In the days before leaving on my first extended trip to Europe, I had no idea how I was going to sustain a nomadic lifestyle for 3+ months without putting myself into serious debt. When I boarded the plane that flew me over the ocean + into Switzerland I only had plans for the first two weeks of the adventure. The first week was a company-sponsored gig, the second week was a backpacking jaunt along a 100+ mile mountain trail. Neither would cost me much of anything. After there…I had little to no idea.
Enter WorkAway, a volunteer exchange network. I’ve already talked a bit about how I found the WorkAway network + I’ve compared WorkAway to HelpX + WWOOF, similar volunteer exchange websites. Over roughly six months in Europe, I’ve spent about five months with various WorkAway hosts. All of my experiences were positive + I’d happily return to any of the hosts’ homes to once again become a part of their lives. I want to share a few tips for choosing a volunteer exchange gig that works for…YOU. These tips can apply to WorkAway, HelpX or WWOOF + they helped me find great hosts with interesting backgrounds while learning about new cultures + lifestyles.
Know What YOU Want
Before you can pick a host that works great with you…you need to know you. When I first scrolled through the host listings on WorkAway I was overwhelmed by the insane number of people looking for childcare. I’m not entirely opposed to kids, but I know that being in a situation where I was constantly responsible for children would exhaust me. I quickly found the filter options + narrowed down the list by skills I was good at + enjoyed doing. This cut my list of hosts in half, but I still hand 20-100 hosts in each location I searched.
I ended up seeking out hosts that focused on hospitality [bed + breakfasts, hostels, campgrounds] + farm work [dairy farms, homesteads, vineyards] because that’s where my skill set lies. This isn’t to say I never had any childcare responsibilities…they just weren’t the focus of my volunteer work.
Read The Reviews
Generally speaking, volunteers are hesitant to leave truly negative reviews because the review system goes both ways. However, it’s not too difficult to read between the lines of the reviews left by past volunteers. Some are beams of positivity, touting an awesome environment, feasible workloads + interactive hosts. Others are a bit more vague with a lot of reference to the host being strict or having very high expectations. These less flowery reviews don’t need to be red flags. Instead of letting them turn you off from the hosts, let them be a source of questions you ask prior to committing to the volunteer exchange.
Some hosts may not have any reviews. If they are a new host with a robust profile, it may be worth the risk [again, with the right questions asked pre-commitment]. If their profile feels lacking or questionable…it may be worth pushing aside. One thing great about the volunteer exchange networks is that they set you up for two-way first impressions + interviews. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to move along.
the best part of volunteering at a hostel? getting out on hikes with fellow volunteers, hostel guests + locals!
Reach Out, Professionally.
No, this is not a ‘real’ job that you’re vying for, but it doesn’t hurt to treat it like one. With the growing popularity of nomadic living, free-spirited travel + volunteer exchange popularity you’re definitely no the only person reaching out to this host. Find a way to stand out. Make sure your profile is up to snuff + write a positive, professional sounding email when you first reach out to the host.
I wrote most of my initial emails as if they were cover letters; telling the host why I was interested in them, what I could bring to the table + introduced myself. I was also sure to include the dates I was available to volunteer. If I had any burning questions, I included those as well. Once the host replied, we discussed more details than planned the specifics…or moved along to other opportunities.
When I was helping to manage the WorkAway + HelpX accounts for a hostel in Switzerland I was astonished by the flippant ‘hey, got any room for a volunteer’ emails we were receiving. No effort was put into that initial correspondence + we immediately swept those volunteers aside. If they can’t even read our profile or put effort into their first email to us…would they be willing to truly help out around the hostel? Probably not.
**keep in mind, there will be language barriers + not every email correspondence will be perfectly punctuated or grammatically correct…but it is very easy to distinguish between laziness + lost in translation**
Keep in mind…you’ll be living with this host for 2+ weeks, while you’re on ‘vacation’. You need to know what you’re getting into. Ask questions about anything that you’re unsure of. Of course, take some responsibility for your own transportation, but don’t be afraid to ask what train station/bus stop is closest. The host knows the community surrounding their home…ask them about it!
Here are a few questions I’m really glad I asked…
…What is the housing situation? Where will I sleep + shower? Is it a shared space?
…Are meals included? If so, how do you traditional handle meal times? If not, will I have access to the kitchen to cook my own meals?
…What does a normal day look like at your home/business? Are there set work hours? What is available during the downtime on ‘work days’?
…What type of work will I be doing? Will this work be done as a team or will I be working alone? Will you be available to train or answer questions during these tasks?
…Do you schedule specific non-work days? If so, what days are non-work for volunteers? If not, how do you usually plan for the non-work days?
…Will there be other volunteers there while I am there? Do we share tasks or have different responsibilities? Are we given the same days off work or do we cover for each other?
…What activities are available in the area? Are they touristy or adventure activities? How easy is it to access public transportation?
Keep in mind, some of these questions will be answered in the hosts’ profile or during your initial emails. There all just questions I keep in the back of my mind while determining which volunteer exchange host I choose.
the most interesting part about volunteering?! the things you’ll learn about rural life + different cultures — it gives you a whole new perspective on your own life.
Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away.
If you’re not feeling your host or something seems off…walk away. Ideally, this is something you’d find out before committing to working with your host. That’s where those questions + the reviews come into play. If you’re four emails into conversations with the host + things just aren’t ‘right’…be upfront with them. Either tell them why you’re apprehensive or simply say it isn’t going to work out for you. Let them know as soon as you know — give them time to find another volunteer to take your place.
Now, it’s always possible you’ve already arrived with a commitment of 2+ weeks with a host. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable, walk away. If it’s something you can be honest about + something that may be fixed…talk to the host. It may not fix your stay + you may still end up leaving early, but it may make the stay better for the next volunteer. Also, keep in mind, you’re usually living in someone else’s house + surrounded by a culture you don’t understand.
If there is no immediate threat [something I’ve never experienced, but trust your instincts] consider giving yourself more time there. Consciously work to become more open-minded about the culture + way of life you’re living in. I was surprised how much I learned while volunteering at a remote homestead in rural Czech. It wasn’t a setting I was used to, even as a farm girl, but it was an incredible experience. The potential for cultural conflict or general discomfort with being so far out of your own element is why I like to keep my initial commitment to 7-14 days. It’s a feasible amount of time to learn about a new way of life without losing a piece of yourself. If you love it, you can always extend your stay or return.
USA, UK, AUS — we met volunteering at a hostel in Switzerland…then again when our travels took us all to Croatia!
I’m sure there are many other ways to dig through the many hosts on WorkAway. Details will depend upon the type of work you’re interested in, so adjust accordingly. Expectations for work vs play will change every time you cross a country’s border. You can never be 100% sure what you’re signing up for, but these are a few steps that can get you a bit more confident in your volunteer exchange.
Have you ever been part of a volunteer exchange — either as a host or volunteer? What was your experience like? What do you wish you had done differently? Why would you/wouldn’t you recommend this style of ‘work for accommodation’ to another person?
I’d love to hear your story…because it gives me another excuse to get out there + do it all over again!