My first bout of nomadic living came as a bit of a surprise, to everyone. Myself included. I didn’t spend years saving up for travel. This meant my bank account was far from prepared for my voluntary stint of unemployment. However, everything else in my life was screaming “go, go, go”. So I went. I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to see the world because it came unexpectedly. I decided I would just get really creative with my budgeting + travel plans. Enter volunteer exchange programs!
How Volunteer Exchange Programs Allowed Me To Travel More…
When I started to dig into budget travel, especially international, I came across someone’s story about WWOOFing while abroad. They used this volunteer exchange network as a way to reduce costs while soaking up local culture. WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”. It is an online network puts traveling volunteers into contact with organic or permaculture farms around the world. The volunteers commit to a certain amount of work + rather than being paid for their work the host offers them housing + food.
As a farm girl, this immediately piqued my interest. I could honestly say [still can!] that I missed working with animals in the family farm setting. I started researching the WWOOF website + reading about other people’s experiences with this “volunteer exchange” way of traveling. This is when I discovered WorkAway + HelpX, two similar communities designed to connect travelers with volunteer exchange opportunities. I had no idea this world existed…yet the more time I spent in Europe, the more I realized this “volunteer exchange” or “work for accommodation” culture is very common.
Since then I have volunteered multiple times through WorkAway, managed a HelpX account from the host side + worked alongside WWOOF volunteers. They all over very similar services, but I have found each to have pros + cons. Rather than send you off into the unknown, Googling your heart out, I thought I’d share my experiences + thoughts on each service. We’ll start with the one I have the most personal experience with — WorkAway.
Fees: $32 USD/year, access to 135+ countries
Focus: hostels, childcare, farming/gardening
During my past two trips to Europe, I have volunteered with three WorkAway hosts — a hostel, a homestead + a naturist campground. They were all extremely different experiences, but each came with some pretty amazing perks + little to no regret.
Pros: I ended up choosing Workaway as my connection to the volunteer exchange world because it is not limited to a specific country or location. You have access to view host profiles from around the world + can start communication with multiple hosts in a variety of countries at any given time. For example, while volunteering at a hostel in Switzerland I was able to reach out to hosts throughout Croatia + Montenegro while planning my travels for the upcoming month.
The WorkAway layout also allows you to view a monthly calendar for each host — months in red have already been snagged by volunteers, months in green need help! Of course, this is assuming the host updates their calendar, which is not always the case. In my experience, it’s best to reach out to any host you’re interested in, even if their calendar suggests they’ll tell you ‘no’.
Hosts can also reach out to workers. This is usually done if the worker profile has the hosts’ country/region +/or work categories listed on the worker profile.
Cons: You are forced to begin communication via the rather clunky WorkAway email platform; however, as soon as a host replies you can choose to pop all communication over to your email inbox. You’ll also need to reach out to a lot of hosts — very similar to applying for jobs. This is especially true if you’re hoping to work in a popular region of the world + can lead to a fair bit of time in “limbo” while you wait eons for responses.
Read more about my personal experience with WorkAway at a family homestead in rural Czech Republic.
Fees: ~$24/two years, ‘worldwide’
Focus: hostels/accommodations, farming/gardening
In full disclosure, I have only officially worked with HelpX from the hosts’ point of view [while volunteering at a WorkAway location]. The general premise is very similar to WorkAway — there are hosts, workers + listings.
Pros: Once you become a premier member of the website you’ll be able to see host’s full profiles + reviews. Many hosts include photos to give you a better idea of their home, the region + the type of work you’ll be doing. Rather than an email platform, you’ll be able to communicate with hosts via a messaging system. You’ll find a wide range of opportunities ranging from hostels to farms.
Cons: Once you’ve created your profile you’re limited to one region. This doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to hosts in other countries, but you won’t show up on searches done by hosts unless their searching for the particular region you’re in. This may sound like a silly complaint, but in Europe, borders are much easier to cross. Being in a handful of regions/countries over the course of a month or two is very feasible/common.
Fees: varies by country, per country
Focus: organic/permaculture farming + homesteads
WWOOF was my introduction into this world of volunteer exchanges, but I have not personally used it. This is partly because of the fact you have to pay a separate membership for each country. The strong focus on farming [even though I was stoked about it in the beginning] also steered me away because it seemed to allow for less personal travel during the exchange. This doesn’t mean I won’t use it in the future — my WorkAway membership expired + WWOOF is a very likely option for my upcoming trip to New Zealand [dairy farms + sheep farms!].
Pros: You’ll find a lot more farming, organic farming + permaculture listings on WWOOF, as the premise is “organic farming”. The other sites are a bit inundated by hostels + nanny listings. You’re bound to learn something new. The hosts are often farmers who love what they do. They have listings on WWOOF because they want to share their experiences with you, teaching you as you go. They have sheep farms where the hosts also create + dye their own yarn…the learning opportunities are endless!
Cons: Each country has its own WWOOF organization. This means you’re paying $20+ per country rather than a flat rate for the entire world. Since my first few trips abroad were very “eh, we’ll see where I end up” this just didn’t work for me.
Ultimately, each of these sites will give you access to a great network of hosts with a variety of volunteer exchange opportunities. I had a great experience with my WorkAway connections + hosts, along with a wide variety of experiences. This has a lot to do with the questions we asked + the expectations we set for each other.
If you’re looking to find yourself a volunteer exchange for your international travels [or domestic, for that matter!] I’d suggest looking into each of these networking sites. Figure out which one you like the best + start chatting up the hosts. Many hosts cross-post their listings, so you’re not really missing out by choosing one over the other.