If you want to travel but you’re broke and all you have is your body, what do you do? Work that body, that’s what.
I’m talking about work exchange, of course. (What did you have in mind?)
Work exchange is an arrangement whereby a traveler provides labor to get a free bed and some free food. It’s a great way to minimize your travel expenses and meet new people. (“Work exchange” and “volunteering” are pretty much interchangeable when we’re talking about this kind of arrangement, although “volunteering” always makes me think of charities.)
I interviewed Trisha Velarmino from P.S. I’m on My Way to find out more about work exchange / volunteering as a way to afford extended travel. Originally from the Philippines, Trisha is currently making her way across Latin America by volunteering.
How long have you been volunteering?
I’ve been volunteering for 14 months now, covering Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.
I only took a break from volunteering when I arrived in Uruguay, where I stayed with a local family for a month to learn about the culture and the food. In a week, I will be starting my private English tutoring for five kids in Cordoba, Argentina.
Volunteering is already a part of my travel now. During the World Cup, I didn’t volunteer for a month and it made me really bored. I mean World Cup is fun but doing nothing (just drinking, going out with friends, partying, etc.) doesn’t suit me anymore.
Have you mostly volunteered at hostels?
I have volunteered in Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil as a hostel receptionist; and as a bartender in Peru and Bolivia. I’ve stayed for a month in each volunteering job.
Yes, that’s right, they’re mostly hostels. It’s easier to land volunteering jobs at hostels because they need help all the time. A hostel is also the best place to meet people, new friends and learn a different language.
What are some other places where travelers can volunteer?
Aside from hostels, there are also jobs available in farms, language exchange with local families, art gallery help, volunteering in surf and scuba diving houses.
It really depends on the host and the country. For example, in Uruguay, there are more volunteer jobs in surf spots because they’re the main tourism attraction along the coast of the country. In Australia, there are more farm jobs than hostels. I guess a hostel job is the most popular one on the list as you can score one anywhere.
Charity work is a bit complicated as there is a very expensive registration fee that needs to be paid. I don’t think I met any long-term traveller who was involved in volunteering in a charity.
How much free time do you have as a volunteer?
The standard working hour for a five-day week is five to six hours. It really depends. I had a job in Argentina where I only needed to work for three days a week, but for eight hours each day. The working hours are decided by the host.
How do you find these opportunities?
The one that has helped me land a lot of volunteering gigs is Volunteer Latin America. The site is very simple and easy to navigate. Apart from that, it fits my location (hence, the name). You can also filter by countries and types of job you are looking for when searching.
How do you make sure that an opportunity is right for you? Have you ever arrived somewhere to work and absolutely hated it?
Never. Volunteering jobs always have descriptions — what type of job it is, what kind of accommodation is provided, etc. Everything is in detail, so I make sure to read all the information before applying. I mean, come on, you know yourself. I never apply just because I like the thought of it.
For example, I once desperately wanted to work on a horse farm, but there were a lot of terms that didn’t fit me. First, you have to be very physically fit if you want this type of job. I exercise every now and then, plus yoga and surfing, but I don’t think I am fit for carrying heavy stuff. But you know what? I still applied. You know what they told me? They said I am very tiny for this kind of job. I still insisted and said, “How do you know I am tiny if you’re only looking at the pictures on my volunteer profile?”
That email message granted me an acceptance letter. I actually went to the farm and ended up quitting the next day because it was true, I couldn’t keep that kind of job. It’s for men or women with muscles. I don’t know. I couldn’t explain it. And yes, I accepted the fact that I am tiny. In the end, I became friends with the owners and they allowed me to stay until I found another volunteering job.
When you’ve volunteered so much, you think you can do everything but you can’t. There are still some limitations.
Besides the free bed and food, what are the benefits of work exchange? Do you get other perks?
When volunteering in hostels, you receive a discount on amenities, food and drinks. There is also a 50% off discount for tours and activities. And I am telling you, this happens everywhere.
Aside from that, I became fluent in Spanish because I got to talk to native speakers who allowed me to practice with them.
Lastly, I ended up becoming good friends with the people I worked with. We are all still in touch now. We even travelled together!
Obviously work exchange means you don’t get paid any cash, although you’d still need it to go out, take tours, etc. How do you make money?
I work as a part-time social media manager for a U.S.-based company. I can pretty much work whenever I want as long as I complete four hours a day. The money I earn here is enough for me to be on the road. I’ve had this job since I started travelling. My blog also earns a little cash every now and then.
In summary, I have to maintain three things: working online, working on my blog and volunteering. It gets complicated sometimes, but I have developed a strategy to juggle them.
Do you know how your fellow volunteers make money? Do they work elsewhere or do they generally rely on their savings?
Some rely on their savings but those who do extended travel find something along the way like putting up a blog, selling stuff (like bracelets, food, etc.) or teaching English.
Is there anything you hate about volunteering? Have you ever been taken advantage of by the business owner?
Never. I don’t think hostels would risk their reputation. First, I am a writer. They know I will always write about my experiences without sugarcoating. Additionally, like what I said earlier, I think you should know beforehand what you are about to venture into. Read the job description and everything that goes with it before moving on with the application. Surprisingly, I don’t hate anything about volunteering. I love every bit of it!
I wrote everything I know about volunteering in a guidebook called “Voluntourismo”. This e-book will teach you how to look for volunteering jobs, how to contact hosts properly, how to build a stellar volunteer profile, how to budget your trip and so on. You can also get a chance to win a free membership with Volunteer Latin America upon purchasing this e-book. Click here for more information.