Today we're going to talk about the pros and cons of volunteering abroad (also known as voluntourism), what you can expect, and the major differences between three big platforms: Workaway, Worldpackers, and WWOOF. Personally, I've had some wonderful experiences volunteering, and most volunteers I met have few complaints. However, I have met people who shared frustrating experiences and disappointments, so I want to make sure I give you a complete perspective on both the good and the bad. My hope is to leave you with enough information to go into the search and find the perfect gig. I'm going to begin by comparing the three sites, so that you can choose which is the right match for you.
Most websites that act as the middleman between hosts and volunteers do have a fee- for Workaway it's $42 for a year ($54 for couples). Worldpackers charges $49 per year ($59 for couples) and WWOOF is around $24 for the year (and around $27 for a couple). While Worldpackers and Workaway have an annual fee that gives you access to all countries, WWOOF charges per country: those prices vary depending on the country you choose. This does mean that if you want to visit multiple countries in a year, WWOOF will likely be the most expensive option.
I was skeptical at first about the fee, but if you end up volunteering for two weeks it evens out. The reason I say two week is because it is usually the minimum hosts ask for, due to the time it takes to train and prepare you. Most places are happy to have you stay longer, as long as they are pleased with your work ethic and you let them know a little in advance. Hosts tend to have a rough draft of when volunteers arrive and leave, so that they don't end up with more volunteers than they need. Based on how big the business is, they may be more or less flexible on this. In my experience, if you're doing a good job and want to stay longer, this is possible to do as long as you give your host/manager enough time to plan accordingly. In terms of a visa, most places that accept volunteers do so under the table/unofficially. What this means is that you are only responsible for obtaining a tourist visa (some countries also want proof of exit in the form of a plane/bus ticket.) Since you are not getting paid, it's not necessary to get a work visa- in my travels I have never met a volunteer or stayed at a hostel where the volunteers were required to get any sort of specific visa.
WWOOF was the original volunteer site, so it's user interface is older and a bit more difficult to use, and it only offers positions in the farming industry. WWOOF guarantees meals (the other two sites have a variation- I'll go more into detail later on,) it's a non-profit organization (unlike the other two,) and invests all the money it receives to sustainable and organic farming- the focus of this site. It also offers insurance in many countries through the website (a separate fee,) something I haven't seen on the other two sites. Lastly, both hosts and volunteers have to pay a fee, whereas the other two sites only take money from volunteers; this seems fair, since it's usually the hosts that get free labor and the volunteers who are on a small budget.
On the website for WWOOF, they suggest that you will be working half of the day to help your host, which I take to mean that days off are up to the discretion of the host you choose. If you want more of a laid back, party vibe the best option is probably Workaway. On the other hand, if you're looking for some experience in working out on the field or learning a cultivation skill, WWOOF is your site! I've met many people who were very pleased with their experiences WWOOFing (most hosts are organic farmers who are passionate about what they do, and eager to share their knowledge), but I have also met a few who complained about rude and disrespectful hosts who saw them more as “indentured slaves” than volunteers who wanted to have a cultural exchange and learn new skills.
Workaway is the most famous and oldest platform that offers a variety of volunteer jobs. Between the two, it seems that the overarching pattern is that WWOOFers work more hours and the jobs are more manually intensive, as well as a little less social- this makes sense, as you are often working on a remote farm rather than a packed hostel filled with rotating guests. However, being far away from a city also means that you will probably spend less money, and will be doing activities such as hiking or exploring in your off time, which are free. Like I said, WWOOF is definitely the best way to expand your skill set if you've already done work as a receptionist, or want to avoid cleaning toilets and changing bed sheets.
Something I really like about Workaway is that you can simultaneously be in touch with multiple hosts in various countries. You can also see a calendar for each host, which gives you an idea of when they are and aren't accepting volunteers- red for no, yellow for maybe, and green for yes (though don't be discouraged by the red color- sometimes hosts take on volunteers that make a great impression, even if that month is marked as unavailable.) Hosts also have the opportunity to reach out to volunteers (if you have marked a specific country or region this is much more likely to happen, although still rare in my experience.) Since Workaway is so popular, there are many volunteers vying for positions (but also many hosts!) so go ahead and send out a good number of applications, and don't get disheartened if you don't receive replies from all of them.
