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?
The Different Types of Volunteer Jobs
There are several types of volunteering around the world. Worldpackers lists the following categories on its website:
- Home Stay
- Guest House
- Holistic Center
- Surf Camp
- Eco Village
- Permaculture Project
Workaway has similar categories; two not listed above are “boat” and “animal welfare.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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.
- 5 Reasons Why Workaway Reviews Are Inaccurate and Could Be Improved
- My Workaway Experience in Brussels
- My Original Workaway Story for France
- My Workaway in France – A Story of Worst Case Scenario
- My Adventure with Zanzibara Campground via Workaway
- My First 3 Weeks Back in Europe, Helping on a Farm in Sweden
- My Five Weeks in Sjuntorp Could Have Been Better
- Hostel Workaways in Scotland: Mostly Great Volunteer Jobs
- A Worldpackers Review and 5 Reasons It’s Better Than Workaway