in the wild due to the human impact on their habitats. The traveler’s responsibilities in this position may include feeding, bathing, and cleaning up after the animals, maintaining a healthy environment for them, and sometimes cooking for the staff or doing social media marketing to raise funds or spread awareness.
American author and animal enthusiast Maggie Grimason shared her meaningful experience when she pursued this opportunity. “I spent a summer volunteering at [a] Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island in 2015. During that time I was involved in all manner of wildlife care as they recuperated from (usually) human-caused injuries. I hand fed songbirds and taught harbor seals to eat fish, picked up injured eagles on the side of the road and cleaned the pens of otters. This experience taught me keen judgment, time management skills and the importance of efficiency and self-confidence, not to mention deepened my appreciation of the wonder of the natural world.”
A Note on Ethics: When sorting through the many work-travel opportunities available, I believe it is important for travelers to be aware of certain ethical issues. I invite you to do your own research, but here are a few points that I recommend taking into consideration.
– Check the regional unemployment rate, especially in the case of accommodation businesses or in work-exchanges that expect volunteers to do serious building and carpentry. Ask yourself whether the work you’d be doing for free could be done just as well or better by an unemployed local. Examine the possibility that by doing this work for free, you may be taking paid jobs away from skilled local workers.
– If you want to do a work exchange that has you working closely for many hours with young children, find out how frequently volunteers cycle through the program, and whether the children become very attached to the volunteer caregivers. It can cause serious attachment issues for children to become attached to caregiver after caregiver who only stay a short time.
– Carefully research animal rescues and sanctuaries before choosing one to volunteer. Many of these places really are incredible, but some seem great until you get there and realize that the animals are treated poorly and used for tourism.
– As I always encourage in my posts, do your research and look for reviews from other travelers before committing to any opportunity!
There are so many amazing opportunities to travel for free by doing work-exchange (or “volunteer-for-stay”) that make travel accessible on a shoestring budget, whether you are planning a week vacation or a year sabbatical. Stay tuned for my next article featuring some incredible work-exchange opportunities for free travel!