If you’re already staying at hostels and liking it, you may be sitting on a gold mine. You see, if you’d ask nicely, they may let you stay for free (in exchange for work).
Free Travel Accommodation: Work-to-stay at hostels
Hostels often have what is called a work-to-stay arrangement. The name is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, you stay for free in exchange for work. In some hostels, you may also get paid.
This is a great way to score free accommodation and save up some money before you move on.
A work-to-stay arrangement would work well if you travel slowly and don’t have a fixed itinerary because the hostel may require that you stay for a minimum period of time. You may also have to take on more work than you expected and find yourself not having enough time to explore the area. If you have a flexible schedule, you could easily prolong your stay in the hostel as necessary.
Another interview! (Yay!)
Today, I’ll be talking to Eric Reed of The Wandering Lawyer. He left his legal job in the U.S., bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia and has since taken on various jobs along the way.
Eric loves hostels and thinks he’ll never be too old to stay at one, so it’s only natural that he’d do hostel work at some point in his travels.
Read on to find out how you too can stay for free in exchange for work at hostels.
Where, when and how long did you work in hostels?
I’ve done odd jobs in exchange for a bed plenty of times, and lived in a few hostels while working locally as well.
My longest stint was in England, at a place called Oxford Backpackers. I worked there for about six weeks on a backpacking trip around the country. Other places I’ve done long stays include Cambodia, Turkey and (probably my favorite) Greece.
I also spent about half a year living at a guesthouse called the Garden Village in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but this was while working with a local NGO instead of actually at the hostel.
How did you get the job?
Pure chance. I wandered into Oxford that summer on fumes, financially speaking. England was turning out far more expensive than I’d budgeted for, so Oxford seemed like a good place to just lay low for a while.
The afternoon after I got there, the hostel’s booking and billing computer crashed, leaving them pretty much dead in the water. After spending 4 years in college working at computer repair, it was kind of a perfect opportunity! The manager and I made a deal. In exchange for getting them back on their feet and doing some other general repair work, I got a place to stay.
What are some other ways that people can land a job at a hostel?
While hostels sometimes post job listings, my experience has been that this business operates largely on personal relationships. People open a hostel because they love the work (you certainly won’t get rich in this business), so they hire staff they want to hang out with.
From a practical point of view, in person or word of mouth is still the best way to land a job. This generally means showing up and asking around. Sometimes there are fliers, or someone will know someone who’s looking. Best case scenario: you stay someplace that has an opening, then make friends with the manager.
The exception tends to be more institutional type places like HI and St. Christopher’s. Those tend to use a normal hiring process and look for long term employees (but not always).
Beyond that — like any other job search — it starts on the web. There are sites to post job listings, and you can search by destination.
Even then, I still recommend getting there before committing. Hostel work is like any other high-demand job: sometimes it works out great but other times it can completely fall through. I’ve seen people show up to find the job gone, the working conditions terrible, etc. One place straightforwardly advertised just for “Attractive Young Female Backpackers.” Since positions in this industry are so often informal, there’s not much protection if anything goes wrong.
Final note: never, ever leave without enough money to get home. Working at a hostel is a great way to extend your time abroad, but don’t take a six month trip with three months’ worth of money hoping to find work along the way.
(Nomad Wallet note: this reminds me of Olivia, who did just that. She left Australia with $2,750 and found work along the way. She also worked at a hostel in Ireland. Check out this post about how she funded her year-long trip and also this one about the perks of hostel work.)
What kind of work did you do at the hostel?
My situation was a little unusual. Generally the work is standard hospitality-industry stuff: manning reception, changing the beds, doing laundry, that kind of thing. Working at a hostel is a little bit of a cross between a hotel and a bar, since a rowdy crowd comes with the territory. In fact, bar-tending is usually part of the job. Other than that, it pretty much depends on what the place needs. I knew a girl who redid a guesthouse’s menu, and I once worked at a place fixing a wall for a few days.
