Posted Date: December 8, 2020
A lot of people assume that you have to be rich to afford to travel the world, but with all of the travel resources these days, that is far from true.
Back in 2016, I was going through a career crisis and wanted to quit my job in corporate finance to travel. I was wondering how to travel for free (almost) in order to avoid depleting my savings on a summer in Europe, and I came across work exchange programs.
During my 4-month backpacking trip through Europe, I spent 2 of those months traveling for free and had the time of my life.
Let me introduce you to work exchange programs and why you should take advantage of them if you want to travel for free (almost)!
Work Exchange Programs
A work exchange program is a way for you to volunteer/work with a host in another country for a certain amount of hours each week in exchange for a free stay and sometimes free food.
For example, during the summer of 2016, I did a work exchange in the South of France (dreamy, right?). For 2 months, I worked at a bed and breakfast, or Chambres d’Hotes, in the countryside. The house was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves and was ideally placed right next to the Ardeche river where you could grab a kayak and paddle to dinner at my host’s son’s restaurant.
The summer was a dream come true, and I have now dedicated my life to finding a way to spend the rest of my days living in the French countryside.
I spent about 5-6 hours per day in the morning cleaning rooms, helping to prepare breakfast, and ironing laundry. The afternoons were spent cycling around the countryside, buying fresh produce from the local market, and reading by the pool. Have I sold you on French countryside living yet?
In return for my labor, I got to live for free. I had a room in the bed & breakfast and all of my food was covered by the family. The only thing I had to pay for was extra activities like a full-day kayaking tour down the Ardeche river and buying bus tickets to visit nearby towns.
So what I am telling you is that I was able to live in France for 2-months for free, other than my own personal expenses.
I also did a second work exchange program in New Zealand with Colin on our year-long trip around the world. We worked at a flower farm for 2 weeks and helped with odd jobs around the house – it was fall and the flowers didn’t need a lot of tending to at the time. This helped us to offset costs for our month in New Zealand since it is quite expensive to stay there. We were able to afford more activities by volunteering for free room and board for 2 weeks.
How was I able to travel for free? – Workaway
Workaway is a work/volunteer exchange site that connects you with people from 170 countries who are looking for volunteers to help them with a project in exchange for free room and food (most of the time). There is a sign-up fee that is currently $44/year for a solo traveler or $56/year for a couple/friends.
You can work at a bed & breakfast, help restore a house, help on an organic farm, nanny, or teach English to someone’s children. The opportunities on Workaway are endless. You can usually find an experience that is compatible with your skillset or an experience that just sounds fun.
All Workaway hosts have different expectations. In general, you should only have to work around 5-hours per day, 5-6 days per week – 25 hours per week maximum. The hours you work are set by the host, and you should be allowed at least one or two days off per week to go and explore.
Most of the Workaways are all volunteer-based, so you are compensated with free room and board. However, some hosts may offer a stipend or may pay you depending on the country’s rules and the work they need help with. You can see all of this information on the host’s listing page.
How to connect with a host?
To find a host, you simply go to the Workaway homepage and search for the country and/or type of volunteering you are looking to do. I personally prefer to help on farms and at bed & breakfasts, so I will use those keywords to search for specific listings. If you aren’t sure, you can just search by country or continent and see what volunteer options are available.
Once you find a listing you are interested in, you can send a host a message with your availability and any other details they request. From there, it all depends on if the timing works out and if you are a good fit. If the host accepts you, then you just decide on the date of your arrival/departure and go from there. It’s as simple as that.
Don’t forget to check the details
Make sure to check all of the details in the listing before reaching out to the host. There will be a detailed description of the work opportunity and expectations, type of accommodation, meals provided, number of hours of work per week, the number of people they can host at a time, and more.
My hosts offered free food with my experience, so I never had to worry about buying my own food. I would recommend finding hosts that offer free food (most of them do) because it is an extra cost that you won’t have to worry about.
Not every listing will be a good fit. I saw a few listings that require the volunteers to stay in tents, so if you are not up for that, then you should probably look for a better match. I’ve also seen some that require special gardening skills or building skills, so just make sure that you have the skills needed and are an overall good fit for the opportunity before reaching out.
How long are workaways?
