Six of the best tried + tested ways to help you live your wildest travel dreams – without going broke in the process
The idea: Get a bed (and possibly board) in exchange for help on the farm
Is it really free? You may be charged an initial joining fee, and some hosts may ask for food money – but in principle, accommodation is free.
The original global organisation, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), links volunteers with host farms that provide free accommodation and meals in exchange for work.
Other organisations also offer links between hosts and volunteers. Help Exchange lists homestays, farmstays and other opportunities; there’s no requirement for hosts to be organic, some hosts offer food, some don’t, and hours and types of work vary enormously.
Any catches? You’ll need to agree in advance the quantity of work, whether you’ll get days off, how long you’ll stay, and what accommodation and food is provided; WWOOF suggests four to six hours of work daily is fair exchange for a day’s full board. Some volunteers have reported feeling they’ve been taken advantage of by demanding hosts – but most enjoy the experience and many continue to volunteer around the world.
Need to know: There is no global membership for WWOOF; instead, you pay an annual membership fee for each country’s organisation to receive a list of host farms in that country. Sample costs: US$30 (£20) in Argentina, US$20 (£13.50) in Sierra Leone, Y5,500 (£37) in Japan.
Basic membership of Help Exchange is free, but premier membership (€20 for two years) permits access to all contact details of all hosts. You can read reviews of hosts by previous helpers online.
Fayette Fox: “In 2008 I WWOOFed on two Japanese farms for three weeks. I’d previously enjoyed volunteering on organic farms in the Netherlands and England. Those farmers were gracious and always had time to teach me new skills. European WWOOF runs on a five-day work week, but in Japan volunteers are only granted one day off a week – little time to explore.
"In Japan I was keen to immerse myself in a uniquely rural experience. On the island of Sado-ga-shima, I helped refurbish an old farmhouse but received little direction. In the Japan Alps I picked peaches. In both cases I asked questions by email but I was still surprised once I arrived. One farm was very remote, so there was nowhere to go during our free time in the middle of the day. Dawn starts were challenging. But the food was delicious and I loved working the paddy fields and unwinding at the local hot spring.”
The idea: Deliver a rented vehicle back to a source branch
Where? Mostly USA, Canada, Australia & New Zealand
Is it really free? Not quite – but with prices from A$1 a day including fuel allowance, as good as.
One-way rentals leave hire cars or vans in one city, when they’re needed to start a new rental hundreds of kilometres away. You can hire them at a minimal rate – as long as you guarantee to deliver them to a specified branch within a short (defined) period of time. Vehicles range from standard cars to multi-berth motorhomes – so can cover your accommodation as well as transport costs.
Websites such as www.standbyrelocations.com advertises rentals between cities in Australia, New Zealand and the USA from as little as A$1 (50p) per day, often including generous mileage and sometimes fuel. Britz motorhomes has relocations at A$5 per day for Australia and NZ$5 per day for New Zealand.
The most common ‘relocs’ are up and down the east coast of Australia and in the Northern Territory from the end of April to the end of August. In New Zealand the Auckland to Christchurch route is popular just before ski season (May-June) or the other way round from October-December.
Any catches? Deposits may be required: Britz takes a A$1,000 bond for Australian relocations and NZ$800 for New Zealand relocations, refunded if the vehicle is delivered on time and undamaged.
Delivery times are short: Britz offers a Melbourne-Sydney delivery (around 900km) in three days for A$5/day. These deals are usually available only at late notice – typically less than two weeks in advance.
Need to know: You’ll normally need an International Driving Licence, or one valid in the country in question, and may need to be over 21; other restrictions may apply. The hirer is usually responsible for the fuel and any other expenses.
The idea: Numerous bursaries are available to fund trips, particularly if you have specific research in mind
Where? Wherever you decide, within reason
Is it really free? It is if you can get the bursaries or sponsorship!
Various organisations hold funds from which bursaries are awarded to applicants – criteria for eligibility vary between bursaries.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust awards around 100 bursaries of about £5,000 each year for overseas travel of four to eight weeks. The Fellowships are intended to enable travellers to ‘acquire knowledge and experience abroad… to gain a better understanding of... cultures overseas’. Previous fellows have included Nick Danziger, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Wanderlust’s health expert Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth.
