Work Exchange: Budget Travel’s Crown Jewel


Work exchanges are an amazing way to spice up normal travel. They’re even a great lifestyle option!

Right now, let’s talk travel. Everyone knows that too much normal travel sucks. Here’s why. Tl;dr – it’s boring and kills your budget. Solution: work exchange to add fantastic variety and gain priceless access to cultures. A work exchange is a backstage pass that can’t be bought for all the money in the world.

Here are some work exchange FAQ’s to get you started:

What is a work-exchange?
How are the hours fair?
Who gets the better deal?
Is it worth it?
What do hosts get?
Why should I ‘waste’ my vacation?
How do I find a work exchange?
How long is the average work exchange?
How do I pick a host?
Do I need a work visa?
How do I become a good helper?
Which platform should I use?

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What is a work-exchange?

People need help. In exchange for helping them, you get a place to sleep and food to eat. Much of the help people need is farm-based. However, there are plenty of non-farm and non-physical helping opportunities mostly available through work exchange programs. The original program was WWOOF, so many people refer to work exchanging as wwoofing or being a wwoofer, even when the exchange isn’t secured through the WWOOF websites.

Work examples: I’ve re-finished sail boats, built fences, fed lambs, milked sheep, made cheese, built trellises, rendered walls, harvested honey, and repaired plaster. On the less-physical side, I’ve also organized computer files, designed templates for a service organization, given pony haircuts, made butter, and folded laundry. a#1, 3, 4, 5 were as a wwoofer, the rest were wwoofing -like positions through other exchange programs or word of mouth

Most opportunities involve volunteering four to six hours of your time each day in exchange for room and board. This varies hugely. Most common is the four hour/five day model for a total of 20 hours a week.

woman cutting a ponies hair doing a work exchange

Would I lie to you? Pony haircuts are a real thing! They can get a hair overgrowth condition which makes them miserable in summer. See? Work exchanges provide all sorts of opportunities, experiences, and education. This one was through WWOOF New Zealand.

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Twenty hours is a lot. And some places want more than that? How is that fair?

I don’t work exchange at places asking for more than 20 hours unless they have an amazing profile or a project/skill I really want to learn. Because I have the generous kind of orientation that I think makes for the best work exchange experience, I know I’m going to end up doing extra hours anyway.

My guess is places asking for more than four hours have experienced lots of helpers who give at much lower levels than anticipated. For example, at a property in Portugal, the farmer came to see how I was doing with reviving irrigation channels. (Read: swinging heavy tools and digging.) When he saw how much I’d cleared, his jaw dropped. He said I completed more in a morning than a wonderful but slow previous helper had completed in an entire week. So there’s a chance that places asking for six hours of work feel like that’s how long it takes the average worker to produce the standard four hours of work.

irrigation canal before and after done by woman in work exchange programs

Before and After: irrigation canal revival in Portugal through work exchange program HelpX. Too many flights and a big life change before and after farming meant working in my city boots and laying them to rest in the land of cork and olives.

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Even at 4 hour or less, aren’t the hosts are still getting the better end of the deal?

Short answer: no. The exchange is as equal as any subjective thing can be.

Some people argue that, especially in countries with a high minimum wage, the host is getting more – monetarily- than the helper. Trying to keep tabs like this is a slippery slope that easily ends in unhappiness. When you spend more time thinking about what you should be getting instead of what you should be giving, you’re bound to be dissatisfied. bThis goes for hosts, too!

For the math, see this footnote -> c Let’s use Australia’s nice, average minimum wage of $20 an hour. At that rate, helpers’ daily labor is worth $80 a day and $450 a week. A quick survey of flatmates.com.au says you can get a utilities paid room in a house for between $125 and $300 a week. So if you were working somewhere and renting instead, you’d have $150 to $325 leftover for groceries, transport, beer money, and hopefully saving toward future goals and travel. That’s heaps! Ah, but wait. You forgot taxes! Backpackers in Australia are taxed at 33% dactually 32.5%. So your take home pay on a 20-hour work week would actually be $300 – at least half of which would go to rent. Best case scenario – you have $175 leftover for transport and food. That’s not a lot for Australia where your bus ride to and from work can be $5-$10 a day, a beer can be $10 at the pub, and a basic coffee is $5. Long story short – you more or less break even. When it seems like your host might be coming out a little bit ahead financially, put yourself in their shoes.

