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Volunteering in Northern Ireland at a food truck by the Giant’s Causeway was an absolute blast this summer, and a great way to get back into traveling after the world events this year. Unfortunately, I only went for a week, which wasn’t nearly enough time, especially with all the places in Northern Ireland to visit in my free time. I was just lucky to find the opportunity with Worldpackers.

Volunteering in Northern Ireland

First, a brief geography lesson. Northern Ireland is on the island called Ireland, but not part of the country called Ireland. It’s part of the United Kingdom, along with the three countries (England, Wales and Scotland) on the other big island (called Great Britain) in the British Isles. The British Isles are all the islands put together – Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and all the other islands of the individual countries, like the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Thus, volunteering in Northern Ireland follows the rules and regulations of volunteering in the UK, rather than the EU (European Union). Ireland (the country) is part of the EU, has the euro, and has different visa requirements. Legally, you need a work visa to volunteer in the UK or have British citizenship. However, there are many people who volunteer “under the radar.” There was an old Chinese lady in Northern Ireland who got stuck in the country during the lockdown and ended up helping out unofficially as a volunteer.

There aren’t currently a lot of volunteer opportunities in Northern Ireland. It’s a small country and, other than the Giant’s Causeway and a few Game of Thrones filming locations, there aren’t a lot of major tourist attractions. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of beautiful nature and scenery, it’s a great country to visit, although it’s better if you have your own mode of transportation.

Finn McCool’s Hostel and the Hungry Giant

Finn McCool’s Hostel is only about 300 feet from the visitor center of the Giant’s Causeway. The house was originally built nearly a century ago as social housing. Back then, it was a good idea to put that kind of house out in the remote countryside. Now it’s a highly coveted location with great views of Portballintrae Beach. The hostel has been there for a few years now, and the Hungry Giant food truck was added in August 2019.

I applied for the job through the Worldpackers volunteering website. After several months confined to Edinburgh, it was great to get out of the country, or rather to a different part of the UK, as Northern Ireland is still technically the same country. The hostel had remained open throughout the lockdown as a refuge to those stuck or stranded in Northern Ireland, and they were happy to accept volunteers to help out. Visitors were also picking up at the Giant’s Causeway for the end of the summer holidays, particularly Irish who had never visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At the time of my arrival, two volunteers were already at the hostel, and two more arrived before I left. There weren’t a whole lot of jobs to do at the hostel, especially on weekdays. However, when I asked if the manager needed any help in the food truck on the basis of my past experience as a chef, he was happy to put me in there. For the next week, I served a steady stream of customers, especially on the weekend when I set the record for sales by a volunteer!

Living at the hostel was quite nice. For the first couple nights, I was able to stay in one of the regular dorms. After that, I moved into the volunteer’s room, a dorm behind the garage. One of the other volunteers was rather messy, but otherwise it wasn’t a bad room, although there was a bit of a debate on whether to have the heater on. The room seemed to be too hot when it was on, and too cold when it was off. The WiFi in the hostel was great (although it didn’t reach the volunteer’s room), and the views just couldn’t be beat.

Selfie Working at Finn McCool's Hostel with View

When I arrived, I did a big online order for food for the week. There was a local market about three miles away from the hostel, but the prices were about twice as much as the big online supermarket, even with the delivery fee.

The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. The unique formation is made up of around 40,000 basalt columns that were created around 50 million years ago as the result of odd volcanic activity. Ther are other similar formations around the world, but this one is the largest group of columns.

Giant's Causeway Panorama

The reason it’s called the Giant’s Causeway is connected to the mythical warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn McCool as it’s written in English. According to legend, Fionn built the causeway to challenge the Scottish giant Benandonner to a fight. Upon seeing that Benandonner was far bigger than he was, he went home where his wife disguised him as their baby. The Scottish giant arrived and saw how big the baby was and how sharp his teeth were, and assumed the father must be much bigger than himself. So he turned tail and fled, destroying the causeway behind him.

Giant's Causeway Columns

The other end of the causeway is said to be Fingal’s Cave on Staffa Island in Scotland. That’s a place I’ve always had on my bucket list, but I’ve yet to make it there.

People have been going to the Giant’s Causeway for centuries, but it’s only since the 1700s when it really became popular after a watercolor painting was made of the location. In 1897, a law was set in place making the Giant’s Causeway a permanently free attraction. Then in 1986, it gained UNESCO World Heritage status. Since then, the National Trust has been purchasing the land around it and opened a visitor center in 2012. While it’s free to actually walk down to and on the causeway, parking at the visitor center costs a small fortune.

The Giant’s Causeway isn’t the only awesome feature in the area. Just a little ways further down the path is the Giant’s Organ where the basalt stones form the side of a cliff. In the distance are the Chimney Stacks with the columns rising in the air. A large, curved boulder on the beach is called the Giant’s Boot, and a slippery staircase leading up to the top of the cliffs (which is usually closed due to safety measures) is called the Shepherd’s Steps.

Giant's Organ

Exploring the Giant’s Causeway is definitely not a drive-by photo stop. In the week I was volunteering in Northern Ireland, I walked down to the causeway nearly every day and spent hours taking photos of the rocks and scenery, hiking the many trails along the cliffs and coast. If I were you, I’d plan to spend at least half a day at the Gaint’s Causeway.

Hitchhiking in Northern Ireland

As I wanted to keep the trip as budget-friendly as possible, I opted not to rent a car for the week. Instead, I relied on hitchhiking. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect after the world events of 2020 and how friendly the world would still be. I learned that people are still incredibly friendly, at least in Northern Ireland.

After getting out of the airport in Londonderry, I walked to the main highway (about half a mile away) and stuck out my thumb for a few minutes. A couple cars passed by and the drivers smiled at me, but no one stopped. Then I switched to the successful tactic of using a sign. I didn’t have any paper, but I was able to write the town I wanted to go to on my tablet and enlarge the font. I was actually surprised when the very next car stopped to pick me up! He had to do an errand on the way, but I was happy to wait in the car.

