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Work Exchanges Abroad: Tips for Travel on a Budget

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Interested in long-term world travel? Not a millionaire? Don’t despair! Long-term travel doesn’t have to break your bank account or your credit score.

Whether you are interested in butterfly farming or ditch-digging, babysitting or constructing schools, there are thousands of ways you could be of service to farm owners, social initiatives, and families. Using the services of the websites and organizations listed below, you can trade your skills and services for room and board with hosts around the globe.

Taking part in a work exchange programs is not the same as getting a job abroad. Instead of thinking of it as a way to earn income, you should view it as an opportunity to exchange one service for another and have an uncommon work experience in a foreign environment.

If your priority is simply ultra-low-budget travel, you should probably consider backpacker hostels and ramen noodles instead. Work exchange programs will provide much more enjoyable results if you are selecting a program based on your own interests and skills.

Like anything else in life, there are certain risks and benefits to work exchange programs:

Risks of Work Exchanges

  • It’s variable, and sometimes unpredictable.
  • It can be time consuming.
  • It can be tiring.

Work exchange programs usually do not follow a prescribed formula (as compared to highly structured pre-paid volunteer programs, for example). Because so many aspects of the programs are variable, few workers will have the same experience. Some hosts will be friendlier than others. Some living arrangements will be more rudimentary (possibly without internet or electricity).

Some labor will be more intensive and tiring. There is an element of risk to an informal exchange of services that should be acknowledged before diving in head-first and expecting a flawless experience. Of course, some of this uncertainty can be alleviated by vetting hosts through email and asking to see pictures of living arrangements. A little research goes a long way.

Free time may be limited, depending on your host and the structure of the program. On average, you should expect to work at least five or six hours per day, up to six days per week. If your main priority is travel and exploration, it may be better to schedule trips before or after the work stay rather than on free days or weekends (you may actually want to use those free days to rest, if you’re doing manual labor the remainder of the week!).

Then of course, depending on the type of work you're doing, it can be tiring -- particularly for volunteers who are more accustomed to a sedentary work environment. Shoveling manure and digging up weeds for six hours a day is taxing on a body, and volunteers who choose manual labor projects should be prepared to work hard. But just think about how great your biceps will look after a few weeks!

Benefits of Work Exchanges

  • It’s economical.
  • It’s educational.
  • It’s homey.
  • It’s everywhere!

One of the greatest benefits of work exchange programs is, of course, financial. By working a few hours a day (usually four to six, depending on the program style), you can earn free room and board. Considering the ever-rising prices of hotels and restaurants (particularly in more developed countries), this equals big savings for a budget traveler.

As with most forms of long-term travel, work exchanges let you get a glimpse into another culture. Additionally, work exchanges allow for a more unique and diverse experience. If you take some time to scan blogs of former WWOOFers, Helpxers, and other work exchange volunteers, you will see a theme of learning unexpected skills. This might include beekeeping, animal husbandry, well-digging, or whatever job your host happens to need help with that day. Let’s just hope his toilet doesn’t clog very often...

In many of the work exchange programs, hosts will offer up rooms in their homes to workers, and eat dinner with them as a family at the end of the day. If one of your goals is intercultural exchange, what better way is there to bond than over a big meal after a tiring day’s work? In addition to stronger biceps and a nice tan, you might just come away with an expanded family.

Then finally, opportunities exist on six continents, various climate zones, and in practically any language. Take your pick of your perfect work exchange destination.

How Can You Find Work Exchange Programs?

Keeping in mind the risks and benefits and your own learning interests, here is a diverse and respected mix of work exchange programs currently seeking volunteers and hosts around the world:

1. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

  • Where can you work? Europe, Middle East, Africa, North America, South America, Asia-Pacific
  • Might be right for you if: You have a strong interest in being outdoors, learning about organic farming techniques, and are fit enough for manual labor.
WWOOF

WWOOF is an organization that links up volunteers with organic farms in virtually any part of the world, where they can work in exchange for free room and board. The minimum age is 18 and there is a small variable fee to sign up for a particular country’s member list, in order to can see the opportunities posted there. Exact working hours and living arrangements will vary depending on the host you choose, but generally volunteers will work six hours per day, six days per week, and have the remaining time for leisure and exploration.

2. Help Exchange (Helpx)

  • Where can you work? Most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, Australia
  • Might be right for you if: You are flexible and have some skills to offer, in farming, housework, babysitting, etc. Helpx seems to have something for everyone!
helpx logo

Similar to WWOOF, Helpx serves as a forum to link up hosts seeking help and volunteers seeking room and board. The work options include farms, homes, administrative settings, hostels and B&Bs, or even sailboats. Hours worked per day will vary by host, from two hours per day upward.

You can search through postings to see pictures of your potential living arrangements and work environment, and to whether things like internet or language classes are included. This site offers a helpful system of feedback, so you can learn about hosts from previous volunteers. There is a premium membership fee of 20 euros for 2 years for access to all information and services on the website.

