I volunteer while traveling quite frequently, and it’s the reason for some of my most lasting memories and frienships.
First, let me clarify what I mean when I say “volunteer while traveling”.
I’m not talking about spending a day playing with kids in orphanages. In fact, I’m not even talking entirely about volunteering of the philanthropic persuasion at all. A follow-up post is forthcoming on philanthropic international volunteering, how it often does more harm than good, and how to do it ethically.
Also, if you’re an animal lover, check out my post on ethical places to volunteer with animals in Costa Rica. For social organizations, check out this post on non-profits looking for volunteers in Nicaragua.
No, this is something else entirely. What I’m talking about is actually a work exchange. You provide work, services, and help to a place for a certain amount of time in exchange for something other than monetary reward – typically room, board, or both. Sometimes it’s for “a good cause”, sometimes it’s for a for-profit business.
Work exchange is becoming a common practice among budget backpackers and has garnered the umbrella term “volunteering” more for legal purposes than anything. Without a work visa, travelers can’t be paid in cash, and they can’t be considered employees. Thus, they are paid in trade and considered “volunteers”.
It’s important to note that there is a way to do this ethically and a way to do it that takes advantage of local economies. Essentially, you shouldn’t be taking paid work from locals and doing it for free, and you shouldn’t take advantage of your hosts. More on that later.
Volunteering, or doing work exchange programs, has often been the highlight of all of my travels, and I get something in return! Read on for the top 6 reasons to volunteer while traveling. If you make it through all 6, there are some helpful resources at the end.
1. Travel for (Almost) Free
This is probably the number one reason long-term travelers choose to volunteer while traveling – cutting down on costs. While there are a myriad of other benefits (see numbers 2-6), saving money is certainly a plus, especially when you plan to travel for a while.
The extent to which you can cut down on your spending varies depending on the position, but it’s possible to cut your travel costs down to almost zero if you travel while volunteering. Some places give you a bed, some give you a bed and food. Some give you neither. Some give you tips. Some give you free tours. Some give you room and board but ask you to pay a small daily fee to help support their costs (typically non-profits).
I’ve done all of them.
Volunteering in exchange for a room and three meals a day is obviously the best way to cut costs. For the most part, in two months I only spent money on alcoholic drinks (which I got at a 50% discount for being a volunteer, although my tab still added up astoundingly quick) and a couple tours (which I got at a 30% discount).
I’ve seen gigs like this one that also include some tip money for volunteers working at the bar.
At another place, I volunteered only for a bed. This cut my costs a little, but you’d be surprised at how much you can spend when you’re still paying for your food and activities. In a high-cost area this is worth it. Where I was, hostels were $10 a night, so it wasn’t as much of a bargain.
At a non-profit, I actually paid $35 per week to volunteer in exchange for room and board. Although I was paying, this was actually a great deal compared to my regular spending patterns, as I spent $0 during that week on other things. And I was helping an organization I believed in.
I helped a man edit his book for a while for a free meal here and there (he owned a local restaurant) and a small stipend. A friend of mine built a website for a spa in exchange for massage credits. Opportunities abound, and they are all different! Assess your needs and choose accordingly. If you’re really trying to save money, find a program that includes room AND board.
2. Slow Down and Stay a While
Sometimes when we travel, we get caught up in the rush of checking places off the list. We’re in it to fill another country in on our map, cross off all of Trip Advisor’s top 10 must-see sights, and pack it all into one two-week itinerary so that we can head out and do it again somewhere else. On to the next one, right? Wrong.
While seeing a lot of different places has its merits, so does slowing down and really seeing just one place. If you’re in this travel thing for a while, why not milk it for what it’s worth? Take advantage of your ability to stay in another country for more than just a vacation and really get to know a place. Sometimes the most magical experiences unfold a few months into a stay, after you’ve already checked all the important sights off your list. That’s when the hidden gems start to make themselves known. It’s also when your fleeting travel buddies become lifelong friendships, and it’s when a place goes from being a place you visited to a home away from home.
When I volunteered for a few months in the teeny, tiny rainforest town of El Castillo, Costa Rica, it became a home away from home for me. By the end of my time, I knew everyone in the town by name, and they all knew me. I knew how to direct tourists to the rainforest’s best hidden waterfalls, where to get farm fresh eggs (from the woman up the hill who owns a chicken coop), and how to ride the zipline for free after hours. A woman even offered me the chance to stay for free in her beautiful volcano-view home for a few months while she was out of the country.
