Workaway experiences: The pros & cons of volunteer exchanges
Ilaria is the ‘Girl with a suitcase’ and has kindly allowed us to repost her blogpost all about volunteer exchanges. “ Not only a travel blog: there you can find travel advice, ideas, itineraries, budget holidays, original trips and a lot of wonderful pictures!
Being a travel lover and at the same time a student with no money is not an easy combination. Traveling requires a lot of money, we all know it, and it’s not always easy to have. But nowadays there are a lot of cheap ways to travel and discover the real soul of the place we are visiting: work exchanges and in particular Workaway experiences are one of these possibilities.
Workaway has the right combination of user-friendliness, beautiful layout and amount of offers. So now I want to tell you a bit about Workaway and what I think are the main pros and cons of work exchange holidays!
I spent 3 weeks Workawaying between Portugal and Austria, and now I want to share with you my experience because I think this is a wonderful way of traveling: it gives you an amazing opportunity for combining budget traveling with getting to know some new, international people and meanwhile living like a local does. But at the same time, it is not the classic, relaxing holiday: you have to be very adaptable, positive, motivated. You are going to some unknown person’s home, and it’s all about respect and trust: you are expected to work a certain amount of hours in exchange of room and board, and only in your free time you will actually be on holiday. It is important to be prepared to it, and to be really interested in what you are going to do there!
So I’ll tell you what I believe are the main PROs and CONs of work exchange holidays, my particular experience was with Workaway, but I think it can be easily extended to other similar holidays. I’ll start with the CONs because I think it is important to know them, and especially because I loved my Workaway experience and I want to highlight the PROs at the end, as I really think they are way more than the cons!
1) In a work exchange holiday you WON’T be on holiday
It’s not like going to an all-inclusive resort, where you can spend all your day at the beach and come back just for lunch and dinner. Being a Workawayer means being a volunteer, a helper, a member of the family who is hosting you, a learner, and just when all these things are done it means being a traveller.
Usually hosts ask volunteers to work 5 days a week (but some of them ask for 6, and you can always ask your hosts for some flexibility), 5 hours per day, that is not much. The kind of work volunteers usually do requires an early rise (not ideal if you want to sleep everyday until noon!). The good news is that this way you’ll mainly have the whole afternoon free, and you’ll be able to explore the area. That is good if you are in an interesting place with a lot of things to do around, but if you are staying in an isolated place it may be annoying because you won’t have a lot of time to get to other destinations.
So, what advice could I give you?
Firstly, choose a place that you like, where you know there are things you want to visit and do, and be prepared to have some lazy afternoons with nothing to do…it’s fine, it’s part of the experience. You are living like a local after all, and it means also enjoying some rest at “your” place.
Second, choose a place that offers a type of work you think you’ll like! As obvious as it seems, this is the most important thing, because you are going to spend your holidays working, and if you want to avoid being unhappy you should really take it into account. There are a lot of different offers on Workaway, you can have a look at the website and you’ll immediately have an idea of it. You can find everything, from farming and gardening, to working in a hostel, babysitting, teaching languages, fishing, riding…everything! Choose something you like and time will fly more than you can imagine!
2) This is not a hotel, it’s a person’s house
Nothing is free, even if Workaway turned this sentence into a different range of meanings. Yes, they are hosting you for free, in exchange for just your time and abilities, but you are expected to give something back. So you can’t just sit down and relax, you should be active, even better, proactive. Think like a member of the community you are living in, help with cooking, cleaning, everything that can be done and you feel like doing to thank them for the amazing opportunity they are offering you. Some rain, a bad day or wanting to go to the beach are not reasons that should keep you from working!
Sometimes they could ask you to do something that was not specified in the agreement, and you might not like the idea. It could be anything, from cleaning their bathroom to working at the computer, nothing bad but, if unexpected, it can be disappointing. Of course they can’t force you to do anything, it’s all about helping where needed but it’s not slavery! Just be sincere with yourself, and if you decide you don’t like it but you can make an effort and do it, then go on. If not, they will understand if you explain yourself.
3) People sometimes are weird. It’s part of the experience!
