A work exchange is a volunteer opportunity where you exchange your time and skills for living accommodations like food and a place to sleep.
Also known as work trade, help exchange, work travel, and voluntourism, seeing the world has never been so easy as it can be today by hopping between volunteer opportunities.
There’s no limit to the types of places you can volunteer in, or the types of work that you can potentially end up doing. By lending a hand to a host for just a few hours each week, you can see new places, learn new things, and save money while you travel.
Work exchanges aren’t technically jobs, as there’s usually no money involved. Though the types of things you may end up doing will largely make money seem unimportant.
In any given work exchange, you may:
Grow and harvest crops
Manage a hostel
Take care of animals
Cook for large groups
Maintain tidy living spaces
Repurpose land usage
Build all kinds of structures
Help out around the house
And this is just a generalized list!
If any of these even remotely excite you, you’ve come to the right place. And if you’ve never heard of work exchanges before, prepare to dig in deeper.
Why Agree to A Work Exchange?
A person may agree to a work exchange for a number of different reasons.
- They allow you to travel to places that are either way too expensive for your budget, or too remote to vacation in.
- They give you the opportunity to work alongside experts to learn valuable life lessons which you can apply at later periods in life.
- Among other things, they’re just a lot of fun!
While anyone who does a work exchange may have a different reason for doing so, many seasoned exchangers express similar kinds of gratitude for having such valuable experiences.
If you’d like to read about my own experience doing a work exchange in Hawaii, click here.
The great thing about finding a work exchange that you’re simply in love with means that you can develop a number of life skills in the process.
At the end of your stay, you may come home with a certificate in yoga, a thorough knowledge of how to grow your own food, fluency in another language, or perhaps all three.
The possibilities are endless! And with the opportunity to find work exchanges in almost every country on the planet, you can expect to find something that suits your interests.
Read on to learn what kinds of questions you should be asking your potential hosts.
Things to Consider
1. What types of work will you be doing?
First and foremost, what does your host need help with?
Are you going to be grooming horses in the mountains of New Zealand, or are you going to be running a hostel in Jordan? Will you be taking care of chores while living in house with a family in Ireland, or will you be taming overgrown jungles to grow crops in Costa Rica?
While most of the listings clearly state what they need help with, it’s important to know exactly what types of work you will be doing.
If something is outside of your comfort zone, there are always plenty of volunteer opportunities elsewhere. Don’t sell yourself on one that you feel isn’t exactly up to your speed with what you’ll be doing.
At the same time, not every work exchange requires that you have a background in performing specific types of work. If there’s a skill requirement in a listing that you don’t necessarily have, don’t be afraid of challenging yourself.
After all, many hosts understand that people want to volunteer to learn new skills. Just be sure to check with your potential host ahead of time by filling them in on the fact that you lack certain skills but will be more than eager to learn.
After thoroughly reading through the listing, the best method is to simply ask your potential host what will be expected of you.
2. How much will you be expected to work each week?
Will you be expected to work every day of the week? How many hours will you be expected to work each week to make it a fair exchange? Can you stack additional hours on one day so that you can have another day off?
Each host is entirely unique and will probably require some kind of schedule that suits their needs best.
The usual expectation is that you offer 20 hours of work each week to satisfy the agreement.
However, it’s not uncommon for certain hosts to ask that volunteers work 40 hours one week and none the next, or to find a host that doesn’t require any work other than watching their property.
Again, the amount of time that you’ll be expected to work each week varies and depends largely on the unique situation of the host.
If your situation does not allow for work on a certain day of the week, or you’re considering taking a few days off to explore the surrounding area, make sure you ask ahead of time how rigid or flexible the schedule can be.
3. What kind of food accommodations will be provided?
Well-nourishing food is important. Making sure you have enough sustenance in your daily food requirements is something that you must have.
While most hosts will be pretty up front about how and when they’ll provide meals, not all of them are so accommodating.
I’ve heard stories of dissatisfied volunteers who agreed to an international work exchange for a few months, only to find upon arrival that they would be given a bag of dehydrated beans to cook for themselves each day.
Many hosts will provide a healthy breakfast to get up and start your day with, while others will cook for you more than twice a day.
Most hostels, for example, usually provide one free meal a day in exchange for volunteering there.
When a host doesn’t provide every meal, you’ll usually end up buying your own groceries and using their kitchen to make meals for yourself.
