A Guide To Work Exchange: The Cheapest Way To Travel

 Why a work exchange is the cheapest way to travel! Including the best organizations for work exchange, and some tips for volunteering abroad. 

One of the questions I encounter often among young people is “How do you afford to travel?”

Others include “What is the cheapest way to travel?” or “What the heck is a work exchange?”

I’m about to dive into these questions with my ultimate guide to work exchange, and why it’s the cheapest way to travel.

My Expertise on Work Exchange

I’ve been traveling on and off for 5 years now. Also, I work very sporadically and have never had a “career”.

I waitress and bartend, do a bit of travel writing and social media, and that’s it. I do not have a lot of money.

So how am I able to travel so often?? Work exchange!!

Since I started doing work exchanges in 2016, I’ve completed 10 volunteer experiences spanning over 7 different countries. I’m still dying to do more. 

I highly recommend this method of traveling.

It allows you to really immerse yourself in a new culture AND you barely have to spend any money. 

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts about volunteering and budget travel, you’ve definitely heard me praise work exchanges before. 

But for those who don’t know, here is a complete guide to work exchange: the cheapest way to travel!

morocco-travel
Working at a hostel in Marrakech allowed me to save money so I could explore more of Morocco.

Work Exchange: The Cheapest Way To Travel

Doing a work exchange is by far the easiest and cheapest way to travel.

This is my favorite way to explore the world, and I’m always looking forward to my next volunteer experience.

If you’re looking to travel the world on a budget, it’s time to start doing work exchanges!

What Is A Work Exchange?

Simply put, a work exchange is when you work in exchange for free accommodation.

The specifics vary from place to place, but that is the general set up. 

Accommodation is often the biggest expense while traveling.

Because a work exchange gives you a free place to stay, you can save so much money!

You can also direct your money towards other things, like tours and activities.

As a general overview, here are some other basic things to know about a work exchange:

  • Usually, you only work between 20 and 30 hours per week
  • Usually, you get at least 1 free meal per day, sometimes 2 or 3 meals
  • You don’t get paid, but your living expenses are close to nothing
  • Sometimes you’ll get other perks like free tours, laundry, or airport pickup
  • Most work exchanges require a minimum 2-week stay and prefer longer stays (The shortest work exchange I’ve done is 10 days)

The most popular types of work exchange include:

  • Working a hostel, either as a receptionist, housekeeper, or bartender
  • Working at a permaculture farm, eco-community or sustainable homestead, where your duties may include landscaping and gardening
  • Working with a family, either as an au-pair or nanny for their kids, or as a general handyman/housekeeper
  • Working at any local businesses, such as a tourism company or restaurant. You may work in customer service, social media and web design, photography, blogging, and more. 
work exchange the cheapest way to travel
This work exchange at Pachamama Forest Retreat in South Africa was all about permaculture and eco-friendly living technologies. 

Is A Work Exchange Really The Same As Volunteering?

I often refer to work exchanges as volunteering experiences. You may be wondering if a work exchange is really the same as volunteering.

So my answer to that is YES and NO.

Generally speaking, volunteering is when you help someone out for nothing in return. So you work for free. 

As you are getting accommodation and food in return, you are actually receiving benefits in exchange for your work. 

Cheaper Than International Volunteer Programs

But volunteering abroad while traveling is a bit more complicated that volunteering at home.

Most international volunteer programs require a fee anyway to cover accommodation and food. And it’s usually quite expensive, like a few thousand USD.

That’s why work exchanges are such an amazing, cheaper alternative to volunteering with a high-end organization or NGO.

Instead of paying thousands of dollars for a volunteer experience, you are simply trading your efforts for your living expenses. 

This means you can go live in a foreign country without spending much money at all!

So in my experience, I truly believe that a work exchange is the easiest and cheapest way to volunteer abroad.

And it’s the cheapest way to travel in general, since you don’t have to pay for accommodation.

local-kids-surf-africa
Helping with local surf lessons in rural South Africa was one component of a work exchange I did!

How To Do A Work Exchange and How Much It Costs

Once you’re hooked on the idea of a work exchange, it’s time to actually sign up and start looking for jobs abroad. 

The two major work exchange organizations I recommend are Worldpackers and Workaway. 

