The Reasons I Advocate Volunteer Work Exchanges

There are the obvious benefits of free (or deeply discounted) lodging and food. These are terrific benefits, though in truth you are working, in some places harder than others for them. There are other benefits which are far greater and valuable.

You have a chance to participate in the local life of the culture you are immersed in, even if you are say on a remote farm several miles outside of town. In many instances, though not all, your host is a citizen of the country. Since they are a business owner this gives you a feel for both the profession and the culture.


Natural Spas with Couch Surfers in Rocky Mountains
In many respects even as a foreigner you welcomed into the community. This affords you a special place which extends far beyond a tourist. In my experiences this extends even deeper into the social fabric of the society you are in than the classic travel like a local, a hallmark of the Couch Surfing experience.
The connections you make are invaluable. The people you are exposed too come from all walks of life. It’s a great way to expand a circle of friends.

Personal Experiences With Vounteer Exchanges

My most recent trip was a 13 month excursion around Europe, which I got back from a few months ago. A bulk of my time I spent as a volunteer in one form or another in several different countries.
The types of work and experiences varied from place to place. I ran a small family owned hostel in Ireland,  during peak season, in a small and beautiful west coast Irish village which teemed with tourists during those months. This is where I found my kin folk. I love the Irish. I love their attitude, culture, history and views on life. I would live here given the chance. But that is a whole other story.
Kurt on Organic Farm in Belgium
In Belgium I worked on an organic farm with many other travelers, some I still communicate with till this day. It was here I met another traveling couple, Kaitlin and Brian from TwoBackPacksOneWorld, as I was with my girlfriend at the time.
They were great and we all found a penchant for bending over hours at a time pulling weeds from the beds. As this was an organic Community Supported Agriculture farm, no pesticides were used. Perhaps my most enriching experience. Here I learned the most on the trip, about myself, as well as topics that interest me such as community supported agriculture, sustainability and organic farming.
In the Netherlands I volunteered at a cat sanctuary. This was one of my only negative experiences. I won’t say much on it save that there was communication problems with the owner. I will elaborate on how to go about addressing this later.
Kurt Packing Freshly Squeezed Apple Cider
Perhaps the most interesting volunteer experience was in Slovenia on an apple orchard, where they also pressed apple juice. The couple that we stayed with were delightful. The uncle of the owner was such a sweet man and despite the language divide, charming and funny. Here I picked apples, killed gofers, pressed cider and learned the Slovenian tradition of drinking Rakia during the work day. Happiness, love, warmth – they were all present in this household.
UNESCO Viscri Fortified Chruch
In Romania, the most exotic of eastern Europe I experienced, there was a volunteer exchange for about 2 weeks. I wouldn’t even go as far to say that it was a volunteer exchange because in truth I received far more than I put into it. The duties were light, some painting, cooking, shoveling. In return my host took me on wonderful tours of the surrounding area, to an UNESCO heritage site and was brought to meet a Hungarian Count  who has lineage which dates back – well further than I can remember. My host Colin, informed me on the history of the Transylvania region so well I might know more about their history than of my home state NY. A British Expat Colin operates Roving Romania in Transylvania.
There was one experience in Bulgaria, a captivating country with resilient and embracing people. This was an experience all too itself. A sort of community art project, a space for artists to collaborate, work and help build up the project. A wonderful concept.
The UFO Ivancha, Bulgaria
The small Bulgarian village was simple, but I never thought I would love the country. I did here, although it was the worst winter in how long? The worst European winter in 100 years I believe. However you cut it, I experienced more snow and cold here than even the deepest and darkest winter in upstate NY or Chicago.
I’be had a breadth of experience with volunteer exchanges, some intimately personal. They have been both good and bad, but in all I have taken away something. It is the summation of these somethings, leading to personal growth and perspectives on life which I wouldn’t have had otherwise, which have made me a passionate advocate.
Considerations Before You Dive In
Volunteer work exchanges are a terrific concept, but like any venture there are considerations which should be taken into account  before you dive head first into the journey. Here are some tips that I have found useful.
Knowing the type of work you are engaged in is important. You should be honest with yourself and upfront with your host. You don’t want to enter into an agreement which is doomed from the start or where expectations are not clearly stated. Are you able to perform the type of work required? A physically demanding job might be an issue for some.
Clearly stated working hours should be outlined. If a position requires weekends or attending to guests at all hours of the night, you should take it into consideration. This is not to say that there has to be a clear distinction of time on and time off, yet there should be a clear idea of how many hours are required.
The living arrangements need to be accurate so as you know what to expect upon arrival. Is your lodging separate from the owner? Do you have a room in their house or the business property? Sometimes you will have a shared living arrangement. Think dorm style hostel experience. This may be adequate and fine for some. For couples or families this can often be a make or break consideration.
There will be many situations where you’ll be working alongside the same people with whom you co-habitat. Often enough this can be a sizable group, so you’ll have to ask yourself if you’re able to work with a large group of people with whom you live. This brings up the issue of workplace etiquette, but unlike a traditional job you won’t be going back to separate places of residence.
This leads to some unique situations. You will have to be even more flexible in regards to respecting each others space, time and personalities. The ‘live and let live’ concept can wear you down if your constantly letting just to live.
I’ll state this last point since its importance cannot be overlooked. In the end this is your job, so you need to be adaptable to your hosts needs. As your employer keeping them happy should be on the top of the list of priorities. Like all things in situations change and new needs arise. The lines of communication should be open so you are able to clearly understand what is expected of you.
 It’s What You Take Out and Put In
Volunteer work exchanges can be an amazing experience. If you don’t leave with more life enriching experiences you’ll have missed an excellent opportunity to make new friends and life long memories.
A friend from my travels died suddenly at the age of 22 recently. I was reminded of what she had taught me. Even at only the young age of 20  she taught me the most of anyone from my trip. She helped me realize that sometimes you have to pause in life, take the time to slow down and just enjoy where you are in the moment.
Through her eyes, the world was an exciting and beautiful place. A beautiful person inside and out with a voice to match. Sometimes we tend for forget what we have to be thankful for and get caught up in the need to grab and consume. And for this I will always remember Teal.
This was a guest post from Kurt at Wanderlusting Travel.
Follow Kurt on Twitter @wanderlustng
 Wanderlusting grew out of the need to share all the inspiring truths, surprising challenges and knowledge that travel offers. On the road in one form or another since 2009, continuing the adventure and sharing the story along the way is half the fun.


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  1. says

    Great concept. And a good list of points at the end for things to consider before volunteering. One question — how do you find these in advance? Is there a site where people advertise this stuff? I would love to run a small guesthouse or something like that, or work on a farm somewhere. That would be an awesome experience…but how do you find it?

    Double thumbs up!

    • thetravellingfool says

      There are several companies that specialize in volunteering work. A quick search on the internet and you can find places to volunteer from farms to teaching to helping rebuild villages. Or approach it the old fashioned way and personally approach the place you want to work and begin a dialogue with them about exchanging your work for a place to stay.

  2. says

    I think work exchanges like this can be a great way of having an experience that you otherwise never would (like making apple cider) and getting to know the locals on a level that tourists don’t typically have the chance to do. Your list of considerations are really helpful for anyone considering an exchange. Nice post!

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