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How to Travel for Free as a Volunteer

Would you like to fit more travel into your budget? Experience a closer connection with the local culture? Make a difference in a far-flung corner of the world? Volunteering might just be the perfect option for you!

Sing for your supper

This article I’m going to focus specifically on opportunities where you are working in exchange for free lodging (and sometimes food).

There’s another kind of “voluntourism” where the guest pays the host for the opportunity to volunteer. I totally understand why this exists, and I don’t think it’s unethical to ask the volunteers to pay in some scenarios. What organizations need most is money, but what “helpers” want is to come onsite and interact with the mission (especially if that mission involves monkeys, dolphins, gorgeous scenery, etc). Untrained, short-term volunteers can’t always contribute much, and they have to be housed, fed, trained, supervised, transported around, etc. Charging them and combining your mission with a sort of volunteer hostel program makes loads of sense and I’m not against it.

But that’s not what this article is about! Opportunities to connect with locals and score free room and board are plentiful in the world if you’re willing to commit to a slightly longer stay — and especially if you’re bringing some skills and experience.

WWOOFFING: Farm work is a popular choice for young people who believe in sustainable agriculture and don’t mind getting their hands dirty. WWOOFFing doesn’t require any special skills and opportunities are spread around the globe.

Workaway is a crowdsourcing site that lets just about anyone list an opportunity, and the assortment is staggering. Would you like to paint a mural at a hostel, be a nanny for an English-speaking family abroad, help a new tourism business with their marketing, work the front desk at a hostel, help restore historic architecture, or work on a vineyard? Workaway has all these opportunities — and so many more!

The site charges $42/year or $54/couple to register. Hosts are expected to provide lodging in exchange for 5 hours of work, 5 days a week, so you should have some time to explore and enjoy yourself.

HelpX is a similar site to Workaway, which focuses on farming and hospitality industries. It’s a little cheaper to register (20 euros) but the site doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities as Workaway.

How to vet your opportunity

The real goal of most volunteers and their hosts is cultural exchange, and friendships often form in these situations. If one of your dreams as a traveler is to get on eye-level with the locals and learn more about their world, this is a great way to become an insider.

However, Workaway doesn’t really vet their opportunities — almost anyone can create a listing. So you’ll need to do a little work at your end to check out your host. Keep in mind that people hesitate to leave negative reviews for a person they’ve spent a lot of time with, so hold out for glowing enthusiasm rather than a half-hearted positive review. When you communicate with potential hosts, you can forgive language issues, but they should be polite, professional, and respectful. I like to right-click on photos in the listing and “search google for this image” to see if I can find other sources of info

What’s it really like?

I’ve had three notable experiences, all with Workaway. They ran the full range from good to bad to ugly.

The ugly: First, I communicated with someone in Jordan who wanted help with his desert tourism business. He didn’t have many reviews, so I had to research on my own. After I learned the name of the business, I was able to find some blog posts by a woman who had volunteered in the past. She didn’t have a good experience at all — the lowest point was when she and other volunteers were evicted from their lodging. Although she’s safe and everything turned out fine for her, I decided not to follow through on that “opportunity.”

The bad: In Casablanca, I volunteered with an ESL program to offer conversation practice to students. When I arrived, I learned that I was working for a for-profit business that’s trying to build a bit of an empire, but the volunteers were not treated well. I was expected to sleep on a mattress on the floor and share one hot plate and four forks with five other volunteers. I walked away from that assignment; I’ve noticed that Workaway now asks for-profit businesses to pay at least the local minimum wage, which seems like a move in the right direction.

The good: I had a wonderful experience in Turkey! I was given a small cabin of my own in the pomegranate grove of a family vacation farm in exchange for serving breakfast to guests and helping with some marketing functions. I loved my little cabin, I learned a lot about Turkish cooking in the kitchen, and I had plenty of free time to explore the nearby beach — plus I had several weeks’ free lodging and meals to extend my trip! Most importantly, the opportunity brought me to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, a place I never would have visited otherwise, and I absolutely fell in love with it.

