Can you volunteer abroad for FREE?

How many times have you searched for volunteer programs abroad and discovered that they were charging YOU at least $1,000 to travel all that way and help for free? Sounds kind of strange right?

However, a few months ago, I had a conversation with someone who worked at a volunteer coordination center in NYC, and he explained that if you are going into a disadvantaged community, you should cover all your own costs and not let the local economy be responsible for you, since they are the ones needing help in the first place. I can understand that, and I know that some organizations in the US will charge you up to a couple thousand dollars to participate on a volunteer trip abroad–or even to volunteer within the US. But, I will get into this issue more in depth in another post.

Right now, I want to talk about volunteering for FREE when you go abroad. There are actually ways to do this without putting a burden on the local community, without feeling guilty, and one of them is through Workaway.

I’ve mentioned this volunteer work exchange program before, and now it’s time to get down to the details. When you volunteer through a program like this, most of the hosts tend to be in a position where they simply need extra hands and extra skills, and they have chosen, and do have the ability to, provide extra room and food to those who can bring in those things. (I truly do want to discuss this situation more at length, but like I said, I’ll do so in another post…)

What’s important to understand is that traveling as a Workaway volunteer–and not paying for food or lodging–can help you sustain long term travel across many cities and countries, if that’s your dream. BUT, it can also work out perfectly as a short term arrangement if you’re in the US and just want to trek across the state or down the coast.

The deal is that you get free room and board in exchange for about 5 hours of work a day, 5 days a week. Before you shun the idea of working when you’re supposed to be traveling, here are some real examples of “work” from advertised Workaway hosts: harvesting olives in Tuscany, picking walnuts in Bulgaria, helping at a surf school in Hawaii, making apple cider in Romania, riding horses in Portugal, helping at a yoga camp in Turkey, painting at a children’s art camp in the Czech Republic, restoring a palace in India.

Of course, you’ve got to read between the lines and choose wisely when it comes to these situations, but the bad apples tend to be in the minority. My advice is be wary of the hostels or fancy seaside resorts in touristy locations, because the service/hospitality industry will likely be a much more stressful and busy work experience. When you are writing back and forth with your potential hosts, try to learn as much as possible from the host to see if your interests and hobbies align, if your expectations of the work are correct and you’re more likely to have a happy match.

You can search for hosts as much as you want without signing up for a Workaway membership, but once you decide to contact a host, you’ll need to sign up and fill out your profile. Be sure to create a positive and complete picture of who you are, what skills and experience you can offer, and why you’re traveling. A good, smiley photo is critical.

Membership for one traveler is $29 for 2 years (great deal!) or $38 for a couple, also for 2 years (even better deal!). You can even pay through Paypal and even better–you can give it as a gift!

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of countries or regions, you should write to 5 or 10 hosts who have availability and seem flexible and easy going, but also make sure that the work is something you actually want to do. If you are traveling very soon, you can check out the Last Minute hosts search.

Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable with the host–ask them about their expectations from volunteers as well as what you can expect from them, and find out how long you can stay. If it’s only 1 or 2 weeks, see if you can arrange some other Workaway stays nearby in the country or region, which will help you save on travel costs and allow you to really explore and understand the culture of the area, instead of rushing right through it. When you’re not working, you have plenty of time to explore the area and meet all sorts of interesting travelers with their own colorful adventures. I had plenty of time to hike, bike, enjoy local cafes, and get some good writing and thinking done on weekends, but also on most workdays–either during our long lunch breaks or once the work was done. The good thing is that many hosts are flexible with your work schedule and if you want to go traveling nearby, you can work an extra day and then have a 3 day weekend.

During your experience, you’ll also have the downtime to plan your next move—which, if you are traveling long term, might be a house sit–since these kinds of gigs often take time to arrange. And again, if you want to save on travel costs, try to aim for house sitting gigs within close proximity.

If you’re worried about how the host really is in person, how the work is, etc, you can check the host’s feedback comments on his or her profile and hear the real deal from Workawayers who have been there. The host can also leave comments for volunteers.

There’s so much I can say about this experience…and don’t worry, I will in future posts! 🙂 I’ve been a Workaway volunteer 4 times in 4 different countries and cannot say one negative thing about this program. The thing is, it’s not just about traveling on a budget or staying somewhere for free–it’s also very much about being part of a community, learning work skills and life skills, about meeting fascinating and memorable people (hosts and other volunteers) who may become lifelong friends. I never went to camp as a kid, but I’m sure that Workaway is much cooler than that 🙂

Have you ever volunteered abroad through Workaway or any other program? Have anything to add or questions to ask? Have your say in the comments!

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