Work Exchange Programs: Are They For You?

Work Exchange Programs: Are They For You?

So, you want to travel and see the world, but you can’t afford it?  Perhaps you want to immerse yourself in a different culture or spend time in another country but don’t know where to go.  You’ve got a summer off before starting college and want some unique work experience abroad but don’t know where to turn.  Why not try a work exchange program?  Work exchange programs could be the answer to all of your travel and work experience prayers!  Here you’ll find all the information you need about what work exchange programs are, and whether a work exchange program is right for you.

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What is a Work Exchange?

A work exchange is where volunteers offer their time and skills to work in exchange for free accommodation.  This trade of work for accommodation helps both the volunteer and the host to achieve their goals without spending a lot of money so is beneficial for both parties. 

Work exchange is also known as a kind of work and travel programme, a work trade or voluntourism, although the volunteer placements are often ‘normal’ businesses looking for an extra pair of hands, not necessarily doing work to help the environment or a vulnerable group of people as you may imagine in the traditional sense of ‘volunteering’. 

Work exchange programs are different from other work abroad programs because they are not usually paid work, although you might find a few work exchange programs which also offer a small amount of money as well.     

Solo female traveller in a busy street
If you’re travelling alone then work exchange programs are a good way to gain confidence

How to Find Work Exchange Programs

Work Exchange Websites

Probably the easiest and safest way to find work exchange programs is to use a work exchange website.  These websites act as an intermediary between the people looking for volunteers and volunteers looking for work exchange placements.  Popular work exchange websites include:

Worldpackers, Workaway, HelpX, WWOOF, Hippohelp and Volunteers Base.

This article has a comparison between some of the top work exchange sites so you can see which one is right for you.  Some work exchange websites are free to join, while others have fees and include extra services such as customer helplines and insurance should something go wrong during a work exchange.

READ MORE: 6 of the Best Work Exchange Sites Compared

SPECIAL OFFER

I’ve teamed up with Worldpackers, one of the top work exchange websites, to offer all Tales of a Backpacker readers a $20 Worldpackers discount, which means you only need to pay $29 USD for a full year’s verified membership.  Once you are a verified member you can apply to and message all the hosts on Worldpackers and volunteer all over the world.  What are you waiting for?!  Read more about travelling the world for free, or get your discount here!

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If you’re not sure enough of your travel plans to pre-arrange a work exchange program it is also possible to find work exchanges while you are travelling.  Hostels are often willing to exchange a bed for a few hours work, as long as you can commit to at least a couple of weeks.  However, there is a risk of not finding a suitable placement, or not having any assistance if things go wrong so it depends how confident you are about travelling.

What Kind of Work Will I Do on a Work Exchange?

There are all sorts of work that hosts are looking for help with, so you can basically choose the best kind of work that suits you.  Hosts are looking for volunteers to work in hostels, build eco-projects, help with gardening and farming, childcare, language teaching or social media and website development and more.  Probably the most popular work exchange is in hostels, but there are plenty more options for you to choose from.  

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Free Accommodation in Exchange for Work as a Hostel Volunteer

In my experience, I enjoyed working in hostels abroad, and I have also done a work exchange for writing blog content too, although spending all day at a computer when that is my usual day job wasn’t the most enjoyable.  Make sure you choose a work exchange which best suits your skills, personality and offers something you think you will enjoy!

Some work exchange programs involve manual work like gardening - hands filling in a plant pot with soil
Some work exchange programs involve manual work like gardening

How Much Work Do You Have to Do?  

Again, each work exchange is different, but you’ll usually need to work part-time, around 20-30 hours a week is the norm.  Some placements will split the time up into 4 or 5 days so you have two days off, others will ask for a couple of hours work a day, depending on the type of work they are looking for.  Remember that you should have some time to go sightseeing and explore the area, but you will also have work commitments so you won’t be able to do whatever you want whenever you want.  

What Do You Get in Exchange for your Work?

Your accommodation should always be provided as a minimum exchange for work.  Most hostels usually provide a bed in a dorm room, other work exchange programs may provide a private or twin room for its volunteers, or you may be camping in tents or in other accommodation.  Often, breakfast is included, and some exchanges might provide other meals, as well as free tours, language classes or other benefits.  Check each work exchange listing carefully to see what is provided. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: How to Travel The World for Free with Worldpackers

What Are the Benefits of Work Exchange Programs?

As well as tangible benefits, in exchange for your work, you will also be spending time in a different culture, learning about other people and being able to travel for a long time without spending a lot of money.  If you’re looking for a way to travel for free, work exchange programs are a great way to do that!  These are some of the main benefits of work exchange programs, but the more effort you put in, the more you will get out!

Learning a laanguage is one of the possible benefits of work exchange programs
Learning a laanguage is one of the possible benefits of work exchange programs

Saving Money

Work exchange programs have benefits for both parties, so it is a win-win for hosts and volunteers.  Hosts get help with running their business, caring for their families or creating a new eco-project without having to pay money to do it.  Work exchange volunteers don’t have to pay for their accommodation or all their food, so they can afford to travel for a long time without spending a lot of money to do so. 

