What is a work exchange and is it right for you?

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You might have come across many travellers saying that you can travel and have amazing experiences for free. But unless you’re a travel media professional or a huge influencer that gets paid to travel, the only other way to travel for free without paying for accommodation or food is to do a work exchange program. Many work exchange programs focus on sustainable tourism and cultural exploration, which is the reason I’m talking about it.

What is a work exchange program?

A work exchange program is when you work in exchange for free accommodation and meals. You are asked to work on average 4 hours per day (but can be more) on a variety of tasks, which can include teaching languages, teaching yoga, communication marketing, cleaning, doing repairs, taking care of animals, welcoming guests, cooking, and handling the bar. You have a choice on the kind of work you are willing to do when you sign up on the websites and browse for the programs. 

work exchange program
A screenshot of the WorldPackers website for work exchange options

Years ago I did something similar to a work exchange program, where I lived in a small village in Ecuador and taught English in the morning to toddlers, and maths in the evening to high schoolers. However, back then I did not know about work exchange programs, so I ended up having to pay for my own accommodation and meals while doing volunteer work, and I worked 8 hours a day, and did not have much free time. There was also no accountability if the experience was not a good one (e.g. if the host treated volunteers badly). I wish I had known about world exchange programs back then. 

But a work exchange does not suit everyone. Let’s deep dive below to see if a work exchange program is right for you.

What are the benefits of a work exchange program?

  • You can travel for a very affordable price because accommodation and food will be covered 
  • You have the opportunity to meet other volunteers and make some real connections.
  • You will likely meet people in similar life stages as you, as work exchange is particularly popular among budget travellers, solo female travellers, backpackers, and young adults looking for adventure.
work exchange
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash
  • You generally only have to work for half a day, and you usually get 2 days off per week. However this needs to be established with the host because some hosts can pile on the work and you end up working 8 hours daily. Set boundaries and ask them to follow what’s been agreed prior
  • Staying with local hosts allows you to experience the culture. But keep in mind the hosts might not be from the country you’re volunteering in. For instance, there is a work exchange opportunity on a farm in the mountains of Portugal but it’s owned and run by a Dutch family

What are the disadvantages of a work exchange program?

  • You have to work during your travels
  • Some tasks might not be within your comfort level, for e.g. being close to animals, or picking fruits in the sun
  • Work exchange programs is not a good fit for luxury travellers, or travellers who value privacy during their trips, as you might be asked to share rooms
work exchange program
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  • You might not be on the same wavelength with other volunteers you’re working with 
  • Hosts can ask you to work longer hours than you’re willing to (e.g. 7 hours per day for 5 days per week)

How do I get started if I want to do a work exchange?

There are a few websites (companies) to choose from, but the one that’s gaining traction is WorldPackers, because they also offer insurance during your work exchange, which is a great added bonus (more below under benefits).

world packers

WorldPackers: overview, programs, pros, and cons

Overview of WorldPackers

  • Created in 2013, WorldPackers is a platform that connects travellers looking for an affordable and sustainable trip with hosts all around the world. As a traveller you can apply for the “jobs” for places that interest you, and the host will review and accept or reject your application
  • They have experiences in over 140 countries, and have completed over 180K trips
  • They also have a community of over 3 million people, and currently have 8400 volunteers
  • There’s an annual fee you need to pay to sign up for WorldPackers. You can choose between different types of plans
    • “Trips”: the cheapest and an “entry-level” option for solo budget travellers
    • “Packs”: the Pack membership provides exceptional benefits (e.g. discounts with partner brands), priority support, and a higher reimbursement amount for emergency accommodation
    • “Pack Plus”: same as the Pack membership, but with an even higher reimbursement amount
  • Though most of WorldPackers members are solo female travellers, anyone can sign up, and you can travel as a couple or with a friend, by choosing the couple/friends plan and then choosing between Trips, Packs, and Packs Plus

PS: use the links above or the promo code TRAVELCONSCIOUS for a $10 (USD) discount. 