The amount of time you volunteer with a host depends on their minimum stay requested and their availability. You can see in the screenshot below that this host requires you to stay at least two weeks and they have availability all of next year. So at this point, it’s up to you. You can reach out to the host and request to stay for only 2 weeks or 2 months.
Some hosts only have availability for certain months; for example, my host family in France usually only had volunteers from May – October. So I could have only stayed for 6-months maximum.
Why do I say *almost* free?
I say almost free because transportation to and from your Workaway destination is not covered. You have to pay for your flight, train tickets, bus, car – whatever it is that gets you there. But it is a great way to travel if you are trying to travel for free or be extra frugal.
Activities outside of your Workaway are also not covered, but at that point, how much you spend is completely up to you. Like I mentioned before, most hosts offer meals with the exchange, but some don’t.
If you have a very small travel budget and you want to be on the road long-term, you can choose to fly to one continent and do Workaways for an extended period of time there. For example, since U.S. citizens can only stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days at a time, you could do a 3-month Workaway in Italy, hop over to Croatia for 3-months (outside of the Schengen zone), back to Portugal for another 3-months, and then over to England for 3-months (also outside of the Schengen zone).
All you have to do is pay for your ticket from your starting point to Italy and then tickets around Europe will be very reasonable between those countries with budget airlines. There you have it – one year in Europe for almost free.
We met a French woman in New Zealand who had done Workaways all over the world for a year. She practically traveled for free because she would stay in one country for months on end and travel between different Workaway experiences within that country. This way she could afford to stay on the road longer by reducing her transportation and food costs.
Other Programs Similar to Workaway
Workaway is the only work exchange program that I have done, but there are a couple of others that I have wanted to try out.
World Packers is pretty much the same as Workaway. It is a volunteer and work exchange program where you pay to connect with hosts from all over the world looking for volunteers to help with a project. The cost is $49/year for a solo traveler and $59/year for a couple/friends. They offer volunteer and work exchanges in 170 countries.
There are a couple of key differences between the Workaway and Worldpackers:
- Worldpackers offer insurance. If you have an issue with your host, then Worldpackers will put you up in a hostel for 3-nights while they find you another host. Not all experiences are perfect, so it’s good to know that they will help you out if there are issues with the host.
- No formal work limit. Looking through Worldpackers, I noticed that some of the opportunities require 30+ hours of work per week. You could end up working more hours than on Workaway where they have a limit of 25 hours per week.
- Top destinations are outside of Europe. Workaway has a lot of opportunities in Europe, so if you are looking to volunteer in Asia or South America, Worldpackers could be a good option.
I have never personally used Worldpackers but I’ve read good reviews about it and think it is worth looking into.
WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) – WWOOFing is a work exchange program where you get to work and live on an organic farm and receive free room and board while you volunteer. I have never done WWOOFing but I really want to, as I’ve heard it’s an incredible opportunity to learn more about sustainability and have the experience of working on a farm.
The only downside is that the fee is based on each country you sign up for, so if you are WWOOFing in multiple countries, you will have to pay a registration fee for each country instead of one fee to use the site in any country.
My Personal Review of Work Exchange Programs
I always try to be 100% transparent and to be honest, I’ve loved both of my Workaway experiences. It is an opportunity to completely immerse yourself in a cultural exchange and become a part of a family and a new culture. You have to go into it with an open mind and willingness to learn.
Of course, with everything, there are downsides. The cons of Workaway are mainly that you have to work, so you do not have as much free time to explore. You also don’t get to choose the hours that you work. In New Zealand, we had to work from 11 am to 4 pm, so most of our day was spent on the farm unless we got up early to go out and explore. And I’ve never been an early bird, so that was not going to happen. Other than that, I only have positive things to say.
I have been lucky to have excellent hosts during both of my experiences. With that being said, if you end up at a Workaway and it’s just not working out with your host, you are not obligated to stay the entire time. You can always leave early and that’s just fine because it is your time you are volunteering. I would also suggest choosing hosts that respond quickly and get good reviews.
I still have a close relationship with my host family in France and I actually went to visit them in 2019 on my trip around the world, and they let us stay with them for a week. We still keep in touch with our host in New Zealand, and I love seeing all of the beautiful flowers that she grows on her farm. This type of experience creates lifelong relationships and memories that I would have never experienced being on the road non-stop, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
If you are open to taking it slow on the road and willing to work a few hours a day, this is a great option to travel for free (almost).