The allure of long-term international travel can quickly become subdued by the cost to fund a gap year abroad. Fortunately, a rewarding gap year doesn't need to break your bank account or wreck your credit score.
Whether you are interested in organic farming, babysitting, or teaching ski lessons, there are thousands of ways you could be of service to businesses, farm owners, social and conservation initiatives, and families across the globe, and in return, get to stay with them for free!
What is a Work Exchange
Taking part in a work exchange program is not the same as getting a job abroad. Instead of working for an income, work exchange is an opportunity to trade one service for another, gain unique work experiences, and have a meaningful gap year on a budget.
Pros of a Work Exchange:
- Enables low cost, long term travel
- Provides experiential learning while on the job
- Allows quick immersion into a community abroad
- Has options that span the globe
One of the main benefits of work exchange programs is, of course, cost-saving. By working a few hours a day (typically four to six), you can offset your living expenses, leaving the rest of your budget to spend on travel and activities.
As with most long-term travel, work exchanges provide a glimpse into another culture through unique and diverse work experiences. Potential work exchange jobs include everything from organic farming to teaching snowboarding and whatever else you can find that speaks to you.
In many 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 cultural immersion, what better way is there to do so than bonding with your host over a warm meal?
Cons of a Work Exchange:
- Comes with inherent unpredictability
- Often requires a significant time commitment
- Can be labor-intensive
A work exchange is an informal trade of services. It is essential to acknowledge the associated risks of such an arrangement before diving in and expecting a flawless experience. Of course, a little research goes a long way in mitigating some of this uncertainty. Read reviews before hopping on a plane or bus and committing to a program.
Work exchange programs do not follow a prescribed formula (compared to more structured volunteer programs, for example). Expectations can be hard to predict with the lack of uniformity between work exchanges, so your experience will be unique from anyone else's. Some hosts will be friendlier or more laid back, while others will have a much higher expectation concerning your workload. Some living arrangements will be more rudimentary (possibly without internet or electricity), while others may be much fancier. Overall, work exchange is a broad term, and with that comes a large spectrum of experiences.
Depending on your host, your free time may be limited. Be sure to establish expectations before committing. You may want to plan your big trips before or after the work stay rather than on free days or weekends, as you'll likely need some time to rest, especially if you're doing manual labor.
While not all work exchanges require manual labor, many do. For those interested in WWOOFing or other farm jobs, expect to have long days of hard work. If manual labor isn't how you envision a meaningful gap year, you may want to look into au pair programs or housekeeping services.
Choosing a Work Exchange Program
To partake in an international work exchange program, you will first need to acquire the proper visa. Certain countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, make this easy for young adults with U.S. passports through the working holiday and work exchange visa schemes.
A work exchange visa will allow the holder to work within the country only through an approved work exchange program. A working holiday visa is typically valid for one year and enables visa holders to travel and work within the country during that time freely. The working holiday visa provides additional flexibility since you can legally work for pay or room and board. Additionally, work exchange visas will likely require proof of acceptance from the approved work exchange provider before a visa is issued. Working holiday visas do not have that same requirement.
Recommended Work Exchange Programs:
Here at Go Overseas, we have hundreds of program listings and thousands of reviews to help you make the most out of your gap year experience. These include dozens of work exchange programs by some of the industry's top providers. Here are a few of our most popular work exchange programs available:
- Working Holiday in Canada | The Ultimate Gap Year to Work & Travel Canada
- Work Exchange for Ski and Snowboard Instructors at International Ski Camp
- Karma Yoga, Mindfulness and Community-building in Canada
- Become an Au Pair In New Zealand with API
- AIFS Au Pair in Australia
- Wanderlust Au Pair China Program
- Work & Travel Around New Zealand with Yep IS
Resources for Finding Work Exchange Programs:
WWOOF is an organization that coordinates volunteers with organic farms worldwide. The volunteers provide their work on the farms in exchange for free room and board. The minimum age is 18, and there is a small fee to sign up and access a particular country's member list. Exact working hours and living arrangements will vary depending on the host, but generally, volunteers will work six hours per day, six days per week.
Helpx is a forum to link up hosts soliciting help with volunteers seeking room and board. Job type options include farming, homecare, administrative duties, and much more. Hours worked per day will vary depending on the host.
You can search through postings to see pictures of your potential living arrangements and work environment. Helpx offers a helpful system of feedback so that you can learn about hosts from previous volunteers. There is a premium membership fee to access all information and services hosted on the website.
If human toddlers are more up your alley than horses and chickens, perhaps working as an au pair is the right choice for you. Au pair services aren't always just cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, as many families are often looking for native English speakers to teach their children the language.
AuPair.com hosts opportunities to work with children while (usually) living for free with the family.
Go Overseas also hosts au pair program listings.
Workaway is 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. WorkAway provides reviews from previous workers so you can get a sense of what living with a particular host would entail.
To contact any of the hosts on the site, you must register and pay a membership fee. The average work schedule is five hours per day, five days a week.
SCI is an NGO dedicated to "promoting a culture of peace." SCI hosts opportunities for volunteers to serve in exchange for food and housing. Volunteers can choose between short-term stays in 'workcamps' serving in communities in over 60 countries.
Workcamp opportunities last for two to three weeks. Examples of past projects are 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 also available for additional fees.
Mind My House is a "global house sitting matching service" that enables homeowners to host ads providing accommodation in exchange for housekeeping services. Mind My House is free for homeowners and a yearly subscription for housekeepers.
HelpStay is a platform for hosts and helpers to connect and arrange living accommodations in exchange for work. Through their database, you can find jobs in areas such as art retreat centers, eco-villages, hostels, and more.
HelpStay believes that your safety is a top priority -- they will not feature listings that they haven't personally contacted. There is a fee to register on the site as a single helper.
Work Exchange During COVID-19
Currently, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are all withholding working holiday and work exchange visas as part of their international travel restrictions. Due to this, gap year providers have created programs you can partake in from within your home country and even from the comfort of your couch!
Taking an online gap year can provide skills that help you grow and navigate through transitional phases of life, like graduating high school or college. You can network with peers and mentors worldwide, learn about other perspectives and cultures, and maybe even connect with future travel companions!
Popular Virtual Gap Year Programs:
- Social Innovators Program (UPenn CSIS / Schoolyard Ventures)
- Avenues Mastery Year, An Online Program for Invention and Entrepreneurship
- e-GAP Year Program - IGenPlus
- Idyllwild Arts Gap Year Program
While still adhering to local travel restrictions and safety guidelines, 2021 may be an opportunity to find local work exchange programs as the number of international travelers to fill these roles will be limited. If you are an American considering a domestic gap year in 2021, check out the USA Gap Year Fairs. These online events and webinars connect prospective gappers and their families with gap year program providers and alum.