Worldpackers has more of a community vibe- it has a platform for blogging (so does Workaway, but it's not as emphasized), and it really caters to new travelers. It offers all kinds of tips, advice, and breaks down the process you might go through as a female traveler, solo traveler, digital nomad, etc. which allows you to get started without feeling too overwhelmed. You can reach out to any of these travellers and get some tips or advice in a specific work area (and even in a certain country.) This site is perfect for someone seeking guidance throughout the whole process (both volunteering and traveling). They help you find a host, and even cover a few nights of accommodation if things go wrong and you need to leave suddenly. They verify their hosts, which means higher safety, and they also offer NGO and non-profit organization positions, something I haven't seen on Workaway. Another cool thing I've seen on this site is that it asks you to rate your skill proficiency, rather than just listing what skills you have and what you're interested in working on. You can also search based on the type of experience you want to have (citylights, social impact, beachside, etc.) This is probably the best site if you are feeling super overwhelmed or anxious about getting started. Their user interface has many options, which allows you to really narrow down the type of experience you want to have.
All of these sites are absolutely legitimate, and in my opinion the fee is totally worth it. When you consider the fact that a hostel for three nights could cost you the same as an annual membership, you will be saving money in the long run (as well as a lot of time if your other option is cold calling and sending out emails to random hostels and other places that may accept volunteers.) In my opinion, the best option for the average traveler is Workaway- it has the biggest variety in jobs, it's been around for awhile and has a huge number of hosts, and it has a really simple, easy to use interface. In terms of countries, I would say that in Europe and Latin America you will find a good mix of hostels, farms, and families asking for help (hostels being the number one employer,) while the US and Canada are less hostel focused (there are generally less hostels in North America) and more centered on nannying positions, farming, and general household chores.
Now let's begin with the application process! Volunteering abroad is almost always an unpaid position- in exchange for free accommodation (and sometimes meals), you work a certain amount of hours- or until you complete the set of tasks assigned to you. The standard deal is that you work five hours daily for five days and have two days off, you also usually get one meal included (maybe two,) or some money towards food. The idea is that you work part of the day, but have the rest of your time free to explore the areas nearby. The type of work can range from cleaning to reception, painting and designing murals, or any other basic job that the host may require. In my personal experience, the majority of places that look for volunteers tend to be hostels, air bnbs, family run businesses, animal rescue shelters (although often you actually need to pay a fee to volunteer there,) and national parks.
A lot of people also want assistance renovating or updating their house, garden, farm, or keeping an eye on their kids (sometimes also help them learn a new language), but these types of gigs are fewer and usually a little more selective, as well as requiring less volunteers regularly. However, they do often come with better accommodation and meals. If you're looking for a more extroverted experience, your best bet is to volunteer at a hostel- they usually take many volunteers and are often looking for more. This means you're guaranteed to make friends and find travel companions, as well as enjoy the nightlife and being in a central location. Keep in mind there are many different types of hostels- city hostels are more vibrant and lively, while secluded hostels in nature are calmer and less populated. This is a generalization rather than a rule, so be sure to do some research deciding on a certain place.
When you sign up for one of these websites, you will be asked a series of questions about your skill set, interests, education, spoken languages, etc. You will also have to complete a profile with an introduction for hosts to look at, including your interests and hobbies, a photo (very important,) and whatever other information you feel like adding. If you're at a loss at what to write, there are many examples you can find online to use as a jumping-off point. Once you have filled out your profile, you can begin searching for a host. It's a good idea to do some research into what type of volunteer position you want, as well as include your skill set in your profile- this helps narrow down the search to positions you are interested in and qualified for. For example, if you want to learn more about construction, you can specifically look for hosts that are seeking help building or renovating. Many positions don't require any previous experience, but I have seen some specific requests popping up recently, such as a painter, graphic designer, yoga teacher, etc.
When I was looking for a volunteer job, the location was most important to me. I used mainly Workaway, and was able to enter the continent, country, region, and even use a map to zoom in and narrow down the area of my search. Another trick is to use keywords for a specific type of job (ex: animal, surf, hostel, park.) Something I really encourage you to do is to spend time in the review section of the host- I've run into situations where the description of a job does not match the reviews past volunteers have written, so don't take everything at face value. Really dedicate some time to the review section, since some people may write a very bland review just to get feedback from the host. Some may even write a good review (even if they had a terrible experience) so that the host doesn't respond negatively- this is a big flaw in many online platforms, and these sites are no exception. This is also pretty relevant in terms of safety- as a girl, I always tend to look and apply for volunteer positions that have multiple reviews. Some places are more remote than the central tourist spots (especially if it is working with a family or on a farm,) and safety is a big concern for many in this kind of situation.
