I was introduced to Workaway in my first couple weeks of international travel. In the past year, I’ve worked for nearly a dozen hosts. While the service can be amazing, at other times it’s the far opposite. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages to volunteering in your travels using Workaway.
What is Workaway
Workaway.info is a site where volunteers from around the world can work for hosts at a huge variety of jobs. At this time there are over 18,000 hosts in more than 135 countries across the world. Jobs range from working in hostels, training horses, working on farms, babysitting, teaching languages, cooking, etc. Nearly any skill you have will be useful somewhere on Workaway.
The premise is that you work for 20-25 hours a week (usually 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week) in exchange for a place to stay and sometimes food. There are even some jobs where an allowance or commissions are offered. The cost to join for an individual is currently about $27, or the equivalent in your local currency. Two people can sign up with a joint account for a little more money. The account lasts for
two one year from the payment date. Update: The subscription plan was changed from two years to one sometime in 2016, but the cost remains the same.
Advantages of Workaway
What I consider to be the biggest advantage of Workaway is the ability to meet up with amazing people around the world to get the experience of living and volunteering in their country. Many times it’s individual families looking for volunteers, and other times it’s hostels or large establishments who will have lots of travelers passing through and people to meet. Other benefits could include learning a new language, trying or even learning homemade cooking of the local cuisine and maybe some local parties or tours.
Of course, the most obvious advantage to the budget traveler is the free room, and sometimes free food. While Workaway is not for paid jobs, there are sometimes hosts who offer small salaries, and others who have commissions if you sell tours, activities or other products. In Italy at two different Workaways, my hosts cooked me the most fabulous Italian dishes, and taught me how to cook them as well!
Another advantage of using the website is the advanced planning it offers. Showing up at a hostel and asking to help is doable but not always successful. I’ve showed up at businesses and offered to help in exchange for a meal or place to stay, but they can be hard to find and not every country will allow it. Workaway allows you to contact multiple hosts in advance and work out your plans.
Finally, staying for a longer period of time allows you to absorb the culture more. Many hosts want you to stay at least a couple weeks, if not a couple months. Work will usually be for 4-5 days, allowing you 2-3 days to explore the city or country where the host is. Some jobs will actually involve traveling around the country, giving tours, etc.
Disadvantages of Workaway
The biggest disadvantage to Workaway is you don’t always get what you signed up for. Profiles can be falsified or lacking, circumstances can change and some hosts might just be looking for free labor. Workaway puts this disclaimer on their site: “Workaway is for cultural exchange or learning possibilities and a way of making new friends. It is not a way for hosts to substitute paid employees with volunteers.” Usually that’s true, but not always.
Personally I run into the difficulty of hosts that don’t answer. I will sometimes send out a dozen personalized requests to different places to volunteer at and only hear back from one or two, if any. I’m not alone in this either. Jillian Kozak writes a great article on her blog comparing Helpx.net and Workaway.info, highlighting the same difficulty.
Workaway hosts do not always operate on the same level of exchange as one another. The site says you will work 20-25 hours a week. Some hosts expect less, while others will try to get more. Five hours might be worth the cost of a hostel room in a few countries like Sweden or Switzerland, but not in most. This is simply something you should work out with your host. When I worked in Belgium, I came to an agreement to do some extra work in exchange for meals, as the profile only mentioned a place to stay. I saw after I left that the host changed the profile to include meals. You’re welcome.
Workaway feedback could also be improved. You can read details about this in my post on Workaway feedback.
My Workaway Experiences
I would have to say my favorite Workaway experience was in Sarzana, a tiny town just south of Cinque Terre, Italy. When I was helping on this Italian villa doing landscaping, renovations and building boats, I had a place to stay in one of the most beautiful locations in the world, with ungodly delicious Italian meals cooked by the mother of my hosts. The work was hard, but I enjoyed it so much I would put in extra time. I was only there a week but wished I had stayed much longer.
In Albania, the hostel I helped at had no frills or meals, but the work was hardly the most difficult I’ve ever done. In fact, it was a blast! The manager Linda was one of the most fun individuals I’ve ever worked with.
