What’s the cheapest way to travel and take that trip of a lifetime to beautiful places for epic adventures? Work in exchange for room and board by doing a work exchange through WorkAway. Last year when I was planning a trip to Europe, I wanted to create a really unique experience where I was also giving back to communities where I traveled. However, I’ve found that many volunteer programs are expensive, but some how I stumbled across WorkAway. I was stoked to find a better, cheaper option.
WorkAway is comparable to WOOFING (the long-time leader in arranging farm work exchanges), but I found it a lot more diverse. Not all of the experiences involved farm work. For example, you can play with huskies in the arctic circle, sail a yacht around Greece, and lend a hand at a Buddhist center. Doesn’t that sound epic?!
Ready to plan your trip of a lifetime? Here’s my advice after doing a few work exchanges on the platform.
Getting Started with WorkAway
To get started, log onto WorkAway and create an account for just $42. Fill out your profile with photos of yourself and information you think might be helpful about your skills and talents that you can pay forward. I included photos that showcased me as a promising WorkAwayer (i.e. me volunteering, interacting with animals, partaking in outdoor adventures).
After you’ve gotten set up, get lost in the listings! You can use the filters on WorkAway’s search page to find gigs in the region of the world you feel most excited to explore. They also have a map feature if you’re more of a visual person. Truth: you’re going to get overwhelmed by the vast array of options out there. The optimist in me found this exciting … it also gave me anxiety. Don’t get discouraged by the paradox of choice. When you start searching assign yourself a time limit, so you don’t lose hours of your life just looking at opportunities, unless that excites you then by all means.
Creating a spreadsheet will help you organize your WorkAway options. Just using the site’s favorites feature doesn’t quite keeps things orderly enough. Here’s what one of mine looked like, it had columns with notes about what I liked about the host and what I didn’t, any red flags I needed to ask about, location, and more.
What to expect from your first WorkAway experience
There were many things I discovered about what “work in exchange for room and board” actually meant once I got on-site. So, I thought I’d enlighten you with my sage knowledge.
Many hosts are located in remote areas (but not all of them)
This was something I enjoyed a lot because I got to know areas of the world that surprised even locals that I went. For example, when I tell French people I lived in Montluçon and worked on a cow farm, they crack up because that’s not somewhere your average tourist visits. Luckily, I’m not your average tourist. The remote location of many WorkAway hosts also opens the way for new experiences, like hitch hiking. When I volunteered in the Basque country, our WorkAway was tucked in picturesque hills not far from places like Bayonne and Biarritz, but many times we had to hitch a ride to get there. It was an excellent way to meet locals, even with my limited French.
Yes, you do get lots of stuff for free (it’s legit crazy)
There were so many things that blew my mind about WorkAway, but one thing that really got me was peoples’ generosity. I honestly sometimes could not believe the extent to which people gave to me. Really though, I still can’t believe it. At the Buddhist center in Austria, they fed us like crazy, organized meditation training sessions, and went out of their way to drop me and my fellow WorkAwayers off at tourists sites in the local area. They even took us on an excursion to the ice caves and to the Five Fingers Lakes. My heart is still so full just reflecting on it, and it truly seemed it was their joy for us to feel taken care of.
You’re going to have an insanely unique experience
If it weren’t for WorkAway, I wouldn’t be able to say I picked apples in Austria with Nepalese nuns; went surfing in Biarritz between harvesting squash; lived in a tiny French village and went to local festivals with my charming host family; learned loving kindness meditations in London between scrubbing toilets. There have been plenty of moments in my life when I was completely happy with traveling somewhere just to see the sites, for example I recently took a road trip through northern Italy and ate my weight in gelato. Other times though I crave a more immersive experience, as I’m sure you do too. WorkAway is great for that.
The sleeping quarters might not be like the Hilton
The sleeping quarters at your WorkAway might not be akin to those of a five-star hotel, but you wont be spending much time in your room anyway. One place I was given a dark room with a curtain as a door, at another a futon on the floor of a living room, and at another a mattress pad on the floor in my own bedroom. I also had the opposite experience and was given a gorgeous top floor room with a skylight, so really it varies. Just try to ask as many questions as possible before arrival to clarify where you’ll be sleeping. It never bothered me though — I crave unique and novel experiences, which enrich my life more than sleeping on a plush mattress, so I’d choose snoozing on a straw tick if it meant I was going to experience something insane.