3. Workaway

  • Where can you work? North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania
  • Might be right for you if: Again, you are a flexible worker with skills to offer hosts (language skills seem to be particularly helpful on this site). All ages welcome.
workaway logo

Workaway is yet another forum for work exchange, with opportunities ranging “from painting to planting, building to babysitting and shopping to shearing.” Like Helpx, you can see images and read descriptions posted by hosts in various parts of the world.

In order to contact any of the hosts on the site, you must register for a fee of 22 euros for a two-year membership. There is no minimum or maximum age for a “workawayer”, and the average work schedule is five hours per day, five days a week in exchange for free room and board.

4. Se7en Interchange

  • Where can you work? 123 countries on six continents, depending on host needs.
  • Might be right for you if: You are interested in finding free or low-cost social and environmental volunteer work abroad, rather than an agricultural work program like WWOOF.
Se7en

The Se7en Interchange is a site that offers free or low-cost volunteer opportunities abroad. While it is not strictly a work exchange program, they do post opportunities to trade volunteer work for room and board. These opportunities are typically project-based, and could be located in schools, orphanages, wildlife reserves, natural parks, or sustainable living initiatives.

The membership fee is 15 euros for two years. One example of a free volunteer opportunity is a children’s theater-building project in the Negev Desert, Israel, which seeks volunteers to help with construction, electrician work, or puppet-making. How cool is that?

5. Service Civil International (SCI)

  • Where can you work? In over 60 countries worldwide, depending on host needs.
  • Might be right for you if: You are interested in a two to three-week volunteer opportunity at a “work camp” in exchange for room and board, which will likely involve some manual labor.
SCI logo

Service Civil International (SCI): This organization, whose motto is “Working for peace through deeds not words,” offers opportunities for volunteers to serve in exchange for food and housing. Volunteers can either choose short-term stays in workcamps (sounds ominous, I know, but bear with me) serving in communities in over 60 countries.

Workcamp opportunities last for two to three weeks and might include projects such as working on an organic tea farm in Japan or repairing a fence for a wolf sanctuary in Colorado. Long-term stays (over three months) are available as well, however additional fees are involved. General membership for the site is $35 per year.

6. Au Pair and Nanny Services

  • Where can you work? Virtually anywhere in the world.
  • Might be right for you if: You love kids and are interested in living with a family in a foreign country. Useful skills include foreign languages (especially English), domestic skills (cooking and cleaning), and experience working with children. You may be required to commit for a minimum amount of time (usually several months), and free travel time may be limited.
babysitting abroad

If human toddlers are more up your alley than horses and chickens, perhaps working as an au pair is the right choice for you. There are numerous website that link up nannies and au pairs with families seeking help. Often, foreign parents are looking for native English speakers to simply teach their children English, rather than doing the heavy lifting of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing.

With a little research, you can find plenty of opportunities to work with children while (usually) living for free with the family, almost like an older sibling. A few websites to check out are Great Au Pair and AuPair.com.

7. House-sitting: House Carers & Mind My House

  • Where can you work? Wherever you are able to dig up an opportunity.
  • Might be right for you if: You need a place to stay for free and don’t mind having a lot of time on your hands. In fact, this option could be perfect for free-lancers looking to travel on a budget.
House Cares logo

This is an unconventional option for those who prefer a more laid back work environment (read: sitting on a couch and occasionally feeding the cats). Some useful websites to search are House Carers and Mind My House.

8. HelpStay

  • Where can you work? Currently, you can find work within 58 different countries
  • Might be right for you if: You're an independent person who has the drive to make things happen for yourself. You don't wait for life to give you opportunities -- you look for them. HelpStay gives you everything you need to find exactly the type of work exchange you want.
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HelpStay is a platform for hosts and helpers to connect with each other in order to arrange living accommodations (and sometimes board) in exchange for work. Through their database, you'll be able to find work in areas such as art retreat centers, eco-villages, hostels, and more.

You can also filter through opportunities by age, gender, and number of volunteers welcome. Furthermore, HelpStay believes that your safety is a top priority -- they will not feature listings that they haven't been in personal contact with.

To register on the site as a single helper, it costs €19.99 for 1 year, however there is a discounted rate for those who are traveling in groups. The hosts on this site are simply "looking for a few hours of honest help and offering accommodation and food in exchange."

How Adventurous Will You Be?

Beyond the opportunities listed here, there are many more places online you can search for low-budget or free travel arrangements (with a little creativity and some marketable skills). If you are looking for a longer-term work experience abroad, you can even consider internships or full-time employment. With a little ingenuity and perseverance, the possibilities are endless!

Share your experiences with work exchanges below!

Photo Credits: Danielle Slowik.
Meghan Johnson

After studying economics at Harvard and working in finance for a few years, Meghan escaped from her cubicle and spent a year volunteering and traveling abroad. Currently, Meghan writes for Go Overseas and for her own blog, Soulshine Traveler, while pursuing a career in microfinance in Eurasia. Her most beloved cities are Lima, Peru; Moscow, Russia; and Cartagena, Colombia. Follow her on Google+ too!