Work exchange programs are a fantastic way to travel for free by volunteering abroad. There are several different work exchange websites which help to connect potential volunteers with work exchange and volunteer placements all over the world. The one you may have already heard of is Workaway, but there are several other sites like Workaway which work in a similar way, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. I’ve brought together the six most popular work exchange sites to compare so you can choose the best one for you. We’ll cover Workaway, Worldpackers, HelpX, WWOOF, Hippohelp & Volunteers Base.
What is a Work Exchange?
Work exchange means that people offer their time and skills to do volunteer work in exchange for free accommodation and food or other benefits. It is also known as a kind of work and travel programme, or voluntourism, although the volunteer placements are often ‘normal’ businesses looking for an extra pair of hands, not necessarily doing work to help others as you may imagine in the traditional sense of ‘volunteering’.
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Work exchange sites like Workaway, Worldpackers and the others offer a platform for individuals, families, businesses and organisations to advertise for help they need. Potential volunteers sign up to the websites to search for suitable hosts for volunteer placements in countries all over the world. Usually, this kind of work in exchange for room and board is great for travellers and backpackers who look for international placements, but there is no reason why you can’t do it in your own country (although you won’t be paid for it).
What Kind of Work is Available on Work Exchange Sites?
The kind of work exchange opportunities advertised on these sites varies according to the needs of the host. Some hostels advertise for help on reception or organising events. Families may advertise for volunteers to help with childcare or language teaching, or a farm may be looking for helpers to plant and harvest crops.
In exchange for working part-time for their hosts, volunteers get free accommodation (sometimes in dorms, private rooms or tents), and usually some meals too. Volunteers may also get other benefits like free tours or language lessons, as well as a cultural exchange by spending time helping local people with their projects.
The length of time placements last varies from a couple of weeks to several months, depending on the placement, and how long the volunteer wants to stay. Some have minimum stay requirements, so they don’t have to continually train up new volunteers, others are more flexible, but don’t expect to find many placements for a week or less.
Volunteering for work exchange programmes is actually my preferred way to travel and stay for ‘free’, especially when travelling for a long period of time. I volunteered with several work exchange programmes when I was backpacking in South America and Mexico, and enjoyed spending time really getting to know the place where I was.
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I worked on a hostel reception, helped a travel company with English translations and set up a website for another host. It really is a win-win situation where you give something tangible back to your hosts, help them in their business, and get some great experience for your CV when you return home, while still saving money – perfect!
6 of the Top Work Exchange Websites
Workaway is probably the best-known work exchange site. They have placements all over the world with hosts who advertise volunteer exchange positions in hostels, on farms, in private homes – pretty much everywhere you can imagine – that travellers can search and apply for.
There is a registration fee, but then every work exchange is free of charge. The hosts will provide accommodation and usually some meals but check each individual listing for details. The site is easy to use, and reviews are provided for hosts and travellers so you can see what other people thought about their experience.
A lot of Workaway reviews are positive, and in my personal experience, I have had some good Workaway placements, but also a not-so-good one. I’ve also had trouble getting a response from potential Workaway hosts who never reply to messages.
You can also set up a joint account if you are travelling as a couple, or link two individual accounts if you are travelling together for a limited time. The site is easy to navigate and simple to use, and costs €36 per year (about $40 USD) for an individual account or €48 per year (about $54 USD) for a joint account.
Although the site is very professional and there are a lot of placements, I’ve heard that people had trouble getting to speak to their support team if something goes wrong. I couldn’t find a phone number on their website, just a contact form to fill in.
Cost: $40 USD per year
Pros: Well established, good reputation.
Cons: Can be hard to get a response from hosts, not great support.
Similar to Workaway, Worldpackers is free to join, and the site is easy to use and navigate. You can sign in via Facebook for ease of access or download the Worldpackers app. Worldpackers started in South America, so they have a lot of opportunities there and have rapidly expanded the number of placements available in the rest of the world, with a network of over 1 million hosts and volunteers worldwide. There are a wide range of volunteer opportunities available with hostels, campsites, NGOs, social projects, farms, ecovillages, restaurants, and small businesses, families, again – you name it, they’ve got it. To contact hosts you need to pay the membership fee.
