These days I much prefer slow travel – I mean taking the time to get to know the local lifestyle rather than just focusing on classic sightseeing trips. Sometimes I don’t even bother to visit the famous sights but prefer to avoid the tourist crowds. I want to experience the local lifestyle and way of life! Volunteering through HelpX has allowed me to do so on a budget.
HelpX is an online platform where you can find farms or families to stay with. In exchange for 4-6 hours of work per day you get food & board and immersion into a new culture and community. Most hosts are rural farmers; in cities like Barcelona you can also help out families with kids to teach them English. Here are 3 reasons why you should give it a go:
HelpX has proven to be a great experience and an important part of my long-term travels.
But I’ve also come to like it for shorter solo trips and active holiday getaways. To me it’s like swapping my current lifestyle for a very different one of my choice – at least for a few weeks. Especially when discovering a new country, I love to get to know the locals and live like them as part of their community. This is virtually impossible as a paying tourist – and feels more than scratching the surface of a travel destination: you get to live and see the glamorous parts and the not so shiny bits, of living in their part of the world.
Connect with locals
I guess I have been very lucky with my HelpX experiences and I am still in touch with most of the hosts I stayed with. Sure, with some people you will connect more naturally than with others. Some hosts may have so many helpers coming and going that you might feel a little indifference from their side at first. But I have also been welcomed like a family member. Most hosts care about sharing and make a huge effort for you to get to know the community and take you to local events to meet their friends. Take the chance to mix with the locals and to get involved into local activities. You may even meet great fellow helpers!
Sure this will all depend on how ready you are to give and connect with them and of course a bit of luck to find a good fit.
Support in challenging moments
When you’re on the road for more than a few months there’s always that moment when
- Your travel funds have been stretched and you’re desperate to pick up work to make money. Sometimes those work opportunities may not turn up right away and you need a place to stay in-between.
- You need a break from your travel routine or you are tired of living in a hostel and having to repack your backpack every few days.
- You’re just not sure where you want to go next. Figuring this out while staying in a hostel can get expensive.
- You miss being part of a community. As a solo traveller, meeting new people every day is exciting. Though having to say goodbye to them a few days later can be exhausting in the long run and you wish to see the same people for longer than one week.
In those moments HelpX has been a fantastic saviour and even rewarding experience to me.
What you should know beforehand:
- Do your research. With HelpX getting more popular, there seem to be quite a few hosts and helpers taking advantage these days. Make sure you read the comments of previous helpers and try to read between the lines; no comments speak for themselves.
When speaking to the host beforehand, listen out for comments about previous helpers and trust your gut.
- Ask about the tasks and work to be done. If you’re going to stay with a family with young kids, ask about what they expect in terms of baby sitting and cooking. I once signed up to help out on a farm with 40 horses in Spain to learn about natural horsemanship but in the end I rather felt like a standby option to give the host more freedom from her own kids and kitchen. Not what I would have expected, but they were nice people and I should have done my research in advance: they went through lots of helpers but hardly any of them had left comments on their page.
- Check expected working hours. I never really had to work more hours than I would have wanted to. We even got days off. Mostly I worked with horses and didn’t mind working long days – it was fun! Sure, when the whole family is working hard you won’t sit back and watch.
- Have a plan B. Don’t stay if the host makes you feel uncomfortable. Don’t let your intention to save money mess with your self-worth. I have heard a few incredible stories of people being stingy with food or being rude to helpers. Just leave and respectfully let other helpers know the truth in your review! This will be easier if you made up your plan B in advance.
- Don’t expect a fancy diet when staying on a farm and be grateful if they make an effort. Be specific about any food allergies or special diets. I am a bit picky with food and usually bring gluten free food or buy special cravings 😉 to be on the safe side.
In some countries in Asia and South America food may not be included. I have HelpX’ed in Australia, the US and Spain where this was not an issue.
- Sharing and co-living takes adjustment and can be challenging at times. I usually need 5 days to feel “home”. Mostly it’s down to learning the host’s routine and silly things… how they want their dishwasher filled 😉 or when they want to be left alone. Pretty sensible really.
- Be grateful for their generosity. Most hosts love to meet helpers and hear about your travels and adventures. They often want to share and show you around. Be nice and open to exchange. Don’t take advantage or be a freeloader, it doesn’t work that way.
- Leave an address and contact details with a friend.
Workaway and WWOOFing are very similar organisations. Workaway didn’t exist when I first looked into volunteering but it now seems to show the same hosts. I might give it a go one day. WWOOF was the first of it’s kind and seem to focus on organic farms only. But when travelling in Australia I heard a lot of horror stories of hosts exploiting helpers and back then online comments weren’t available.
They all cost about the same at around 20 EUR for a 1-year membership, although HelpX offers 2 years for the same price.
Check out what’s on offer in your target country and please share your experiences!