So, you’re craving an adventure, eh? Maybe you’ve already tried your hand at backpacking—it was fun, but this time you don’t want to simply drift from place to place. You’re looking for something more meaningful. Perhaps you’d like to gain new skills and connect with locals. If so, then it’s time to think beyond hostel parties and bus tours. It’s time to roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get involved in the communities you dream of visiting.
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.
Through my travels I learned new skills and met local folks (subtext: had meaningful experiences)—mostly through work exchange projects.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):
Launched in 2001, Help Exchange is an online network that connects volunteer helpers with hosts. The listings include farmstays, homestays, ranches, guesthouses, backpacker hostels and even sailboats! In the typical arrangement, the helper works an average of four hours per day and receives free accommodation and meals for their efforts.
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.
This is a site set up to promote fair exchange between two specific groups. The first group includes budget travellers, language learners, culture seekers and families. The second group is individuals or organizations that are looking for help with a range of varied and interesting activities or projects.
The cost: US$30 dollars for a two-year membership.
My experience: I had a blast teaching English at an elementary school in Peru.
Like the previous two sites, Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) is also a work exchange platform. The only difference is that it’s dedicated solely to farming. What it lacks in variety, however, it makes up for in history. For more than 40 years, WWOOF has been connecting workers with farmers. Many countries have their own chapters, so before you go rooting through farm profiles, it’s best to know where in the world you’d like to go!
The cost: Membership fees vary from country to country. (See Verge's article on WWOOFing for more information on how to sign up.)
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!
A global community of seven million people in more than 100,000 cities. The premise is simple; the site connects those in need of a bed with those who have an extra bed (or couch). On a deeper level, however, it promotes sharing and trust—which are two key ingredients in creating meaningful travel experiences.
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.
It’s not just a place to sell your old couch. With a selection of forums and user-created advertisements, Craigslist is a great place to put your wishes out to the world and then see what the world might provide. Ultimately, it’s one of the greatest ways to connect with local communities.
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!