Brief (or not so brief) introduction
The first time I heard about voluntary work / work-exchange / volunteering, I really didn’t understand how it could be possible. Why would someone work for free? I just didn’t get it. Of course, at that time, I had a “normal” life: I worked nine hours a day, which allowed me to earn just enough money to live and to make a “big” trip of between 15 and 30 days or so, every two years. The equation was very simple: if I work voluntarily, without charging anything, how could I live and have vacations? And on the other hand, the vacations I had, always seemed incredibly short. So I could not think of spending them working for others and even for free? Conclusion: within that structure of life there was no way to understand volunteering.
When we started traveling full time in January 2019, this equation changed completely: there were no fixed expenses to pay, such as renting an apartment with a 2-year contract, electricity, gas, cell phone, etc. But there was also no job with a fixed salary at the end of the month. In short, the structure of our lives changed completely.
Now we are traveling with the savings we have from all the years we spent working and having a “normal” life. Of course the savings are not infinite, but thanks to a very efficient travel style and a very low budget, I can assure you that they last a lot longer than you would imagine.
To make the savings last, it is essential to reduce the unavoidable expenses of the trip: accommodation and food. You will always have to sleep somewhere and eat something. In this guide, I want to tell you all about one of the ways we use to reduce these expenses: work-exchange.
Work-exchange and the collaborative economy
Work-exchange goes into the category of collaborative economy. That is, a system of nonmonetary exchange of goods or services, based on solidarity and mutual benefit. In the case of voluntary work it consists of that we, travelers and volunteers, provide some hours of work and the other part provides accommodation and in some cases also meals. These both come in handy when we are traveling in the long term and with a low budget. Anyhow it is important to be clear that volunteering is not the same as being on vacation with full board, in exchange for some benefits we have some responsibilities.
Why to do volunteering?
Because, as we told you above, it is a great tool to reduce expenses, especially on a long journey where you have abundant time. It also encourages our preferred way of traveling, which is moving very slowly and immersing ourselves in the culture of each place. Living with and as locals and not simply passing through, as tourists. Not to mention that doing voluntary work is a spectacular way to try for a limited time countless jobs, lifestyles and different realities which we might have never tried otherwise. It is something like playing a role-playing game and asking the question “What would my life have been like if I had dedicated myself to…? Or what would my profession have been if I had been born in …?” For example, during our three-week volunteer work in Essaouira (Morocco), we had the opportunity to see what our life would be like if we lived in a farm and had 25 animals, including some that I had never met before, like camels!
What kind of work-exchange jobs exists?
The variety of voluntary work is incredibly broad and there are assignments of almost anything that comes to mind. For example we have done: languages teaching, childcare, caring for animals, mural painting, maintenance of houses, reception work in hostels, ecological construction, harvesting fruits and veggies, permacultural farming, cooking, planting a medicinal garden, cleaning trekking paths, designing logos and posters, social media management etc. etc.
How many hours do you work in a volunteer job? Are there days off? What’s the deal?
It is important to clarify that there are no universal agreements or rules in the work-exchange world and each case is unique. Details such as number of hours of work, schedules and type of work, type of accommodation, what food is included and what is not, etc., should be agreed between the parties before closing the deal. For example we have usually worked from 3 to 5 hours daily with one or two days off. We try to look for accomodation in a private room, but many times the volunteers share a common room. Sometimes the host provides for everyone and shares the meals with us, but sometimes we buy and cook our food independently. Advice: be clear on your needs and negotiate.
How to get a volunteer job?
Luckily in the internet era this is incredibly easy. There are many different platforms to apply for a work-exchange. Here I explain shortly, the characteristics of the best known ones and those that we use and recommend. In all these platforms you have to pay for a membership, but before registering, you can look at the voluntary work assignments that are available. You can filter the assignments by location, type of work, minimum duration, etc. Advice: Choose wisely the platform that serves best your personal travel plan.
It has work-exchange offers in 170 countries with all kinds of jobs. To apply for the assignments, you have to create a profile and pay an annual membership fee, which is 49 USD for one person and 59 USD for doubles (couples, friends, etc.). With the membership you can apply to any number of job offers. This platform is focused in safety, so you have a 24/7 support service and they guarantee you up to three free nights in a hostel if the assignment is not suitable for you. During those three days the Worldpackers team will help you to find an another work-exchange in the area.
If you register through this link, you receive a 10 USD discount and we receive a commission, which helps us a lot to continue traveling, so thank you!
Pretty similar to Worldpackers. A big variety of voluntary work offers in 178 countries. To apply to the assignments, create a profile page and pay the annual membership fee of 36 Euros for one person or 48 Euros for doubles (couples, friends, etc.). Once the membership is paid, unlimited applications can be made.
WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is oriented to work-exchanges on organic farms, so if you are specifically interested in this topic it may be a good option. WWOOFing can be done in many countries of the world and the subscription price depends on the country of your choice. This is an important difference with the two previous platforms, which include many countries with a single subscription, so this is something to consider depending on the type of trip you are planning (if it is to a specific country or includes several countries). You can also subscribe to the WWOOF Independents which hosts all the smaller countries which don’t have their own WWOOF organization.
How to build your profile page and how to contact the hosts?
It is very important to make an attractive volunteer profile. For this, tell a little about yourself, who you are, what have you done so far and what are you looking for. Also tell why you are interested in doing voluntary work, what knowledge and skills you have to offer, what experience do you have and what would you like to learn. In short, make a profile that promotes you well and summarizes why a host should choose you. Don’t forget to add some good quality photos of you with a wide smile!
I recommend always contacting the hosts through the platforms, since they are the intermediaries in these future relationships. In each volunteering offer you will find the option to contact the host through a message. Some tips to put together a solid message could be:
- Use polite and positive language
- Write a brief presentation of you (although you have already written it in the profile, this message will be the first reach out that the host receives from you and if they are in a hurry or not totally interested in what they see in the message, they probably will not even read the profile)
- Briefly explain why you are interested in that particular job offer and what you can contribute so it’s a win-win
- Write this message in the same language that the assignment is published, or if in the ad the host mentions that he speaks other languages, you can choose one of them
- Clearly detail on what date you would like to start volunteering and for how long
- Ask all the questions you have
Here is our message model that we normally use to send work-exchange applications and that works very well for us (although we usually modify it a little according to each occasion, this is just to give you an idea…)
Some frequently asked questions
How far in advance should I contact the hosts?
There are no rules for this, no minimum or maximum time. Whenever you are ready to make a commitment, it can also be last minute in some cases, just keep in mind that if it’s very close to the starting date, the host may already have other volunteers booked up. My advice is that if you see an assignment that interests you and you don’t want to miss it, write as soon as possible.
It’s also possible that your own plans change and in that case it’s polite to contact the hosts as soon as possible to not to keep them waiting.
What is the minimum duration of a work-exchange?
This depends on each case. When you read the assignments, you will see that some say the minimum length of stay, which may be a week, two, a month, or whatever that host considers. An initial training may be needed or to commit to a complete season. It is important to know how much time you have available when applying and that the work you choose is compatible with that. Some volunteer jobs on the other hand, have no time limits and are more flexible and open even just for a few days.
Are there age limits for volunteers?
You can have your own profile from the age of 18, to infinity (and beyond!) It is also possible to negotiate with the hosts if you would like to make a work-exchange with your kids, in many cases it’s possible.
Is it necessary to know the local language to do a volunteer job abroad?
It’s not obligatory, but it is highly recommended to have a common language with the hosts which may or may not be English. For example, when we did a work-exchange in Morocco with a Moroccan family, we communicated in English. In another volunteer job in Morocco our hostess was Italian and again our common language was English (but it could have been Italian, if we spoke it well enough). When it was our turn to volunteer in Italy, it turned out that our hosts did not speak anything but Italian and we ended up speaking a mixture of Spanish and Italian. Although they are very “similar” languages, sometimes the communication was quite complicated. So, my advice: it is not necessary to know how to speak the local language to do a work-exchange, but it is VERY important to have a common language with the hosts, so check this with them before making a decision.
Volunteer work and visas
Let’s say it like this: voluntary work is something between the volunteer and the host and is not within any legal framework, therefore, no special visa is needed to do a work-exchange. Nevertheless it is necessary to enter the country in the condition of a tourist and fulfill all the requirements for this. In some countries they ask at the border for accommodation reservations or an invitation letter, you can either present a reservation of some “conventional” accommodation (hostel, hotel, etc.) and then cancel it or you can ask your host to make you an invitation letter. Anyway, for this there are no universal rules and you have to check the requirements to enter each country, starting with whether or not you need a visa, which you can check on this website: www.doyouneedvisa.com/
Can a volunteer job go wrong?
Is it all rosy volunteering? If I told you yes, it would be a lie. Sometimes the work-exchange is not what you expected or the conditions change drastically and you need to reconsider if it’s worth it. You will always need to be honest with yourself and communicate clearly with the hosts about your needs. Its rare, but sometimes the hosts are exploiting the good will of the volunteers, don’t let that happen and inform the platform if there are serious problems. Luckily the Worldpackers membership offers you 24/7 assistance and even pays up to three nights in a hostel if you would need it in a case the work-exchange does not happen.
Stories of some of our experiences doing voluntary work
Here are some stories of our experiences doing work-exchanges in different parts of the world where we tell everything: the great experiences, the scams, what we liked and what we did not like. (We also did lately volunteer work in Italy and in Montenegro, so I promise to update this list).
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