I first heard about work exchanges while staying in a hostel in Barcelona. Two of the staff members there were from Brazil and told me they were able to live and work in Spain through Worldpackers. 

Little did I know that this piece of information would change my life forever!

About 6 months after that I signed up for Worldpackers, started volunteering abroad, and haven’t stopped. 

After volunteering with Worldpackers in Ecuador and Peru, I had heard of Workaway through other travelers. So I decided to try that company out as well. 

A few months after leaving South America, I went to Europe and did my first Workaway volunteer experience at a hostel in Portugal. 

Since then I’ve done Workaway experiences in Costa Rica, Morocco, and South Africa, and they’ve all been amazing. 

Here are a few details about both of these organizations.  

work exchange the cheapest way to volunteer abroad cusco Peru South America
I was able to live and work in Cusco, Peru for one month through Worldpackers.

Worldpackers

Visit worldpackers.com and browse through the entire list of hosts from around the world for free.

You can also access all the travel articles on the Worldpackers blog, which I also write for sometimes. 

So you can browse by type of work, by country, or by experience, and just scan through all the volunteer opportunities all over the world on the Worldpackers website. 

To actually apply for a job and directly message a host, you have to create an account and become a verified member.

This costs 44 USD for a yearly membership. Once you pay the fee, you can message as many hosts as you want.

Workaway

Workaway functions exactly the same as Worldpackers, it’s just a bit more well-known in the travel community.

So you can visit workaway.info and browse through volunteer opportunities all over the world. 

The yearly fee for Workaway is also 44 USD.

Once you create your account you can directly message any hosts that you want to work for. 

Workaway Vs. Worldpackers……Which One To Choose?

Honestly, I don’t have a preference. They’re both great, and you can’t go wrong with either. 

On both websites, you can message other travelers to ask them questions about volunteering or about a previous host they worked for. 

On both websites, you can create a couples account for a small extra fee if you are traveling and volunteering with your partner. 

Some hosts are listed on both websites, and some aren’t. I recommend just browsing through both websites and seeing which hosts appeal to you the most. 

Worldpackers also has some video classes available for its verified members.

The videos are made by other travelers (myself included) and they just cover some basic tips and advice for volunteering with Worldpackers.

This can be super helpful for those who are volunteering for the first time and want to know what to expect. 

tent costa rica work exchange the cheapest way to travel
This tent in the Costa Rican jungle was my home for two months while I volunteered at a surf camp using Workaway.

How To Apply For A Work Exchange

I’ll now get into some of the logistics about applying for a work exchange.. 

These steps apply to both Worldpackers and Workaway since their websites are so similar. 

Step 1: Create Your Profile

Once you join one of the websites, create a profile that lists all your skills and interests.

Think of it as a resume, so hosts can see what your capabilities are and how well you would fit with their business or community. 

Step 2: Search for Volunteer Opportunities

This is the fun part. It’s like online shopping for travel experiences!

There are lots of volunteer opportunities abroad. For example, Workaway has over 40,000 hosts listed that accept volunteers.

So you may want to narrow your search down by any of the following categories:

  • Continent or country you want to work in (some bigger countries will even be categorized into regions)
  • Type of work you want to do (teaching, building, gardening, animal care, social media, art, computer work, etc. )
  • Type of environment you want to live in (hostel, family, farm, NGO, sustainable community, etc. )

Every host will mention the months that they are accepting volunteers, and a short description of their exchange program.

Step 3: Contact the Hosts

Once you find a volunteer opportunity that you like, you can directly message the host. 

Treat this as a sort of informal cover letter. Just introduce yourself and explain why you’d be a good fit for that job. 

Some jobs require previous experience in that field, so highlight your work experience if it matches. 

Some hosts don’t care about previous experience, so just emphasize that you are willing to learn. 

Also be sure to tell them your travel plans and the dates you will be available to work.

Then just continue chatting with them until you secure dates and solidify your plans. 

Guatemala paddle board
The guy in the front, JC, owns a paddleboarding company in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. After getting in touch with him, I was able to go and volunteer there for a month!

Step 4: Accepting the Work Exchange

Sometimes, finding the right work exchange is just luck. You can message 20 hosts and sometimes only a handful will respond. 

 I recommend applying for work exchanges at least one month before your travels because sometimes hosts take a long time to respond. 