He couldn’t take me all the way to the Giant’s Causeway, but he brought me to the town halfway there, even driving me to a hamburger restaurant. He then did something completely unexpected…offering me buy me dinner! I was hesitant to accept, but he made it clear that it was just out of the goodness of his heart. To be honest, I love buying or cooking meals for my friends or Couchsurfing hosts and guests, and it’s quite nice to get the generosity back when I travel.

After dinner, it was only a few more minutes with my thumb out before another car stopped to pick me up and drive me directly to the hostel, which was a little out of their way but they were more than happy to help out.

Selfie Hitchhiking in Northern Ireland

Both drivers mentioned they were a little surprised to see hitchhikers, but they certainly weren’t put off from picking me up. In turn, I’ve always been happy to pick up hitchhikers when I’ve had my own vehicle (as long as I had room in the car). Sure, there are a handful of bad stories out there, but the evil people of the world are a) a tiny percentage and b) not limited to any country, group, activity, etc. Don’t let the insanity of a small handful of people put you off from following your dreams or trying something new. I’ve hitchhiked all around the world and only had good experiences. Anyway, rant over. On with the story.

Later in the week when I had a day off from the hostel, I hitchhiked out to Dunseverick Harbor and Waterfalls, and then to Ballintoy Harbor. Dunseverick was beautiful, but the waterfall was a little anticlimactic. There’s also the Dunseverick Castle, but the hostel manager said not to bother as it was just the remnants of one wall, which is what it looked like on Google Maps too. Ballintoy Harbor was far more interesting, as it’s also one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.

Dunseverick Waterfall

After a really nice lunch at The Red Door Cafe, I made my way to Larrybane Quarry – another Game of Thrones filming location, and then to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Unfortunately, the rope bridge was closed due to social distancing measures. After that, I wanted to get down to the Dark Hedges, but no one was going in that direction, and after a couple hours of trying, I finally got a lift back to the hostel.

Other Budget Tips for Volunteering in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland isn’t that expensive of a country, and volunteering is a great way to stick to a budget. It’s quite easy to hitchhike along the coast and visit the key attractions, such as the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, Ballintoy Harbor (where they filmed scenes for Game of Thrones), Portballintrae Beach, Portrush, etc. Unfortunately, some of the attractions (like the Dark Hedges and Castle Ward a.k.a. Winterfell) are very difficult to get to if you don’t have your own mode of transportation.

If you’ve got the money, consider taking a tour such as with Shamrocker Adventures. The tours aren’t particularly cheap, but considering transportation and accommodations are both included, they’re a pretty good deal, especially if you want to cover a lot of ground in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

If you’re looking for food around the Giant’s Causeway, I have to throw in another plug for the Hungry Giant food truck. Their homemade burgers are delicious, and the prices are quite reasonable. Otherwise, I’d suggest stocking up on provisions at the large supermarkets in the cities (Belfast, Londonderry, Coleraine, etc) before heading out on your adventures. While working at the hostel, the online food purchase I made at the beginning of the week helped to keep my budget very low.

Selfie with Hosts at Finn McCool Hostel

In fact, I was able to spend just over £100 ($130) for my entire trip to Northern Ireland, including the flights from Edinburgh. It would have been under £100, but we choose to make a detour into Belfast on the final day to see the city and attractions like the Titanic Belfast. We didn’t really have that much time before our flight back to Edinburgh, but it was certainly worth the extra couple pounds for the train ticket.

Sign up for Worldpackers

Worldpackers is my new favorite volunteer website. They’re a bit newer than Workaway and HelpX so they don’t have as many hosts, but the quality of their hosts seems to be a lot better. I’m already looking for my next assignment, although it looks like it might have to be next year as a lot of opportunities are closing down for the winter months.

The price for a Worldpackers membership is $49 a year. That’s a bit more than the $40 that Workaway charges, but if you click on this link to sign up, you can get a $20 discount, bringing the cost to a meager $29! Or use the promo code SKYETRAVELS when you sign up. Also, for a limited time, get a bonus 6 months on your membership for free! Join now!

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Volunteering in Northern Ireland Pin

Further Reading

I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pro’s and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

I started volunteering three weeks into my travels, and I’ve been doing so ever since. Finding great hosts or projects with Workaway or Worldpackers can be extremely rewarding, but there can also be pitfalls, and there are definitely a few things you should know before you jump into volunteering.

Why You Should Volunteer When You Travel

Giving back to the community is a fantastic way to travel, although not all volunteer jobs directly relate to the community. Obviously, if you’re taking a short vacation, you probably won’t want to spend your time making beds in a hostel (although there’s no reason why you can’t), but if you’re planning to travel for an extended period (like a gap year), volunteering absolutely should play a part in your plans.

The world is built on an honest exchange of goods and services, and only the very immoral try to get through life getting everything for free (such as a criminal who steals the possessions of another). When you travel, contributing to the local economy is vital for the livelihood of many towns, cities and even entire countries – something to remember when you’re on an all-inclusive cruise or tour. But money isn’t the only form of payment.

All over the world, there are conditions that need to be bettered. Many volunteer jobs relate directly to improving those conditions, whether it’s helping in farms that feed locals, building a sustainable community, contributing to a holistic center or yoga studio, teaching English to better communication skills, etc.

Volunteering abroad certainly has its benefits. Aside from the feeling of a job well done and satisfaction for giving back to the local community, volunteer jobs provide lodging and most of them will also give you one to three square meals a day. Even if you’re not on a budget, this is a great way to make your money last, which allows you to travel even longer. Sure, you’ll have to sacrifice some of your vacation time to help, but is training horses on a farm in Sweden or teaching kids sustainability and English in a Tanzanian school really that bad?

