Travel For Free: Everything You Need To Know About Volunteering Abroad

Permaculture in Hukok

Have you ever heard of these websites that you can use to find places all over the world to work at for a free place to stay?  Well, if you were intrigued but a little skeptical, please let me explain.  I spent a year travelling, and the vast majority of that time I was volunteering in exchange for room and board.  Most of my experience is actually using a website called Workaway. Doing your first volunteer gig can be intimidating so I’ve compiled what I think is the most pertinent information for someone who wants to get started.

There are three different websites you can use, that I know of.

The general idea behind all of these is that as a volunteer you go to a host and work for around 25 hours a week in exchange for room and board. It’s a great way to travel for free, gain some skills, meet cool people etc.

WWOOF stands for worldwide opportunities on organic farms, and it’s just what it sounds like.  All of the hosts are organic farms. Each participating country has its own website and membership fees, typically around $30 for a year.  WWOOF seems to be more well-known and has more hosts to pick from in each country.

Workaway and HelpX are very similar to each other.  They each have one website for the whole world and they are not limited to organic farms.  They have hostels, farms, au pair jobs, really anyone who wants volunteers and is willing to put people up in their homes can have a host profile.

When I set off I chose Workaway because I wanted to travel to multiple countries and didn’t want to pay for each one. I was also leaving in the fall and farm work is harder to find in the winter months.  As far as why I chose Workaway over HelpX, I thought the Workaway website was more user friendly, but I could have gone either way.  There is a lot of overlap on these sites.  Some hosts will even have profiles on multiple sites.

Medicinal Herb Farm

Okay, so without further rambling here is my best advice about how to utilize these platforms.

Research visa requirements thoroughly.

Since you’re only working for room and board, there’s no money changing hands. So in most cases you can go on a simple tourist visa. It’s kind of a nice loophole but some countries are cracking down on it. Some will make you get a work visa or a special volunteer certificate, like in the UK.  From what I’ve heard most volunteers don’t bother to do that. They will tell you that when the customs guy asks just tell him you’re staying with friends, not that I’m recommending it… I’m just saying, it’s a thing.  As a general rule you should do your research about visa requirements, length of stay etc. before you go anywhere. If you’re travelling on a US passport the US state department website has pretty good information here.

Don’t be shy.

Send out a lot of messages. When you send out a message you might not get a reply for weeks, or even at all. Sometimes they’ll get back to you right away. You never know, so don’t get your heart set on one place and wait around for a response.  And don’t feel like you’re committed to a host because you sent them one message.  You can change your mind.  Just politely let them know that you’ve decided to go somewhere else.  Don’t leave people hanging, that’s rude. I found that I’d have to message about five places before I found one that I ended up going to.

Tim and Jonatan jamming

Know what you’re getting into.

Read the host profiles thoroughly.  And communicate with the host beforehand. You should know how many hours a week that you’re expected to work.  The website says generally it’s around 25, but from my experience it’s usually more, the most I was ever made to work was 45 hours a week and the fewest was 21 hours. You also might want to know about the living quarters. Will you be staying in a, tent, house, caravan, hostel dorm, yurt, boat, etc.?  Something that also varies is the food situation. Sometimes there will be communal meals, or they’ll give you some money every week to get your own food, and sometimes food isn’t provided at all.

Something that I always looked for is how many volunteers they typically had. The number of travelers hanging out at a place has a huge impact on the whole experience. Some farms only host one at a time, and some host as much as ten, or more.  I personally prefer places with more volunteers.   I’ve been in places where I was living with the family as their only volunteer so it’s like a home stay.  It is a great way to experience culture in a community, but I also ended up feeling like a rebellious teenager living with my parents again, especially if I stayed longer than a couple of weeks.  The alternative is being with a bunch of other volunteers and sometimes you won’t even see the host very often.  Those setups are more social, more laid back. But, really it’s up to you.

