Many people associate getting free accommodation with sacrificing some combination of quality, comfort, and privacy. This needn’t be the case, and I’m here to debunk some misconceptions about volunteering in exchange for free accommodation, with reader experiences and tips on how to use WorldPackers effectively.
I’m lucky. Because I’ve been living the long-term / full-time travel lifestyle since 2006 and writing about it, I have a ton of content on this website. And because of that, readers come into my ecosphere in many different ways.
Some stumble on my travel narratives and honest accounts of what life on the road is really like (which sadly don’t pay the bills, but they feed my soul), and those people often become my most committed followers because I am extremely vulnerable in my writing and people connect with that.
Others are searching for luggage or travel gear; a topic I love geeking out on and I consistently get a ton of traffic on these articles (so I must be doing something right).
And others yet find me through my Travel Lifestyle Guides which are pretty much the cornerstone content of my site as it relates to how to travel long-term in a financially sustainable way.
There’s another contingent that find me through my e-book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World, currently in its 3rd edition, available on my site and through Amazon.
In all cases, people who end up in my inner circle (which you can access here) discover my inbox is open to readers to reach out, connect with me, and ask questions. This is another thing I’m not compensated for and I’m sometimes overwhelmed with the amount of communication, but it has its merits; it’s much more fun for this whole blogging thing to be a two-way street rather than me shouting into the void. (And sometimes they Buy Me A Coffee for my time, which I’m eternally grateful for).
One such person bought my book last August, and we’ve been in communication ever since. Michael’s story was inspiring enough that I wanted to share it with you.
This article has special links to WorldPackers – they give you an automatic discount on membership! And they also earn me a referral fee. Win-Win for everybody! Please bookmark this article and share it with others so they can enjoy these tips & tricks & discounts too.
It Started With How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World
Michael bought my book, and a few days later I sent him an email asking how he was getting on with the book and if he had any questions.
I read your whole book already! I’m very grateful to have come across your book, and grateful to you for writing it! 🙏
We were off to a great start, so we started discussing his travel plans. With a flight credit burning a hole in his wallet, he had set his sights on Europe, and was open to deciding the specific location based on opportunities available.
I’m thinking right now I’ll probably have a better experience volunteering somewhere, rather than just touring around, so I’m seeing what appeals to me on WorldPackers. I love exploring new places, and I love volunteering, especially if it’s meaningful for helping others and the world.
I’m an online violin teacher, but I’m thinking for my first trip, I will put a pause on that for about a month so I can be more present with my travel experience (and not worry about my expensive violin too). I might eventually see what I can do traveling and keeping up with my online teaching too, but perhaps I should start more simple and go one step at a time.
I applauded Michael for this stepped approach to the travel lifestyle, which would allow him to get his feet wet in the world of travel before trying to work remotely and travel at the same time, which, although possible, is also a tricky balancing act – especially when combined with work-exchange (I’ve been there, done that, and frankly I don’t recommend it).
Doing Work-Exchange with WorldPackers
WorldPackers is a work-exchange website that features opportunities to volunteer in exchange for free accommodation (and sometimes meals as well). In my first 10 years of traveling the world full-time, I saved over $100,000 getting my accommodation for free (in five different ways – which I cover in my book), and for a few of those years work-exchange was my method of choice.
I did everything from designing marketing plans to painting murals to running hostels and retreat centres, to chopping firewood, leading eco-treks on llamas, and even milking goats. All in exchange for a place to stay.
And while accommodation is the most expensive part of travel and the money saved can be substantial, anybody who has done something like this can also tell you, it’s about much more than a free place to stay. There is no better way to dive in to a local culture and meet people you’d never otherwise meet than with volunteering.
There are a few reasons why I’ve become a big fan of WorldPackers as my work-exchange website of choice. Specifically two things that make them stand out above the other similar websites:
1. Their search filters are incredible (and incredibly necessary given the number of gigs they have on the site). You can even filter for social impact and eco-friendly gigs.
2. Things happen. If you show up and discover the gig is not what you agreed to and/or you feel unsafe, WorldPackers will rescue you from the situation, put you up for a few nights, and help you find another placement. Learn more about WP Insurance here.
Michael’s Work-Exchange in Italy (and Beyond)
A few months later, I got another note from Michael.
I have my volunteer job in Italy confirmed! I’ll be working on a farm in Tuscany, Italy for 2 weeks, helping with the olive harvest. Surrounding this volunteer job, I plan to see Rome, Florence, the Dolomites (Alps), and Venice. I’ve never toured around like this, or done a work exchange job, so I’m really excited!
Thank you so much for inspiring me to do this, and giving me the resources I needed! Out of everything in my Italy trip, I am the most excited about this farm job!
With his excitement practically dripping off this email, I asked him to touch base when his trip was done to let me know how it went.
