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Expert Guide to Work Exchange: How to Travel for Free

Ahh, the world of work exchange: free accommodation, free meals, and cultural immersion (aka traveling for free.99!). So, what is work exchange? How does it work? Is it worth it..? And, how do you get started? This is your complete guide to scoring the best work exchanges and traveling the world for free!

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What is work exchange?

Simple put: a work exchange is volunteering in exchange for housing and food. There’s a wide variety of websites and volunteer opportunities. The purpose and mission of work exchanges are to promote affordable travel and cultural immersion/exchange. Work exchanges should be a win-win: you get to live abroad for free and the business or organization gets help in exchange. It’s a modern day barter.

Most popular types of work exchange

There are many different types of work exchanges, there’s something for everyone. Here are some examples: teaching English, working on an organic farm, caretaking, leading yoga classes, working in a hostel, building projects, cleaning, painting or art projects, and more.

What countries can I volunteer in?

All over the world. Once you sign up with a work exchange website (info below), you’ll find opportunities in most parts of the world! I’ve done around 7 long-term work exchanges in Central and South America.

Work exchange in Ecuador – volunteering on an organic farm

What are the benefits?

While having a free place to stay and free food is amazing, there are many other benefits that I didn’t know going into it.

In Mazatenango, Guatemala, I volunteered as a Zumba and yoga instructor at a weight loss clinic for 3 weeks. The clinic was massive and volunteers were each given a private apartment with a shared pool. I worked a few hours a day and hung out with the patients. I was challenged to teach my classes all in Spanish and converse with the patients and staff in Spanish. Being forced to speak Spanish for 3 weeks was the best language immersion experience I never knew I needed. It can be frustrating at times but it really forced me to improve my Spanish (and I was so grateful after).

Along with language immersion, I formed bonds with the staff, patients, and other volunteers and after 5 years, we are all still connected on social media.

In Antigua, Guatemala, I took care (/was a live-in best friend) for a 86-year-old British woman for 2 months. Annette and I spent our days together drinking tea and organizing her home. She was an artist and had fascinating life stories about growing up in India and meeting the love of her life in Guatemala. Annette and I formed a bond that I’ll never forget. On my off days, I hiked, went to the gym and to my private salsa classes, traveled around Guatemala, and built a strong community of friends in Antigua. It was my first work exchange gig and inspired me to keep traveling via work exchange.

Some other benefits: getting to know a city or country well (“living like a local”), bicycles/modes of transportation (often times provided), learning new skills/networking, getting out of your comfort zone, and more.

Work exchange in Antigua, Guatemala – caretaking for the lovely Annette

Do you get paid for work exchange?

No. It’s an exchange. You shouldn’t have to pay anything and you won’t be paid.

Note: not all work exchanges include housing, food, and special perks, so read the descriptions and reviews carefully.

How long can you stay?

Work exchanges typically last anywhere between a week to 3 months or more. You may find some for less, but exchanges are mostly for long-term, flexible travelers. The longer you stay, the more it’s worth it for both parties.

Work exchange in Mazatenango, Guatemala – teaching yoga and Zumba!

Is it safe?

Yes! Both volunteers and hosts go through an application and vetting process and pay to be a part of the work exchange website.

I recommend communicating via zoom or extensively through the work exchange chat before the work exchange. You can also reach out to past volunteers to see how their experience was.

Click here for safety tips for solo travelers!

How to get started?

The most common work exchange platforms today are Worldpackers, Workaway, WWOOF, and Helpx. The two programs I recommend most (and have experience with) are Worldpackers and Workaway.

Worldpackers

Worldpackers offers thousands of volunteer positions for you to collaborate, learn, and get immersed in the local culture in more than 140 countries.

I also love Worldpackers because if you ever need to end a volunteer experience early, their support team will help you to find a new host to continue your trip and can reimburse you for up to three nights of accommodation. After receiving your first positive review on Worldpackers, you can take part in Workpackers’ Programs and earn a little money so you can travel even more!!

How much?

Solo membership is $49/year and couples/friends membership is $59/year. All memberships include WP insurance, WP support team before and after your trips, and get in touch with hosts and apply to as many trips as you want.

Click here for $10 off a Worldpackers membership or use code “courtneytheexplorer10”!