To summarize, my usual process in searching for a job is to first narrow it down by location, check the reviews, the number of hours I am expected to work, the benefits (how often I get meals, what types of meals they are if this is included in any of the reviews,) and also see how much effort the host has put into their profile. Most websites allow you to see their response rate/how long it takes the host to get back to you; this may be more or less important to you based on how far in advance you are looking. At this point, I usually just apply to any job that interests me and fits these descriptions. When writing messages, I usually thoroughly read the host's profile and include something personal, for example that I have visited the town they grew up in, or also love to meditate. These personal touches really make you stand out, because they show that you care about connecting with the host, rather than just finding a free place to stay.
Now that you have an idea of how things work, let's talk about pros to volunteering. The biggest perk is that you can travel cheaply, since you only have to pay for food (sometimes) and whatever recreational activities you decide to do in your free time. The good news is that if you are an avid hiker and love the outdoors, these activities can be free! You also get to spend more time in one place, which is a really wonderful thing to do if you are planning a longer trip. This past year, I planned a nine month trip and a few months into I was absolutely exhausted- I was sick of constantly searching for a new hostel, packing and unpacking my bag, sleeping in a new bed every night, and having to make small talk with the people I met. After so many new places and exciting experiences, your brain starts to get overwhelmed and reaches its saturation point. Suddenly, the beautiful mountain view is just another hill, and the gorgeous church that has been around for centuries is just another old building. You realize that you're spending time and money, but not enjoying yourself because your mind and body are too weary.
Deciding to volunteer was the perfect solution for me. I was able to save some money, rest, have a change of pace, and build deeper relationships with the wonderful people I met. Saving money is always welcome on any trip, especially one that lasts multiple months. In terms of resting, if you've gone on a trip that lasted longer than ten or fifteen days, I'm sure you are aware of the importance of dedicating a day here and there to a vacation from your vacation. Filling day after day with activities and tours will leave you feeling drained and apathetic to the new sights and experiences, and it's important to have a day or two to relax on the beach, read a book, or do some journaling- a low key activity to give your body (and mind) a break from the intensity of sight seeing. You also have the time to collect recommendations from guests and people you meet, and explore it all rather than having to prioritize and skip out on some.
The best part is, when you do feel like doing something touristy, your place of work will often have all sorts of discounts and agreements with various tour agencies and companies in the area. For example, a hostel my friend volunteered at on the canary islands had an deal with a local surf shop, which extended a pretty generous discount to the volunteers for surfboard rentals and gear. The owner of the hostel was also pals with other hostels around the island, so if any volunteer wanted to visit another town or city with a “sister” hostel, they got to stay there for free as long as there were beds available.
In terms of relationships, one of the most valuable aspects I have found in traveling is forming friendships that go beyond the surface- having deep, philosophical conversations about people's lives, experiences, and perspectives. There are only so many times you can ask someone where they're from, how long they're traveling, what they do back home, and where they're off to next. This quickly starts to feel incredibly superficial, so having the opportunity to stay in one place and connect with others over multiple days or weeks is a luxury. Usually, the kind of people who choose to volunteer have similar outlooks on the world, so it's almost a guarantee that you will vibe with your coworkers, and form long-lasting relationships that don't end when you fly off to your respective countries. Traveling alone can get dull and lonely, so volunteering gives you the opportunity to connect with like-minded people, and often do short trips or even continue traveling together during and after your volunteer time is up. I have stayed in touch with so many friends I met while volunteering, and I'm sure that it's because we had the time to connect on a deeper level, while also bonding over the similar experiences we were going through.
An added perk is the chance to meet locals and get a sense of what life is like for those who have grown up in the area. It's a welcome change to being surrounded by other tourists, and you may even discover some cool spots you would have missed otherwise (and maybe even get a ride from a friend with a car)! Also, keep in mind that most hostels have a lost and found box- I have serendipitously encountered the perfect article of clothing in such boxes at the exact moment I needed it. I remember destroying my only pair of walking shoes the day before going on a four month backpacking trip, and returning to the hostel to find a brand new pair of Nike sneakers in my size that had been left behind by a guest that morning. Many friends of mine have found their favorite shirt or backpack in a similar way.
