One of the key reasons Kurt and I are able to travel longer and slower is because of the opportunities provided by joining volunteer work exchange websites. The basic premise is that you provide a few hours of work per day and in return you receive accommodation and food. This has offered us months of great experiences, lifelong memories, and slow travel that helps you intimately know the culture you are visiting.
As a volunteer you are expected to work. While that would seem obvious, we have met a few fellow volunteers that didn't quite see it that way. I heard one complain 'look, it's not like we are getting paid for this, so I don't know why I should try so hard to do a good job.' I was blown away by that freeloader mindset. If you aren't willing to work and do your best, you shouldn't sign up. Period. Even though you aren't getting a paycheck, you are essentially living rent-free and eating food at someone else's expense. Yes, you are a volunteer, but you are expected to earn what you are given and contribute to your host's projects as well as clean up after yourself. If you are an adult with a brain, it's mostly just common sense.
As a host you are expected to be clear about what you expect, how many hours seem acceptable to you, what the rules of the house are, and what jobs need to be done. You are also expected to be kind and understanding if, from time to time, there is a communication issue (which does happen, no matter the host or guest, it's part of life).
I have never had an experience where we felt taken advantage of. I have, however, had a horrible experience with communication problems. Without getting into the details, both parties were unhappy with the experience, and we left early. It would have turned out quite differently if we had been given instructions clearly by our host and if we had double-checked to ensure what they were asking of us. We did our best; I'm sure she believes she did her best as well. These situations are bound to happen if you volunteer often, because let's face it, we just can't connect and click with everyone we meet.
SO! All that being said, if you make communication and a good attitude your priorities, you will find success in these communities. Here are reviews of the top three volunteer work exchange sites:
This is the work exchange site that most people are familiar with, but to be honest it's usually the last one I recommend to others. Firstly, it isn't economical for travelers who plan to visit more than one region of the world, as it is comprised of a hodge-podge of regional Wwoofing sites, countries that have their own sites, and a list of 'independent' countries. Each requires a separate membership and a separate fee, which kind of makes my mind want to implode. If you want to volunteer in both Ireland and Belgium, for instance, you have to pay twice to join two different organizations, which I think is incredibly uncool. Second of all, most of the various WWOOF sites do not include the 'references' feature, which has proved invaluable for us when choosing potential hosts. The third reason I don't recommend WWOOF is because it limits you to only organic farms, thereby narrowing your range of possible experiences. The only 'pro' I can come up with is the Wwoofing has been around longer and on occasion has more hosts in a country than the other sites can provide (but not often).
This is one of two sites that we have paid to join. Helpx is user-friendly, costs a mere 20 Euro to join for two years, and covers the entire world (meaning you can find listings anywhere they are available, as opposed to ridiculous Wwoofing). You can browse basic profiles before you sign up, which may help make it easier when deciding which site to join. It has a reference system, as well as gives you host contact info directly on the site. One of my VERY favorite features is the ability to see when a host has last logged in or updated their listing, so you don't have to wonder if the posting you are looking at was posted three years ago and is no longer relevant. Helpx also has quite the gamut of experiences. The opportunities include everything from a monkey sanctuary in Ireland to a camel riding retreat in Austria to salt harvesting in Croatia. Most of the listings tend to be some type of farm or hostel work (we have done both, and enjoyed both immensely).
Basically, Workaway is the same as Helpx with a few minor exceptions and with a slightly higher price tag. For two years as a single person, it is 22 Euro. For couples or two friends, it is 29 Euro. It's a bit more aesthetically pleasing, but I've found that there are less listings as a general rule than Helpx because it is a newer site. One pro is that hosts can put up a calender letting potential volunteers know which months are already full and which ones they will need help with the most. You can still browse profile before joining, leave references, and choose from a rich variety of experiences. The drawbacks compared to Helpx: no last login, no direct contact information, no telling when the host last updated their profile.
Overall, we are happy with our decision to join both Workaway and Helpx, as we have used them both depending on which hosts looked the most interesting to us. If I had to pick only one to join, it would be Helpx. While not quite so pretty as Workaway, its small but useful tools make it worth the while.
Volunteers and hosts – make sure expectations are clear before you arrive. I can't repeat this enough! Be honest on your profile (we had to include that we are smokers, for instance), and when starting out be sure to offer references from previous jobs or volunteers if you can. Make sure the average amount of hours per day sound alright to both parties, and make sure food and accommodation is agreed upon as well. Some places ask that you work less and buy your own food, while some places ask you to work more in exchange for all sorts of goodies (free massages and reiki sessions sometimes)! To give you an idea of how diverse it is – we've worked where 2-3 hours a day was the average, and on the other end of the spectrum where we have worked 6-7 hours per day. To us, the varying experiences make it even more fun.
We have had life-changing, incredible experiences with these sites – many times we don't want to leave and stay longer than we planned. (Ireland currently holds the record at four months!) We've learned new skills and made friends for life, both in our hosts and fellow volunteers. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty and want to really get to know a local family, this is your ticket.
Have you used these sites before? What is your opinion, and what advice would you offer?