This information will probably be in the profile, but sometimes it’s not. You still should talk to the host before you go just to feel it out a little more.  However you don’t have to find out everything if you don’t want to.  Sometimes it’s actually nice to just show up and see how it is. The point is, don’t expect every place to be the same.

Read the reviews, but read between the lines.

Understand that for example, if you volunteered on a farm and had the worst time ever, I mean, they worked you to death, the food was scarce, the farmer was mean, whatever. When you go to write a review you already know that the host could turn around and write a review on your profile saying you’re lazy and terrible. Then you’re going to have to deal with having that on your profile when you’re trying to find your next host.  If a host is great you will be able to tell immediately from the reviews, but if not it might be more tricky.  Most of the time the reviews will say “Yes, it was wonderful,” and they will maybe try to sneak in some subtle complaints.  Pay attention to those subtle complaints.  Those are key.

Don’t plan too far in advance.

Most farmers only start looking for people right before they need them, or after they already need them. You can send someone a message and then three days later you’re there. Some people like to have volunteers lined up for the whole season, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm.  When I first started I sent a message saying I was available in two months’ time and they told me to message them again in two months.  I think this is actually a good thing because you can be more spontaneous.  I met a guy who had lined up six months’ worth of workaways all for two week periods.  I just don’t think that this is the way to go, because you never know what could happen. You could end up a place that you love and want to stay there for a month, or you could be somewhere terrible and want to leave immediately.  You could be planning on going to Tuscany but then you meet some cool people who are going to Granada and you would rather go with them.  You don’t have to trap yourself into a schedule. Remember, travel is about freedom.

Laundry at Easy Nerja Hostel

Think about how long you want to stay.

As a self-proclaimed homebody I prefer to find a place I really like and stay for at least a month, maybe two.  I can build myself a little introvert nest and develop a nice routine. I’ve heard other people say that two weeks is their perfect amount of time.  That also seems more appropriate for people who are travelling for a set amount of time, instead of indefinitely, like I was.  Some places will want volunteers to stay at least one month, some will only host people for two weeks at a time, others are just really flexible and don’t care how long you stay. There are just so many factors when it comes this, so again, get used to being flexible.

Have a backup plan.

You could do your very best to figure a place out before you go.  But what if you get there and it’s not like you expected? What if they are super stingy about the food or the housing setup is uncomfortable or the other volunteers are super weird and creepy or what if you were straight up lied to about the conditions? Whatever it is, if you’re not happy there you can totally leave and go somewhere else. I would not make a habit of this, but it is an option.   I had to do it once, I got to a place and I was not feelin’ it, for so many reasons, I mean, it was BAD. I could have stuck it out, but I knew I would not be happy there. So I packed up my stuff, and I walked myself to the bus stop, and I left.  This should be a last resort and I try to make sure that the host doesn’t need you.  A lot of these farmers really depend on volunteer labor to sustain their livelihoods.  So don’t screw them over, unless they are complete jerks who are only using WWOOF as a means to exploit slave labor, and in that case, yeah screw them!

It is not for everyone, and that’s okay.

The work can be hard, there can be long hours, the conditions can be primitive, you have no say in who you’re living and sharing a space with, and they can be in remote locations. Some people love that, but for some it would trigger a lot of anxiety.  If you decide to do it, please be ready to work. Your host has opened their home to you and they want you to have a good time, but they also need you to get a job done and you should respect that.

Melanie, Liz, and Lauren at Jordan River Park

Photo Credit: Yishai Halutz Photography

The vast majority of my experiences have been so enriching. If you decide to make the leap and participate in Workaway, or WWOOF, or whatever, it will be so amazing. You will travel the world and spend an absurdly small amount of money. You will meet amazing people, live in beautiful places, and learn a lot of new skills.  When you’re working in a foreign country you really feel like you are actively experiencing it, even as an outsider. You don’t just see the sites and take walking tours, you really participated. It is truly priceless. So, what are you waiting for?