I travelled the world giving my time and skills to organisations for no financial return. Welcome to the world of travel exchanges!
After being made redundant from my corporate job and losing residency in the country I’d been living in for 7 years, I decided to get out there in the world and offer my time and energy to organisations in 11 countries for no monetary reward. Now I want to share what I learned after volunteering for 2 years and whether I would do it again.
The concept of travelling as a volunteer:
Before you start picturing me posing with little black kids in some deemed “third world” country, let me stop you right there and update you on the concept of volunteering.
Without even going into the problematics of the traditional concept of voluntourism, this term has taken a new direction with the popularisation of platforms such as Worldpackers, Workaway and HelpX. The concept is simple in its definition: you give your time and skills while travelling in exchange for accommodation, cultural exchange and personal development. However, there are a few reasons why people are a bit wary of it.
Those who are more skeptical about volunteering are quick to claim that it’s just another form that evil businesses have found to exploit the labour of those poor travellers who can’t afford to pay for a bed during their low-budget backpacking trip. Is this really the case? Well, let me share my experience volunteering in 11 countries in Europe and the Middle East through the Worldpackers platform.
So are hosts actually exploiting the travellers for free labour?
Let me give you some statistics: In the last 2 years, I volunteered in 12 different organisations in 11 countries. Out of the 12 experiences, 4 truly changed the course of my life and deeply changed parts of who I am. Another 5 were pleasant, I met nice people, learned new skills and made nice memories. In 2 of these experiences, I felt like the host had the intention of offering a genuine exchange but there were aspects of it they didn’t quite grasp. And finally, yes, there was 1 host who was definitely after free labour and had no interest in providing an opportunity for development to the travellers. This was the only experience in which I left before the agreed date.
To go beyond the numbers, let me tell you a bit about each of my hosts. I’m not going to mention the quality of the experience they provided as it’s not my intention to name and shame. So, in chronological order:
- A small hostel in the heart of Lisbon, Portugal, owned by a couple. My task was to help them with the night shifts during which I had to iron some bed sheets and be available for guests if they needed something during the night.
- A boutique hostel in Barcelona, Spain, owned by a man who owned a few other businesses in the city. Volunteers were doing a bit of everything here but mainly helping making beds and cooking for guests.
- A big hostel in Zagreb, Croatia, which also housed one of the most popular bars in town. I helped them with some reception tasks and making beds.
- An off-the-grid community in the outskirts of Montepellier, France. I was grouped with other volunteers to help them develop their permaculture garden.
- A small hostel in Sarajevo, Bosnia, owned by a couple who actively did the same tasks as the volunteers, which mainly consisted of making beds and cleaning bathrooms.
- An eco-hostel set up in the middle of a forest, in Estonia, with compost toilets and a vegan kitchen. I was there to help them with cooking gourmet meals for the guests.
- One of the most popular hostels in Vilnius, Lithuania, which had volunteers to help with housekeeping.
- A large hostel part of a small chain in London, UK, which had volunteers covering reception, housekeeping and guest entertainment tasks.
- A 4-star hotel in a small town in Lebanon which took me in to help them build a new website.
- A small hostel in the centre of Belgrade, Serbia, which had volunteers to help bring up a nicer vibe during the slow period brought by the pandemic. We were asked to talk to guests, recommend places to visit, organise small dinners at the hostel, and there was some light cleaning too.
- A hostel in Saranda, Albania, which was developing a campaign to reduce the waste in town and encourage locals to recycle. They took me in to bring ideas on how to improve the locals’ engagement with the campaign.
- An equestrian centre in Gloucestershire, UK, run by a family who trained horses for shows and competitions. I helped with the maintenance of the stables while living with the family.
Am I a broke backpacker looking for a free bed?
This is a stereotype that I’m very keen to debunk. After being made redundant, my former employer in the UK paid me a severance package and I left the country with close to £10k. I also had a client for which I did regular proofreading work online on a freelance basis. I was nowhere near broke during my trip and could have easily afforded to pay for accommodation for the entire 2 years I was on the road.