Helga with Horses

The Different Types of Volunteer Jobs

There are several types of volunteering around the world. Worldpackers lists the following categories on its website:

  • Hostel
  • Home Stay
  • Camping
  • Guest House
  • Holistic Center
  • Surf Camp
  • NGO
  • School
  • Community
  • Eco Village
  • Farm
  • Permaculture Project

Workaway has similar categories; two not listed above are “boat” and “animal welfare.”

House Sitting

The easiest jobs are homestays, which you can also find on Trusted House Sitters. All you have to do is look after one or more animals in exchange for a place to stay. Food is rarely provided, although I’ve had some amazing hosts that provided literally everything I needed for my stay (food, SIM card, a vehicle with fuel and insurance, etc). The biggest house sit I did was on the Isle of Skye with a dog, two cats, four ducks and eight chickens, all the while keeping a 4-bedroom B&B clean and tidy in one of the most beautiful locations in the world.

Hospitality

Hostels, camping and guesthouse jobs have a very wide range of duties. You might be making beds and cleaning toilets, holding reception, running pub crawls, staying up for the nightshift, or even designing the website (as I did at my hostel in Malaysia). Some places only have you working a couple hours a day, while others go for the full five (or more) hours. Breakfast is often included, although it might only be bread and butter. If you get really lucky, you’ll receive all three meals, but that’s pretty rare at hostels.

Selfie Cleaning at the Code Court Pod Hostel

Communities and Retreats

Holistic centers (like yoga retreats), community projects, and surf camps are just pure fun. Most of them have just as many locals attending as they have travelers, and your help is extremely appreciated, especially if you’re trained in the skills needed at the center.

Social Work

NGOs, schools, eco-villages, farms and permaculture projects are the most varied of volunteer jobs, and so are the conditions they come with. You might be teaching English or other skills to kids or adults, helping single mothers organize their lives, building community gardens or shelters…the list goes on. Some of these have amazing accommodations and three square meals a day, while others are in very underdeveloped corners of the world with almost no amenities (but usually still three meals a day and a place to sleep, either privately or communally).

Workaway or Worldpackers

There are several volunteering websites to choose from – Workaway, Worldpackers, HelpX, WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), Hippohelp, Volunteer Base, etc. Each has its own pros and cons. I’ve personally used Workaway and Worldpackers, although many of my hosts have also been registered on the other platforms. Especially with hostels, you can find the same ones available on every volunteer website.

Hippohelp and Volunteer Base

Hippohelp and Volunteer Base are the two free platforms to use. From what I’ve heard, the host lists are shorter, the platforms are simpler, and the support isn’t as great, but that doesn’t mean they are bad websites to find hosts on. I haven’t used either myself, so I can’t really rate them.

WWOOFing

WWOOFing doesn’t currently have a single international database and requires that you apply for each individual country you plan to visit. Nearly every country except (sadly) about half of Africa has a website, which you can access through the main WWOOF website. Yearly memberships range from about $10 to $50 per country, with discounts for joint memberships and local citizens.

Workaway Summary

Currently, the sign-up fee for Workaway is $42 per year (when I first signed up in 2015, it was about $20 for two years!). There are over 40,000 hosts in 170+ countries around the world, although not all of them are active, many are hostels, and plenty aren’t worth applying for. I’ve found Workaway reviews can be inaccurate and misleading in some cases, though the feedback system has been improved over the years. The biggest struggle I had with Workaway was getting hosts to respond – I’m not the only one who has sent out numerous responses and not heard back on any.

Worldpackers Summary

Worldpackers is currently $49 for 12 months, but you can claim a $20 discount with the promo code SKYETRAVELS. Some of the reasons I prefer Worldpackers over Workaway are they have a stronger screening process for hosts to ensure their values are high, they follow up on job requests and the hosts have a time limit to respond, reviews are backed up by experts who can chat with you and give specific details on the host, and – best of all – there’s Worldpacker’s insurance. If something goes terribly wrong with your host that you can’t sort out and there are no other options, Worldpackers will find another host for you or put you up in a hostel for three days in the same city. The one disadvantage I found with Worldpackers is they don’t limit the number of hours to 25 (like Workaway does) and some hosts take advantage of this.

HelpX

I once said I was going to try out HelpX after my subscription for Workaway expired, but then I moved to Worldpackers. HelpX is very similar to Workaway or Worldpackers, but since I haven’t used them personally, I can’t give my own opinion.

My personal recommendation would be to sign up for Workaway or Worldpackers, although I’ve come to prefer Worldpackers for the reasons listed above. Other than WWOOFing, Workaway is the oldest of the volunteer platforms and has the biggest database of hosts (over 40,000 in 2020). Worldpackers began more recently in Brazil and quickly spread internationally. As they are newer, I think they paid better attention to what did and didn’t work on older platforms, and have a better system in general.

Finding Hosts

There are a lot of small factors to pay attention to when looking for a good host.

Do They Respond?

Workaway and Worldpackers will both tell you the chance of the host responding, and how long they usually take to write back. I tend to filter out hosts who respond to less than 50% of requests, or who take more than a week to respond. Workaway also tells you when the host was last active on the site, which is also a good metric on whether they will respond soon or not.

Where Are They Located?

Just because a host is in the country or city you want to visit doesn’t mean they are in a good location. Then again, sometimes getting out into the countryside and off the beaten path is a great way to spend your vacation or volunteering experience. I’ve had several hosts that were more than an hour away from the closest city, and in almost every instance, the hosts were more than happy to pick me up from the city or airport.

Snowy Countryside Around Sjuntorp

If your host is far from civilization, pay attention to public transportation, where your closest shops are, if you can get rides into town with your host, etc.

What Work Are They Expecting?

It’s great to use volunteering to learn new skills, develop responsibility, and get out of your comfort zone. Pay attention to what tasks are expected of you, what skills you’ll need for the tasks, and how many hours a week you’ll be working. On Workaway, hosts are supposed to limit the amount of work to 25 hours a week, but there are several who exceed this (especially if you’re working at a farm or full-time project).