You do actually have to work
Scrubbing toilets, washing dishes, harvesting fruit and vegetables, doing yard work, cooking, chasing turkeys out of the garden … yep, I did all these things and more.
Each WorkAway has its own unique policy. As a general rule of thumb, you’re only required to work 25 hours a week, but some hosts ask for much less or slightly more than that.
At my WorkAway in France, for example, some days the work was so easy I felt guilty. They honestly were just super happy to have an international guest in their house with whom they could speak English. The very few hours I spent shoveling hay didn’t matter as much to them as sitting in the living room taking aperitif.
It’s not all hippie dippie nonsense
Buddhist centers, organic farm work, hitchhiking … I know, this all sounds super granola, but before you call me out on being a spirulina-consuming, hairy-legged flaming leftist, allow me to frame this in an entirely different way.
You really connect with people in a meaningful way through this experience.
My host mom in France had lost her daughter to cancer many years ago and I could tell from our interactions that it was fulfilling for her to spend time with another woman if only to girl talk for hours. We went to the market together, we’d sit in the kitchen and teach each other funny phrases in each others’ languages, and more. I got to meet so many of their friends, they cooked me homemade French meals and I made them a Mexican food feast (which they’d never had before btw).
During another WorkAway, I remember looking around the dinner table and realizing there were people there from Laos, Russia, Brazil, England, Spain, Germany, the United States, and Sweden, which was so wild. It’s an honor to really slow down and be present with people from around the world instead of racing on a whirlwind cathedral-viewing spree.
The best part about WorkAway is getting to understand a place and its people rather than just see it.
You’re going to come across some MAJORRRRR weirdos
It’s all a game of numbers: the more people you meet, the more diverse the interactions. If you just stay home and stick to your normal friend group, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Not blaming you, it’s important to have predictable relationships. When you travel you meet a ton of people, most of them good, some of them not-so-good. Through WorkAway I made the best friends in the world, and I also defended myself again some crazies. I wont call them out on being cray cray here, but you know them when you meet them. Just remember to hold down your boundaries: you don’t owe anyone anything.
7 Helpful tips for WorkAway newbies
1.) While you’re planning your epic adventure, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
2.) When going through the reviews on each hosts’ profile, read through the lines. Most people on WorkAway leave positive or neutral reviews, so it can be hard to understand what an experience is actually like. However, there’s a big difference between a review that’s multiple paragraphs long about how “life-changing” the experience was and the review that says, “they were great hosts thanks so much.”
3.) If you arrive and it’s not what you expected, then you can leave. For example, a friend of mine went to a WorkAway in France expecting to photograph a woman’s art. When she arrived, she found out the artwork belonged to the woman’s dead husband and that she wanted her to help her move. She split.
4.) Maintain your boundaries. I purposefully didn’t choose any WorkAways that involved childcare because I didn’t want a round-the-clock job. With other experiences, once we were done, we were done whereas if you’re caring for someone else’s kid the lines are blurred.
5.) Make friends. Meeting new people from around the world is one of the best parts of the WorkAway experience, but some hosts only allow one person at a time. Make sure you clarify this before you arrive. I tried both dynamics — at one WorkAway I was alone and at another I was surrounded with people all the time. I loved both experiences.
6.) Bring clothes intended for work. Some places provide work essentials like gloves or aprons, but just having clothes you don’t mind getting dirty is a good rule of thumb.
7.) Some hosts cater to food allergies and some don’t, so make sure to ask about that before you arrive.
8. Stay at least two weeks. The first week feels like you’re just learning the ropes and breaking the ice, the second week after you get beyond initial barriers … that’s when the magic happens. Deeper conversations take place. New destinations are explored. It might sound crazy as a traveler to stay longer than a few days in one place, but it’s totally worth it. When I stayed almost a month somewhere it literally felt like I lived a lifetime in one week because the circumstances changed so much … I’m now so glad I gifted myself that.
Helpful questions to ask prospective hosts:
What will my sleeping quarters be like? Have you ever had an issue with fleas or bed bugs?
Are you currently hosting other WorkAwayers who will be present when I arrive? If so, how many?
What type of public transport is available in the area?
How do I get to the WorkAway, will someone be picking me up?
Clarify responsibilities if they aren’t clear on the page, especially for the time of year.
Is there anything specific I should bring with me?
Well, now that I removed all the mystery and ruined all the surprises you can feel at peace staying at home instead of going. Joking. If you’re planning your trip and need any advice let me know! I also wrote this helpful post on a few interesting work exchanges around the world to get you inspired.