Westerners are increasingly putting purposefulness at the core of their travel plans. As a prime example of this trend, I recently spent one year exploring around the world, going to 12 countries over the course of 12 months. In each place that I visited, I sought volunteer or work exchange opportunities. My experiences ranged from milking goats in the Galilee to teaching schoolchildren in Peru, from painting cottages in Goa to helping at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Through my travels I learned new skills and met local folks (subtext: had meaningful experiences)—mostly through the work exchange projects where I partnered.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves here, let’s address an important question: what the heck is the difference between work exchange and volunteering? The differentiation is fairly simple — it’s all about money. The classic idea of a work exchange is that there is no money involved. Rather than the charitable, “do-good” mentality of volunteerism (which often includes fees), the premise of work exchange involves mutually beneficial, trade-based relationships: I do “X” for you and you provide “Y” for me. It’s terribly simple. Ultimately, work-exchange is a great option for those low-cash travellers who still want high engagement.
With that in mind, here are five websites that I used to connect with a variety of international projects (and that subsequently enabled a ton of meaningful travel experiences):
The cost: US$26 dollars for a two-year membership.
My experience: I spent a delightful month in the south of France, helping Nico restore a 13th century Cistercian monastic tower.
The cost: US$30 dollars for a two-year membership.
My experience: I had a blast teaching English at an elementary school in Peru.
My experience: In Costa Rica, I had a very challenging experience on a raw vegan farm. Remember: not every experience is going to be sunshine and lollipops!
The cost: Free (but be prepared to reciprocate by cooking a meal or telling a story).
My experience: From the Philippines to France, Couchsurfing has connected me to friends around the world.
The cost: Free.
My experience: I used Craigslist in Buenos Aires to help me find a host for the month. A woman named Carolina answered my ad and she was a fascinating host.
Bonus tip: The aforementioned websites have been great resources to help connect me to projects that needed an extra set of hands. What I didn’t mention is another great (and totally non-innovative) method—it’s called word of mouth. While my level of satisfaction varied greatly when finding an organization online, I had a 100 per cent success rate when a project was personally recommended. So ask around!