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Workaway: Guide for Solo Travellers

Workaway: Guide for Solo Travellers

Workaway is a platform with over 50,000 opportunities for travellers to exchange work for meals and a place to stay.

It was my program of choice when I decided to take a year off and spend 8 months travelling Europe after my undergraduate degree.

I actually stumbled upon Workaway by accident when I was bored in a poetry class (I just don’t get rhyming!). I had applied to nearly 200 jobs at that point and was starting to feel hopeless.

Maybe people were right and a degree in English and Creative Writing wasn’t going to be my sure ticket to success.

In a desperate attempt to build my spirits, I started looking at travel sites.

Cause there’s nothing quite as uplifting as pretending you’re the girl with her hair flowing on that yacht in Croatia, right? … Just me? Well, you should try it sometime!

Honestly, it seemed too good to be true. When you google ‘how to travel for free’, you tend to expect scams – not a very legitimate organization that’s actually offering you a free world trip. (Free-ish – but I’ll get into that later.)

But it was very real.

In fact, it turned out my physical trainer and my therapist both had experience working/hosting through the site.

Their rave reviews had my signing up the next morning.

But you don’t have to take their word for it. Instead, you can take mine – and this very thorough post about how Workaway works, the cost, my experiences and every other question you might have.

Let’s dive right in, shall we? I’m sure you’re anxious to find out how you can travel for free!


What is Workaway?

Workaway is an online network of hosts and travellers, kind of like Airbnb for volunteering. Hosts post listings on the site and travellers reach out to them (occasionally hosts will reach out to travellers, but it’s usually the travellers writing).

Both hosts and guests have profiles that Workaway curates. For example, you have to submit photographic evidence of your passport and have it approved in order to be a verified member on the site.

The best profiles include photos (of real people and the accommodations, not just landscapes), details of experience for travellers, host expectations or work required, and a sense of personality. Hosts have more expansive profiles. They have to specify the number of hours they are expecting you to work, what they offer in exchange (i.e. accommodation type and meals), and what kind of guests they accept. For example, some places allow pets, some have internet, and some only accept one Workawayer at a time.

Like Airbnb, hosts and travellers leave reviews that are shown to others. It’s a good incentive for both parties to do a good job. It’s critical to read these when deciding on a place to stay!

When I joined in 2017, they had just started developing their travel community and app, which allows you to find other travellers nearby to meet up with. You can even use it with you’re not on assignment!

If you aren’t sure if you’d like to join yet, go on the site and browse the hosts. You don’t need a membership to see their profiles – only to actually contact them for a volunteer position.

You can apply to be a Workaway volunteer here. It’s a simple process, much like filling out any online profile.


How do Workaways work?

You write to a host and get approval to stay with them. They will have certain expectations that they lay out, like what type of work you do.


Workaway limits free work (in exchange for room and board) to 5 hours a day for 5 days a week (max 25 hours a week). Hosts do try to get around this, but I only let them if I’m getting more bang for my metaphorical buck. For example, am I getting amazing food? Am I getting other perks? Am I getting paid?

Workaway sees itself as a cultural exchange centre. You’re supposed to be getting a cultural experience on top of the work that you’re doing. This may be eating local cuisine, learning the language from the hosts (although often they prefer you teach them English), or from cool excursions.

When you’re searching for hosts, you can filter based on location, types of work, your travel dates, and other specifications.

Be sure to set up your travel dates and destinations on your profile as some hosts may reach out to you for opportunities as well.

My favourite feature of Workaway, one that I tell everyone about, is the ability to print a reference letter from your profile. Essentially, you’re able to turn your positive reviews of your hard work into something you can use for your CV later.

It was the selling point to my dad who was super concerned about the trip.

I’ve had Workaway on my CV for two years now and it’s benefitted me greatly. Nowadays employers want people who have global experience, work well with others, can multi-task and be flexible, and who are interesting. Working through Workaway will give you all that and more!

Not bad for a free way to travel, eh?


How much does Workaway cost?

In order to sign up for the Workaway program, you have to pay a yearly membership fee. A one-person membership costs $44 USD. If you’re travelling with a partner, friend or children, you can create a joint account for $56 USD.

You can cancel your membership after the year and Workaway will hold onto your profile. It will become inactive so you can’t apply to hosts, but you won’t lose your references or have to start writing from scratch.

This is a great feature as I’ve taken a couple years off the site but fully intend to join again for some more free solo travel opportunities.


How to get paid on Workaway

I told you the Workaway program will let you travel for free, right?

How is that possible when you have to pay $44 for a membership?

Well, I’d argue $44 is basically free – but there’s a chance you can even lower that!

