Let me start by saying that work exchange can be an incredible experience. Sites like Workaway, HelpX, and WOOF give travelers an opportunity for free accommodation in exchange for their time – and with the right situation, could leave them with a wealth of knowledge and no smaller pockets.
That said – work exchange could also be more work than it’s worth. I’ve read (and experienced) hosts who treat workers more as slaves than as guests and take advantage of budget travelers’ time. A greater shame given the amount of effort put in to getting there – out of 10 messages sent, maybe half of those are read and 1-2 responded to. So finding something you’re truly interested in can be a challenge.
Here are 5 questions to help find the right opportunity:
1) What are the hours?
More often than not, you’re expected to work more than what’s on the listing. This is the result of two things:
- Not all listings are kept current, and
- Not all duties are considered “work”.
“Helping around the house” may seem simple, but could mean hours of dishes, cleaning, and laundry. It’s your responsibility to ensure clear expectations are set before/after your typical hours. And even more important, that they’re adhered to on-site.
2) What’s the Daily Routine?
What, specifically, will you be doing? Terms like “cleaning” or “farming” are vague and could hide a bigger
picture. Request specific examples. Hosts are expected to “only ask of workers what they would do themselves”. But not all tasks are the same for everyone, so get a clear picture before committing your time.
3) What are the Accommodations and Amenities?
Depending where you are, this could vary. Consider the below particularly if staying for an extended period of time:
- Is the room private or shared? (If shared, are there lockers?)
- Is the bathroom private or shared?
- Are sheets and towels provided?
- Are meals provided?
- Can you bring food on the premises?
- Do you have access to a kitchen?
- How close are you to town?
- What are the transportation options?
- Does the room have Wi-Fi?
- Does the room have electricity and running water?
4) What are the Costs to Get There?
When I first started work exchange, I hardly considered the costs involved in getting there. If you’re further away, you’ll need transportation. If you’re doing dirty work, you’ll need scrap clothes. Do your research, and fully understand the cost of “free”.
Since accommodations are one of the biggest costs of travel, saving here could outweigh the expenses. As a rule of thumb – sum expenses like supplies, food, and transportation and divide it by the dates you’re invested. That number should align with the daily budget you’re comfortable with.
5) Will You Enjoy It?
Not all costs are monetary – and neither are gains. In fact, one of the most valuable gains is experience, which can sometimes trump the costs above. What will this experience teach you? How will you benefit? Are you interested in its content? Sometimes, no amount of “free accommodation” is worth the work. And other times, you’d do anything for it. Imagine yourself already there, doing the work with the people you’ve transcribed with, and don’t commit too long until you know it’s something you’re looking for.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations on your new work exchange! Upon arrival, it wouldn’t hurt you (or the host) to have a casual debriefing. Establish expectations, and make clear what you want from the experience and what they want from you.
If after a few days, the situation deems not as you expected, take the two-step approach:
- Hang in there. These people are counting on you and didn’t plan for an early departure. Casually sit the host down, communicate your feelings and see what can be done to adjust.
- If the situation doesn’t improve… leave. You’re not a slave to anyone, and no one can force you to be. Only proceed as far as you’re comfortable.