There are two sides to volunteering – one is helping out the local community, and the other is getting room and board to help support your travels. When there is a great purpose (like setting up a school or creating a sustainability farm), hours don’t really matter. On the other hand, working in a hostel for 30 hours a week for a bed valued at $10 a night when 120 hours a month far exceeds the value of that bed in almost any country is unjust on the part of the hostel.

How Many People Are They Hosting?

The number of guests they can host at one time can make a big difference. If you’re traveling with a partner or a friend, you’ll need a place accepting couples or joint accounts. Having other volunteers with you will also help with camaraderie, especially in remote locations but also at hostels. It also ties into the point above with a hostel that uses volunteers instead of paid staff to get their work done.

What Are the Conditions?

Perhaps the most important factor when choosing a host is what the conditions will be like. As a volunteer, sometimes we have to get dirty and tackle things we don’t enjoy, but as a traveler, we want to enjoy our trip. Staying in a house with no heating, hot water, internet or proper food during the winter (as I did in France) isn’t exactly how you want to spend your vacation. On the other hand, no host in their right mind would let you just relax the whole day without fulfilling your duties. Pay attention when the host says there’s no running water, you’ll be sleeping in a tent, or only vegan meals are accepted in the house (if you’re an omnivore). If those don’t fit your fancy, then look for a different host, or be willing to go outside your comfort zone.

Heb Hostel Treehouse

What Do the Reviews Say?

Finally, it’s a good idea to look at the reviews, if there are any for that host. Unfortunately, Workaway doesn’t post a negative review on their website (there will be a note that a negative review exists, but you can’t ever read it). Also, I learned the hard way that hosts can have reviews from people that never actually volunteered for them. Some hosts will even put the pressure on to leave a positive review when they didn’t warrant it. Just remember that the vast majority of the reviews are accurate and positive, and they will give you a very good idea of what to expect.

Visas Needed for Volunteering

Thankfully, most countries don’t require that you have a visa to volunteer. Some countries have requirements (such as working under 20 hours a week as a volunteer). But there are a handful of countries that do require that you have a work visa even if you’re just volunteering and not getting paid. Be sure to check the laws of the country you want to volunteer in. Neither Workaway nor Worldpackers provides this information on their site, but you can find it with a quick Google search.

For example, UK law states the following: “A visitor may undertake incidental volunteering, provided it lasts no more than 30 days in total and is for a charity that is registered with either the Charity Commission for England and Wales; the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland; or the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.” That applies to anyone entering the UK on a visa-less entry, such as US citizens. If you hold an EU passport, you’re legally allowed to work or volunteer in the UK.

Selfie with British Citizenship

Advantages of Volunteering

Getting Room and Board When You Travel

It would be a lie to say a free bed and meals aren’t a huge benefit in your travels. Truthfully, using Workaway or Worldpackers doesn’t provide you with a “free” bed. You have to work for your room and board, which is what makes this such a great system. I’m a firm believer in spending less to travel more. Volunteering makes that a reality with a place to stay. If you can find a host that will provide three meals a day, even better. Food can be quite expensive too (such as in the Netherlands) and not having that expenditure is a huge boon. Having said that, I purchased nearly all my food at the two volunteer jobs I had in the Netherlands.

Giving Back to the Community

While what you get out of something is good, a higher level of motivation is what others get out of it. Please, please, please don’t go volunteering only for what you get out of it unless it’s the satisfaction of helping others. The whole point I’m trying to make is that volunteering is focusing on giving back to the local community and keeping in your exchange when you travel.

Working in hostels is a lot of fun, but I would recommend aiming for the community and social work projects. One of my favorite and most rewarding jobs was working with an NGO in Thailand to teach nursing skills to a team of teenagers from Myanmar so they could bring vitally needed medicine to their villages.

Selfie with TEFL Class in Chiang Mai

Making New Connections

One of the reasons I love volunteering is the connections you make around the world, both with hosts and other volunteers. If you choose to work in a hostel, you’ll also get to meet all kinds of travelers, and you’re very likely to find friends for life (as I’ve done dozens of times). Also, if you’re in a relationship, volunteering together on a farm or in an eco-project is a great bonding experience!

Learning the Local Culture and Customs

Depending on the volunteer job you find, you might have a chance to really delve into the local culture. Most likely, your hosts will show you around the local area, perhaps bring you out to a party or gathering, teach you some of the language, etc – all of which I’ve experienced with my hosts. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get some cooking lessons in the local cuisine.

One of the best ways to get to know the local customs and learn the ropes is to stay with a local family and assimilate through full immersion. It’s always good to know things like not giving a thumbs up in certain Middle Eastern countries (the same as the middle finger in the West), or asking for a cookie in Hungary (kuki is Hungarian for “willie” or “weenie”).

Maybe Getting the Local Cuisine

You might not get cooking lessons, but at least you’ll be able to eat the local food. If you’re working in a hostel, you’ll probably have to get the food yourself. For most other jobs, you should be provided with two or three meals, usually of the local cuisine. I’ve tried some of the best dishes around the world at different Workaway or Worldpacker jobs. Just make sure to pay attention to the dietary restrictions or lack thereof with your hosts – omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, etc.

Pitfalls of Volunteering

Unfair Exchange

As mentioned above, the biggest problem with Workaway or Worldpackers is the balance of services. Some hosts are expecting 25 or more hours a week without providing meals, have no amenities in the house (heating, hot water, internet, etc), have squalid living conditions, etc. There’s also the minority of volunteers who just want to be pampered, shun their responsibilities, and simply receive their free room and board without putting in the work.