Sometimes you’ll get lucky and you can find a host who loves to cook for others, and who is a connoisseur of crafting ecstatically delicious meals.
Another thing to bring up before agreeing to a work exchange is any food allergies you have, or dietary practices you adhere to.
While many hosts will accommodate to avoid food allergens, not all of them will cook foods for specialty diets. However, there are opportunities to volunteer on an all vegan farm, if that’s your calling.
4. Where will you be sleeping?
Having a comfortable place to rest in is not only important because we spend a third of our lives sleeping, but it’s also crucial to learning and retaining new information.
Some hosts provide quiet personal cabins for you to retire in at the end of your day. Others expect for you to bring your own tent to pitch somewhere on the property.
Finding out where you’ll be sleeping is the second most important thing after figuring out how and when you’ll be eating.
In my own experience doing a work exchange in Hawaii, we stayed in a spare bedroom for the first few weeks of our stay. Once we had a cabin built however, we brought in a comfortable mattress, and brought the rest of our gear in behind it.
If you’re expected to be doing long, physically-demanding tasks each day, it’s probably unreasonable to expect that you’ll be sleeping on a pallet with some foam on top.
Keep in mind, work exchanges are no luxury vacation, but there’s a reasonable amount of accommodation required in order to keep your state of well-being in check.
You’ll want to be sure before agreeing to the work exchange that you’ll have somewhere comfortable to sleep at the end of each day, even if that means sleeping in an RV, a spare bedroom, or a private cabin.
5. What kind of location is the work exchange in?
Not only will a tropical work exchange require different gear than one in the desert, but you will also need to consider the remoteness of any given place.
Is the work exchange in an urban area, where you will only need to walk a short distance to have access to certain amenities? Or is the work exchange in the middle of nowhere?
Will your host provide rides to town if the location is especially remote?
When I first arrived at my work exchange in Hawaii, I quickly realized how wet and muddy I would get simply from living on the rainy side of the island.
Turns out, it would have been good to know ahead of time that I would need a good raincoat and a pair of decent sandals that would withstand hikes through sections of thick the jungle mud.
While some bits of indispensable information may be provided about the location through your potential host’s listing, it would be well recommended to research any particular area through additional means.
If I was deathly afraid of earthquakes or volcanoes, I may have thought twice about coming to the big island of Hawaii. Fortunately, in this case, either scenario hasn’t warranted much cause for concern.
6. What kind of personality does the host have?
Nothing spoils a good travel experience more than a salty host who doesn’t show appreciation for your help.
Some hosts are going to be more strict than others.
It’s important to address these kinds of things up front by asking what kind of policies are in place, and what will or won’t be tolerated.
Alcohol or marijuana use may be fitting to some crowds of travelers, but for a number of hosts those simply will not be tolerated. You could easily be asked to leave if you’re caught indulging in something you shouldn’t be while staying on a host’s property.
You’ll also probably want to feel that your host is grateful for the time you’re committing to helping on the property. The difference between a strict host and a relaxed host can sometimes determine the whole outcome of your volunteer experience.
Although I was a little bit nervous about our hosts before agreeing to our work exchange in Hawaii, they turned out to be incredibly easy-going. They pretty much let us explore when we wanted to, and allowed us to choose how and when we would work on any particular task.
They additionally gave us multiple tours of the island, gave us booze when we were done working for the day, and even allowed us to paint murals around their home.
The only thing that they asked us not to partake in was cigarette smoking, which was fine anyways because we don’t smoke.
7. What is the social atmosphere going to be like?
Are there hundreds of other volunteers working on a commune-like farm? Or are you going to be the only volunteer for a few months straight?
Knowing more about this topic can determine whether you’ll be feeling claustrophobic and unable to find time to yourself, or if you’ll be bored out of your skull.
Let’s face it, humans are social creatures. But if you have too much or too little of that social quality, your time spent at your work exchange could turn out to be disastrous.
If there are other volunteers, will you all be bunking together at night? How important is having your own space?
Working at a hostel or on a large scale farm can be a great way to meet fellow travelers and develop lifelong friendships. Alternatively, if you’re going to be housesitting for a few months, it’s unlikely that you’ll see much of anyone else during your stay.
The latter is not all bad though. It can create a great space for dropping out of society for a while, developing a side hustle you’ve been passionate about, or simply taking the time to reflect on the joys of being alive.