I had a great experience in Italy. It was really good for me to do something totally different from what I’m used to, and meet new interesting people in a really beautiful place. I learned a lot about myself during my two week work exchange. It is a really nice feeling to do a labor job, work hard half the day, and then relax in peace. It’s a peaceful simple life. I like working out, being outside, and spending time with friends, and so it was a great experience for me.
I also spent a couple of weeks seeing wonderful sites in Italy. This was the first time since I started playing the violin at the age of 7 that I took a full month off, and it was really refreshing. I learned I’m also very happy without my violin, and so the experience makes me look at life in a more liberating way. Although I’m still a violinist and violin teacher, the experience helped me remove my feeling of identity as a violinist, and as a result I feel happier and more peaceful.
Thank you Nora for inspiring me to do the work exchange and connecting me with WorldPackers!
I mean, he’s selling it for me, no? Here’s a discount on membership to sweeten the pot.
Travel in general is an expanding mind-opening experience. I love how Michael realized he has a separate identity to that of his career; something not a lot of people can honestly say these days, where “what do you do” is the first question people ask when getting to know you.
I also remember this; my work-exchange experiences allowed me to live in the present moment more than pretty much anything else I’ve done. The combination of being abroad plus performing relatively simple tasks with new friends is valuable in ways that, until I started corresponding with Michael, I hadn’t quite realized.
Michael is planning his next trip, to South America. This time he’ll take his violin and teach remotely while traveling for at least a few months. He doesn’t plan to volunteer, because, as I advise in my book, work-exchange plus full-time remote work isn’t a great combination. He will, however take time off work here and there to do more concentrated exploring.
This South American trip wasn’t originally on the cards for Michael; rather, it was inspired by his work-exchange in Italy.
In my work exchange in Italy, Spanish was the main language everyone spoke. I understood nothing, so I was really wishing I could speak Spanish. After my Italy trip, someone from Peru asked me how my farm job experience was through WorldPackers, we talked, and then we decided to have a language exchange. She’s helping me with Spanish, and I’m helping her with English.
This language exchange has been so fun and is a big reason I’ve stayed motivated to learn Spanish. It’s also one of the reasons I’m headed to South America next. Life can be fun how it takes us to unexpected places.
Thank you again for inspiring me to travel! I think coming across your book last summer is influencing my life in a very nice way.
Love that last little bit about my book influencing his life and travels. WOW!
Misconceptions about Work-Exchange
Some correspondence on my Facebook page highlighted a few misconceptions about volunteering in trade for accommodation. I’ll let the conversation speak for itself.
Misconception #1: It’s a Full-Time Job for a Dorm Bed
Sure, you’ll find a lot of positions that involve shared accommodation. But there’s way more out there than that.
Strange, I don’t picture you putting 30 hrs a week in social media promotion work for a dorm bed and a meal per day… I know I would not.
I saved over $100k in accommodation expenses in my first 10 years of full-time travel, and one of the ways I did it was by volunteering in exchange for accommodation. And in all the gigs I did, never once did I work 30 hours a week for a dorm bed and one meal per day!
The gigs varied as widely as the hosts and countries did. I worked anywhere from 6 to 25 hours per week, and almost always had a private room. In some cases I took care of my own meals, and in others I was provided 3 meals a day.
In every case I had an amazing culturally immersive experience that I could not possibly have found any other way.
And then another reader to my defence:
I’m with you! Volunteering for me was never about what I got in exchange — I never saw it as transactional. It was about giving, and deeply connecting with the local culture. The experiences I had volunteering in my travels were absolutely unforgettable, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.
I also never stayed in a dorm — but I would have!
Misconception #2: It’s all Grunt Work
Sure, you’ll find positions in gardening/farming, cleaning, and other chores. Frankly, what do you expect? You’re some chump off the street who is volunteering. They’re not going to parachute you into upper-level management.
But even so, that needn’t mean all the work is grunt work. I think it’s also a matter of perspective. Some people like chopping carrots. Others like picking them. For those people perhaps a gardening or cooking job is fun.
I’d rather wait longer to travel so I can save more money. I would be happy to volunteer at a place where it feels like part of the vacation (like at some animal sanctuary) but cleaning or cooking at some random place just to have a bed to sleep in would suck the joy out of traveling for me.
Great! If shovelling poop at an animal sanctuary floats your boat, then have at ‘er. There are work exchange gigs for that too. (Frankly, better you than me).
But also, this commenter used the word “vacation”. I think work-exchange is great for somebody who is traveling for longer than our idea of what a “vacation” is. If I had two weeks to travel as a respite from a demanding job/life, I probably wouldn’t consider work-trade either.
The beauty of work-trade gigs is that you can choose the opportunities – and locations – that speak to you the most. It’s not all grunt work…or at least it doesn’t always feel like it is.
