The Most Remarkable Way to Travel (Outside of Luxury)
Give Work Trade a Try
Standing amongst a herd of over 200 sheep is a surprisingly loud situation. Lambs bleat for their mother’s attention, ewes call back in an effort to find their offspring. The fuzzy, warm bodies jostle against you. A stray horn hooks you uncomfortably in the back of the thigh, but there’s no time to worry about another bruise.
You have to find the lambs that belong to your farm. Well, it’s not your farm. But the farm you’re working for. The lambs you’re looking for have a triangular notch from their left ear and two lines from the right ear. With so little experience, you struggle to spot the specific markings. But that won’t stop you from trying.
When you finally see one, you pursue. Pressing your way through the bodies is easier when you have a mission, but it’s difficult to keep an eye on the single spot of creamy white fur. After moments of struggle and face offs with ewes, you finally catch up to the properly marked lamb.
He faces away, so you throw one leg over his back and grab his horns, lifting his front feet off the ground. As you steer him to the proper pen, the young lamb resists with whole body, fifty pounds of wriggling muscle in your grasp. Do you let go? Or continue with the struggle?
What is Work Trade?
Work trade is not a new concept. There have been international programs dedicated to this concept for many decades now. Probably the most well-known, WWOOF, has been an option since it was founded in 1971.
The basic concept of work trade is that a volunteer works for a farm, individual, business, charity, etc. in exchange for something — most often food and lodging.
This allows the volunteer to live cheaply, gain life/work/unique experiences, interact with new cultures, and make friends from all over the world.
The host similarly benefits. He gets much-needed help on his project, has the opportunity to interact with different cultures from his home base, and makes friends from all over the world.
WorkAway, my program of choice, was launched in 2002. The reason I use WorkAway, over the many other options on the internet, is primarily because of its user interface. I like its clean look, easy to navigate platform, useful messaging system, and so much more. I found that most other work trade websites are very old-fashioned in appearance and ease of use — think message boards.
How It Works
On WorkAway, hosts post work opportunities and volunteers pay a small, annual fee to contact the hosts about these opportunities.
Host profiles include information about the work opportunity, the host family, the area they live in, and other relevant information.
Volunteer profiles list travel dates and destination, age, nationality, type of help willing to offer, and skills.
Hosts can also contact volunteers if the travel destination matches their opportunity location.
Sometimes work trade is organized months in advance, particularly for high-demand opportunities. There is, however the option of last-minute listings when the host and volunteer are almost immediately ready to work together.
The Social Side
You don’t have to participate in work trade alone! It can feel much more secure to travel with a friend. WorkAway makes this easy to by allowing friends to temporarily link their profiles to apply to hosts together.
Couples can make a joint profile (and get a discount), but it means you must always volunteer together. Families can even make a couple’s profile (or link multiple profiles) and volunteer together! It is certainly more difficult to find a host who can take a whole family, but the opportunities definitely exist.
All the messaging for WorkAway opportunities occurs on the website itself, so there’s no issue of sharing email addresses or phone numbers unless/until both parties feel comfortable doing so.
Hosts and volunteers alike have the option to verify their profiles with (the abhorred) Facebook. Only the number of Facebook friends is available on WorkAway, adding a certain level of credibility to a WorkAway profiles because scammers are less likely to have a bunch of Facebook friends.
The review process is an extremely important part of WorkAway. Hosts and volunteers both have the opportunity to review each other. Public reviews are visible to anyone else using the platform, which allows them to make judgment calls before arranging an opportunity. Volunteers are able to contact most volunteers who reviewed a host to learn more about the arrangement.
You Don’t Have to Go Far
If you’re from a country where it’s difficult to get a visa for travel, you can still benefit from WorkAway! While browsing hosts, you’ll likely find that there are work trade opportunities in your home country and neighboring countries.
You don’t have to travel across the world to find different cultures and unique work. Give WorkAway a try in a more familiar country to get your feet wet. Then make your move to more far flung destinations.
You Don’t Have to Be a Student
While this type of travel has a certain appeal to broke students, WorkAway is not just for that demographic. During my work trade experiences, I met volunteers from ages 18 to 43. One of my hosts had worked with volunteers in their fifties.
Some of the volunteers had full-time jobs and were just using WorkAway as a chance to extend their vacation for less money. Some simply wanted the life experience. As long as you’re able bodied and willing to work, WorkAway is a great opportunity to try something new.
Each work trade arrangement is completely unique from all the others because there are so many factors involved.
- The host and volunteer typically meet for the first time.
- Other volunteers might arrive during the stay.
- The weather and environment are constantly changing.
- New challenges in the host’s project
All of these factors conspire to make a particular exchange its own singular occurrence. Which is partly what makes it so fun. No one else can say they’ve had the same experience as you (unlike more typical backpacking and staying in hostels). Very few people do work trade in comparison with other forms of travel, so it’s a great chance to stand out and trail blaze!
Let me be honest.
I never thought I would try work trade. I am a creature of comfort, so the idea of living in a stranger’s home and eating whatever odd stuff they provided sounded like my worst nightmare.
But then I had a paradigm shift. After college, working 8–5 every day, I realized that my life was beginning to feel like nothing ever happened. I’d see friends after months of separation. They’d ask, “what’s new with you?
And I always had that dreaded response, “not much.”
My life felt predictable, which was comfortable, but as a writer…having too predictable a life is the kiss of death to creativity.
Possibly worse, after so much routine, I found that when one little thing was thrown out of alignment that I became upset or annoyed or angry. My “adulting” routine had made me inflexible.
With these realizations, I realigned my priorities and opened up my mind to strange new opportunities. I even became excited about them. The more people told me they would never do something like WorkAway, the more I realized that I wanted to.
I did five months of work trade in three different countries in 2017. And I still want to do more because all the fun and adventure heavily outweighed the discomfort of unfamiliarity.
Why are you interested in work trade? What are your hesitations about it?
Dear Travel Enthusiast—
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Originally posted April 24, 2018 on The Post-Grad Survival Guide