Additionally, as weird as this may sound, I really enjoyed working and having a routine; a sense of purpose that didn't involve getting up early to see yet another ancient building, or go to an identical beach to the one I saw the previous day. It was refreshing to be able to stock up on food- eating pasta every day gets old fast. When you're constantly on the move, you tend to rely on snacks and easy to cook foods, and a variety in meals is hard to maintain when you can't always count on a good stove, or even a fridge. The joy I felt upon returning from the grocery store with three full bags of fruit and vegetables is impossible to convey. Being able to claim a section of the fridge and pantry, carefully organize my foods, plan out an intricate meal (intricate meaning rice with vegetables and a sauce), and cook for new friends made me feel like I had a home, rather than a rented bed and storage box. Even the fact that I could fully unpack my bag and sleep in the same bed every night felt like a godsend. I never valued stability and having a home so much until I had been on the road for months.
Now for the cons. Just like with everything else, there is a flip side to volunteering. The first downside that comes to mind is the fact that your boss is also your landlord. While in a regular job you can feel confident in voicing your concerns or disagreements, when you know that your boss is also capable of kicking you out of your home, the power dynamics are drastically different. This definitely cuts down on your independence, and the liberty to keep your work and housing separate disappears. Just like bosses in any nine to five job, there are all kinds of bosses and managers at volunteering spots, so you may have to put up with more than you normally would in order to guarantee a place to sleep at the end of the day. That said, a vast majority of managers have also worked as volunteers and are super compassionate and understanding.
Another point is the reliability of a host's description of the position: I have talked to volunteers who were incredibly frustrated and disillusioned by the reality of their jobs. Jobs that had originally been presented in a completely different light. A great example of this is a friend of mine who signed up to work at a hostel in an absolutely gorgeous, remote beach of Colombia. He was promised the standard work hours (twenty five hours a week, two days off,) and only upon arrival did he find out that he would be working eight hours daily, with sporadic days off. Unfortunately, once you arrive, it's not so easy to change your mind and find a new volunteer gig immediately. In his case, he was in an area with few hostels, and had signed up to volunteer because of limited funds for his trip, so leaving was not an option. He had to suck it up and play by the (new) rules of the manager for the duration of his stay.
I have also heard stories of people getting kicked out before their contract was up. This same friend I mentioned earlier seemed to hit the jackpot in terms of bad luck. Not only was he lied to about the terms and conditions of his stay, he was also informed a day in advance that he would have to vacate the premises a week before their agreement stated- a new volunteer was coming, and the hostel favored accepting the new guy over keeping their word with my friend. This can also happen if your manager/boss is displeased with your work. I have talked to many managers, and their opinions differ drastically in such situations. Some are compassionate and avoid kicking volunteers out: they will allow lazy volunteers to stay the agreed amount of time, even if they are not fulfilling their duties. Others are much more firm, and have no problem booting you out if they feel you're slacking on the job (something I feel is absolutely valid- why should they uphold their end of the bargain if you don't.)
Following up with working conditions, don't expect to always be working a consistent schedule. Unlike a nine to five job, volunteering often means being on-call constantly. Different people give their volunteering positions varying degrees of importance- while some people treat it like a paid job and accept full responsibility for completing all their duties, others will take a more laid-back approach and do the bare minimum. I am of the opinion that you should always do your best in everything, but I have worked with many people who see volunteering as a way to get a free bed and nothing more. They rarely do what they are supposed to, and only seem to be working when the boss is around. This might mean that you have to step up and fill in for their laziness- this isn't fair, but someone has to do it.
My friend volunteered in a hostel where he seemed to be the only one who took his responsibilities seriously- every time he had a shift, he ended up cleaning, filling out paperwork, and checking in with guests to make sure that they were given all of the important information. His coworkers took advantage of how kind his boss was, and would only do the “necessary” tasks (and sometimes not even that.) This put my friend in the position of either doing their job during his shift, or conforming to their mentality and slacking. Since he is a hard-working, honest employee, he ended up regularly completing his own tasks and the work and two or three of his coworkers. His coworkers often showed up for their shift late, meaning he had to stay longer than he should have. Sometimes they didn't show up at all, and he was working a double shift, or working on his day off. When the consequences of not doing your job aren't reflected in your paycheck, don't be surprised if your coworkers treat the job with less respect.