Members of the Globetrotters Club can apply for a William Percival Wood Legacy Award, a prize of up to £1,000 awarded twice each year to encourage independent travel.
The Royal Geographical Society awards various bursaries. The annual Journey of a Lifetime bursary allots £4,000 for a journey anywhere in the world, and a chance to record your journey for a BBC Radio 4 documentary.
Any catches? Applicants for Winston Churchill fellowships must be available on specific interview dates in January. On their return, fellows are expected to provide a press release and a full report on what they’ve achieved.
Applicants for the William Wood Award must either have been members of Globetrotters for at least three years, or members of at least 12 months with a current three-year membership.
The idea: Get a free place on a sailing boat – effectively room, board and transport – in exchange for work
Where? Anywhere privately owned yachts moor – fruitful starting points include Caribbean ports, Gibraltar and British harbours such as Southampton
Is it really free? Sometimes, though a contribution towards food is often requested.
It helps to have some sailing experience – eg Competent Crew certification – but novices can find occasional positions.
Alison Muir Bennett, author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Oceans, explains, “With luck these kind of opportunities can be found by signing up to sites such as Crewseekers, joining organisations such as the Cruising Association, or scouring the small ads in yachting mags. Getting to places where yachties socialise – clubs, pubs, etc – meeting them and making your interest known is another way.”
Any catches? Without experience, opportunities are limited to fairly menial jobbing: “People who know one end of the boat from the other are going to have an advantage,” says Muir Bennett. “It depends what kind of help the skipper is looking for; if they just want deck monkeys or galley slaves, there may be an opening for a free ride.”
The idea: Help students learn English by simply speaking to them – and get free room and board at the same time
Where? Spain and Italy
Is it really free? Yes – you have to make your own way to the pick-up point in Spain or Italy, but once at the programme you’ll pay nothing.
Pueblo Inglés – literally ‘English Village’ – is an organisation that offers immersive English-language instruction to Spanish and Italian participants at dedicated centres. English-speaking volunteers are required to spend a week simply talking to students – in English.
Any catches? You have to buy your own flights, and may need to pay for a night’s accommodation at the start or end of the week. Return flights to Madrid from the UK can be found for under £50; it’s also accessible by train. You need to be prepared to be talking throughout the day, often in structured situations. Free time is available, but only during set periods.
Need to know: Find out more and apply at www.morethanenglish.com. Spanish centres are at Valdelavilla, north-east of Madrid; La Alberca, Salamanca; Cazorla, a ‘white village’ in central Andalucía; and a new site at Pais, near Girona. An Italian programme operates in Umbria.
Andrew Anderson: “The first day is pretty daunting: meeting up to 50 complete strangers for the first time and knowing you’ll be talking from breakfast till night – one-to-one, in small groups, on the phone. You have to be willing to be very open. It sounds a bit cheesy, but you get out what you put in.
"I loved the regional flavours of the different centres (I’ve done it twice); it’s great to look round the villages, explore a traditional house, eat local specialities – there’s plenty of exposure to local culture. In fact, I’ve learned about parts of Spain I’d never heard of by meeting participants, and the Anglos come from around the world so there’s global insight. It’s quite an intense experience – I’ve made some close friends.
"Taking part provided a huge number of opportunities. I’ve got contacts around the planet, so travel elsewhere has become cheaper – I have places to stay, can get local advice, and have met likeminded people to travel with (last year I joined two of these new friends on the Trans-Sib Railway).”
The idea: A network of volunteer hosts puts up travellers and shows them the best of their home area
Where? Everywhere! www.couchsurfing.com claims members in 230 countries. (Though according to the UN there are only 195…)
Sign up, search for members in destinations you’re planning to visit, and email to see who can host you. The website states that, ‘CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding’. Most hosts are keen to act as local guides, to introduce visitors to new friends and experiences.
What’s the catch? The system only works if everyone is willing to host as well as freeload. While the organisation emphasises the importance of safety, and incorporates verification and vouch-for-friends systems, safety could be a concern.
Need to know: Other sources for free help planning a trip include www.tripbod.com