Being a host takes lots of energy. Constantly re-explaining how to do everything in their home, dealing with the onslaught of e-communication, reading profiles, vetting people, organizing pick-ups and drop-offs, washing sheets, making beds, grocery shopping, meal planning, answering questions, connecting helpers to resources, tour guiding, problem solving communication issues, etc. are all unpaid tasks that they do.

Sure, we could talk about the similar unpaid tasks you’re also doing for them beyond your scheduled hours. Slippery slope, my friend. With unhappiness at the bottom.

Go into the situation determined to give a little bit more than you get. Find hosts with the same attitude, and work exchanging will rock your socks off!

two work exchange program participants and their host

This amazing woman’s boundless energy still doesn’t cease to amaze me. She hosts dozens of helpers a year through work exchange program HelpX, always providing awesome cultural experiences and amazing food. She’s the best, and work exchanging with her left me with unforgettable memories!

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I don’t know. It still seems like an awful lot of volunteering for just food and a bed. Why do people do this?

You get so much more than food and a place to sleep. Cultural exchange, being part of a family, the giver’s high, routine, a sense of purpose, work-life balance, insider-information, automatic networking, locals only sightseeing, education, skill building, and variety – the spice of life!

Working together bonds people quickly, so it’s easy to end up with new friends, too! I’m still in regular contact with several former hosts and other helpers I’ve worked with.
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If I get all that, what do the hosts get?

Besides your help, having you in their lives helps them get motivated to tackle or finish projects they’ve been dreaming about completing for ten years. Most hosts are saddled with never-ending responsibility and too little time for their personal aspirations. They get an education, too: learning about your culture, your background, and your personality. One host I know has gone on to visit a few of her helpers, getting the local experience in several countries around the world. Having a guest to steward often motivates hosts to make the time to do a hike just a few miles down the road that they’ve been meaning to do for years, or finally check out a beach a friend told them about.

work exchange host and her elderly mother on a field trip with a helper

My awesome work exchange host hadn’t had an excuse to stop at this roadside nature attraction for years. Her elderly mother loved it as much as I did! So many awesome Australian firsts work exchanging with these fantastic Aussies.

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But I’m a raging introvert. 24/7 with strangers makes me want to sad my pants.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. People who choose to live on isolated properties… don’t tend to be extroverts. There are plenty of hosts who just want their “me” time at the end of the day and have the same feelings you do about so much stranger interaction. These folks generally provide completely separate accommodation, sometimes even with your own kitchen for cooking if you want!

I’ve stayed in separate RVs with fully functioning kitchen and bath, separate cabins, and even a separate house. I’ve stayed in tents outside and RVs outside and had plenty of situations with tons of privacy.

But I don’t want to waste time on my vacation doing work. Why should I?

It’s best to think about work-exchanges as a whole new style of travel. If you can’t find a way to make it feel like rich, deep, valuable travel, don’t do it.

But here’s why it is valuable travel. It allows you to access more quality experiences. The model you probably have for vacation is wake up, go buy something (breakfast), go see something (walk? park? museum? tour?), buy something again (lunch, souvenirs?), go see more things (plaza? waterfall? fountain? show?), buy something again (dinner, souvenirs?), buy a place to sleep (hotel, hostel, B&B). Rinse and repeat!

So, yes. If you do a work exchange, you will deprive yourself of going out and buying breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You will deprive yourself of being herded with throngs of other tourists through popular cultural sites on tours.

