Accommodation is usually the heftiest travel expense, but that’s no reason to stay home. If you want to save money, consider volunteering abroad—it’ll give you a fabulous cultural experience, and you can often get free accommodation along with it.
The volunteer (also known as “work-trade”) movement began in the organic farming industry with an organization called WWOOF (Worldwide Work on Organic Farms), which allows volunteers to get their hands dirty (literally) in trade for accommodation and sometimes meals as well. These days, volunteer jobs are as varied as the places they’re offered. Here’s a selection of volunteer gigs I’ve done in trade for free accommodation:
- Milking goats (Hawaii)
- Painting murals and hostel management (Hawaii)
- Tending to a country estate and B&B (Australia)
- Leading eco-treks on llamas (Australia)
- Cooking, cleaning, and designing marketing plans at a spiritual retreat and conference centre (New Zealand)
- Speaking conversational English (Spain)
- Helping out on sailboats (Caribbean)
What to Expect
Every volunteer position is different. Sometimes it’s just you helping out a family business, and sometimes it’s a major operation with a dozen volunteers keeping the wheels greased.
You will be expected to work from five to thirty hours per week (days off vary), and for your efforts you’ll get free accommodation and sometimes free meals.
The standard of accommodation also varies; sometimes it’s private, sometimes shared with other volunteers. Sometimes it’s posh, and sometimes you get a glorified tent. See below for some ways to find your optimal fit.
Where to Find Volunteer Opportunities
These sites connect volunteers with hosts. In most cases you can browse the listings before signing up and paying the membership fee (which pays for itself after one night of free accommodation).
Here are some pointers to ensure you find the perfect volunteer opportunity:
Cast the net wide: There’s a lot of competition, depending on the gig. Don’t get discouraged if your initial applications are unsuccessful.
Treat it like a job application: When contacting hosts, don’t tell them how much you want to visit their country. Show them what you can do for them.
Ask lots of questions: Once the host has expressed an interest, make sure you get lots of information about the job. Here are some things you’ll want to know:
- What is expected (type of work, hours, etc.)
- Living circumstances
- If food is provided and what can be expected
- The location of the property and amenities
- Whether there are other volunteers on the property
- What “a day in the life” is like
- If the place is rural, whether you will have access to a vehicle and/or how you will get around
- Photos of the place
Do a Skype interview: Connecting this way helps both parties determine if there is a good fit.
Set a probationary period: This is especially important for longer-term gigs. A test period protects both parties if it’s not a good fit when you arrive.
Choose locations wisely: You’ll get the most “bang” for your volunteer hours in countries where the cost of living is higher.
Expect the Unexpected
Every volunteer position is unique in every way, which is why you need to be vigilant about the gigs you choose. When a reader wrote to me about an awkward host-volunteer situation she endured, I thought about the variety of hosts I’ve had, with a huge mixture of intentions, personalities, and living circumstances.
I’ve volunteered for antisocial hermits (a few times, actually), overzealous snobs, men looking for love (thankfully not aggressively), women looking for love (don’t wanna talk about it)—as well as some of the most intelligent, caring, fascinating, and benevolent people I’ve ever met.
I’ve met lifelong friends, and returned to some places for extended volunteering. I’ve enjoyed becoming part of local communities around the world, and gaining better cultural understandings. Oh yeah, and I’ve enjoyed savings tens of thousands of dollars on accommodation over the years.