Types of work exchange programs that WorldPackers offers

  • There are three program types to choose from, though the concept is all similar and involves exchanging your time for free accommodation and meals
    • Work exchange (solely exchange direct work hours like cleaning and take care of guests for free accommodation and meals)
    • Eco program (staying on a farm, eco village, or permaculture and learning about it while helping out)
    • Social impact (working with schools, NGOs, etc.) 
  • The “work” options in the different programs include everything from household chores like cleaning, attending to the bar and restaurant (cooking, making cocktails), repair, animal care, teaching yoga, teaching languages, handling social media, content writing, etc. 

1. NGOs

Volunteering with independent, non-governmental organisations is a great way to contribute positively during your trip. The work required can range from animal care, to fundraising, social media communication, repairs, construction, etc.

2. Schools volunteering

This does not necessarily include just teaching English. It can also involve helping teachers with the curriculum, implement creative teaching styles, tutor students, and more.

3. Eco villages, farms, and permaculture

With these three options, you will likely learn a lot about how to lead a sustainable lifestyle, grow your own food, and reconnect with nature. The typical type of work involves anything from taking care of the living area with housekeeping chores, picking fruits, taking care of animals, etc. This is suited for people who don’t mind a rustic, nature setting, and are interested in sustainability, agriculture, animals, and being in nature.

4. Holistic centres

This is where you have the perfect opportunity to recharge and rest. Holistic centres are usually peaceful places that encourage connecting with nature, self-healing, and clearing your mind.

5. Accommodation-focused: hostels, eco lodges, guest houses, homestays, camping

This type of work exchange generally includes helping out with the accommodation, taking care of guests check-ins, cleaning, cooking, and general management.

Pros of using WorldPackers

  • Very responsive and supportive team, 7 days a week
  • There’s no contract with the hosts, you can leave if you decide you don’t like it
  • If you have contacted more than 5 hosts within the first month of your plan and none replied, you are entitled to a plan cancellation and refund
  • They offer insurance coverage, meaning that if you find that your experience does not match what the host advertised on WorldPackers, you can decide to leave and they will help you find another host. If you need to find your own accommodation, they will reimburse you up to a certain amount, depending on your membership package
  • Worldpackers cares about social impact, and a portion of your membership fee goes to local communities
  • They are focused on safety and security for travellers and there are strict approval processes for hosts
worldpackers exchange program
  • WorldPackers provides a chat function, where travellers who’ve already done similar trips to the one you want to do can connect and share their experiences 
  • Each traveller and volunteer can write reviews about their experience, which provides valuable insights about the host, and the reviews are there for all to see (aka not hidden)
  • As a WorldPacker member, you can get into their affiliate marketing program and earn commission when people sign up using your links

Cons of WorldPackers

  • When writing the reviews there is a character limit 
  • There is no actual limit to how many hours the hosts can request for you to work (some can request 32 hours a week)
  • Some listings might not be updated, for instance hosts mention things that are not actually there (e.g. that the work exchange includes bartending but there’s not even a bar to tend to)

Being fully transparent here: I have not done any work exchange programs myself since my volunteer days in Ecuador years ago, but I have several friends who have, and they had a great experience with WorldPackers and its platform. Many prefer WorldPackers to other existing alternatives particularly due to the insurance coverage and community support.

The biggest takeaway after speaking to my friends is that the actual experience in the end depends on the hosts, so it’s recommended to carefully review hosts before applying to do an exchange there. 

worldpackers insurance work exchange

Final thoughts on doing a work exchange program

There are several factors to consider if a work exchange program is the right path for you. As usual, it’s important to check the reviews of your potential hosts and be very clear about the tasks you’re willing to perform, in order to have a good experience. 

With WorldPackers, you can count on full support, peer recommendations and insights, and insurance coverage in case things don’t go well.

For more information about sustainable travel, start here: “What is sustainable tourism“.

You can also download a comprehensive PDF guide on step by step guides on how to become a sustainable traveller.

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