Forget Your Student Debt: Work and Travel the World for Free

Work and Travel the World for Free

Everyone wants to travel, and you're guilty as charged if you're reading this. Taking time off between work and school is one of the best things you can do, but it also takes a huge amount of courage, independence, planning, and financial savvy to make it happen.

One of the things most people wonder about those who travel a lot is: how do they afford it? And as a sensible college grad, you're probably also wondering: is there a way to work and travel abroad for free?

Couchsurfing helps you find locals willing to let you crash on their couch for free, but it's difficult to stay more than a few days without feeling too much like a free-loader.

These are perfectly valid concerns that must be accounted for before jetting off, contrary to the alluring tales of "I went to Brazil on a one-way ticket with $100 in my pocket and wound up traveling for 3 years." That scenario is indeed within the realm of possibility, but you're far more likely to have an enjoyable time if you have a plan, a little bit of savings, and a rugged and creative determination. Going prepared with knowledge about the ways you can travel for low-to-no-cost will also give you a huge advantage.

Know Where to Cut Costs

Now that we know you're serious about taking a gap year or traveling for an extended period of time on a strict budget, it's essential to find ways to minimize the two biggest costs you face on the wonderful road ahead: transportation and lodging.

Travel for free

The best way to minimize how much you spend on transportation is by selecting fewer locations and staying longer periods of time in each place, which has the implicit benefit of helping you dig deeper into the local culture, pick up some of the language, and feel more at home in the country where you are visiting.

Once you have arrived in your hand-picked destinations, the next concern is how to trim the costs of hostels and guesthouses.

One popular option is Couchsurfing, a platform that helps you find locals willing to let you crash on their couch for free, but it's difficult to stay more than a few days without feeling too much like a free-loader. It's also hard to feel at home when you're sleeping on the floor or in someone's living room (in spite of their enormous generosity). A great alternative? A work exchange.

Work in Exchange for Room and Board

Traveling long-term can also feel a bit disorienting as you wander from town to town observing how the locals live and watching people all over the world go to work and go about their daily lives while you mostly loaf around and drink coffee, read books, visit temples, and go to the beach.

While there's nothing wrong with these activities or spending several months absorbing the atmosphere and learning about places from an outsider's perspective, this will get tiresome for some travelers who envision themselves finding a way to contribute or integrate more as they visit new places.

Volunteering, teaching English, house-sitting, and working remotely are the most popular options for long-term travelers who want to stay longer and engage more deeply.

A lesser-known option for traveling abroad for free is participating in something called a work exchange, where travelers with sought-after skills or simply time and energy can help local businesses or organizations in exchange for a free place to stay.

What better way to see the world than to share what you know and do well, or simply help get tasks done that need to get done in a meaningful community organization that brings you closer to the local people and culture?

What Kind of Work Exchange Opportunities Can I Find?

The type of work you do on a work exchange is incredibly varied and often depends on where you are in the world. For example, some of the work exchanges that HelpStay helps set up provide opportunities to stay for free at:

  • Eco-lodges
  • Farms
  • Kibbutzim
  • Hostels
  • Schools
  • Monasteries

... and just about anywhere, in return for honest volunteer work. They offer placements everywhere from Azerbaijan and South Africa to Ghana and India, spanning the continents to provide opportunities for serious travelers in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and even the United States and Australia.

You can choose from unique "stays" such as working on an organic farm in Benin, volunteering at a beach hostel in Costa Rica, and working at a team building camp in Malaysia.

Can You Still Get Off the Beaten Path?

Absolutely! In fact, a work exchange may lead you to a destination so off the beaten path, you never would have thought to go there in the first place.

Work and travel for free

Sites like HelpStay offer unique opportunities for coordinators of off-the-beaten-path organizations to register their entity with HelpStay and receive talented and enthusiastic volunteers from around the world.

By setting up a work exchange through HelpStay, you know you're filling a much-needed labor gap in your selected school, lodge, hostel, or farm and that the organization itself had been actively seeking someone to do the work you're doing, making the experience mutually beneficial.

You're also avoiding expensive pay-to-volunteer programs where organizations may sign up just to receive the money, not needing or particularly wanting the actual volunteer.

Why Choose a Work Exchange?

Besides cutting your wallet a break, the other unique benefit of participating in work exchanges while traveling abroad is that they give you meaningful experience doing something and interacting with new people who are probably not also backpackers.

Work exchanges provide opportunities to learn or practice a foreign language, to adopt a new skill, to understand how collective communities like Kibbutzim operate, or to teach something you already know how to do.

These kind of short-term work opportunities can be showcased on a resume or used as interesting content for job interviews once you return home. Who else has worked as a documentary filmmaker in Cameroon or operated a social media campaign in rural India? Stories of cross-cultural teamwork, completing tasks in a foreign environment, and learning on-the-go are impressive to employers and admissions staff at university or graduate school programs.

By focusing on a particular region or area of work, like environmental sustainability or journalism, you can actually bolster your competitiveness for a future career without spending a fortune or sacrificing travel altogether.

Work Exchanges: The Independent Traveler's Choice

All in all, if you're craving a unique travel experience or looking to mix up hostel-hopping around the world that doesn't require spending your entire budget on a single three-week volunteer program, consider doing a work exchange, or even traveling based entirely on where you can find paid or exchange-based stays.

Thanks to the internet and a few well-organized travel startups like HelpStay, the world is at your fingertips.

Next step? Explore HelpStay's work exchanges.

Elaina Giolando
A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20...