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The Benefits and Challenges of Volunteering in Hostels

By Max Olson

Latin America and backpacker hostels go together like bread and butter.

From the shores of Lake Managua in Nicaragua to the high-altitude streets of La Paz, Bolivia, young tourists from all over the world use inexpensive hostels to pad their wallets and meet like-minded travellers. Many hostels offer volunteer opportunities, which can be an incredible way to meet other travellers, save cash, and really get to know a destination more intimately.

Most hostels accept volunteers from online platforms such as WorkAway and WorldPackers. However, if you don’t have an account on one of these sites, don’t be discouraged. I’ve landed volunteering gigs through simply WhatsApping a hostel or even just walking in the door and asking. The only real requirement is an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a desire to connect with other backpackers.

Hostel work tends to be fairly laid-back, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy yourself. A typical schedule is usually four hours a day, five days a week. The work is standard hospitality fare: changing beds, cleaning bathrooms, and running the reception desk. If you’re volunteering at a party hostel, you may have the option to work behind the bar or even oversee drinking games (a position that requires a liver of steel). However, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to do something a little more hands-on. I’ve fumigated rooms for bed bugs in Buenos Aires and chopped papayas in Lima. You just need to have a good attitude and be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Take advantage of the fact that your local coworkers will likely know the ins and outs of the area like the back of their hand. Some of my best travel experiences happened because I followed a tip from someone who worked at the reception desk or on the cleaning crew. They’ll also have plenty of tips about safety, food spots and nightlife.

Meeting other travellers is one of the highlights of volunteering in a hostel. Interacting with guests will likely be a huge part of your job, so take the opportunity to make some new friends! Hostels tend to draw diverse crowds from all over the globe. One day you may be surfing with someone from Croatia and the next day you’ll be walking through the local markets with your new friend from Taiwan. Volunteering in a hostel is an incredible way to broaden your travel community and make lifelong friends.

Carry the same professionalism you would take along with you to any job.

Hostel work also has its pitfalls. The usual gossip and drama that accompanies most workplaces also rears its ugly head in hostels. Theft isn’t a huge problem, but be sure to keep track of your belongings and, if possible, take advantage of lockers. Party hostels throw in the factor of binge-drinking, which can make for some interesting nights, to say the least. The best way to be on the safe side is to carry the same professionalism you would take along with you to any job. You’re allowed to have fun, but be sure not to cross the line.

Language barriers can present another problem for volunteers. Most hostels are happy to have people who speak English working behind the reception desk to assist the large number of guests they receive from the US and European countries. However, smaller, more local establishments may require you to have a decent command of the country’s official language. I’ve had experiences where I was the only person in the entire building who spoke a single word of English. This can be both frustrating and an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to connect with others by stepping out of your comfort zone.

Deciding where to volunteer is crucial and specific to each individual person. If you’re a more outgoing extrovert who loves a good party, then looking for hostels in cities well-known for nightlife is a good bet. More into nature and the great outdoors? Focus on hostels located near national parks. Want a well-rounded experience that offers a little taste of everything? Try landing a gig in a capital city. Just be aware of your own interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It will be impossible to go wrong.

If you perform well in your volunteer position, you’ll likely be rewarded with a good review on platforms like WorkAway or even a personal recommendation from the hostel itself. These will allow you to land your next hostel volunteering gig more easily. If things don’t go well, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes people and places just aren’t a good fit. Keep an open mind, a smile on your face, and a good attitude. Before you know it, you’ll be staying in your dream hostel for free and making friends with people from all corners of the globe.

Max Olson is currently travelling and volunteering his way through Central and South America. He blogs for Verge Magazine.

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