How to travel the world for less: Everything you need to know about work exchange
In 2019 and early 2020 (remember pre-pandemic life?), I was lucky enough to spend six months travelling in Italy without spending a single dime on accommodation. Sounds impossible, right? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not.
If you’re looking to travel for an extended period of time without spending a fortune on expensive accommodation options, work exchange could be a perfect fit for you.
What is work exchange?
The basic premise of work exchange is that you work a few hours a day, usually no more than four or five, in exchange for accommodation and food.
A host or host family will give you a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head for a pre-arranged period of time. Some travellers stay for a week or two, while some hosts prefer longer stays — it’s not unheard of to stay somewhere for over a year.
There are numerous online platforms to help you. Use them to connect with hosts who are looking for various types of help and are willing to house and feed you.
What work can I do?
There are so many hosts looking for different help that most volunteers can find something they enjoy doing.
If you’re a native English speaker, you’ll easily find families across Europe and Asia looking for people to spend a few hours a day talking to their children to help them learn English. This is a great option if you want to become an English teacher in a foreign country, as you’ll get some practical experience under your belt.
If that doesn’t appeal, there are hundreds of hosts looking for help on eco-projects, farms and other outdoor activities. You could be planting or harvesting vegetables, chopping up and hauling firewood, or looking after farm animals.
Other hosts are looking for a cultural exchange and help around the house — cooking, cleaning and other general chores. If you’ve got local knowledge about a country they’re interested in, you can teach them what they need to know and learn from them at the same time.
How can I find hosts?
In days gone by, you could probably find people willing to let you stay at their home in exchange for work simply by knocking on a few doors. This still works well for some people, but there are obvious risks involved.
The best way to find hosts willing to accept travellers into their homes is to sign up for a work exchange website. There are many good options to choose from: Workaway, HelpX, Working Traveller, HelpStay, Hippohelp and WWOOF (this is all organic farm work).
Signing up to one of these sites usually involves a yearly fee, but it’s a small price to pay to get access to a whole year’s worth of free accommodation.
Once you’ve signed up, make a profile to tell potential hosts a bit more about you. What do you want to help with? Where and when are you planning to travel, and for how long? Do you have language skills? Are you experienced at working outdoors? This is your chance to show off your skills and personality and to give potential hosts the chance to get to know you.
Once you’ve done this, you can start looking for places to stay. Hosts also create profiles to tell you what they’re looking for and what availability they have. Message hosts that appeal to you and start organising your trip — it’s that easy.
Is it safe?
As with all travel, there are a few risks involved. Obviously, the very concept of help exchange is that you’re staying with strangers, so make sure you take the proper precautions.
Most help exchange sites work with a review system, so you can read what previous volunteers have said about their hosts. If a host has any negative reviews, you should carefully consider whether or not you want to risk a trip there.
Here are some other tips to help you keep safe on your work exchange trip:
· Message the host a few times to get a feel for them. Are they happy to answer your questions? If not, they might not be the right choice.
· Look at the location of your potential host’s house. Are they close to public transport options if you need to leave all of a sudden?
· Tell friends or family where you’ll be staying — an exact address is helpful here.
Be smart about it. If you don’t get a good vibe from someone, it’s not worth running the risk.
Will I get paid?
The short answer to this question is no.
Work exchange platforms are all about providing travellers with free accommodation in exchange for a few hours of hard work. The whole point for many is that it’s a fair exchange: you’ll be swapping work for food and accommodation, but you’ll also exchange stories and learn about other cultures. This means that money doesn’t normally come into it.
There are some hosts that are happy to pay people who come to help them, but they often expect visitors to work longer hours (more of a 9-to-5 situation) and to have some relevant experience.
When you’re messaging potential hosts, it’s a good idea to be upfront and honest about what you expect, and to ask what they expect from you in return. How many hours will you be expected to work? Will you be provided with all, some or none of your meals? Will you have your own bedroom?
Getting this information before you go will mean you avoid any nasty surprises once you arrive.
Is it worth it?
Work exchange is an amazing way to travel for less. Accommodation is usually one of the biggest costs associated with long- and short-term travel, and avoiding this means you’ll be able to travel for longer.
Sure, your weekdays might be taken up with a few hours of work, but you’ll be gaining invaluable experience of a country and its people. Most work exchange volunteers have weekends free to explore the area around their host family’s home, and it’s a great opportunity to create lifelong friendships.
It doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re open to new experiences, it’s fantastic.