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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.

    5 Free Travel Apps To Rule Them All

      Put these free travel apps on your phone and you are ready to conquer the world. Image via Flickr by Christopher Michel
      Image via Flickr by Christopher Michel
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      Rome2Rio Takes You Near and Far


      Want to know all the possible ways to get from Chicago to Cleveland or London to Paris? Rome2Rio will show you all your options — flights, trains, carshare, taxi, bus, ferry — along with prices and travel times and link you to resources to buy your tickets. To get accurate airfares, be sure to enter your travel dates. Download for iPhone or visit from your Android or iPad to get the app.

      Power User Tips

      • You’re not limited to two cities; Rome2Rio can take you around the world with a dozen stops in just minutes
      • Put in addresses (like your airport to your hotel) to get local transportation options, including taxi estimates that will help you negotiate cab fares.
      • Visit the FAQ page for specifics on how to use some of the power features.blank space

      TripIt Makes You Look Like You Have Your Act Together

      TripIt   Travel Itinerary   Trip Planner

      Never again will you stand at an airline counter without your flight information, or land and realize that you don’t have the address of your hotel to give the cabby.

      TripIt gathers your flight numbers, hotel reservation codes, tour operator phone numbers, addresses and more all in one place and makes it accessible even when you’re offline. All you have to do is forward reservation e-mails to TripIt, or let the app scan your incoming e-mails on its own. Visit the website or download the app for iPhone or Android.

      Power User Tips

      • Use TripIt to share  itinerary details with your traveling companions or family members
      • Just show your phone screen to a cab driver who doesn’t speak your language and he’ll have the address and phone number of your lodging
      • Make sure you open and update the app before you leave home so your info is up to date even if you can’t connect when you land
      • File directions and other details as notes in your itineraryblank space

      TripAdvisor: Find The Good Stuff

      tripadvisor app

      TripAdvisor’s treasure chest of traveler reviews  is even more useful from your phone. The app will give you a list of hotels, restaurants and attractions based on your current location anywhere in the world, in order of their review rankings or their proximity. One click connects you to a map. Visit the site or download for iPhone or Android.

      Power User Tips

      • Mark the restaurants and attractions you want to visit as  favorites so you can access them quickly on the fly
      • Use the app to find highly-rated spas near you
      • Researching hotels? Browsing the “traveler photos” is the fastest way to see what a hotel is really like. If people found dirt, mold, or damage in their rooms they will usually upload photos.
      • Use the traveler photos of restaurant dishes to order in restaurants where the waiters don’t speak Englishblank space

      Did You Know Google Maps Did All This?

      Finding laundries in an Indonesian village

      Sure, Google Maps is great at giving real-time driving and walking directions. The public transportation option works surprisingly well in some cities around the world and is shockingly useless in others. (Rome2Rio is better in some cases)

      But you can also use the “find nearby” feature to locate anything, anywhere in the world. Even in remote villages, you can use “find nearby” to find the closest grocery store, pharmacist, hospital, or laundromat. Google Maps doesn’t usually have as many reviews as TripAdvisor, but it will turn up more local options sometimes. For web, iPhone, and Android. (Note: The app works on iPad but some features are lacking)

      Power User Tips

      • Drop a pin or star your lodging so you can always find your way “home
      • Use ‘street view’ to get an idea of what your destination looks like so you’ll know when to get off the bus or signal a cabbie to let you out
      • Use “save map to use offline” in case you lose your data coverage on the way to your destination
      • If you’re afraid of missing your stop on a train or bus, open Google Maps and watch the blue dot as it approaches your destination
      • Zoom in really tight to see all the businesses around youblank space

      Google Translate Is Incredibly Robust



      You’ve probably used Google Translate on the web to convert typed text from one language to another. But the app will do so much more for you. Use the website, or download the app for Android or iPhone

      Power User Tips

      • Speak your text into your phone and it will speak the translation aloud for you, and translate the response. Too cumbersome for everyday use, but perfect for emergencies or important communications.
      • You can take photos of signs, menus, and posters, scan them for text, and instantly translate that text into English. Yes, it’s famously a bit garbled, but so much clearer than the original Yiddish!
      • Learn the vocabulary you’ll need for each days’ adventures. Click the speaker icon to hear the new words pronounced.

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      Together, these five apps solve most of the problems of travel. Learn to use them before you leave and managing the details of your trip will be a breeze.