Some more experiences

I asked some other travelers to tell me about their volunteering experiences, and here’s what they had to say.

Brian, who loves to sail, has done two Workaways. His first experience was working on an old wooden sailboat in Malaysia. His host had advertised internet that didn’t exist, and Brian had to book a hotel at one point to catch up on some work obligations — but other than that, he had such a good experience that he decided to do it again.

His second Workaway was also on a boat, this time in Greece. Brian ended up having a personality conflict with another Workawayer on the trip, and in the end, he left the boat in order to keep the peace. Luckily he had a backup plan, and he went to a Greek sailing school instead and had a great time there.

Brian also reported some issues like dirty living quarters and one host who asked for $40 for food when Brian had understood it would be included. In spite of minor problems, though, Brian said his experiences were amazing and that Workaway offered him a cultural exchange he could not have gotten elsewhere and the chance to meet and work with some great people.

Ronda has done four different stints with HelpX in Europe. She had one negative experience in Italy, with a host who didn’t provide decent food and would drink all night with the other Helpers — she left that posting early because she didn’t feel safe. But her Swiss host became such a close friend that they’ve even met up and traveled together in the years since they met.

The raw reality

It’s interesting to note that all three of us have had an experience so bad that we left our posting early, and yet we all still have positive feelings about volunteering, and I think we would all do it again. (Also, all three of us are over 40 — I wonder if older volunteers are more likely to walk away from an experience that doesn’t meet our expectations?) All of us felt like the benefits of our volunteer experiences went far deeper than just free lodging.

Ronda describes volunteering as a great way to see the “other” side of a country, and she’s right. Things aren’t set up for tourist comfort, and you’ll learn first-hand about the struggles the locals face, whether that’s frequent power outages or a lackadaisical approach to promptness.

The most authentic travel experiences are the ones that aren’t ‘sanitized for your protection,’ and you may experience more of the culture than you bargained for. But if you stay flexible and welcome the learning opportunity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s some advice from the three of us:

Ask the right questions

Will you have private lodging, or will you be bunking with other volunteers? Is your space air-conditioned/heated? Will there be internet? Are meals included, or will you have access to a kitchen? What will your work schedule be, and how much free time will you have? How physical is the work you’ll be doing? A good host will answer these questions in their listing and include photos of your actual lodging, but it doesn’t hurt to confirm everything by e-mail as well.

Research your host

I was able to do a lot of my research by right-clicking on photos and using the “search Google for this image” function. People — and especially businesses and orgs — tend to reuse their favorite photos a lot, so doing this would often lead me to a website or blog where I could learn an organization’s name. Then I would google the name and find even more — including blog posts from others who have volunteered there in the past, sometimes.

If the site you’re using lets you reach out to former volunteers and get their off-the-record opinions, do that. Otherwise, ask the host for some e-mails to contact former volunteers. Most people don’t like to say negative things, so ask questions like “What do you wish you had known before you went?” and “What was your least favorite part of the experience?” to gently draw out warnings.

Have a backup plan

Based on my experiences, I think it’s wise to always have a backup plan when you enter into a volunteer arrangement. Have a backup plan, including a nearby hostel or hotel, just in case you decide to leave, and don’t leave home without enough money in the bank to cover your expenses. It’s important that you feel free to leave your post if you don’t like the conditions there.

Do no harm

Whether your volunteer experience is with a nonprofit, a private family, or a business, it’s up to you to make sure what you’re doing is ethical and valuable.

I work closely with an orphanage in Peru, and we require anyone who volunteers with our kids to pass an Interpol check, speak fluent Spanish, and commit to a minimum of six months. Personally, I would not volunteer to work with children short-term. Children need stability, and they need role models who are from their own culture.

I’d also be cautious about accepting a post that takes a skilled job (like teaching) away from a local person.

Volunteering in exchange for room and board takes courage. The system has some potential pitfalls, and it’s important to do your homework and come prepared with a backup plan for your safety

But the payoffs can more than make up for the potential problems. You’ll save a ton of money, travel to places you might not have visited otherwise, and get an insider view of the culture you’re visiting.