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February 26, 2024

9 Tips for Work Exchangers & Why You Should Try it at least Once.

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Most people have never heard of work exchanges, and those who have, mostly portray students on a gap year traveling around and trying to save up some money while doing them.

So imagine the faces of people when they asked me what I was doing in their country and my reply was work exchange, as a single 31-year-old woman.

How did I end up with this? Well, I love to travel and I hated my life, so I started to look for new ways of living. It took me long time to gather the courage and leave my life behind, and I only managed to do it in my 30s. Since then, I’ve tried many things from volunteering to work exchanges and living in a co-op. Being a travel lover with not so much money in the bank forced me to think outside of the box, if my main goal was to avoid going back to corporate jobs.

For me, work exchanges were a logical step since I don’t like to rush all over the place on weekend trips but prefer to stay in one place for longer and learn to live like a local, exploring places that aren’t in the tourist guide books. So most of the time, I link travel with work and study. (Working holidays are still on my bucket list, as not many countries I’d love to travel to offer their VH visas for people over 30.)

As the name suggests, it’s a work exchange, so in exchange for certain amount of hours work, you’ll get accommodation and food. So only on your free time can you actually go and explore like you’re on holiday. But normally, the work is not more than 4-5 hours a day. Except if you want to try WWOOF-ing (World Wide Opportunities of Organic Farming)—where another goal would be to learn as much as possible about organic farming—so the hours can go up to six. WWOOF is more like a cultural and educational exchange.

If you Google up something like “volunteering holidays,” a lot of results will be charity associations or travel agencies. In the first case, you are probably going to work in a local community and be really helpful, but they might ask you for a fee, and they will ask you for a minimum stay of some months, with fixed departure times and periods. (Did that too, but probably will make another article about volunteering.)

If you choose a travel agency, you will probably do some incredible activities in exotic countries like feeding elephants in India, but they will mostly be pricey, and it won’t be such a great help for the local community, as it is mainly for tourism. So make sure you choose the right one for yourself.

I spent a little over half year with work exchanges and house sitting in Scotland and I wanted to share my experiences, because it’s a wonderful way of travelling and making new connections, learning about the country and its people, their traditions and yourself, too. At the same time, it’s not like a classic holiday—it’s still includes work hence requires adaptability, motivation, and a positive attitude, and at times, more openness than a “normal” holiday would. You’ll most likely live in the house of your host (who’s at this time an unknown person), so you need a lot of trust, too.

To do this and be able to enjoy, I truly think one needs to be interested in what they are doing and be well prepared.

So here are my takeaways from my time of work exchanges (some with Workaway and WWOOF, but most opportunities presented themselves on the way).

1. Choose a place that offers a type of work you think you’ll like.

You are going to spend your holidays working, and if you don’t want to be unhappy this should be top priority. There are a lot of different offers on work exchange websites and you can find many hosts on your own too. The work can differ from simple tasks like picking fruit, planting in a garden, feeding animals, or working in hostels, to more complex things that require specific knowledge or skills like carpentry or plumbing or teaching horse riding. You can, of course, choose something you’ve never tried but always wanted to, to see if it suits you—it’s a never-ending learning experience here.

2. As I mentioned before, work exchange is not like a usual holiday.

In fact, don’t even think of it as a holiday. You won’t spend all your day at the beach and come back just for lunch and dinner. Being a Workawayer means being a volunteer, a helper, a member of the hosting family, and just after all these are you a traveler.

Depending on your agreement, most hosts will ask you to work five days a week, 4-5 hours per day, but some might ask for six or maybe three, and you can always ask your hosts for some flexibility (if your working hours are less, usually the exchange also includes less). Usually, these kinds of work are on farms or homesteads, so you’ll need to rise early, but most of your afternoons will be free. That is good if you are somewhere with a lot of things to do, but if you are staying in an isolated place, it may be annoying because you won’t have a lot of time to get to other destinations.

When I did my first exchange on the isle of Mull, I arrived earlier to Oban, from where the ferry would take me to the island. I spent a couple of days there to explore the town before I headed to Mull. I prepared a little list of things to do on Mull, so I never ran out of ideas.

I spent two weeks working on a croft of an old couple, and frankly, without them driving me around, I wouldn’t be able to see much (except for the famous waterfalls in front of the house that look like smoking chimneys when the wind blew too strong). And you need to be a real nature lover because that’s what you’ll get most of. Public transport is almost nonexistent there, but I took the bus once to travel around the island and the driver was amazing. He turned himself into a tourist guide and commented on the way on what to see and told stories about the people or houses we saw.

So my advice is to chose a place where you’d really like to live, since your gonna be there for probably quite a while (usually hosts ask for at least one month of commitment); you’re gonna live like a local. If you don’t like hikes and nature or being alone, you’re gonna suffer if you end up on an isolated island where the next neighbor is a 20-minute drive from you.

3. It depends on your host—some people are able to give you your own accommodation in a small house in the garden or a caravan—but most people share their house with you.

This means you end up living in a family or a community, so try to be a little more proactive. I ended up on a farm that also operated as a co-op where we shared the cleaning tasks, and a different person cooked each day and the others made the table and washed the dishes. At one point, a man joined us who was used to live alone and had no social clues; it caused some friction at the beginning when he was happy to eat from the shared food but wasn’t keen on cleaning up after everyone and pretty much only cared about himself. But he got into the communal mindset in the end and I suspect he even enjoyed it.

When we’re tree planting and living with others, it can be annoying when some people only make a mess, never do the dishes and wait for someone to do them. This kind of living only works well if everyone brings equally to the table. Since the accommodation is basically free, it is just respectful to treat others this way.

