Break up long travelling stints with a few weeks volunteering here and there with local families
I’ve been using the Workaway website to find short volunteering placements since 2012.
I travel for three to five months each year and find that a few two-week volunteering placements really enhance my trip.
I’ve made jam with a market trader in Hobart, Tasmania. I’ve tended the veggie plot at a eco-stay in Guarda, Portugal. And I’ve learned all about butterfly farming in San Pedro at the only Earthship in Belize.
It does cost around twenty euros a year to join up but the price is well worth it. You can even Workaway in your own country – really useful if you’re in between jobs or don’t want to pay for flights when it’s vacation time. It’s also a great way to build up interesting contacts and hopefully new friends!
So, what exactly is Workaway?
It’s a not-for-profit website where you sign up as a host or as a volunteer. Hosts are families, couples or single people who offer food and accommodation to volunteers in exchange for around five hours of volunteering per day, usually with a day off each week.
Hosts tend to ask for a minimum of two weeks stay and a maximum of a month. Work can range from gardening, cleaning, babysitting or more specific skilled work like website building.
Both hosts and volunteers create a profile on the website and volunteers browse hosts (organised by geographical location), then send a message to the ones they are interested in. It’s supposed to be a cultural exchange, so a good host will welcome you as part of their family and help you explore the local area during your stay.
How did Workaway begin?
Workaway aims to build a ‘sharing community of global travellers who genuinely want to see the world whilst contributing and giving back to the places they visit’. They wanted to offer a simple way for travellers to discover the world and, however briefly, to become part of the communities they visit.
While there are many companies out there charging large fees for organised volunteering ‘experiences’, Workaway decided to offer something more organic with a simple exchange of work for food, accommodation and a slice of local life.
How do I get started on Workaway?
The first step is to create your profile. Treat this as you would your CV or resume! Hosts receive a lot messages from interested volunteers, especially the highly rated ones, so you need to stand out.
Take time to explain who you are and what your skills are. Don’t worry about not being a master builder or carpenter. Skills like attention to detail and lots of enthusiasm are just as valuable. Attach a good photo too – hosts are going to invite you into their home so they want to know what you look like.
I update my profile each year to keep it current. I always include examples of where I last Workawayed and where I’m travelling on this new trip.
Choosing a Workaway host
Once you’ve decided where your next backpacking trip is taking you, start browsing the host profiles for that country. Wherever you decide to travel there’s bound to be a Workaway host looking for volunteers.
You can filter a search by country and area and there’s usually several pages of hosts. Results are ordered by most recent action on the site, so the hosts at the top are the ones who log in to Workaway most often.
I always check availability too – hosts mark the calendar months ahead in red, amber or green. Often they may decide not to take any volunteers in the hot summer months for example or the very cold winter months (depending on which hemisphere they’re in).
Once you have an idea of the volunteering options available, start messaging!
Most hosts offer both food and accommodation in exchange for volunteering but not all, so be sure to read their profile carefully. I prefer all meals to be included and to eat with the host.
Writing a good host message
Treat this message as you would a covering letter for a job application. I sometimes have to send messages to ten or more hosts in a country before getting a reply. The better your message, the more chance of standing out from the crowd.
Explain why you’re in the country, whether you’re new to Workaway or not, how your skills and experience relate to the host’s profile and if you can find the name of the host on their profile, use it!
Using last minute availability on Workaway
Both hosts and volunteers can choose to go on the last minute availability list. As a volunteer you can detail the dates of your trip and the country you’ll be in. Then hosts can contact you directly. And vice versa – you can check for any hosts on the last minute list and send them a message.
I did this recently in the UK where I live, as I had a gap between my summer work finishing and departing for my next trip to South America. I received ten messages in three days offering me placements – from gardening in Scotland to babysitting in Bristol.
What’s volunteering through Workaway really like?
This is a really hard question to answer as of course every host is different. I’d recommend you exchange a few messages with your host to be sure you understand what you’re committing to.
If you’re a vegetarian, can they cater for you? If you’re very independent, is there a bus service or plenty of things to do with walking distance?
Check whether you’ll be the only volunteer or one of several. I was quite surprised once when I turned up to volunteer with a family into sustainable building in Guatemala to discover I was one of eight volunteers and we were all staying in hobbit houses and tents around the property!
Accommodation ranges from a room in the family house to a cabin or caravan or even a tent. In New Zealand I once volunteered with a lovely family in bushland, ten miles down a gravel track, where I slept in their campervan on the driveway.
Meals can vary widely but most hosts I’ve stayed with have provided amazing meals. I’m vegetarian so tend to choose vegetarian hosts and as I love cooking I’m always happy to get stuck in. Cooking and washing up are not part of the working day of course – just like in a normal family everyone needs to help out with basic chores.
Some hosts will specify that they offer only one cooked meal a day and provide ingredients for you to cook your other meals. This is quite normal if you’re in separate accommodation to the family with your own cooking facilities. For example, in Australia I stayed in a cabin on a large farm and ate my evening meal with the family in the main house but prepared my own breakfast and lunch.
What’s the actual work like?
Do be prepared to actually work! Most hosts are looking for help on their land so it’s going to be outdoor physical work, often in very hot conditions if you’re somewhere tropical. You need to fit in with the daily routine, so if you’re not an early riser check what time the working day starts.
Some hosts are looking for volunteers to help them run small businesses like guesthouses or hostels. So if you don’t fancy sweating away digging a new compost (like I did in Guatemala) you could do bed changing and cleaning instead.
I prefer to be with private families helping them on their land, so the only time I’ve volunteered at a guesthouse was in a small town in El Salvador. This turned out to be a great experience as I was there during Christmas so I got to experience traditional festivities with my lovely hosts. The rest of the time I welcomed guests to the small four bedroom guesthouse and prepared the rooms, as well as writing a local information guide and exploring the area.
I’m off on my next backpacking trip in a fortnight, so I can’t wait to discover where my next volunteering experience will be!