8. How are you going to get there?
While driving to a work exchange may be feasible if it is in your home country, certain international work exchanges may not be so easy to get to.
What kinds of transportation will you have access to in order to reach your destination?
Our wonderful host drove a few hours to the other side of the island in order to pick us up from the airport. Not all hosts are so generous though.
You may need to take a several plane rides to reach your work exchange. Not to mention, there’s high potential that you’ll additionally need to utilize overcrowded buses, poultry trucks, camels with bad gas, or a swamp boats to reach your work exchange.
Though I will say that most hosts provide clear directions and methods of reaching their property, not every location is going to provide such feasible opportunities for arrival.
In this case, it’s usually best to find a work exchange that will cohesively lay out the steps you’ll need to take to reach the property. Or in the case that it isn’t so clear, to make sure that you ask all about how to arrive before setting your aspirations any further.
9. What potentials do you have to make some money?
I know I said above that work exchanges don’t usually entail any exchange of money. After all, payment would qualify the opportunity as a job, more so than a work exchange.
While it’s not very common, nor is it the best practice to only look for paying positions, you may find that a particular host is willing to give a little extra monetary supplement for your hard work.
Usually, if pay is involved, it means that you’ll be working a little extra compared to other work exchanges. You may have some specialty skill that the host needs, or you may be able to receive a small amount of profit if the exchange is for a business.
Other times, your host may not be willing to cook for you every day, but will instead give you a small allotment of money to purchase your own groceries.
Again, every host is different, and every work exchange is going to be wholly unique compared to any other work exchange.
Though you’ll still be trading your time and abilities for a place to stay, the conditions may be different so that you may just be able to make some money while you stay at your volunteer opportunity.
Another thing to be mindful of is how you might make money outside of your work exchange. Maybe you have a remote job that additionally requires a few hours of work each week. Or maybe you’re considering taking up work in a nearby city in your free time.
Clarifying what types of opportunities you may have for making money will prepare you in the long run for making sure you’re on top of your funds.
10. What are your expected learning outcomes?
For those of us who have worked in a number of dead end jobs, we know how draining it can be to feel that you’re not learning anything of real value in exchange for your time.
This is, perhaps, one of the most rewarding aspects of agreeing to a work exchange.
Say that you’ve always wanted to learn how to install a solar energy set up for that off-grid home you’d like to have one day. After searching around for a little bit, voila! You’ve come across multiple listings that look promising to provide you with hands-on skills for setting up solar energy.
Even the simple act of living like a local by completing daily chores can be highly rewarding. If you’ve never been to the south of France to work on an olive mill, think about how stimulating such a chore could be compared to how the locals may feel about it.
If you’re going to take all that time to find your perfect volunteer opportunity, you’ll want to know what’s in it for you in the long run.
Though this questions does tie into inquiring what type of work you’ll be doing, be sure to verify with your potential host, and with yourself, what kind of things you can expect to learn by agreeing to any one specific work exchange.
11. Does the work exchange require you to have travel insurance or a travel visa?
Keep in mind that some countries require proof of insurance upon entry, and that almost every country outside of your home country requires a travel visa for extended stays.
Your host is usually not expected to provide any of these materials for you, or the means of acquiring them. These are things that you’ll have to research and acquire on your own.
In addition to which country you plan on travelling to, visa requirements can also change depending on the traveler’s country of origin. U.S.-born and Canadian-born citizens have a number of wider freedoms compared to a traveler from, say, Yemen for example.
If you’ll be agreeing to a work exchange in your home country, these topics shouldn’t be much of a concern to you.
However, international travel in order to volunteer in another country can have vastly different requirements depending on where you’re from, and where you’re planning to go.
12. How will it all fit into your larger plans?
Most hosts are going to want to know how long you’ll be expecting to volunteer on their property so that they can make appropriate accommodations.
This brings us to the final most important point when it comes to things to consider before agreeing to a work exchange.
It wouldn’t make sense to take up a work exchange in a remote village in Malta if you plan for your next destination to be in the tropics of Peru.
Long-term planning will not only help you travel with efficiency, but it will probably also help you save from spending on long-distance costly flights.
Travelling slowly and methodically is best done by at least establishing some generalized blueprint before setting out for your volunteer expedition. If you and your host can agree on a specified end date, you’ll both probably be better off by making the most of your volunteer experience, and not having to stress when that experience is wrapping up.
Even if you just plan to return back home after completing the stint of your work exchange, you’ll want to know the specifics of when and how you’ll be leaving the host’s property.