Is hostel work always unpaid work?
It really depends. Informal positions — swapping work for a bed — are pretty common, but it varies widely from place to place. Some hostels (again, often the large chains) only hire formal, paid positions; others have a paid manager and a staff working for someplace to sleep and a beer.
Any visa problems one might encounter when doing this?
Every country’s visa laws are different, but, as a rule, you always technically need a visa to do any kind of compensated work. If the position is formal (involving paperwork) and/or paid, never take it without a proper work permit. As soon as money changes hands, the government gets interested and you open yourself up to a world of problems.
Informal positions are in much more of a gray area. I can’t say you don’t need a visa, because, according to normal laws, you do. I can say that a handshake agreement to make beds in exchange for a place to stay for a few weeks just won’t be a problem. In practice, nobody cares whether a tourist paid for his bunk in cash or labor.
It also depends on the country. Some (Thailand especially comes to mind) are incredibly strict about work visa issues, and finding work of any kind will be very hard. Others (Cambodia, for example) are more liberal (or at least lax with enforcement) and you can pretty much just show up and get hired.
I’ve never seen someone run into trouble over this, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t. Visa problems can come up at the border when you try to leave.
Hostels are known for their noise, lack of privacy and constant partying, but they’re also where great travel stories happen. What is the craziest, most out-of-this-world thing that happened to you as a staff member at the hostel?
They really are. 20 years from now, I’m absolutely going to be that creepy old guy still staying at the hostel because I absolutely love them. Normal hotels are incredibly boring by comparison! (Although as a staff member I tended not to appreciate the crazy quite as much because we had to clean up after it.)
Still. This one time, at the hostel, I had to set and wrap a guest’s toe bones after she dropped her suitcase on her foot. To this day, I wonder what the hell she was carrying in that thing.
I had a pretty close call one night. I was sleeping on a couch because we’d accidentally overbooked, but eventually decided to move from the common room to the inner hallway because that couch was more comfortable. Like many hostels, ours had a code-locked door leading to the dorm hallway. The next morning, we woke up to find the common room a mess, furniture overturned, potted plants smashed, etc. Two guys had somehow come in during the night and trashed the place. To this day, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t liked the inside couch better.
Walking in on someone having sex in the shower is always awkward, but, in a weird way, I suppose you get used to it.
And there was also the night I scaled halfway up a cherry picker to try and impress an American girl. In my defense, it actually worked. There are also many, many more stories about nights I completely failed to impress a girl — and one I hopelessly and lucklessly fell for out in Greece — but you only asked about when I worked at the hostel. ; )
(End of interview)
If you enjoyed this interview, please say hi to Eric! You can find him at The Wandering Lawyer,
For more inspiration, read this interview with Trisha Velarmino — she had been traveling and volunteering at various hostels for 14 months straight at the time of the interview.
Many people find hostel jobs in person after arriving at the destination. But you can also start your job search online before your trip by visiting these websites:
If you want to find out more about ways get free accommodation (including work exchange programs), you’re in luck. Nora Dunn of The Professional Hobo has just launched her How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World e-book. It’s filled with information she gathered first-hand from her 6 years of full-time travel. She has saved $63,000 in accommodation expenses using these methods. Click here to check out the e-book at The Professional Hobo.
(Disclosure: if you click on my link to Nora’s page and purchase the book, at no additional cost to you, I’ll get a commission. This does not make me a blind, money-hungry person. I’ve read the e-book and it has great, practical information that you can use to start scoring free accommodation right away. I wouldn’t recommend it if it weren’t a good resource.)
Images: 1. Timothy Tolle (CC BY 2.0 License); 2&3. Eric Reed; 4. Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography (CC BY 2.0 License); 5. Dallas Event Photography (CC BY-SA 2.0 License); 6. 7th Groove (CC BY-SA 2.0 Licnese); 7. Michael Mandiberg (CC BY-SA 2.0 License).