4. Learn to have boundaries.

Sometimes the host could ask you to do something that was not specified in the agreement, like helping with some work on the computer, because they figured you have the skills. Of course, they can’t force you to do anything; it’s all about helping where needed, but it’s not slavery! Just be honest and if you decide you don’t like it but you can make an effort to do it, then go on. If not, they will understand if you explain yourself.

I made this mistake myself and learned the lesson the hard way, when my host on a biodynamic farm asked me to put in a few extra hours that would be taken off on others days because we had to finish planting before the bad weather arrived. I worked two more hours daily and in the end, she forgot to give back the time and took it for granted that from now on I would work as long as she did.

5. Have some money in the bank, just in case.

It was only a one time bad experience, but you better prepare for everything. My host was generous at the beginning of my stay. The first month was abundant and idyllic: four hours work in the early morning in the gardens, sweet host, lots of food to share, beautiful room…but, and this links back to my previous point, when the end of the month was close, my host asked if I had anywhere else to go next.

I didn’t, so she asked me if I could stay longer because she liked the way I work and the person who was supposed to come cancelled so she’d need someone. I said yes because it started as my best WE experience, but it quickly turned into a nightmare.

The host wasn’t honest with me about her financial problems, and we ended up with less and less food, while I had to work more and more every day (it was on the farm I mentioned in point four). In the end, I had to go to buy my food for myself, only to come back at the end of the day to see that my food disappeared from the shelf. (There were five of us living there, so it could be anyone).

I was moved from my room to a dark, cold, and wet room because the host rented out my room to someone and didn’t tell me about it until the day the new guy was supposed to move in, so I was in a rush. Meanwhile, she also started to be more mean—nothing I did was good enough for her anymore. When I stopped to drink, she came like a slave master and ordered me back to work. So I decided that this wasn’t what I signed up for, and when after discussing this with the host nothing changed, I moved on. I had no other place yet to go, but I was lucky to have some money saved up, so I could go to a hostel in Inverness until I figured out what to do next.

This takes me to the next point.

6. Always make sure everything is clear for you before you go somewhere.

Always clarify what exact jobs you need to do and for how many hours and days a week. If there will be other volunteers at the time, what kind of accommodation do they offer, and if you need to share it with anyone, what exactly is included in the exchange?

I was in desperate need once to find a host (I broke up with my then-boyfriend in the middle of a hike, only to wake up in my hostel room to find the guy gone with all our food, tent, and my cash), and a friend recommended a place nearby where she stayed, so I called and when they said I could go immediately, I didn’t hesitate.

Big mistake. I found myself living in a cold construction trailer on a weird off-grid place in the middle of the forest. Since we didn’t make a proper agreement, the woman wanted me to work eight hours a day simply for the accommodation. We managed to make an agreement after and I stayed for two weeks—it wasn’t a fair exchange, but I learned a lot from the different odd jobs from composting to working wood.

Despite everything, I really enjoyed my lone time by the ocean, waking up to chirping birds, and cooking over a fire in the outdoors kitchen. While not having running water was hard on me (we drank filtered rain water and I personally bathed in the ocean after work) and I would need electricity at times to charge my phone or do some necessary work on my laptop, I found workarounds and loved to be unplugged from 4G. The composting toilet was kind of far and the weather was pretty bad at nights. It’s annoying if you wake up during the night and need to pee, but if you let life stop you with some little hurdles, you won’t enjoy the rest of your time.

7. The world is full of people who dropped everything, bought a property somewhere, and started their dream job or life out of nothing.

But it is not easy to do it. Work exchange is an amazing opportunity to start to follow your passions and dreams: you can try any jobs you can think about and with no consequences. Work exchange gave me the opportunity to try myself out in many things, and allowed me to figure that the things I thought I liked weren’t as enjoyable as I imagined, but at the same time, I found dozens of other things I loved and never even knew existed or that I had the skill for.

It was a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget, and it’s something I am really grateful for, because it made me grow, live my passions, and be helpful. And also to explore a beautiful country I never had the chance to visit before, on a very low budget.

8. Be prepared to meet the most incredible people.

Work exchangers, as well as the people who host them, are special. They are brave, a bit crazy, interesting people who travel the world, volunteering everywhere in order to try and learn new things and make their travels longer.

The people I met were mind-opening—they have seen and done so many things, and it was insanely motivating! I met a lone wolf film maker, Buddhist gardener, meditation retreat leaders, a Tibetan translator, circus performers, a BAFTA winning producer, superhumans, artists, writers, retired doctors who worked in Africa, and some guy who preached about love all the time. They all had the craziest stories I could never imagine.

And the hosts! They may be foreigners in that country as you are or they can be locals who love meeting international people and opening up their houses to them. In any case, they have great stories to tell, useful skills to teach, and a lot of interesting points of view.

9. Get off the beaten path.

Let’s be honest; who has ever heard about a town called Inverie, in Scotland? Maybe someone has, but probably few; not even the people who have visited Scotland. So, you won’t even know that Inverie is on a peninsula that can only be reached by boat or a two-day hike. That there’s an incredibly beautiful lagoon, where at times you can see dolphins and orcas playing around. That when you climb the lush mountains, you find yourself in the last wilderness of Scotland. I didn’t know it either, and I would have never known it if it wasn’t for my volunteering and work exchange experiences.

What else can I say about these truly enriching experiences? They can be hard but just as magical. I am so grateful I had the chance to do what I did, see what I saw, and meet the people I met.

But what I wanted to do is to explain to you everything I could about it, both in the negative and the positive parts. And whilst at the moment, I do not feel like embarking on another work exchange journey, I wouldn’t be able to live the life I live now without these experiences, the things I learned, and all that I discovered about myself. So for me, the next chapter rather looks like finding the perfect place where I can build my dreams, and maybe one day, I become a host.

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