On the other hand, sometimes hosts respond quickly and you can literally find a job that will start the next day. 

Just keep an open mind and be flexible and patient while planning your work exchanges. 

Once you and a host confirm dates, you can just show up and start working!

Things To Consider Before Doing A Work Exchange

Here are a few important things to think about before buying your plane ticket abroad.

Visas

Always research visa requirements for the country you will be volunteering in. 

Many countries don’t require visas if you’re staying for less than 90 days. 

Some countries require all foreigners to have tourist visas, like the USA and Australia.

Some countries require foreigners to get a specific visa for volunteering, like Japan.

So before you book flights and hit the road, always check visa requirements. 

Visit iVisa.com to check visa requirements for any country!

Travel Insurance

I recently wrote a Budget Traveler’s Guide To Travel Insurance, so I won’t go into too much detail here. 

But if your work exchange will bring you to any remote areas or have you doing some physically demanding work, consider getting travel insurance. 

When I volunteered in the Transkei in South Africa, I had an unfortunate medical emergency so I was lucky that I had purchased a travel insurance plan through Squaremouth Insurance. 

Visit Squaremouth Insurance to find affordable travel insurance plans!

South Africa local man
I’m so happy I had travel insurance for this extremely remote volunteering experience.

Tips To Keep In Mind During Your Work Exchange

Once you’ve accepted a work exchange, and you’ve considered visas and travel insurance, you can buy your flight and start traveling!

After doing so many work exchanges in different countries, I’ve learned a few things about what to expect during a volunteer experience.

Here are some of my insights:

Your experience largely depends on which type of place you volunteer. 

You can learn valuable skills and meet incredible people in any place.

But here are a few patterns I’ve noticed based on the different types of environments. 

Hostels are great for meeting other young people.

It’s a super social environment so you’ll make amazing friends.

But you might not have much personal space or alone time. You’ll most likely live in a dorm room with other staff members.

I recommend hostel volunteer work for solo travelers and backpackers looking to party and make friends. 

Homestays are the best way to see a new culture.

Living with a family in their home allows you to learn the language and really see the local side of life.

But you might not meet many other travelers and you may feel lonely and isolated at times. 

I recommend homestays for solo or couple travelers who want an immersive cultural experience. 

Working on farms is great for learning new skills.

Some farms are super small and therefore isolating and even a bit boring at times. Others are big and have lots of other people around. 

Try to find farm owners who are a similar age to you or have similar hobbies. That way you can connect with them a bit more.

I recommend farm work for couples who want some fun work experience, or for solo backpackers who don’t mind spending time alone. 

Also, you should be a fan of working outside in the dirt every day!

Working for independent businesses or tourism companies are a great way to develop your existing skills.

You can actually gain experience that will look good on your resume by volunteering with an established company.

 I recommend this for extroverted solo or couple travelers who want to learn more about hospitality and tourism. 

bartending cusco
You’re pretty much guaranteed to make lots of friends while working in a hostel…and party a lot!

Cultural Tips To Keep In Mind During Your Work Exchange

☼ Don’t look at this as a vacation, look at this as earning your free accommodation through working hard to help your host. Always make sure your tasks get done before you focus on free time and exploring. 

☼ If you are doing a great job at helping your host, they will be happy to help you explore their country. Ask them for the best places to go and they’ll help you get there. 

☼ Always be compassionate and open-minded when traveling. You may be staying with people who have different languages, traditions, customs, religions, and lifestyles than you do. Take this as an opportunity to learn and experience a new culture, and always remember how lucky you are to have the ability to travel!

So that concludes my guide to work exchanges!

I hope this article was helpful and enlightening.

Feel free to comment or email me with any questions you have about work exchanges. I am always happy to talk to others about my favorite method of traveling!

To read about some of my work exchange experiences, check out these articles:

Volunteering in Ecuador: My First Volunteer Experience!

Mindo, Ecuador: My Volunteering Experience

Work Exchange In Peru: How I Lived In Cusco For Free

Volunteering In The Wild Coast Of South Africa

How I Lived in Portugal for One Month and Only Spent 200 Euros

6 Reasons To Volunteer At Dreamsea Surf Camp, Costa Rica

This post may contain affiliate links. Read more about this in my About Me page!

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