Workaway limits to 25 hours a week, and there are some countries that limit volunteering to 20 hours, but I think a good practice for hosts is to look a the value of the hours of work they’re demanding and provide an equivalent amount of lodging and food to the volunteer, based on the minimum wage of their country. If 7 nights of lodging isn’t worth 25 hours of work, they should provide three square meals or lower the hours. On the other hand, volunteers need to really pull their weight and work for their room and board, just like they would do at any other job (or better, considering the moral standards of some employees these days).

Undesirable Conditions

Going along with unfair exchange is poor or squalid conditions – rooms that haven’t been cleaned, leftover food, etc. I’ve seen much and heard stories of worse. If a host isn’t maintaining their end of the bargain (decent room and board), you kinda have the right to move on. Of course, there are some projects such as those in underdeveloped countries where you would normally expect to find simpler conditions.

Falsified Profiles

Just as there are a small handful of volunteers who try to take advantage of the system to just get free room and board, there are a few hosts who falsify their profile or are just there for free work. It might be the conditions offered, the work expected, the number of hours demanded, etc. I certainly had a red flag on my second Workaway when the first thing my host said when we met was that she would have to censor my feedback when I left. It only took a few hours to discover why she would say that.

Limited Movement

I’m no stranger to volunteer locations that seriously restrict your movement. Many hosts live far out in the boonies where public transportation doesn’t reach, or only rarely comes around. Often, you’ll be at the mercy of your host’s travel into town to get supplies. It’s always a good idea to check this before you arrive, and bring the necessary supplies with you. You might not be able to explore the area around the job, depending on the circumstances, but many hosts will try to make arrangements for you (providing a bike, etc). If you want more flexibility, go for the hostels.

Some of My Favorite Volunteering Experiences

Landscaping and Building Boats Near Cinque Terre, Italy

The third volunteer job I did in my travels was definitely one of my favorites. Near the small village of Sarzana, itself only half an hour away by train from the famed Cinque Terre coast of Italy, I spent two weeks repairing the manor house after a flood, working on landscaping and helping to build RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) which was the family business.

I had a room to myself in the “house” where the hosts lived – it was actually the old horse stables beautifully converted into several living quarters; you couldn’t tell they had originally been stables. The elderly mother cooked divine Italian food for every meal, and the hosts were fantastically friendly. I had days off for exploring Cinque Terre or riding the bicycle out to the nearby beach. It was hard, heavy work, which I quite enjoyed as I love to exercise.

Clearing the Trees for Workaway

Working on a Horsemanship Farm in Sjuntorp, Sweden

Perhaps one of the most remote Workaways I did was on a farm in Sjuntorp, Sweden, five hours away from Stockholm and an hour away from Gothenburg – the closest big city. For five weeks, I helped in the stables and with various projects around the house, as well as taking care of the young daughter. I had my own room, (mostly) vegetarian meals, another great volunteer to spend time with, and a gorgeous countryside I got to see shift from white to green as winter changed to spring.

I was often expected to work more than 5 hours a day, but then I was given a few days off when the hosts were out of town (other than the daily tasks taking care of the horses).

Designing a Campground in Riga, Latvia

One host I wish I could have spent longer at (but I’d already booked my flights) was at a small campground in the Latvian countryside about an hour away from the capital. I had all kinds of interesting tasks during my week there: making a sandbox for kids to play in, installing a trellis for grapes to grow on, and constructing Adirondack chairs (I had to look up what those were before building them).

I arrived just after the season was over, so there weren’t any guests staying at the campground, but the location was rented out for a couple of parties. I wish I could have stayed in one of the three floating bungalows available for guests. We had some wonderful barbecues, and I was also able to teach myself slacklining with the set-up they had.

Designing a Hostel’s Website in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The easiest job I’ve done was developing a website for a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. I went to the hostel to help in reception and the bar, but when the owner found out that I developed websites, he quickly reassigned me. Only thing is, he was constantly busy with other business ventures. While I hit every deadline he set for my tasks, it would often be two or three days later that I received the next assignment. Thankfully, I was still able to complete most of the website in the two weeks I was there despite very little direction. I also had one of my favorite cafes in my travels to work in each day.

House Sitting on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

While I didn’t land the job through Workaway or Worldpackers, I have to mention my house sitting on the Isle of Skye, as it’s possible to find this kind of job on the volunteer websites. The Isle of Skye is my favorite place in the world, and getting to live there for six weeks while taking the dog out to my favorite spots on the island was a dream come true. In total, I took care of a dog, two cats, four ducks and eight chickens. There wasn’t a lot of internet and sometimes I had to hitchhike to get food, but it will always be remembered as some of the best weeks of my travels!

Selfie with Housesit Dog at Old Man of Storr

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Workaway or Worldpackers Pin

Further Reading

I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pros and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.

I’ve just spent the past two weeks house sitting in Appleby, England. Between two wonderful purebred Spanish Water Dogs, snowstorms and getting locked out of the van, it was quite an adventure.

My First Impression of Hilton

Before I went to Appleby, I told a few people about my upcoming housesit. Many were shocked and for good reason. Appleby had just been flooded by Storm Ciara. Most of the businesses, including the local supermarket, were closed.

Thankfully, the house sit was actually in the tiny village of Hilton a couple miles uphill from Appleby. Hilton only has a couple dozen houses, most of which were built centuries ago. My house sit happened to be the one new house in the village, built only 30 years ago, which mainly meant that it had great insulation.

I arrived at night so didn’t see much of the countryside on the way to the house, but I could tell it was beautiful. I passed through Appleby where the water had resided and saw it was a quintessential English village. Hilton is the location of an old lead mine from the 19th century, although some of the churches in the area date back several centuries.