Some Workaway hosts offer paid placements for travellers. These are rarer, as most simply exchange the 5 hours a day for your room and board. You can actually search specifically for paid placements in the Workaway program and find opportunities to make some extra cash.

Paid placements typically require more than 5 hours of work or specialty work – like digital marketing, building, or giving lessons to others.

I never took this opportunity as I was more concerned with finding places with internet so I could make money freelancing (that’s how I kept my Workaways free!).

If you decide to search for paid opportunities, you’ll need to be more open to different locations. You have to follow the paid work rather than fitting paid work into your carefully crafted European travel itinerary.


My experience with Workaway

I signed up for Workaway the first moment I could. Before I was even approved, I had at least six dozen hosts set aside in a wish list (a convenient feature for over browsers like me!).

Eventually I had to pare them down. I decided to base my choices on countries I wanted to be in.

Admittedly, that wasn’t the best way to do it, but it helped me create a timeline of when I’d be in certain places. That made it easier to let hosts know when I planned to be available to work for them.

From that plan I managed to get an array of opportunities across Europe.

I initially planned to work for 3 weeks then spend a week travelling, moving to a new country every month. That didn’t fully work out as you’ll see.


Baden, Switzerland

I started out working in Switzerland for a young woman. Initially, I was meant to help cook, clean and watch her chihuahua, Marley. At the last minute, she needed to visit her family in Greece. So my first Workaway was more like an Airbnb. I had a lovely flat in Baden to myself, with a fully stocked fridge (of free food!) and a chihuahua friend to take on walks.

It was barely even work! When I needed to restock some food, I paid for half of it myself because I felt bad for how little I was really contributing.


Pisek, Czech Republic

My first assignment had gone so well that I was sort of nervous to move on to a group Workaway where I’d be teaching English outside of Prague. I was working with a company that paired English-speakers with a group of employees hoping to better their English.

Wow was I spoiled! We got taken to this beautiful little chalet on the edge of Pisek. We got beautiful meals prepared by the hotel’s chef and far more tea than any human being should drink.

I shared a room with a girl who has become a long-term friend. We’ve met up around Europe, and if it weren’t for this pandemic, we’d have met up in 2020 as well.

The volunteers got a crash course in teaching English before we were paired with a student. Every day we worked with the student for a few hours (totally 40 by the end of the week) individually and in groups. This is more than the typical 25 hours, but we were getting a lot in return for our work and it was only for 1 week so I decided I was alright with the work.

They worked on their English, we got some cool Czech pen pals, and we got a certificate showing how many hours of English we taught – something I’ve been able to use for jobs later.

They even took us on a historic walking tour of Pisek, completely free! We got a round trip to Pisek from Prague, which saved me having to figure that out on my own.


Zwettl, Austria

My third Workaway was with a private family in Austria. They needed someone to help out around the house and on their farm in the Austrian hills (note: hills, not alps. I was not prepared to work in the alps).

The family were so sweet and constantly treated me like one of their own. The teenage girls watched the Kardashians with me and translated the German into English (so technically I was helping them with their English), the mother was a pharmacist who started mothering me like she did her own daughters, the grandfather constantly teased me in his broken English, and the dogs were a dream.

I was sort of a housekeeper, doing light cleaning, cooking lunches (and the occasional Canadian meal), and walking the dogs. Again, it barely felt like work. I had hours throughout the day to work on freelance projects, go for runs (until winter hit), and to play with the horses in the paddock.

The family took me to Vienna twice and even offered me free accommodation at the paternal grandparent’s house in the city. I decided to stay in an Airbnb instead because I needed some alone time before my next Workaway.

In retrospect, what I actually needed was some traveller time – time to be with other travellers, and I guess time to travel.


Berlin, Germany

My one and only truly horrible Workaway experience.

It was almost enough to make me swear off the whole thing all together.

I decided I wanted to be in Berlin for Christmas. Not just Germany – Berlin specifically. Why? I honestly have no idea.

It was nearly impossible to find a Workaway in the city, so I settled for something worse than I should have. I didn’t see the red flags.

I must have been blind.

It was the first time I barely lasted a week – in part because I had to wait a few days for my Airbnb.

The six weeks I’d planned to spend working with this family, in much the same way I had in Austria, ended up being an Airbnb Christmas present from my dad so I could have somewhere safer than a storage closet to live in.


My only bad Workaway experience

I don’t like talking about this Workaway – not because I’m trying to sugar coat anything – because it sent me to a dark place.

The horrible way these people treated me really impacted me. I felt like a failure for not sticking it out and making it work, even though it wasn’t at all what I signed up for.

