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Work Trade – What is a Work Trade and How Does it Work?

A shared hostel dorm room - typical accommodation for a work trade

Hands up who wants to travel for free??  Trading a few hours of work in exchange for accommodation and food is a wonderful way to save money while travelling, and effectively allows you to travel for free.  Perfect for long term travellers, backpackers or anyone wanting to travel without spending an arm and a leg, I’ll explain exactly what a work trade is, how it works and how to find work trade opportunities that suit you.

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What is Work Trade?

A work trade is where volunteers offer their time and skills to work in exchange for free accommodation. 

Work trade programs are different from other work abroad programs because they don’t usually involve paid work, although you might find a few work trades which also offer a small amount of money as well. 

Work trades have other benefits that work abroad programs may not, for example, some meals might be included, language classes or other activities might also be offered as well.     

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

Groupd of kids and a volunteer
Although work trades aren’t traditional volunteering, you can still make a difference

How to Find Work Trade Opportunities

The easiest and safest way to find work-trade placements is to use a work exchange website.  These websites act as an intermediary between people around the world looking for volunteers and the volunteers looking for work trade opportunities.  Most of them include reviews by previous work traders, so you have some more assurance that the placement you choose  

The following are popular work exchange websites which have thousands of work trade placements available all over the world.

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

This article has a more detailed comparison between these top work trade websites so you can see which one is right for you.  Some websites are free to join, while others charge a fee to sign up and include extra services such as customer helplines and insurance should something go wrong during your work trade.  For the relatively small cost, the benefits are definitely worth the investment.

READ MORE: 6 of the Best Work Exchange Sites Compared

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Once you are a verified member you can apply to and message all the hosts on Worldpackers and volunteer for work trade opportunities 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 trade placement it is also possible to find work trades 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 and working as you go.

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

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.  You probably won’t be in an office all day, work trades are often practical and hands-on so are much more fun than your average office job!

Hosts are looking for volunteers to work in hostels, build eco-projects, help with gardening and farming, painting and decorating, childcare, language teaching or social media and website development and more.  Probably the most common kind of work trade 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 trade 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 the kind of work trade which best suits your skills, personality and offers something you think you will enjoy!

Gardner's hands holding some weeds - You could offer your gardening skills on a work trade placement
You could offer your gardening skills on a work trade placement

How Much Work Do You Have to Do?  

Again, each work trade 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.  Make sure you have a clear idea of exactly what is expected of you and when, so you are happy with the arrangements before you go.  

What Do You Get in Exchange for your Work Trade?

Your accommodation should always be provided as a minimum trade for your work.  Most hostels usually provide a bed in a dorm room, other work trade opportunities 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 trade 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 Trades?

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 trades are a great way to do that!  These are some of the main benefits of work trades, but the more effort you put in, the more you will get out!

Saving Money

Work trades 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 trade 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 trades 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.

Group of people around a table podding peas
Permaculture and farming work trades are available

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 trade 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 when you are looking for a job 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, having the extra security of knowing where to go and having a contact in your destination can give some reassurance that you will be safe and sound. 

Some work trade websites like Worldpackers, for example, have verified hosts who go through a verification process before they can advertise their work trade placements, as well as a 24 hour help line should you have any problems with the work trade placement.

How Long do Work Trades Last For?

Unpaid work trades 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 minimum requirement is generally just a week or two, and maximum up to around three months to keep a rotation of volunteers and stop people getting bored.  Each work trade 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 trade 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 in order for work trades to be worth it for both parties.

Who Can Do a Work trade?

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 trade.  Younger people and students may be able to arrange work abroad programs through schools or religious organisations, but most work traders are over 18s.   

Can Couples or Friends do Work trades 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 trades 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.

Pots of coloured paint seen from above with a hand and a paintbrush
Painting and Decorating work exchanges are also common in hostels

Where Can I Do a Work trade?

Work trade opportunities usually work best for people who are travelling so you can find volunteer work abroad in exchange for accommodation while you are on the road.  However, you could even do a work trade 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 trade opportunities in almost every country on earth, although some places have restrictions on visas for volunteer work so check the entry requirements and legal restrictions before you go.

Do I Need a Visa to do a Work Trade?

It varies from country to country.  Work trades 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 trade there.  Usually, if you just 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 Trade Placements?

Generally speaking, no there isn’t.  Anyone over 18 can apply for work trades, although some officially arranged programs will only be applicable to young people, for example, 18-30 year olds.  Most work trades 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, if you want to try it then give it a go!  Occasionally I have seen hostel jobs which just ask for under 30s or under 35s, but there are plenty more which don’t specify any age limit. 

Are Work Trades 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 trade programs through sites like Worldpackers are generally safer than ad hoc work trades as you can 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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I hope I’ve answered all the questions you might have about work trade, 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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What is a Work Trade - Everything you Need to Know about Work Trades
What is a Work Trade – Everything you Need to Know about Work Trades

Just to let you know, this post may contain paid or affiliate links, which help to maintain Tales of a Backpacker and give me the chance to keep travelling, and to keep creating awesome content for you!

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Last updated: May 1, 2020

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