Beautiful Winter Weather

As my housesit was at the end of February, I was expecting some cold, wet weather. What I wasn’t expecting was to wake up one morning and look out the window to find everything white. It was one of the first days of my stay. It continued to snow every day for the next week, although it didn’t last as long as it did the first day. Still, there was snow on the surrounding hills when I left. It just couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Appleby with Snow

Although it snowed (or rained a little) every day, it was also sunny for a few hours most days, long enough to take the dogs for a good walk. The house is next to a large Ministry of Defense firing range which often had the red flags flying, preventing me from accessing the trails during part of the days. As soon as the flags dropped, I was trudging up the trails, trying not to get too muddy in all the puddles and bogs. It certainly wasn’t easy with only a pair of sneakers.

Laura Walking Dogs at House Sit in Appleby

Getting Locked Out of the Van

The reason I only had my running shoes and not hiking boots was that I couldn’t get into the van. Talk about an absolute nightmare! My hosts had generously offered to let me use any of their extensive tools in their sheds so I could work on the van conversion. On the first day of the house sit, I was moving everything out of the van so I could lay down the insulation. Somehow, between two of my trips to unload, the doors of the van (all but the driver’s door) locked and wouldn’t unlock no matter how much I tried.

I immediately resorted to Google, searching for possible causes and fixes. I checked the fuse, disassembled the door and checked the lock and wires, and even tried bypassing the door locks through the electrical system, all to no avail. I brought the van into the local garage who sent me to a Ford garage a few miles away. Neither knew what the problem was or how to fix it. I ordered a new central locking unit off eBay, but this didn’t resolve the problem either.

To make matters worse, I had secured the bulkhead back in place in the van, so there was nothing I could do to get to my stuff in the back. The van is specifically designed to prevent access or theft when the doors are locked (double-locked it’s called). So for the rest of the housesit, I only had the few bags I had brought in at the beginning, which didn’t include boots or several other essentials.

My Host to the Rescue

When my hosts got back from their trip and heard my story, Jack immediately started tackling the problem. It couldn’t have been more fortuitous to discover that Jack’s profession (before he retired) was as a master electrician. Not only did he immediately find out what the problem was, he had the equipment to resolve it. It turns out the Ford van has two batteries (something three different garages didn’t know about even though they made references to failing electrical systems) and the secondary battery powered the locks, among other things.

Within minutes of diagnosing the problem, Jack had his jumpstarters out and less than a minute later I was into the back of the van! Thankfully, my possessions were far less saturated than I thought they would be. I’m still getting the insulation and vapor seal installed, and sometimes a lot of water condenses on the ceiling. As it was, only the bedding was a little damp and everything else was fine.

Unfortunately, no amount of charging could salvage the battery (it won’t hold a charge), and we’ll need to get a new one in short order. But my hosts’ help didn’t stop there. They offered to let me stay a bit longer so I could get the work done on the van which I had hoped to complete while they were gone. The next day, I was able to get all the insulation cut and ready to mount to the floor of the van. Now I just need a warm enough day to throw a coat of anti-rust paint down and I can have the floor of the van all ready to go.

Van Floor Insulation

Throughout my stay, my hosts were more than accommodating. They had a delicious roast and soup ready for me when I arrived, and then cooked more meals for me when they returned. They were also very pleased with my famous scalloped potatoes I got to cook for them. Best of all, I just had the most amazing conversations with my hosts every day. It was a real struggle to finally move on to my next destination…which happens to be a massive estate in Scotland looking after a Labrador puppy.

Join Trusted Housesitters Today

Trusted House Sitters is a website you can join in order to house sit for people who have animals they plan to leave behind while they take a vacation. Membership is $119 for a year, which gives you unlimited applications for house sits.

Along with Couchsurfing and WorldpackersTrusted House Sitters makes up the Holy Trinity for unique and wonderful accommodations suitable for budget travelers. Each has its benefits. As much as I love meeting locals on Couchsurfing, or exchanging for my bed and board on WorkawayTrusted House Sitters just might be my favorite, and for a very simple reason.

You get to pet sit!

It might be something as simple as a single dog or cat. It might be a handful of either, or a combination of both. You might be looking after chickens, geese or donkeys. Some have snakes, others have fish. On the best ones, you get to look after horses! There is even a small handful just looking for people to water the plants. Basically there is one major requirement for using Trusted House Sitters, other than flexibility with location and schedules:

You have to love animals. I know I sure do!

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House Sitting in Appleby Pin

Further Reading

I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pros and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

I’ve been volunteering since my second week of traveling, but I only recently found Worldpackers. I think it’s necessary that I write a Worldpackers review since, in my opinion, they’re so much better than Workaway, the earlier platform I had been using.

Worldpackers was started in February 2014 by a team down in Brazil and has already grown to over a million volunteers worldwide. It’s true that many of the hosts on Workaway also list their project or hostel on Worldpackers, but there are some significant differences between the platforms.

Sign up for Worldpackers now with code SKYETRAVELS and get $10 off (20%) a year’s membership, plus an additional three months free! Click here!

Focus on Community and Eco-Projects

Many people automatically think of hostels or farms when they consider volunteering, but there are so many other possibilities. My first volunteer job back in 2015 was helping to retrofit an antique chest with an internal support chest, cleaning, cooking and teaching English to my host’s daughter. My second and third volunteer jobs both included renovations at a farm. I didn’t work at a hostel until six months of volunteering around Europe had passed (and that one was truly amazing in Tirana, Albania).

Hostels are fun and almost always allow you to connect to more people than other volunteer options. Then again, helping with an eco-project, volunteering at a charity school, grooming horses on a farm in Sweden or assisting at a wellness center is far more fulfilling than making beds or managing a game of beer pong.

Worldpackers puts a lot of attention on community projects, eco-projects and social impact. There are hundreds of these kinds of hosts all around the world, such as helping in a school or NGO, setting up a community garden, working at a holistic retreat, or building a self-sustaining village. Plenty of hostel positions are available too, but I’d say the other jobs are far better if you want to get the most out of volunteering.