The place where I cooked and cleaned was a retreat centre tucked away in naturalistic New Zealand that would have cost thousands of dollars (per week) to stay at. I had free accommodation, meals, and access to the retreats. That’s just an example.
But also, it depends on why you’re traveling, for how long, and what the cost of living is in the country. I wouldn’t do work-trade in a country with a low cost of living, where I could easily pay for a place to stay out of pocket and immerse in the culture other ways. I did my volunteer gigs mostly in Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand, where the cost of accommodation would have precluded me from staying for the cumulative years that I spent in that part of the world, while I was still building my writing career and not earning much.
The Facebook conversation then ensued with a bunch of comments about the sorts of volunteer gigs people were initially seeing on the WorldPackers site, which seemed to be 25-30 hours a week of social media promotion or cleaning in exchange for a dorm bed.
My take on it? Don’t sign up for those gigs if that’s not your jam. It wouldn’t be my jam, but I’m sure there are some people out there who wouldn’t mind.
But those gigs are also not the entirety of what’s out there. You just have to know how to find the ones best for you. (Keep reading.)
Tips for Using WorldPackers Effectively
Here are some ways to ensure you find – and enjoy – the right work-exchange gig, while staying safe:
Become a Verified Member
This allows you apply for gigs securely on the WorldPackers platform, and access their support team who can help you before, during, and after your trip. (Especially handy if things go sideways part-way through.)
Consider the Cost of Living at Your Destination
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. If you’re in a country that is very inexpensive to begin with, then perhaps committing to some kind of back-breaking work in exchange for a room you could easily afford isn’t worthwhile. Instead, you could simply pay for your own room and volunteer in a different way.
Use the Search Filters
The search filters on the left-hand side make WorldPackers one of the most navigable platforms of its kind. There are more than a dozen ways to narrow down your search according to your preference! Here are just a few ways you can filter your search:
- Program types
- Languages spoken
- Gigs that accept couples
- Purpose of your trip (eg: connect with nature, or other travelers, or locals)
- When you’re available
- Things you like to do (eg: marketing, handy-work, community work, teaching, eco-projects)
- Top Hosts
- Verified Hosts (highly recommended)
- Social Impact & Eco Friendly
- Hours per week you’re willing to work
- Type of accommodation you’re willing to accept (eg: dorm, private room)
The trick? You need an account to make full use of the search filters. Don’t worry – you can create an account and browse opportunities for free. You can upgrade to full membership when you’re ready to apply.
Read the Reviews
While there’s an approval process to become a WorldPackers host, that doesn’t mean they’re verified. (That’s a separate search filter, which I highly recommend using).
Just as you would read reviews for accommodation you’re paying for with money, it’s important to read reviews left by other volunteers to ensure it’s a good fit for you.
Familiarize Yourself With WorldPackers Insurance
This is something I haven’t seen with other work-exchange websites, and puts WorldPackers ahead of the pack in my opinion. Learn more about how WorldPackers will save your skin if you end up in hot water, here.
Consider Your Social Impact
As always: use your judgement. When I was playing with the site while writing this article, I found some gigs that involved working in orphanages and teaching English in impoverished countries.
It is now becoming increasingly understood by the world that more often than not, these are not beneficial activities and in fact can do more harm than good to the local economy and the people you might think you’re helping. Here’s an eye-opening article I wrote a few years ago that gives you an overview of responsible travel and the pitfalls therein.
Bonus Tip: Work-Exchange is Not Great if You Work Remotely as Well
The reason for this boils down to time management, pure and simple.
In one particularly gorgeous setting in New Zealand, I found myself volunteering for 25 hours a week (for a free room and all meals), and building my online business for another 30 hours a week. I eventually wondered why I was traveling at all, because I was consistently too exhausted to actually do anything at my destination. I felt like I’d effectively traded one rat race for another, and I needed to get off the bus.
There are, however some other forms of free accommodation that are a much better fit for remote work and long-term travel. I discuss this at length in my book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World.
Examples of WorldPackers Opportunities
While researching for this article, I had a lot of fun poking around the WorldPackers site and the huge variety of gigs. Things like:
You’ll get a private room and three meals a day in Ecuador in exchange for helping an NGO take care of rescued dogs.
ARE YOU HANDY?
A guest house in Sweden will give you a private room, all meals, and free tours in exchange for various kinds of help from handyman tasks to gardening to caring for their animals.
If you don’t mind staying in a dorm, you’ll get a unique experience while living in a Scottish castle and having all your meals provided in exchange for helping out in their organic garden or even the kitchen.
LIKE TO MEDITATE?
Volunteer at one of many buddhist retreat centres. (I spent many months volunteering at a delightful retreat centre in New Zealand that would have cost a small fortune to pay to stay at).
Check out WorldPackers opportunities for yourself, and enjoy a special discount by using this link!