Instead you might wake up in a small village and share a traditional breakfast with an eighth-generation family. You might go for a walk, see the same park, or possibly even visit the same museum. But then you’ll get to partake in a living museum: the lives of your hosts! Their culture, their day-to-day existence, is what you’re interested in, is it not? Do you not come to a country to see the citizens’ way of life, to learn about the country’s history, to experience the land and its people?

helper and work exchange program host picking dinner ingredients

Rosa (left) is well over 80. She made amazing Italian breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday. She joined her son and my partner and I in the orchard, thinning kiwis like nobody’s business. She drove like a bat out of hell and once broke into a run after stopping to fix her shoe. Her son repeatedly admonished her to stop speaking to me in heavily Roman, colloquial Italian so I could better understand. If any experience is “the real” Italy, work exchanging with this woman is it! Arranged through work exchange program WWOOF Italia.

You won’t just read a plaque on a display case about agricultural production, you’ll go out into the fields and try your hand at the craft and join them on their trip to the community market. You’ll eat a traditional lunch on the patio of their 200 year old stone home. You’ll spend an afternoon walking a historic path up a mountain overlooking multiple valleys. You’ll share a traditional dinner complimented with wine handmade by their neighbors from a process perfected by their ancestors. You’ll sleep in the same kind of bedroom slept in by many of the country’s denizens down the hall from a bathroom that hasn’t had the local culture westernized out of it.

woman and man milking sheep in a work exchange programs

Learning to milk sheep in the heel of the boot in Italy with Domenico from Sardenia. He belted out Italian love songs at the top of his lungs every morning and all during our afternoon cheesemaking. Arranged through work exchange program WWOOF Italia.

I won’t get deep into the way fast travel isolates you from the very cultures you intend to experience and insulates you so you can have the westernized, most comfortable version of the experiences possible in that country. A work exchange allows you to see a place in ways that are impossible if you are just sleeping at hotels, eating in restaurants, and running around in groups of tourists. A work exchange is a backstage pass that can’t be bought for all the money in the world.
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Okay, sold. So how do I do a work exchange? How do I find one?

You’re excited about meeting locals, like helping people, and are happy to work hard, right? Then the internet is the primary way to connect with hosts excited about meeting travelers and in need of help.

Several work exchange websites exist to connect people who need help with people who are willing to help.

I’ve also found work-exchanges through word-of-mouth. Sometimes other travelers tell me about an awesome host. Sometimes a host I contact doesn’t have any spots available, but refers me to a friend who isn’t on the website. Sometimes hosts pass me onto their friends who live in my next destination. Once I even put up posters in an area where I knew I wanted to spend more time.

For websites, Workaway, Wwoof, and HelpX are the main choices. My preference is HelpX now Workaway (update 2017). Here are descriptions and reviews of these three top work exchange organizations and an explanation for why I always start with HelpX Workaway.

girls doing hair didn't use any work exchange programs to end up at this particular spot in Thailand!

I ended up work exchanging at this lovely little girl’s house (and getting my hair done every night!) in rural Thailand thanks to a Norwegian I met in the Philippines who was friends with a friend of my couchsurfing host. Six degrees of separation!

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I don’t have that much time. How long is the average work exchange?

Work exchanges are as long or short as the host and helper agree upon. There is no average. Hosts usually indicate on their profiles how long they’d like to have helpers. Some hosts want at least a week, or at least a month. Some hosts only want to host over weekends. Or want to host no longer than a week. In terms of timing, there’s a great chance you’ll find a host with the same desired length of exchange.

A note: hosting is hard and takes a lot of energy. New hosts are more likely to agree to a shorter time frame as they are less likely to have experienced the burnout of constantly getting to know new people.
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How do I pick a host?

First: start by being a great helper. You can’t expect your host to be excited about all the things they’re going to do for you (feeding you, connecting you to their community, giving you a place to sleep, helping you figure out the local scene) if you aren’t excited about doing things for them.

Second: read their profiles. It’s fine to look at hosts based on their proximity to your ideal locale. But actually read. Don’t just contact someone because they’re in a perfect location. If you don’t approach the situation caring about who you’re going to be spending time with, you can’t expect more than that from your host. Look for people whose profiles are fun for you to read, whose projects and lives sound interesting to you. Hosts who have been thoughtful enough to write a comprehensive profile are generally fun to work and spend time with.