More than that, I made some fantastic friends, and it became my home base while traveling around Central America. Whenever I felt homesick or needed a break, I would bus back down to El Castillo. I always had a place to stay and familiar faces to greet me. As a long-term traveler, that is invaluable.
3. Live Like a Local
Being a volunteer while traveling is one of the best ways to experience a place both like, and with, the locals. You’re working alongside them, so you meet lots of people from the area who can show you around. You’re also living as they do, staying in the same housing and eating the same food rather than being bunked up in a hotel. Hotels, for all their amenities, tends to isolate you from the local culture by clearly dividing tourist and resident.
In one city, I stayed with a woman in her apartment and helped her with stuff around the house. Living in neighborhoods with other locals is a decidedly different experience when compared to staying in a hotel in a touristy area. Try both!
While volunteering at a hostel in the Caribbean, the owners would take us out on their little dingy in the morning to go fishing for food we’d later cook up for guests at the weekly hostel cook-out. In the evenings, they always knew the best bars to go to to avoid paying over-the-top prices for a drink.
You’re often surrounded by the local language too, unlike being in tourist areas that tend to be filled with a lot of English, so if language-learning is a goal, you’ll come far if you volunteer while traveling. I progressed the most quickly with my Spanish while volunteering at a coffee farm in northern Nicaragua for only two weeks. Everyone on the farm (obviously) spoke Spanish, gave directions and told stories in Spanish, and even the volunteers spoke Spanish amongst each other for practice, even though English was easier for all but one of us. During another volunteer experience at a farm and eco-lodge, my boss gave me occasional Spanish lessons that helped immensely.
4. Work on Exciting Projects
You can find volunteer while traveling positions doing just about anything, and a lot of them are really exciting projects that you get the chance to partake in.
Want to help an out-of-the-garage start-up in Silicon Valley or a film producer in Hollywood?
Want to help a family build a sustainable permaculture farm that donates produce to people in need in Brazil?
Want to help a couple fulfill their dreams by building, decorating, and marketing a hostel in Amsterdam?
Want to help a music and performance collective while they tour throughout the western U.S.?
Want to help a history-nerd preserve her 17th Century Victorian mansion and turn it into a Bed & Breakfast?
I’ve seen all of these projects and more!
A lot of people on these sites are working on some amazing start-up projects. Hosts are diverse, knowledgeable, experienced people with exciting ideas to share. I think that many long-term travelers hope to eventually develop their own global, entrepreneurial projects. For me, these people I get the opportunity to volunteer with are just a few years ahead of me in terms of my life’s path, and it’s great to learn from them. Which brings me to my next point…
5. Learn New Skills
Perhaps my favorite thing about being a volunteer while traveling, as a perpetual hobbyist who is interested in literally everything, is learning all kinds of new skills.
You can learn how to sail – people who live on or own sailboats in the U.S., Caribbean, and Australia abound on these websites.
You can learn how to farm and garden – these opportunities are also everywhere. I showed up to a ranch knowing absolutely nothing about gardening or farming, having killed every basil plant I tried to grow in college, and agriculture ended up becoming a primary interest and hobby of mine.
You can learn a new language – often part of the exchange is a desire to exchange languages. You teach them yours, and they teach you theirs. I also spent some time working in reception at a hotel, and dealing with Spanish-speaking guests was challenging but one of the best ways to practice.
You can learn yoga and meditation – many of the volunteer opportunities include yoga or meditation, as a lot of them are at places that offer yoga to guests or have a yoga certification program. When I worked at an eco-lodge, I got two yoga classes a day for free. Doing yoga twice a day for two months and feeling my progress was transformative.
You can learn how to cook local foods – often part of the exchange involves cooking. If it doesn’t, your meals are probably included, and the person doing the cooking is likely to be happy to show you how in exchange for a helping hand.
You can learn how to horseback ride – one of the farms I worked on had horses, and I got to ride them ocassionally. I thought I hated horse back riding, but now it’s one of my favorite experiences I had there!
You can learn how to play an instrument, draw, paint, dance, sing – many of the hosts on these sites are artists and performers who are happy to let you participate in your spare time.
You can learn how to make cheese, chocolate, wine, and more – a lot of hosts and farms let you partake in the production of artisanal foods. Dairy farms will teach you how to make cheese, vineyards in Napa Valley, Mendoza Argentina, and Australia will teach you how to make wine, and I worked on a cacao farm that taught me how to make bean-to-bar gourmet chocolate.