If you are Workawaying in a country that is not your own, people could be different from what you are used to. They could cook you weird meals, they could have strange behaviors, they could do things you don’t understand or you don’t agree with. The aim of travelling is also getting to know these cultural differences, and you should be prepared for it. If you prefer to avoid this, then you should have a classic holiday at a resort. But if you really want to discover a different culture, meet different people, try new, unexpected things…Workaway is just the perfect tool!
4) Some (or a lot of) adaptability is needed
This is crucial. I think the level of adaptability needed changes a lot from experience to experience, but think about it: the people who are hosting you are often building something, or need help with maintenance, or want to start a new activity. These situations usually mean that the places they are living in are at least messy, or are not even completed yet!
Moreover, hosts usually have more than a volunteer at a time, but they don’t have space in the main house. So you’ll probably find yourself living into a tent, a construction trailer, a side house, or anything else. You usually know it before going, and if nothing is written about your accommodation in their profile, you should totally ask about it.
But even if you know it, sometimes arriving at destination and actually seeing the place you are going to live in, can be surprising. That’s why adaptability is needed most: what can you do if your room is not even a room, or your bed is just a mattress on the ground? You can’t really say “ no thank you, I’d prefer sleeping in your room” right? So you adapt, you try to make yourself comfortable and eventually you’ll probably even enjoy it!
When I was in Portugal, I was living in a very rural environment, and my room was in a side house. I had no bed, just an inflatable mattress on the ground. And I was probably sharing my accommodation with a couple of mice (I saw one running away from my bathroom…..), which is not easy to accept. But I eventually did it!
On the other side, I enjoyed a lot living in a construction trailer in Austria, that was nice and warm and I had an actual bed, but there was no bathroom in there and the main house was kind of far. It’s annoying if you wake up during the night and need to pee, but if you let life stop you with some little hurdles, you won’t enjoy the best of travelling: finding out that every place on Earth is somehow wonderful.
These were the Cons. Only these? Yes. Because if you love traveling, if you want to try something new, if you are thrilled about challenges and new experiences… Workaway only has pros!
1) Make your dream job real
As I said, Workaway has a lot of different job offers, basically everything you can think about in every country in the world. Really. The world out there is crazy: it is full of people who dropped everything, bought a property somewhere and started their dream job out of nothing. And it is AMAZING! Didn’t you ever dream it too after all?
But it is not easy to do it. Most people don’t exactly know what they want, they are scared, they are influenced by society, they keep dreaming about it for the future…….ehm, yes this is me, too. This is most of us! Well, guess what: Workaway was invented for us, for the dreamers who haven’t found their way yet, for people scared of consequences who want to follow their dreams just for a while…because with Workaway you can be whoever you want, do whatever you dream, wherever you desire.
So you should follow your passions, your dreams: you can try every job you can think about for a limited time and with no consequences, even the craziest ones! People who are crazier than you are doing it, and not only will they give you the chance to help them, they’ll also let you go on holiday in their country almost for free!
I love horses and horse riding, and my dream is to work with them one day…my studies are far away from this option up to now, but Workaway gave me the chance to live my dream and try it for an amount of time. I volunteered for a charity association in Portugal and helped to save some abandoned, starving horses. Then I went to Austria and worked at a therapeutic riding stable, discovering how amazing it is. It was a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget, and it’s something I am really grateful for, cause it made me grow, live my passions and be helpful. And also travel to two beautiful countries I never had the chance to visit before, on a very low budget.
2) You can volunteer with no restriction
Volunteering is something really beautiful and helpful, and a lot of people would like to do it as an alternative to a normal holiday. I think being helpful in general is something really rewarding, and doing it in a foreign country is a wonderful way of make something more out of your holidays.
But when it comes to make it real, it is not as easy as it should be. If you try to type “volunteer holidays” on the internet a lot of results will come out and most of them are charity associations or travel agencies. In the first case, you are probably going to work in a local community and be really helpful, but usually you have to pay a fee (that can be high sometimes) and they will ask you for a minimum stay of some months, with fixed departure times and periods. If you choose a travel agency (it seems like volunteering is becoming “fancy” because a lot of them offer this kind of holiday), you will probably do some incredible activities like feeding tigers in India, but they will mostly ask for a lot of money and it won’t be such a great help for the local community.
