HOW TO TRAVEL FOR FREE: My Guide to Work Exchange (WWOOF, WorkAway, HelpX)
I always get comments from my friends and people online saying that they wish they could travel as much as I do and how I must spend so much money traveling...
What if I told you that I did it all for free!
Yepp, that's right. I have been able to do all of my traveling for little to no cost thanks to great work exchange programs like WWOOF, WorkAway, and HelpX. Each of these websites offer different kinds of work exchange.
Villas Mastatal Permaculture Farm in Mastatal, Costa Rica
What is work exchange?
Work exchange is a type of budget travel where you help out/work somewhere in exchange for free food and accommodation. Types of work exchanges vary immensely but the main type of hosts are farms, hostels, and families. I prefer to go places that host multiple or a groups of volunteers. My friend once described it as adult camp and that's exactly what it's like! You're all living and working together while having fun and going on adventures.
Not only is work exchange a great option for budget travelers but it's also great for solo travelers because it's so easy to meet people and make friends. I've made some of my best friends through work exchange and the type of people who do it are always the best!
Read my guide for planning your first solo travel trip here.
How does it work?
Again, it varies by host so be sure to read every description carefully and know exactly what their expectations are before committing, but typically you commit to working x amount of hours x days of the week and in exchange you get a free place to sleep and free food. It's great because it's beneficial for the traveler and the host.
I haven't worked more than 30 hours a week for any of my work exchanges and usually it was much less. Accommodation has always been comfortable and in my experience the food has been great. Even being vegan, my hosts have always been super accommodating.
At the Lazy Hostel in Vieques, Puerto Rico
For the type of work it really depends on where you are. On a farm, you'll be doing farm work like helping to plant or harvest food, dig holes, build things. At a hostel, you would typically help guests check in and out, clean, make beds, stuff like that. And for families, you would typically act as a nanny or babysitter and take care of the kids, drive them places, clean, maybe help with cooking. But there are so many different types of work exchanges that you can find besides farms, hostels, and families (although those are all great options). I've seen listings for chefs, artists, sailors, teachers... you will definitely be able to find something that suits you if you look.
There are 3 main work exchange websites that I have found to be the most popular and trustworthy. They are WWOOF, Work Away, and HelpX. For most work exchange websites, you can browse hosts for free but have to pay a small fee for a yearly membership to actually contact any hosts.
So, what's the difference?
WWOOF if just for farms and in my experience I have found it to be the most well known program/website. It stands for Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming. Small organic farmers all over the world can list their farm on WWOOF and then host volunteers. The volunteers help out on the farm and the farmers offer them somewhere to sleep and food. WWOOF works by having separate websites for every country. It can be a little frustrating if you're not sure where you want to go because you have to pay a separate membership fee for each website but I think my membership for Costa Rica was around $15 for the year.
You can read about how I found my love for farming through WWOOFing but I truly think that every person would benefit from and enjoy working on a farm. Volunteering at Villas Mastatal Permaculture Farm was one of the best experiences of my life and so much fun! I learned a lot, sweat a lot, met incredible people, and got to stay in the beautiful jungle in the Central valley of Costa Rica. Some hosts do require that you pay an extra daily or weekly fee to help them pay for food and accommodation and that was the case for almost every farm in Costa Rica. Costa Rica can be an expensive country so volunteers payed $15 a day to help the family out with expenses. This was still a small fee compared to everything that we got and still much cheaper than any hostel or other accommodation.
Work Away is my favorite work exchange website. Work Away lists every kind of work exchange from farms to hostels to sail boats to teachers... you name it, they have it. Sometimes, I'll spend hours just browsing their website and I think I have over 100 different hosts saved. I also think their website is the easiest to navigate.
You can browse their website for free but to contact a host you have to buy a membership which is $29 for one year. I have found that sometimes you can find out the name of a host from their description, and then find their website or Facebook and contact them outside of Work Away but I still think getting a membership is worth it. Also having a membership means that hosts can give you reviews which is good for your profile and finding future hosts.
Doing a work away at a hostel in the Caribbean was one of the best months of my life so I couldn't recommend this website any more!
HelpX is similar to Work Away and popular among Europeans. Honestly I haven't used it much and don't love the setup of their website but I know a lot of other people who like it.
Isn't that sketchy?
No, not at all! Well, It can be.... BUT as long as you choose a good host then you should be fine. I've been lucky enough to only have amazing experiences through work exchange but I have heard horror stories from my other travel friends about bad hosts. I've also been super meticulous about choosing hosts and done a lot of research before going anywhere.
How to choose a good host:
I'm not an expert and I can't guarantee that you will have a great experience but all of these tips have worked for me and turned into some of the best times of my life!
First, you have to know yourself and be honest. While living in the jungle, using a machete, and sleeping outdoors while working on a farm may sounds cool in theory, if you enjoy hot showers and can't live without ruining one of your snapchat streaks then it might not be for you. Find a balance of what seems cool and what you would actually enjoy doing. Also know your limits. If a host says must be fluent in Spanish and you took Spanish for 2 years in high school then that's probably not the best idea.
Then think about what kind of environment or group dynamic you want. Like I said, I really thrive in group settings and I like social environments. I do work exchange to meet new people so I want to go places where there are other volunteers. You may want a more intimate experience like living with a family and taking care of their kids while learning a new language. Both experiences have their benefits so think about where you would want to be.
My most important piece of advice which is really what I go by is reviews! What's more useful than reviews by other travelers who have actually worked at whatever place! The first thing I look at is the number of reviews. I look for places that have a high number of reviews because that means that they have experience in hosting volunteers and that there are probably a lot of travelers who work there at any one time.
Then of course, look at the actual rating! A host doesn't need all perfect ratings, but on work away I would want a host that has at least an 85%. Also, actually read some of the ratings too. They also might include some advice for what to know coming in or what type of person would enjoy working there.
The last thing I do to make sure that a host is trustworthy is look for them in other places on the internet. If a place also has a website, Facebook, and Instagram, it just makes me feel better like they're a real place and actually have their sh*t together. Not totally necessary or a deal breaker but it does give me piece of mind.
Lastly, just go!
Really. That sounds so cheesy but I promise you won't regret it and you'll probably even get hooked on it as a way of traveling.
As always, feel free to reach out if I missed anything or if you have any other questions!
Going back to visit work away friends in Vieques, Puerto Rico