Selfie with TEFL Class in Chiang Mai

An Online Group of Experts

In the short time I’ve used them, I’ve found Worldpackers to be a far better community than Workaway. While you do have the option of contacting previous volunteers in Workaway to find out about their experience, this is encouraged on Worldpackers, and dozens of individuals have been designated as experts. You can go to these experts for knowledge about hosts, advice for your volunteering or anything else related to the platform.

Worldpackers also has a community blog with dozens of articles giving advice on how to volunteer, travel, stay safe, maintain a budget, etc. Not that you can’t come to my blog too for travel advice, but they have some really good articles to get you started with your volunteering.

Better Communication with Hosts

As a note, there is a possibility that Workaway has changed since I used them in this regard, but in the two years that I used Workaway, it was very rare that I would receive replies from hosts. Worldpackers does something similar to Couchsurfing. They give what percentage of inquiries the hosts respond to, and how long it takes them to respond. This way, you can filter out the hosts that aren’t going to get back to you, or at least not count on them if you’re in a hurry to make your plans.

Worldpackers Insurance

There isn’t a volunteer site out there that offers travel insurance, but Worldpackers does have their own form of insurance. If you run into a genuinely horrible experience with a host, Worldpackers will put you up at a local hostel and help you with arrangements to get to a better host. I only had one truly horrible volunteer experience in France where I would have used this. Most jobs tend to be fantastic, but it’s good to know that the platform has your back.

Clearing the Trees for Workaway in Sarzana

Honest Reviews

The biggest beef I have with Workaway is that they won’t display a negative review for a host or volunteer, thus negating the purpose of the review system. Worldpackers understands the importance of an accurate review, whether positive or negative. Although they are a newer system than Workaway and thus don’t have as many reviews, the reviews are all there to let you know what to expect.

Better yet, Worldpacker reviews have a rating system for different aspects of the host. Instead of just a five-star review, you can see the hosts’ rating for the staff, hours and tasks, the site (hostel, eco-farm, etc.), and learning and fun.

Downsides to Worldpackers

I consider Worldpackers a better system than Workaway, but it’s still not a perfect system. As this is an honest Worldpackers review, here are a couple points where I think the platform could be improved.

No Limit to Volunteer Hours

My first problem with Worldpackers is that they don’t have a limit to how many hours you have to work at the volunteer job. In my list of ways that Workaway could be improved, I mention how some hosts are just looking for free labor, putting their exchange on par with that of a criminal (taking something without giving back). I’ve spent nearly my entire life volunteering and I’m all for the system, but I still believe that the exchange should be balanced. Why volunteer for 40 hours a week while living in a shared dorm when you could apply for a work visa and work the same shift while earning 10 times the value of that shared dorm?

Mucking the Yard for Workaway

Many of the hosts on Worldpackers require the usual 20-25 hours a week of volunteer hours, and some require less, but there are a handful that require more…a lot more. For the sake of all the honest hosts out there that want to keep a fair exchange with their volunteers and hire staff when required, avoid any host that demands you work more than 25 hours a week, unless the value is truly worth it, or it’s something you’re just really passionate about.

As a note, all hosts are interviewed by Worldpackers to ensure their values are up to standards, and that they’re not just looking for free labor. To be fair, the hosts that were requiring more than 25 hours were those running schools, farms or other activities where you were really expected to participate full time, and they always came with three square meals along with several other benefits. So while I still think many of these positions should be paid, WOrldpackers does a lot to uphold their standards.

Fewer Hosts (Except in South America)

The one advantage of Workaway is that they have the most hosts. Workaway started in 2002, and they’ve garnered over 40,000 hosts all around the world to choose from. However, as Worldpackers originated in Brazil, they have the lion’s share of the hosts in South America.

Sadly, neither Workaway or Worldpackers allows you to search for hosts on a map. To my knowledge, the only platform that allows you to do that is Hippohelp, but they also have the fewest available hosts.

Limited Review Length

One oddity I found with Worldpackers reviews is that they have a maximum character length, and it isn’t many. While they display all their reviews, you can only write so many words. I don’t know what the exact character limit is, but when it comes to giving an accurate review of a host, you shouldn’t have to squeeze it into a couple hundred words.

Sign up for WorldPackers Now

The price for a Worldpackers membership is $49 a year (€44). That’s a bit more than the $40 (€36) that Workaway charges, but if you click directly on this link to sign up, you can get a $10 discount, bringing the cost to only $39, plus an additional three months free! Join now!

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Worldpackers Review Pin

Further Reading

I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pros and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.

My Workaways in Scotland helping at different hostels have been some of my favorite volunteer jobs around the world. There have been a couple of rather interesting experiences, but overall it’s been a joy to volunteer in my favorite country.

Why Do I Volunteer to Work in Hostels?

Workaway isn’t always a fair exchange between hosts and volunteers. When you consider the maximum 100 hours a month that you could be working for a host and the minimum wage for that city, you’ll quickly see that you would be making two to three times the value of your room and board if you were at a paid job. Then again, some volunteers really take advantage of their hosts, whether by eating a fortune worth of food, not working hard, etc.

With hostels, you rarely get three square meals a day with your bed in a shared room. Although the price of hostels in a city might be expensive in general, a bed in a dorm is rarely the equivalent of 25 hours a week at minimum wage. Most hostels recognize this and often require 10-20 hours a week of work in exchange for the bed, plus a meal or two.

I think one of the best advantages with working in a hostel is avoiding the hassle of finding another place to stay and getting all the legal documentation to get paid (I have an advantage in Europe as a UK citizen). Additionally, I’ve spent the better part of my life living in dorm rooms, and thus I’m more than happy to share a room for a few weeks from time to time in my travels.

Malones Hostel

My first Workaway in Scotland was at Malones Hostel in Edinburgh. The hostel has long since closed and the pub it was connected to has moved to a different location, but my six weeks there will always remain a pleasurable experience in my memory. Sure, there were a couple ups and downs, but overall I’d say we made a pretty good team.