Workaway

Workaway is a platform that allows members to arrange homestays and cultural exchange. “Workawayers” are expected to contribute a pre-agreed amount of time per day in exchange for lodging and food.

How much?

An individual account is $44/year and a couples account is $56/year. With the membership, you get access to 50,000 opportunities around the world and 24-hour support.

How to apply?

Step 1: Sign up + create your profile

First, sign up. Then, create your personalized profile! Think of your profile like a resume. Be honest about your history and skills. Add a mix of solo photos and group photos, show off your personality. Keep in mind some hosts will just skim your profile and often times their second language is English. Be precise, clear, and direct when describing yourself and your skills and background.

I recommend using a lot of paragraphs to break up your ideas. Many hosts get tens of applicants, so doing this makes it easier for them to skim your profile fast to see if you’re a good fit.

Step 2: Pick a destination

There are thousands of opportunities around the world. I would first start with picking a country. What are your dream countries? Where would you love to spend a few weeks or months in? Check out the local weather and optimal times of year to visit.

Step 2: Search for work exchanges in that destination

Next, find opportunities that align with your skills and passions. Do you like the outdoors or prefer indoor work? Do you prefer working with people or hands-on tasks like farm work? Get clear on what you want your experience to look like or what skills you’d like to learn or practice.

Step 3: Send personalized messages

An easy way to stand out is by sending a personalized message. Frame your message in a way that lets the host know you are there to help them. Tell them a little about yourself, why you are interested in volunteering with them (something specific that’s in the host’s profile), and why you think you’d be a good fit. Hosts want to know you are excited and going to take the job serious.

Read the host’s profile carefully. Find out what the requirements are and you can include it in your message. Ex: I see that you require a Bachelor’s degree for this teaching opportunity. I have a degree in Business and I think my experience would help with creating systems, communication, and staying organized!

Step 4: Accept the one you love

There may be a lot of competition for spots, especially in popular cities like Madrid and Lisbon. Apply with multiple hosts and accept the opportunity you feel most excited about.

Know that if the opportunity is not what they said it was going to be, you’re never stuck and can leave at anytime.

I had one not-so-great experience at a hostel in Peru. The accommodations were not as promised and the schedule ended up being all over-night shifts which wasn’t stated in the profile. I kept an open mind and tried it for a few days, but ultimately ended up leaving. I communicated throughout and left on okay terms. If you ever experience that, contact the work exchange website and let them know.

Workaway was super responsive and helpful throughout the situation. Worldpackers actually offers insurance. If something like that happens, they cover a few days of accommodation and help you find another host.

Hostel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Things to do before your work exchange

Get a visa

Some countries like Brazil require visas before entering the country. Make sure to research beforehand which countries have visas, as well as surrounding countries that you may want to visit along your travels.

Get travel insurance

While Worldpackers has insurance, I recommend getting travel insurance as well especially in Europe! I recommend World Nomad insurance for trips up to 6 months and Safety Wing for digital nomads.

Start planning!

Create a packing list and pre-trip checklist of everything you need to do before your trip. This will largely depend on what country or region of the world you are going to. I recommend applying at least a month in advance to work exchanges. Ask your host what they recommend to pack or if there’s anything important you should bring, they are local experts!

Although you won’t spend much money while doing a work exchange, I recommend having an emergency of at least $1000 for a return ticket home or medical emergencies.

Tips for your first work exchange

I’m sure you already know this, but I want to stress that the most important thing is to be open-minded, flexible, and take your position seriously. Mindset is everything. If you have a positive attitude and work hard, your work exchange will (most of the time) go wonderfully. Below are a few other tips to keep in mind!

  • Write down the exact address and ask the host the best way to get there. Keep the host updated on your arrival date and time.
  • Offer to do a zoom call beforehand. Ask a lot of questions.
  • Let them know beforehand of any dietary restrictions.
  • Clarify hours, sleeping arrangement, and meals! Even if it is stated on their profile, double check nothing has changed! Again, don’t be afraid to ask a lot of clarifying questions.
  • Have fun! You will create life-long memories and meet amazing people along way. Let me know how your experiences goes, I want to know everything!!

Have you ever done a work exchange? If so, what was your experience like? If not, which kind of work exchange would you choose?

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