Some Final Remarks
Agreeing to a work exchange is a great opportunity for learning, providing you with lifelong memories and a chance to see the world. All three of these reasons make work exchanges a wildly valuable asset to utilize.
When it comes down it, the decision to agree to a work exchange should be wholly up to you. Always be certain that what you’re looking for in the exchange is going to live up to your expectations, and that you’ll be able to live up to the expectations of your host.
Instead of just using email or website messaging systems to have conversations with your host, consider setting up a video chat with your host before agreeing to the exchange.
This way, you’ll be able to get a feel for what type of person your host is, and you’ll have the chance to ask any questions that may have come up during your research.
Before we did our work exchange in Hawaii, we were immediately pleased by our video chat with our hosts, and it made looking forward to our arrival that much more exciting.
Finally, be sure to read all the reviews of any previous volunteers before you agree to the exchange.
Sometimes a volunteer’s bad experience is purely conditional, but it can also mean the difference between mistaking your host to be a nice person, and finding out ahead of time that they have spontaneous bouts of uncontrollable anger.
The short form of all of these suggestions really boils down to three simple things:
- Do your research thoroughly ahead of time.
- Ask your potential host tons of questions.
- Be mindful of how you’re going to make it all fit together.
1. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)
WWOOFing and those who utilize the site (called WWOOFers) have been around since the early 70’s.
The great thing about WWOOF is that it is specifically set up for organic farming. So if you’re interested in eating nutrient-dense food, or learning how to grow your own, it is absolutely where you should start. Although I’ve never been on a WWOOF exchange myself, I’ve heard nothing but good things from those who have. It is probably the most widely known resource for finding work exchanges all over the world.
The membership fee is usually between $15-$40 USD for each country that you have interest in visiting, but their online directory is one of the most complete and fully utilized platforms out there.
To access their site, click here.
2. HelpX (Help Exchange)
Another common website for finding free accommodation in exchange for work. HelpX has been around since 2001. It is also the website we used to find our amazing work exchange in Hawaii. Similar to WWOOF, HelpX also offers opportunities on organic farms. However, they go the extra length by additionally providing listings for volunteer opportunities at hostels, homestays, caretaking, language tutoring, and other kinds of odd jobs. We have a fondness for using HelpX as our primary source for finding work exchanges, and it would suffice to say that many other travelers utilize it as a resource as well.
The membership fee is $27 USD for two years, with the ability to search through any country’s database for listings (unlike WWOOF).
To access their site, click here.
Workaway is a newer medium for travelers to find suitable work exchanges. It is also subsequently the one I know least about. The type of volunteer opportunities can vary between farms, homestays, and more. What seems to make their website stand out so much in relation to WWOOF and HelpX is the functionality and clean design of their website. With your membership, you’ll gain access to 24-hour support, a personal adviser, live webinars, and a “meet up” option to find other travelers.
The membership fee is $30 USD for two years, and you’ll gain membership access to all of their amenities.
To access their site, click here.
Advice From a Seasoned Exchanger
If you’re seeking my advice about agreeing to a work exchange, and you’re unsure about proceeding further, I’d tell you to absolutely try out volunteering for a work exchange.
You can always start out slow by finding somewhere close to home. That way, if you don’t like the work, it should be easy to return home before assessing some other opportunities available to you.
The choice to agree to a work exchange gives you the advantage of traveling to a new and interesting location, practically for free, while learning new skills and hobbies in the meantime.
If you’re unsure where to start, I’d suggest making a list of what you’re looking for in a work exchange.
What do you want to learn? Will there be other travelers passing through? How much will you be expected to work?
After you have your list well thought out, jot down a list of all the countries you’ve always wanted to see. Next, choose a particular work exchange website to try based on your interests, and have at it!
Start by searching through all of the listings of a particular country, and see what kinds of experiences they have to offer.
You might just find that your next big adventure was just listed by your host a few days prior, and that they’re asking for volunteers with skills that you already have!
At least, that was the case with our experience in finding a work exchange in Hawaii.
And if you’re unsure about your personal safety by traveling to another country for a work exchange, know that the three sites provided are safe and reliable. All of the hosts are screened before their account is activated, and your membership fee keeps these listings legitimate.
Questions about any of the information provided here? Tried out a program and fell in love with it?
Let me know in the comments below.
As always, thanks for reading.