As with any Workaway that has several volunteers, they tend to cycle through quite a bit. Malones was no different. I saw several volunteers come and go while I was there, although it wasn’t as erratic as I thought it would be. Edinburgh tends to have a high turnover rate generally in its businesses.

Malones was a smallish hostel with only about 40 beds. We had four volunteers who helped with reception, cleaning and the night shift. The night shift wasn’t covered in the volunteer hours, but it only entailed keeping the phone by the bed and getting up to handle any late-night inquiries. The irony was that, when I arrived, I was told no one ever called for the night shift. Well, I didn’t have a night shift in those six weeks when I didn’t have to handle something or several somethings in the middle of the night.

With such a small hostel, there really wasn’t a lot of work. There might be as many as 20 beds checking out that had to be made, and there were only a couple bathrooms. The reception shift was similarly easy with a minimal number of check-ins, and the manager took care of most of those. We set up breakfast at 7 a.m., took it down at 10, and otherwise took responsibility for the various little actions in the hostel.

Malones Hostel Kitchen

The biggest disadvantage to Malones is that it was stag and hen party friendly (bachelor and bachelorette parties to Americans). On one occasion, a group of football players left the hostel in such a state of destruction, it took hours to clean up. Aside from the various fluids and filth left all around, they also managed to completely break one of the metal bunk beds. When I mentioned the state of affairs to the manager, she only commented that she had seen worse.

Malones Bathroom after Stag Party

The Code Court Pod Hostel

My month volunteering at the Code Court Hostel could only be considered as a best-case scenario. The hostel was significantly bigger than Malones; in fact, it’s the largest I’ve worked in with over 200 beds! As far as hostels go, it’s hard to consider it as a hostel. Built into the original courthouse of Old Town Edinburgh next to St. Giles Cathedral, it’s far easier to consider it as a boutique hotel, except that it mostly has pod beds (although there are also a dozen private rooms too). The decor is left over from the courthouse, complete with the original iron bar doors in the hallways, wood-paneled courtroom and even the prisoner’s writing on the walls in the service stairwell.

Code Court Pod Hostel Dorm Room

I got to help during the Fringe, Edinburgh’s busiest time of the year. The hostel was fully booked every weekend, and quite full the rest of the week. I worked with the cleaning team, and consistently found additional functions to make the work run even smoother and faster. It was rather heartwarming each time I’d come back from my couple days off to have the whole cleaning team welcoming me back and stating things just didn’t run the same without me there.

That leads me to the best part about working at Code Court – the team! It’s such a rare treat to gel that smoothly with every other member of the team. From the general manager and owner on down, every person at the hostel is friendly, responsible, respectful and just a ton of fun. Every other volunteer they found to work at the hostel did a really good job, and it was sad to see any of them leave (a couple had family emergencies or last-minute jobs come up).

The managers made sure that there was a very fair exchange with the volunteers. We each had our own pod and locker, use of the kitchen and laundry, and a full breakfast provided. The breakfast improved throughout the month (I started working virtually the day after the hostel opened). The core of the breakfast was the American-style waffles that guests could make themselves with a three-step grill. Cereals, ham and cheese, fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs and beans, several different toppings for the waffles, juice, coffee, tea…the list goes on.

At first, we were working five days a week and were told to end off early a few times when our tasks were finished ahead of schedule. This was then changed to four days a week, which I consider is the right number of hours for a Workaway where you get a great place to sleep and one or two meals each day, but not all three meals.

Of all the Workaway and volunteer jobs I’ve had around the world, especially those working at hosels, the Code Court Pod Hostel was definitely the best!

Click here to book a night at the Code Court Hostel!

Other Great Workaways in Scotland

My other volunteer work around Scotland has actually been through Trusted House Sitters. These have been in Dundee and on the Isle of Skye where I had the ultimate delight of watching animals (two dogs in Dundee, and a dog, two cats, four ducks and eight chickens on the Isle of Skye). I love animals and housesitting is one of my favorite ways to travel, but there are other Workaways in Scotland I would love to work at. One is on the Isle of Skye and has actually been voted as one of the best hostels in the whole UK. The only disadvantage of working on the Isle of Skye is that the internet sucks. It’s a hard compromise when the whole island is so drop-dead gorgeous.

Dundee Trusted House Sitters View

There are also plenty of other volunteer jobs around Scotland that aren’t working in hostels. Families are looking for help on their farm, assistance with raising young kids, building an eco-friendly house, etc. Some of them can be a little remote (or really in the middle of nowhere, such as in the Outer Hebrides or Orkney Islands), and the Isle of Skye isn’t the only part of Scotland that has rubbish internet. But it’s Scotland after all; the best country in the world. Between the food, friendliness, fantastic scenery and frugal flights, it just makes the perfect package.

Switching to WorldPackers

Now that I’ve been harping on Workaway, I should probably point out that I’m actually not a fan of the platform. The Workaway reviews are too-easily misleading, volunteers and hosts both have problems with maintaining their end of the exchange, there’s absolutely no support system, etc. Recently, I’ve found the perfect alternative. Worldpackers is a volunteer platform that offers everything Workaway does, plus everything Workaway doesn’t. Worldpackers screens all their hosts and focuses on quality over quantity. They also offer a way better support system for the volunteers, even going so far as to offer a place to stay away from a host if things go bad, and then setting up an alternative volunteer location.

They focus a lot more on social impact and eco projects, which instantly grabbed my interest when I saw it. They already have hosts all over the world, and over 1.5 million volunteers (so you need to join quick and get ahead of the competition).

Click here to join Worldpackers or use SKYETRAVELS to get a $10 discount to your membership!

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Further Reading

I believe that giving back in your travels is a huge plus, and I’ll always spend a few months out of every year doing volunteer jobs. Here are some more articles that cover volunteering, the pro’s and cons, and some of the experiences I’ve had.