Third: read between the lines. Few people are willing to write a bad review – both hosts and helpers. Especially when the mediocre experience might have had more to do with mismatched personalities or expectations. How do you know if a host might be a bad apple? Lackluster reviews. Below are two host reviews I made up. Which hosts would you want to stay with?

“Jack and Kathy were great hosts. We spent each morning working together and the afternoons we were free to explore around the property. We really enjoyed our time at their farm.”

or

“Jim and Kim have the best farm in the world. Work exchanging with them was the highlight of our entire trip! They are both amazing cooks, took time to show us local sights on our days off, and were a total blast to work with. Count yourself lucky if you ever get to come to this awesome farm!”

Fourth:– write a great profile. I mentioned above that the thoughtfulness it takes to write a comprehensive profile is a good sign the host will provide an enjoyable experience. Those kinds of hosts aren’t going to want you if you don’t return the favor. Which one of these profile snippets would you want to invite into your home:

Alex W. – I’m just traveling around Europe and I love meeting people and seeing local cultures. I’m from Australia and will be starting Uni next year. In the meantime, I’m just traveling and taking in as much of the world as I can. I can’t wait to get out and see as much of Europe as possible!

or

Alex M. – I really look forward to helping locals with their projects. I’ve volunteered in community gardens and help my friend’s grandfather on his farm a few times. I’m enthusiastic and a quick learner. Connecting with local families will be the highlight of my trip in Europe, I hope!

It was a trick! They’re the same person – one profile highlights what they have to offer hosts, the other is just sort of a bio.

wwoofer helpers same person

As a wwoofer or helper, be sure the thoughtful half of you writes your profile, keeping your hosts in mind. If you were a WWOOF or Workaway or HelpX host, what would you want to know about the people wanting to stay with you? photo: pixabay

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I’ve heard you need a work visa to do a work exchange. Is that true?

Eh. Sometimes. Kind of. In some industrialized nations, doing a work-exchange is technically illegal if you don’t have a work visa.

“But why?” you ask. “If I’m not getting paid, how is that work?”

Ironically, the incentive for originally starting work-exchanges sometimes causes them to be illegalized. Remember it all started with WWOOF. Organic farming can be more labor intensive than growing things using synthetic poison and fertilizer. WWOOF was established to connect people passionate about advancing the organic farming movement with farmers who didn’t have the capital to get the labor needed to start or grow their organic farm.

Here’s the problem. If you – the foreign visitor – weren’t happy to volunteer your help hoeing a giant field of vegetables in exchange for community, friendship, and eating some of those veggies, what would that farmer do?

Anyone familiar with farming knows that farmer would mostly likely either work harder or be able to grow less. The government thinks, however, that the farmer would be forced to hired someone to do all that hoeing. And if that’s true, that you the foreign volunteer are taking a job out of the economy.

wwoofing and working like this woman taking a break in a vineyard are two different things helpx and workaway are not work

Not wwoofing, and not an organic farm. My co-worker in New Zealand on our lunch break. Any business owner knows depending on volunteer labor to run a large-scale commercial enterprise would be economic suicide. Which is why those who can afford to hire labor do, and those who can’t do without or turn to whatever WWOOF might intermittently send their way.

So, thanks to that line of thinking, in some countries it’s technically illegal for you to be part of local family’s life in exchange for helping them build their backyard pizza oven. You and I know that in most cases, the family would just input more of their own labor or not build the oven, but the government policy is designed with the hope that it will force job creation.

In countries where you’re supposed to have a visa to work exchange and you don’t, the safest thing to do is not work exchange. However – while I’m not advocating that anyone break the law, I’ve heard plenty of stories about people work exchanging anyway and not having any troubles. It’s the sharing economy, people!

How do I become a good helper?