Your plans will sometimes get destroyed by the irresponsibility of others, and your compensation for this will not always feel like it's enough. That said, most people who volunteer are also hard workers and the world of volunteers reflects the real world- there are all kinds of people you have to live and work with, and sometimes you get more lucky than others. You will have to adapt a more spontaneous style of planning your day, organize shift swaps with coworkers if you want to have multiple days off, and learn to take it in stride when your day does not go according to plan. Lastly, if you want to take classes or pick up a second “job,” you won't always be able to schedule your shifts around it. Some hosts are more flexible and willing to work with you, while others really don't care. I met a lot of people who were volunteering while also studying- a really cheap way to live abroad for a semester and still have the free time to complete your school work.
Another thing you should consider is that more often than not, volunteers do not live in luxurious apartments. You might be living in the broken down area of the hostel, a tent, or a musty room without air conditioning. The kitchen may be seriously lacking in utensils, and the utilities could be a huge downgrade from what you are used to- a weak shower with cold water, a toilet that flushes only when it feels like it, and a lack of ventilation or windows. Wifi is also not always the best, and can be limited to a certain zone. This is not always the case- one of my recent hosts provided beds in the guest rooms, access to the pool, an incredible breakfast, and were incredibly considerate when you had any issues or concerns. Again, this comes down to how much time you spend looking at the reviews, and luck. In terms of privacy, have little to no expectations. Unless you stay with a family or a host that has just one or two volunteers, you will rarely have your own room or space, and alone time may be scarce. Most volunteers in hostels or farms share a room with their coworkers, and if there is a common space it is almost never empty.
Get used to skyping your family in a room full of other people (or outside), and don't expect to have a room to yourself when you come home from partying with a new “friend” or your vacation fling. While this may be frustrating, I took it as a challenge to find creative ways to be alone in a room full of people. I learned to write in my journal with Bob Marley blasting through the speakers, talk to my parents while people were playing a drinking game right next to me, and meditate at 5AM in a dark room to a symphony of snores. You spend 24/7 with the people you work with, and while this may get aggravating and suffocating, it also teaches you a lot about patience, social skills, conflict resolution, and open communication.
Last but not least: why should you volunteer? Besides all the benefits I have listed above, I think that volunteering abroad is one of the most responsible forms of tourism. You are exploring a new country and checking out the top attractions, but also integrating with the local community. It feels great to give something back in exchange for all the wonderful memories and experiences you will go home with. It's also surprisingly gratifying to do an exchange that doesn't involve money, especially in the modern day where money seems to take priority over everything. Giving your time and energy in exchange for a place to stay and a meal is almost like time traveling back in time to the days where we exchanged skills rather than bills. The good feeling you get from being altruistic is both timeless and priceless!
You are also guaranteed to have a more wholesome, fulfilling experience when you take time to bond with the community, explore every inch of a town, and feel more like a local than a tourist. You can pick up some basic phrases in a new language, find your favorite hangout spots and restaurants, and even be the tour guide who shows newcomers the coolest lookouts. In a time when we equate everything to monetary value, I think it's really beneficial to volunteer your time and efforts. You begin to realize that not everything needs to be reciprocated, sometimes you give more than you receive, and sometimes it's the other way around. The joys of giving without calculating what you get in exchange have been forgotten, and we've become blind to the fact that time is often even more valuable than money. You give your time, energy, and knowledge in exchange for a place to stay, meals, and usually new skills in customer service, basic maintenance, cooking, and many other areas- experience that always come in handy later on in life.
Overall, volunteering is a wonderful experience and a really cool way to travel in a more profound and genuine way. It gets you off the beaten path, and you will feel more like you have actually lived as a local rather than just visiting the top tourist destinations. You'll walk away with stronger relationships, vivid memories that don't all blend into one, a feeling of having contributed to something bigger than you, and even some new skills. If you are looking for a fulfilling and meaningful trip, volunteering is the way to go. I know I've mentioned quite a few cons, but I wanted to prepare you for the things that could go wrong- ninety percent of volunteer experiences (both my own and others I have talked to) have been downright incredible and life changing, so don't let the small chance of having bad luck discourage you. Whether you sign up to go with a friend, partner, or solo, you'll most likely have an amazing time. Push the boundaries of your comfort zone and try something new!
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