You can learn how to make artisanal goods – some hosts will teach you how to produce local handicrafts. When I was working on the ranch and eco-lodge, they had a resident potter who taught us all of his techniques, and we got to take home some mugs we’d sculpted and painted ourselves. On the coffee farm, our host took us on some day trips to a local artisan who weaves baskets out of pine, and she taught us her techniques.
You can learn website design and marketing – a lot of businesses need help with this. If you know a little, you can volunteer to help them out and learn more along the way.
You can learn how to care for animals – there are some volunteer opportunities out there that allow you to work with animals. Some are in rescue centers where you’re actually rehabilitating wild animals (see my post Top 5 Places to Volunteer with Animals Abroad in the World’s Most Bio-Diverse Country), while some are helping with pets or caring for farm animals.
You can learn construction – plenty of places need help constructing everything from homes to eco-friendly lodging to adobe buildings to irrigation systems. A lot also need help with home improvement and historic preservation projects. Often no experience is necessary.
These are just SOME of the many things you can learn. There are all kinds of obscure skills you can pick up. I’ve seen a Times Square street magician searching for an assistant (no experience necessary) in exchange for a room in a flat in MANHATTAN.
6. Beat the Loneliness
Solo travel can get lonely, even if you’re a social butterfly. Making friends at your hostel, going out for drinks and going on hikes for a couple days, and then saying goodbye is fun, but not the most fulfilling social interaction. If you’re traveling for months or even a year, it can get depressing not forming deeper, more meaningful connections with people for such a long time.
Even if you’re traveling for a short period of time, the thought of going to a foreign country alone can be daunting. What if you don’t meet anyone or make any friends? What if everything you want to do is more fun to do with two?
Time alone is great, but locking in a social group or a community of people you feel comfortable with is crucial to having a good experience as a solo traveler. There’s nothing worse than spending all the money to fly to a foreign country and then feeling too isolated, lonely, and depressed to enjoy it.
Being a volunteer while traveling is one of the best ways to show up to a foreign country with a built-in community of friends and “family”. You form bonds quickly spending your work and living time with people who are going through the same experiences as you, and they’re often more meaningful. And, as I said, you’re not only building community with fellow travelers, but also with locals. I still talk to and meet up with all of the people I worked with at my first volunteer place, the farm and eco-lodge. Even those I only volunteered with for a few weeks.
If this convinced you at all to give being a volunteer while traveling a try, here are some of my favorite resources for finding volunteer while traveling gigs:
This one is my personal favorite, and the one I’ve used to find almost all of my volunteer gigs. It has a plethora of jobs all around the world in all different categories. It’s easy to navigate, you can save jobs to your profile, and it has a pretty good system for rating hosts and keeping track of who you’ve contacted.
It costs $29 for one year for an account, but you can browse for free. The payment is simply to contact a host. I went ahead and paid the fee, but I have friends who have gotten around it by finding identifying information in the host’s listing (they aren’t allowed to say the name of the business but often there’s enough information to google it) and then finding their website with direct contact information.
This one, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is specific to (you guessed it) working on organic farms. It is also specific by country – there is a different website for different countries and regions, and separate fees for each. For example, a one year membership to Costa Rica’s WWOOF is $16, and a joint membership for Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize is $33 per year. You can still browse some options for free.
If you are serious about specifically getting experience working on organic farms, this is a fantastic and reputable site. However, paying new fees for each country or region you travel to can rack up if you plan to cover a lot of distance, and if you’re looking for a wider variety of jobs, the other two might be a better option.
This site is similar to Workaway in that it has work exchange listings in a wide variety of fields that span the whole globe. I haven’t used this site much to be honest. I went with Workaway based solely on the fact that it is easier to navigate and more pleasing to look at (oh, the power of good design!).
Basic membership is free, and premium membership is 20 euros. Like Workaway, you can browse for free but need a paid membership to do any contacting.
I recommend browsing all three sites, since it is free, and then paying for a membership based on where you find the most listings that interest you.
Being a volunteer while traveling is a fantastic way to make long-term travel more financially feasible, learn new skills, and have some incredible, unique experiences while abroad. So, are you ready to drop everything and volunteer while traveling?
Probably not. You might read this, think it sounds nice, and then go about your day. That’s what I did the first few times I heard about WWOOFing. But eventually the idea stuck, I thought about it more and more, I browsed the websites, and a couple years later, here I am.
I encourage you to at least browse the opportunities if you’re interested! You never know what you’ll find.
Are you thinking about volunteering? Have any questions about the process?
Leave them in the comments!