Workaway allows you to volunteer with no restriction: you can choose everything, from how long to where to do it. I only had about 3 weeks this summer to volunteer, and I was able to do it both in Portugal and Austria, trying different things, meeting interesting people, seeing a lot of places…and I had to pay almost nothing!
Moreover, you can really choose what kind of activity you like: if you feel more like working with animals, like me, there are plenty of opportunities, both profit and no profit. The same for children, you can go to Africa helping in a local school, as well as to a local family in Spain to look after their children! You choose where, when and why, so you can make the best out of your time even if it is not much.
3) Workawayers are the most interesting people
During a Workaway experience, as in every other travel, you will probably meet a lot of new people from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures. So there is nothing new here. But Workawayers, as well as the people who host them, are special.
Workawayers are usually crazy, brave, interesting people who travel alone through the world, volunteering everywhere they can in order to try new things and make their travels longer.
Talking to them it’s usually mind-opening, since they have seen and done so many things, and it is so motivating that you will immediately start planning your next big trip! They are people who love travelling, like you, and who love life, and you can’t avoid getting along well with this kind of people…because they are exactly like you!
But most of all, people who host Workawayers are incredible persons. They often are foreigners in that country as you are: they used to have a job, a house, a normal life, and they gave it all up to buy a piece of land and literally build their dreams on it! Or they can be locals, who love meeting international people and opening up their houses to them. In any case, they have great stories to tell, useful skills to teach and a lot of interesting points of view! Meeting all these people in a Workaway experience is one of the best parts of it, and the best (still logic) thing is that, after a Workaway experience, you will be one of them.
4) The best way to learn a culture (and a language)
One of the aims of every holiday should be getting to know a new place and the people who live there, appreciating the cultural differences and growing up as a more open-minded persons. Of course some holidays are better than others if this is what you want to get.
In this case, Workaway is perfect. Whatever job you will be doing, you will necessarily integrate into the local community, get to know not only foreigners but also people who lived there all their lives. And it is always interesting to talk with these people. I love to talk about politics and culture with people from other countries, for example, because I am always shocked with how many differences (or similarities) there are where you would never expect them!
It is also perfect if you want to learn a language or to regain one you studied in your childhood: of course it won’t be easy without a language course, but with a good book, an app on your smartphone and a lot of motivation, it’s incredible how helpful an immersion into a language can be!
And sometimes hosts offer you to teach you their language in exchange with some lessons of your one…a really interesting (and inexpensive) way to improve!
5) Travel out of touristic routes
Let’s be honest, who has ever heard about a town called Odiaxere, in Portugal? Or about Radenthein, a small place in southern Austria? Maybe someone has but probably very few, not even the people who have visited Portugal or Austria.
So, you won’t even know that near Odiaxere there is an incredibly beautiful lagoon, perfect for kite-surfers, where the blue waters blend with green strips of cultivations and white sand. And after climbing some sandy dunes, you find yourself in front of the ocean, beautiful and unexpected as in no other place.
I didn’t know it either, and I would have never known it if it wasn’t for Workaway. When I found the charity house for horses in Portugal, I would have never expected that going one day alone to the beach would have been the amazing experience I had in that beautiful lagoon (probably one of the best beaches I have ever seen!).
The point is, when we travel we usually go to well known touristic destinations, we look on Tripadvisor what are the best places to see around it and go home with a perfectly normal experience. When you workaway, you find yourself in places people would probably never visit because they don’t know them, but that may be amazing. It’s a totally different way of discovering a place, one that is not based on what to see, but on discovering the place you found yourself in. And if you are a travel lover, it will be an incredible experience.
What else can I say about this amazing experience? I am so grateful I had the chance to do what I did, see what I saw and meet the people I now can call friends that I feel like I am missing something here, and it is probably true. But what I wanted to do is to explain you everything I could about it, both in the negative and the positive parts. So that if you’ll decide to do it, you’ll know what you are going to face. But, actually, if you are a travel lover the way I mean it…you can skip all the cons at the beginning and start to plan your next Workaway experience.
Good luck fellow travellers, and don’t forget to share your experience with me in the comments 🙂
Love, Girl with a suitcase