I think this is the most important question! Let’s paraphrase JFK here:

“Ask not what your host can do for you, but what you can do for your host.”

Get good at picking people who have generous personalities and BE a generous personality and you will have amazing, amazing, amazing experiences.

Rather than explain what you should do, it’s easier to tell you about the struggles hosts have shared with me.

1. A common theme is a (generally youthful) helper who has never owned or managed a household and so isn’t aware of their impact. Examples:

  • taking really long showers when five other people are depending on the same hot water
  • using a good kitchen knife to cut things other than food
  • helping themselves to expensive household treats like alcohol and gourmet ice cream
  • not being conscious of water use when the farm’s rainwater tank is especially low
  • not using a cutting board and scarring countertops
  • tracking in mud or dirt and not cleaning it up
  • wanting to count time spent helping with community living tasks toward their hours worked

2. Regarding the latter, remember that at the end of your four hours of labor, the host will likely continue working another four, five, eight, or even twelve more hours. If the discrepancy between what a helper is contributing to the farm community and what the host is contributing becomes too large, the host may begin to feel that it isn’t worth having a helper around. If a helper isn’t keen to lighten the burden of preparing and tidying the communal meal ea community that now includes them!, in addition to their work hours, things can begin to feel a bit unbalanced from the host’s perspective.

3. The third common theme is an urban person not accustomed to the farm-standard of work. I’ve heard many stories about helpers who were exhausted after just an hour of a task that hosts will spend 12 hours a day completing. Hosts have also told me about helpers who were reluctant to get to work, squeamish about getting dirty, took lots of breaks, and were generally unenthusiastic. If you’re just not much of a giver, that’s okay. However, it’s not great karma to sign up for a work exchange program with mostly receiving in mind.

if you're a wwoofer who is just going to stand there like this woman on a farm, you might not want to work exchange

“Hmm… how to get across the fence without getting my dress dirty? Maybe if I wait long enough to go over there, they’ll finish spreading compost without me. Man, that breakfast this morning was so amazing. I love Romania!” photo: gratisograpy

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Which platform should I use?

See WWOOF, HelpX, Workaway Reviews to pick which work exchange organization is your best fit.

That’s it!

Are you planning to work exchange on your trip? What percentage of time do you think you’ll spend work exchanging? Tell us in the comments!

Happy Traveling! ♣

Related articles:

References   [ + ]

a. #1, 3, 4, 5 were as a wwoofer, the rest were wwoofing -like positions through other exchange programs or word of mouth
b. This goes for hosts, too!
c. Let’s use Australia’s nice, average minimum wage of $20 an hour. At that rate, helpers’ daily labor is worth $80 a day and $450 a week. A quick survey of flatmates.com.au says you can get a utilities paid room in a house for between $125 and $300 a week. So if you were working somewhere and renting instead, you’d have $150 to $325 leftover for groceries, transport, beer money, and hopefully saving toward future goals and travel. That’s heaps! Ah, but wait. You forgot taxes! Backpackers in Australia are taxed at 33% ((actually 32.5%
d. actually 32.5%. So your take home pay on a 20-hour work week would actually be $300 – at least half of which would go to rent. Best case scenario – you have $175 leftover for transport and food. That’s not a lot for Australia where your bus ride to and from work can be $5-$10 a day, a beer can be $10 at the pub, and a basic coffee is $5.
e. a community that now includes them!


2 comments

  • May 5, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    If I’d met you 30 years ago Jema, I would be a very very different person today. But now I can’t concieve living my life without my fur babies by my side, so I’ll just have to keep living my life thru your awesome blogs – and that’s fine with me darl! You really are due to come back to NZ and visit us, you know. And perhaps you can help me turn my back shed into a proper self-contained sleepout. Love you Jem x

    • May 7, 2016 at 3:04 am

      You’re so sweet, V! Glad to be a provider of vicarious travel and happy I got to partake in your fur babies. I desperately want to come back to NZ. Who knows… maybe I’ll do Te Araroa?! Back shed sleepout construction sounds super fun, too!

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