One of my resolutions for this year was to become a full time traveller. It’s something I always dreamed of and this year I felt it’s finally time to do it. But when I started planning, I realized I had a problem: accommodation, especially in countries such as England, was insanely expensive and there was no way I could afford it, especially as I wanted to stay for longer periods of time in each place.
After busting my brains for a few weeks, the solution came to me in the form of a website: workaway.info. This is a website that connects travellers with hosts all around the world. The travellers offer a few hours of work per day, in exchange for food, accommodation and a complete immersion in the respective country’s culture. There is a yearly membership fee (about 30 USD if I remember correctly) and you have access to thousands of hosts all across the globe. The work required is very varied, from baby-sitting, to dog-sitting, to gardening, farming, building etc.
Both travellers and hosts have reviews and you can contact the people who left the reviews in private if you want to find out more (which I now realize it’s quite advisable, as some people will leave a good review even if they’ve had a not so good experience).
This is a perfect opportunity for people who want to be more than just tourists, people who are interested in seeing the real, day to day life in a country, people who want to create memories to last them a lifetime.
Fun with kids in Italy
I had my first workaway experience in April this year, when I spent two weeks with a lovely family with two kids in Bari, Italy. My responsibilities included watching the kids (a 7 years old girl and an 11 years old boy) for 4-5 hrs a day, doing some light housework and sometimes walking the dog. I was lucky to have this as a first experience, as my Italian family treated me super nice and really understood the whole idea of ‘workaway’ and it being a cultural exchange more than anything else.
I felt a part of the family while I was with them, they cooked delicious Italian food every day, we sat down together for lunch and dinner, we went paddleboarding, we went to the beach and they even took me with them to a family gathering, where uncle Nat cooked the most insane spaghetti Bolognese I ever had (and where I may have had a little bit too much Sicilian wine).
The kids were sometimes a bit tiring, especially as I’m not really a big fan of kids, but somehow the fun times we had together managed to balance out the times when they would drive me insane.:)) The parents were very open-minded, well-educated people and made me feel welcomed and at home at all times. I was with the kids in the afternoons, so I had the mornings and evenings to myself. As a bonus, they lived 5 minutes away from the beach, so you can imagine I took advantage of that.
It was a beautiful experience, I got to see the real Italian spirit, with its good and its bad, its drama and its fierce passion, its fiery temperament and its warm hospitality – all of it making me fall hopelessly in love with Italy (ok, the food also had a major part in that).
Doggie love in the UK
The second time I ‘workwayed’ was very different to my first experience, but still equally pleasant (if not more actually, as I only had to deal with dogs here :D). I stayed for a month with a lovely lady in Bournemouth, UK, where I had to walk and spend time with her two doggies and do some housework, like vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen etc. The daily tasks required around 2-3 hours of my time, in the morning, though sometimes it took longer because I would spend hours in the park, just so I can hang around the other dog people and hear them speak English (yes, I’m weird like that, don’t mind me).
Again, I felt like home, I had my own room in a beautiful Victorian house just across the park, Sue was very hospitable and made sure I had everything I needed. She was very busy with work so we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but she did take me out a few times and was always available to help me with any info I needed. Before I left she organized a little buffet dinner as a goodbye party for me.
It was really hard to leave this place as I had gotten very attached to the dogs and everyone I met during my stay. That’s the thing with workaway – you leave bits of your soul in every place you stay.
Slaves wanted in Portugal
Unfortunately, my third experience was not a very pleasant one, but I’ll try not to get discouraged and see what is the lesson to be learned here. Now, I want to try not to use very strong language and not to be very judgmental, but I have to say this: don’t choose hosts from countries that were once slave drivers! I know it’s very politically incorrect of me to say this, but the saying ‘old habits die hard’ really seems to have some truth in it.
So, here’s how it went: I decided from England I want to go to Portugal, so I started looking for hosts. I found this lady who seemed very nice, she had some apartments that she rented to tourists and needed help with that. Her profile stated that she needs light help around the house, help with the tourists and double-checking the rooms before tourists come. The accommodation was supposed to be in an annex to the main building, no further details. Her reviews were good and she seemed nice, so I decided to go.
I got there only to discover that food was not even included (she told me I can go buy my own food, as it’s not really that expensive in Portugal – uhm, you go buy it for me then!), the light work around the house meant sweeping leaves on her 12389323 square feet property and double checking the rooms meant scrubbing the bathroom floors. On top of that, I was offered the mouldy engine room underneath the pool as accommodation, with no bathroom and no wi-fi access. The only positive thing about this was that I had a pool with an awesome view all to myself.
At first I thought that maybe I was being too sensitive, maybe I’m overreacting, so I really tried to make the best of it, but after three days of suffocating in the mouldy room I decided enough is enough, so I left. It was pretty clear the lady just wanted free labour and had zero interest in the cultural exchange workaway is supposed to be about.
After this, I wanted to give Portugal another chance, so I found a hostel where I was supposed to work for a few hours in exchange for accommodation, but the experience was equally unpleasant. Therefore, as a future reference both for myself and other people considering doing this, when going to countries that basically invented slavery, double, triple-check your host, ask a million questions and make sure you both have the same idea on what workaway is supposed to be about.
What to ask your host
After these 3 experiences I am now much better prepared for future workaway stays and hopefully I will know better when it comes to choosing my hosts. In order to help me, as well as anyone else reading this with future trips, I put together a set of questions that I think every traveller should ask the host to ensure the experience is satisfying for both.
- How many hours will I work for daily? Mornings or evenings? Are weekends free?
- What exactly are the chores that need to be done (ask for specific examples)?
- Is food included? If yes, will there be cooked food or will I have to cook myself? If no, is there a food allowance included?
- Ask for pictures of the room you’ll be staying in. Does it have a complete bathroom next to it, is it noisy, does it have a window, is there mould, is there proper heating in the winter, is there wi-fi access in the room?
- Is there a curfew?
- Do I have access to a kitchen?
- Will I be spending time with the host and their family?
So basically just get very clear about everything and make sure you’re on the same page with your host. Otherwise, it’s just like playing the lottery: you may win, or you may end up very disappointed.
Would I do it again?
I don’t want to allow this one unpleasant experience ruin the other two beautiful ones I had, so I’ll definitely do this again, just this time picking my hosts more carefully. Workaway is the perfect opportunity to both travel on a budget and experience the countries you visit more like a local, rather than a tourist, and it’s definitely something that changes you forever!