Is participating in work exchanges a viable way of travelling cheaply? Our Blogger of the Week, Jess, shares her experiences
When I first stumbled across the work exchange websites, Workaway and Helpx, I had only left North America once before, and imagined that long-term travel would require access to some bottomless pool of riches. Discovering that I could work for a host in return for food and accommodation made me feel like the whole world had suddenly opened up and become accessible to me.
Together with my boyfriend, Brent, I travelled around Western Europe for eight months, participating in six back-to-back work exchanges. We moved from the home of one host
family to another, living, eating, and working with each one.
Since then, I’ve learned about innumerable other ways to travel on a budget, and Brent and I have managed to continue travelling well beyond the time we participated in our last volunteering project.
So the question is, considering all that I know now, would I still recommend work exchanges to other travellers? And would I ever do it again myself?
Free, free, free
I feel like it’s a little taboo to draw too much attention to the free-ness of Workaway and Helpx. After all, these programmes are meant to focus on cultural exchange and language learning, rather than being viewed as a way to score free food and accommodation. But who am I kidding? The idea of travelling from country to country without worrying about the price of meals and accommodation was the main reason why we became involved with these programmes. The other volunteers we met during our exchanges were all backpackers and budget travellers, so I think I can safely say that Brent and I weren’t the only ones who were drawn to possibility of semi-free travel.
I often feel like we lived in Europe rather than travelled in it. Our trip was less about capital cities and sightseeing; and more about long scenic walks, and home-cooked dinners with our host families. We helped at a charity luncheon in France, joined our neighbours for an Easter bonfire in Germany, and volunteered at a Halloween-themed horse show in Spain.
In that sense, we didn’t experience the side of each country that is marketed to tourists. Instead, in a very real way, we experienced life as a local in each country, which included doing everyday things like buying groceries, walking the dog and washing the dishes. In truth, this aspect of our experience felt like a pro on some days and a con on others. I can’t say work exchanges helped us check sights off our bucket list, but they did provide undeniably unique experiences.
Working with each host family felt like trying on a different lifestyle for a few weeks. Among other things, it provided an opportunity to get an inside look at the business of running a B&B in Wales, renting holiday villas in Italy, and operating a retreat centre in Germany. It was the equivalent of taking different possible home countries and occupations for short test-drives. Owning a B&B was never something we had considered before, but after a positive three-month experience with helping to manage one, we left with a new long-term goal to open a guesthouse of our own someday.
Living and working with a local host family typically means sharing a house with them (although we did luck out by getting our own private villa in Italy). We became reluctant witnesses to countless personal fights between family members, and they were, in turn, fully aware when we were feeling moody. Our relationship with our hosts was often a strange one. Our very close living arrangements made us all feel like insta-family, yet we were, at the same time, also their guests and their employees.
Usually the people who have the space and need for volunteers are inevitably those who own large properties in rural areas. It wasn’t always easy to find other people to socialise with, or to escape into the city for a few hours
Good volunteers never sleep
Living with our “employers” often created a vague division between “on” time and “off” time. According to the Workaway and Helpx websites, volunteers should aim to contribute 20-25 hours of work per week. We found that some of our hosts subtly (or, in some cases, not-so-subtly) implied that they expected more than this from us.
It always felt wrong to stop working before our hosts did; if they were putting in 12-hour days, we felt pressured to follow suit. Perhaps we were being a little neurotic, but we really did want to make the exchange worthwhile for our hosts, so we were always looking for reassurance that we were doing “enough” to satisfy them.
We frequently offered to do more work when we didn’t want to, hoping that our hosts would offer us comforting words like “No, you’ve worked enough today – just relax”. This was rarely the outcome. When we offered to work for longer, our hosts almost always found new tasks for us, which made us feel like there was no limit on the contribution that we owed them.
Skills on trial
Workaway and Helpx profiles allow volunteers to provide details about their skills and experience, but, somehow this didn’t always translate to our hosts.
I found that our hosts were willing to teach us new skills to a certain extent, but most assumed that we had some basic skills to begin with. And well... sometimes we didn’t. We spent our first days in France out in a damp, cold field for about six hours, panicking because we couldn’t keep a fire going long enough to burn some bramble piles that we’d be assigned to get rid of (if you think that sounds ridiculous – seriously, try it – fires are surprisingly hard to maintain). Our hosts only had so much patience for the “well-gosh-I’m-just-a-city-girl-and-I’ve-never-actually-used-a-pitchfork” routine.
There were exceptions; for example, our tasks at the B&B were pretty intuitive and didn’t require previous knowledge and experience. But based on my conversations with other volunteers, the people who seem to excel at Workaway and Helpx are those who already possess applicable skills like carpentry, plumbing, gardening, or construction.
The answer is no. I don’t regret our experiences for a moment because we did have some wonderful host families, however, we’ve found other budget travel approaches that work better for us.
I would recommend Workaway and Helpx for people who have solid manual skills to contribute, as well as to people who aren’t afraid to be direct with their hosts, setting very clear expectations and boundaries both before and during the exchange. I still believe that they’re fantastic programs for certain people, but for us, it just wasn’t quite the right approach to budget travel.
Have you had experience with work exchange programmes? Would you recommend it as a way of travelling? Tell us in the comments below.
Jess created her blog, Ways of Wanderers, to provide "inspiration and information to make travelling and relocation possible for anyone and everyone who has ever wanted to see the world".