The campground I worked at in Lithuania was definitely hard, fun work and while the meals weren’t always on a schedule, they were delicious. The location couldn’t be better.
The hostel I worked at in Bangkok was a little confusing, as the shifts kept being switched between volunteers at the last minute. There was no food provided, but the work wasn’t that hard. Just cleaning and reception duties.
The most interesting hostel was the one in Kuala Lumpur. I went there expecting to be doing shifts at reception, but instead was told I would help at the bar. On my way to the bar, the owners stopped me, said they had seen my blog and wanted me to design the hostel website instead. I happily agreed. Later some friends were surprised I was doing that kind of work (which usually pays very well) in exchange for a dorm room worth less than €4 a night. The amount of work over the next two weeks wasn’t much, and it was good to develop my skills even more with website design. I was also treated to some very nice Indian meals by the owners while I was there, as well as a couple delicious specialty cocktails by Warren, the bar manager.
On the other hand, my experience in France could almost be called as bad as it gets. I’m sure there have been worse, but not for me. The host was in Touzac, a tiny village in the Midi-Pyrenees. Population: 355, and about 10 km away from the next decent-sized town. The only services in town were a beauty salon (obviously, it’s France) and a bar which my hosts ran. My hosts were British, not French. The mom was drunk the whole time, and the dad was high on pot. The first words out the woman’s mouth when she met me at the bus stop were, “Hi, I’m Simone. I’ll need to vet [censor] your feedback before you leave.” Alarm bells were already going off in my head, but since I had just traveled 29 hours to get there and I was starving, I chose to get some food instead of question what she meant.
It got worse. The food she gave me from the bar was so bad I couldn’t finish it. Then, while I had signed up to do landscaping, I was told I was going to be painting the bar instead. When I said I didn’t have a pair of clothes I could get paint on, I was told “too bad.” (As a comparison, my host in Sarzana said the first thing they needed was painting, but before I could say anything, added that they had a jumpsuit for me!) The food for the next week in Touzac was either leftovers from the hosts’ own meals, more meals from the bar or a couple items (potatoes and eggs) purchased for the volunteers to cook by ourselves. Otherwise I had to travel 10 km to get my own groceries. The house had no heating, no hot water most of the time, no internet and the work was nothing as it was listed on the profile.
Finally, when I left and wrote a negative review (a very watered-down version of the above with the most simplest details of what what other volunteers could expect (type of work, no heat or hot water, etc), Workaway.info wouldn’t post the review. When I questioned them on this, they said they didn’t want “bad blood” between hosts and volunteers.
I learned from the France experience that just glancing at the reviews isn’t enough. They might all have just been written by the host on the volunteers to make the host look good. The references might be months old (as in the case with the hostel in Kuala Lumpur), or the reference might just be blocked by Workaway. My suggestion would be to email one of the most recent volunteers (which the site lets you do) and get the true facts.
Since a disadvantage is the lack of response, don’t be afraid to send out multiple requests. In some areas there aren’t many to choose from and I’ve ended up applying to them all (and not heard back from any). You might also have a problem like I had in Kuala Lumpur where I was accepted by four hosts and I had to choose the one I liked the best!
You should now that you are not obligated to stay for the whole time if things go bad. You might get a bad review from the host if you leave early, but a bad experience in your travels is not worth it. If things go wrong, try to resolve it with the host. If it doesn’t resolve, don’t be afraid to leave. You are not contracted to stay, and you should never be in a position where you aren’t happy or don’t feel safe (although Workaway is usually very save, just like Couchsurfing).
My own verdict is that volunteering is a great way to travel the world, learn new cultures and exchange for your room and board. There are definitely some improvements that could be made to Workaway.info. As long as you follow the advice you should have a great time. Otherwise, there are the other options of Helpx.net and WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms) at wwoof.net. I don’t have personal experience with those yet so I can’t comment or compare.
Myself, I’ll probably switch to HelpX when my membership is up with Workaway. I want to try the other site out, and I like the idea of hosts responding to me when I write.
How Can I Help?
If you would like my help in getting you started with Workaway, volunteering or just traveling around the world, feel free to contact me via the comments below!