I feel like more and more travellers can see past the “free bed” and volunteering is being taken as an opportunity for self-development. And to find hosts who are truly committed to provide those experiences, the old-fashioned “walk into a hostel and offer to work there” is being replaced by actually signing up to a platform that acts as facilitators between travellers and hosts.
The platform I chose to use to find my hosts and back me up during the trip was Worldpackers and I cannot recommend them enough. Like other platforms, they facilitate the connection between travellers and organisations around the world who are interested in hosting volunteers. But what set them apart for me was the thorough check they do on hosts before they can join the community and their policies in place to ensure the experience is truly a win-win for both sides. For example, they don’t allow positions which require over 32 hours a week of contribution or stays that are longer than 3 months. They also offer the Worldpackers Insurance which covers 3 nights of accommodation and reallocation to another host in case the experience isn’t what you expect.
Their membership costs $49 (or $39 dollars if you choose to use my link) and allows you to take part in as many volunteer experiences as you want for 12 months. If you also want to make use of their online learning platform, which features courses about digital nomadism and travel planning, you can sign up to their full plan for $99 dollars (or $89 dollars if you decide to use my link) per year.
Was it worth it giving my time and skills away for free like that?
This is a question I get asked oftenly. The key thing here is the term “for free”. We live in a society in which money is the only currency that matters. And I know I sound like a privileged white middle-class woman when I say this, but having worked in a well-paid corporate job for 4 years, I can tell you that it is possible to have 4 digits in your bank account and still have serious mental health issues.
So, let’s not be hypocrites here: money makes life easier and it helps. But if you’ve got money and no life experiences that you’re proud of, no ability to empathise with those outside your little bubble, no skills outside your everyday job and, perhaps the most important thing, you have no idea of who you are — what’s the point?
Being a volunteer for 2 years taught me to recognise that I do need money to live but it showed me how to balance earning money with actually living my life. I no longer feel apathetic about life while working constantly and waiting for the weekend. I became much better at connecting with people from different backgrounds and cultures. I learned to look for what we have in common rather than to focus on what makes us different. And when you’ve been so deeply engrained in local life in different countries, you realise that we’re all actually just people trying to get by in this crazy world we live in.
Looking at what I gained volunteering, I would definitely not say I helped them “for free”. The currency in volunteer exchanges is a deep personal and professional development, and a network of connections that you’ll have for life.
Volunteering experiences can shape the rest of your life:
When I look back the past 2 years, I have so many amazing memories and experiences I’m proud to have gone through. Now, I’m taking all the soft skills — communication, problem-solving, flexibility — and the hard skills — web design, digital marketing and even cooking — I gained volunteering to design a new lifestyle that works for me.
Through the 12 volunteering experiences, I learned that I thrive dynamic environments and that change is very positive for me. So I’m staying nomadic, working remotely and moving countries every 3–4 months (once the pandemic allows). By living in shared accommodation for so long, I also discovered that, although I like being around people, I need to have my moments of solitude. So I decided to alternate my accommodation style between hostels and having my own apartment. Through working in hospitality for so long, I was actually very surprised to see how much I loved working with people. So I’m trying to stay working in jobs that involve relationship building.
But the biggest takeaway for me comes from the relationship I had with my hosts. In a genuine collaborative volunteer experience, your host is not your boss. Sure, they’ll tell you what needs to be done to a lesser or greater extent because they know their business better. But there’s no money involved in this relationship. You don’t feel like you owe them anything because they pay your salary and they can’t expect you to do the tasks without giving you something back. What results from this is a very interesting dynamic that requires empathy, understanding, and knowing how to put your point across in a non-violent way.
This has shaped the way I relate to my family, friends, coworkers and clients. It has changed the way I look at difficult situations and have difficult conversations. And I feel like this is a valuable skill in the world that we live in at the moment and one that no money can buy.
Interested in joining Worldpackers? Here’s how it works:
This post is not sponsored by Worldpackers but I genuinely believe that the collaborative exchanges they offer can be truly enriching. I have an affiliate link which gives you a discount on the membership plan and pays me a small commission. However, you can also create your profile for free and have a look at the positions available. This could be a great first step to get into the world of volunteering!