Although the membership fees are higher than the other sites at $49 for a full year (GET A $20 DISCOUNT HERE), the money has gone towards building an easy to use website and app, and providing high-level customer support. Worldpackers is very focussed on safety and security, verifying each host before they are accepted on the platform. They also offer their “Worldpackers Insurance” which covers the cost of a hostel for 3 nights if you need to leave your placement due to problems with the host.
Worldpackers offer 24/7 support to volunteers and hosts, and there is a phone number and email address to get in touch, as well as through their app. With this and the screening process, Worldpackers are proud of the fact that a lot of their volunteers are solo female travellers – 62% apparently – so that is good peace of mind for us ladies!
I’ve teamed up with Worldpackers to offer all Tales of a Backpacker readers a $20 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!
Cost: $49 USD per year or $29 USD with this discount code
Pros: Good range of opportunities. Excellent support for volunteers.
Cons: More expensive than other sites if you don’t have a discount.
Help Exchange, or HelpX for short was originally set up in 2001 by a traveller who wanted a better system of finding work exchange placements while backpacking in Australia and New Zealand. The website looks quite dated compared to the others, but the basic principle is the same. You have to register to use the site, you can register for free to browse and search for listings, but to contact hosts and to read the full reviews of placements you have to upgrade to the premier membership.
Membership is cheap though, at €20 (about $23.50 USD) for 2 years. This site seems to focus primarily on Australia, New Zealand, Canada & Europe, although there are listings in other parts of the world too.
Once you have searched for a location you see when the profile was last updated – some seem quite out of date (as the website has been going for a long time) but it is always worth contacting them. In search results, the profiles which have been updated most recently show up first.
Cost: $23.50 for 2 years
Pros: Cheap. A wide range of opportunities in Europe, Australia, Canada.
Cons: Old website, not easy to see information at a glance. Not many international placements outside their focus area.
WWOOF or World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms does what it says on the tin – working in a similar way to the above sites but solely for placements on organic farms. Most countries have their own WWOOF network, and you have to pay for registration for each country network which tends to be $20 – $30. If there isn’t a WWOOF organisation in the country you’re looking for, there are also WWOOF Independents which are clubbed together on their own website.
The farms are offer excellent opportunities to experience rural areas of your chosen countries, but by their nature tend to be more isolated from city centres and offer more basic accommodations than you expect to find in hostels where tourists are.
Cost: $20-$30 per country.
Pros: Organic, so great for people wanting to learn more about permaculture and farming
Cons: Payment is per country, so if you are travelling around several countries it can be expensive.
Free Work Exchange Websites
Hippohelp and Volunteers Base are both completely free to join, for both hosts and volunteers. Both sites emphasise social and cultural exchanges as the key to their work exchange programmes and could be a really good way to ‘test’ out volunteering before you sign up and pay for sites like Workaway and Worldpackers. However, as with any free sites, there is more of an element of risk involved as there is no screening process, and if something goes wrong there isn’t a 24/7 support team to help you.
Pros: Good to get a taster
Cons: Not as much support or screening of hosts
Which is Better – Workaway, HelpX, WWOOF or Worldpackers? Or Free Sites like Hippohelp and Volunteers Base?
It really depends what you’re looking for.
The free work exchange sites are useful to get a taste of volunteering, but as a female solo traveller, I prefer to have a bit more assurance and a better verification process for hosts so I am as sure as I possibly can be that I will have a good experience.
I found HelpX to be a clunky site to use, so the newer websites like Workaway and Worldpackers were much easier to navigate to quickly find the information I was looking for. WWOOF is best if you want to focus solely on one country, or on farming and permaculture, whereas Workaway, Helpx and Worldpackers have a much wider range of options for different types of volunteer work in a variety of countries. Workaway and Worldpackers are the most user-friendly, but Worldpackers have the extra bonus of high level 24/7 support if something goes wrong.
No matter where you travel,or which work exchange site you choose you should always get travel insurance to cover you in case something does happen. 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. Get a quote now:
What do you think? Have you had any experience volunteering with work exchange sites like Workaway, Worldpackers or HelpX? Would you do volunteer work in exchange for free accommodation? I’d love to hear what you think, please leave your comments below.
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