READ MORE: Top Tips for Backpacking on a Budget

Cultural Exchange

Both parties also benefit from a cultural exchange, spending time with people from another country and culture and learning from each other.  Work exchange programs can also be a great way to learn a new language or to practise your language skills as volunteers will be speaking to local people every day to practise without having to pay for lessons.

Work Experience

The work that you do while abroad can be really valuable for your CV and for finding paid work when you return home.  Work exchange programs help students to get work experience during breaks in their studies, and for long-term travellers on a gap-year, this kind of work experience can make a huge difference in a competitive job market back home.

Security for First-Time or Solo Travellers

For solo travellers or if it is your first time travelling abroad, sometimes having the extra security of knowing where to go and having a contact in your destination gives some reassurance that you will be safe and sound.  Some work exchange websites like Worldpackers, for example, have verified hosts who go through a verification process before they can advertise their work exchange placements.

Two travelling friends raise their hands in celebration of freedom
Work exchanges are a great way to travel long term without spending money

How Long do Work Exchange Programs Last For?

Unpaid work exchange programs usually will last for a couple of months and work well for students who want to get some work experience abroad over the summer, or for long term travellers who want to spend a month or two in each destination before moving on.  The usual minimum requirement is a week or two, and maximum up to around three months to keep a rotation of volunteers and stop people getting bored.  Each work exchange placement is different though, so make sure you are happy with the requirements.

Bear in mind that hostels and other organisations won’t usually accept work exchange volunteers if they only want to stay for a day or two.  It takes time to train up a new volunteer, so they won’t waste time on you if you are only willing to work two shifts.  It needs to be a fair exchange for it to work.

Who Can Do a Work Exchange?

In theory, anyone!  If you are over 18 and have a sense of adventure, are willing to share your skills, time and work in exchange for accommodation then you can do a work exchange.  Younger people and students may be able to arrange work abroad programs through schools or religious organisations, but most work exchange programs are for over 18s.   

Can Couples or Friends do Work Exchanges Together?

Potentially yes!  Some work exchange websites offer a joint membership where couples or friends can sign up together or link their accounts and look for work exchange programs together.  Plenty of places have several volunteer places available, although the more flexible you are, the more chance you have of finding a work placement for you both.

Where Can I Get a Work Exchange?

Work exchange programs usually work best for people travelling so you can find volunteer work abroad in exchange for accommodation while you are travelling.  However, you could even do a work exchange program in your own country if you wanted to, although you won’t earn a wage like you could do with a ‘real’ job.  You will be able to find work exchange programs in almost every country on earth, although some do have restrictions on volunteer work so check the entry requirements and legal restrictions before you go.

passport and visa page over a map
Visas aren’t usually needed for work exchange programs but check before you travel to make sure

Do I Need a Visa to do a Work Exchange?

It varies from country to country.  Work exchange programs are not the same as getting paid work abroad, as you are not earning money from it, so a working visa shouldn’t be needed.  However, some destinations do require a special visa for volunteer work, so check the entry requirements for your chosen country carefully.  I have only heard of one instance of an American traveller who was refused a long-stay visa in Ireland because she told them she was going to do a work exchange there.  Usually, if you say you are going to travel and not volunteer then you shouldn’t have any problems.  However, it is your responsibility to check entry requirements and to answer the immigration officer’s questions when you arrive in a new country.

Is There an Age Limit for Work Exchange Programs?

Generally speaking, no there isn’t.  Anyone over 18 can apply for work exchange programs, although some officially arranged programs will only be applicable to young people, for example, 18-30 year olds.  Most work exchange programs that I’ve seen have no age limit, as long as you are physically capable of doing the work required.  That said, some placements will be more suited to certain ages than others, for example working in a hostel bar is probably more enjoyable for younger people, but hey, you be you and if you want to try it then give it a go!  Occasionally I have seen hostel work exchange placements which just ask for under 30s or under 35s, but there are plenty more which don’t specify any age limit. 

Are Work Exchange Programs Safe?

There is always a risk with everything that you do, but the same goes for staying in an Airbnb, taking a taxi or even walking around your own city.  Organised work exchange programs are generally safer than ad hoc work exchanges as you can usually read reviews from previous volunteers.   Applying through a website or other organisation also means you will get a bit more support if anything goes wrong – Worldpackers, for example, have verified hosts, a 24/7 customer service helpline and Worldpackers Insurance. 

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Travel Insurance for Backpackers

No matter where you are travelling, you should always make sure you have your own travel insurance to cover all of the destinations and activities you might need for your trip.  Travel insurance from WorldNomads is available to people from 140 countries, and you can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home.  It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.

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So Are Work Exchange Programs For You?

I hope I’ve answered all the questions you might have about work exchange programs, but please do let me know if you have any other concerns that I can help with.  If after reading all of this you’re still not sure, I would suggest giving it a try and to see how you like it!  And let me know how it goes!

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Last updated: October 30, 2019

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