They made me feel like a servant, not a person. There was no cultural exchange. There wasn’t even food if the family was home.

It darkened the rest of my time in Berlin. I had a good time later (which is how I found the best 10 things to do in Berlin), but there were a lot of sad, lonely days where I felt like packing in my whole trip. I barely made it through my first Christmas alone – thank the gods for Christmas markets! – and was so happy when I finally moved on to Spain.


Benissivà, Spain

Benissivà was the perfect antidote to my Berlin troubles. It was in the middle of nowhere in the Spanish mountains, about an hour from Alicante. The job was working at a yoga retreat, which included 2 free yoga classes a day – a desperate mindfulness escape for me.

I fell in love with the little town, with the friends I made sleeping in the oldest building I’ve ever been in, and with one perfect hammock in the meditation garden.

At the retreat, I worked as an all-around volunteer. I helped clean and set up the yoga room, cleaned the pool area, lit fires (never successfully – even with those little Styrofoam things. I was so hopeless), served food and tea, led written meditations (something I made up but that I continue to do to this day), led hikes to ancient cave paintings and up La Forada (a beautiful mountain), and worked on their website and social media marketing.

Somehow I fit all of that into 25 hours a week!

I did therapy sessions from a hammock in the dark, broke from the retreat’s vegetarian diet by gorging on fish on weekends, streamed Wreck it Ralph with the other volunteers, learned to make Swedish crackers and vegan scones, and went on a number of girls trips with the other volunteers.

It felt more like a retreat than a work experience. I got to see parts of Spain I’d never even heard of, visit small beach towns, and piece myself back together after Berlin.

If I wasn’t booked to meet my mom in Marrakech, I don’t think I would have left.


Not Even in a Town, Croatia

My final Workaway experience ended up being months later than I expected. I tried to find work in Morocco and Turkey but since it was the off season nothing was available – well, nothing I was qualified for and nothing that didn’t involve children (I’m genuinely terrified of children). So I did some proper travelling instead and tore through my bank account with surprising ferocity. Then I met up with some family in Serbia and ended up staying nearly 6 weeks meeting cousins I’d been hearing stories about for years.

Croatia was my return to Workaway and I was thrilled.

I had wanted to work at a ranch since my first few Workaway searches. A ranch or a dog sledding place – until I found out you had to cut up dead reindeer, then just a ranch.

Stari Dud is a tourist ranch south of Zagreb, literally not in a town. It’s closest to Bović but not actually in the town.

For the first few weeks I lived in the tourist accommodation in a lush suite, but I was later moved to bunk beds in the summer barn (which I ended up preferring once we managed to get the mouse out).

I worked with two British girls who were paid riders staying the entire summer.


My favourite Workaway experience

I got unlimited free trail rides – often so unlimited I was begging to give my butt a break.

We made our own food, but got snacks like fresh bourek from the ranch owner.

I painted fences, mucked out barns, fed horses, helped train a filly, built fences, tore down other fences, cleared trails, helped serve guests, gardened and learned how to work a truly ancient mower, and attempted to tack up horses (my terrible wrists mean I can never get a girth on tight enough).

On days off, we went to Zagreb (once when I needed a back x-ray after falling off a horse at a canter uphill – just some deep bruising!), partook in historical celebrations at the nearby bath town, went to the natural baths, tanned by the pool, read in the yard, sang along with Benji the border collie, partied with Safi the stable hand, went to a shed party, and even drove a horse drawn carriage.

It was my favourite all around Workaway. From being in the middle of nowhere with terrible internet that made freelancing impossible to being surrounded by nature to Lauren trying to teach me to drive stick in the world’s oldest truck (which died a few days after I left through no fault of mine!).

The ranch was the epitome of a Workaway experience: a true cultural exchange.


10 tips for a successful Workaway

1. Don’t be picky about location

When I signed up, I had an idea of travelling across Europe’s most brilliant cities via Workaway. Those are super difficult to find. And the few city Workaways I tried were the worst of all my experiences.

Be open to working in more remote areas and not having as strict of an itinerary.

Often hosts will take you on adventures anyway. My host family in Austria drove me across the country to Vienna – twice! Those were two totally free trips that I hadn’t planned for, but they let me see the brilliance of the city. In Croatia, the ranch owner took us to a shed party where the men serenaded us on accordions and the women made us amazing spaetzle.


2. Have three non-negotiables

You want to be flexible when you travel, especially when you volunteer, but it’s important to keep yourself in mind too. I picked three requirements I had and ruled out any hosts that didn’t offer them.

My non-negotiables were: 1) a real bed (no sofas), 2) internet (so I could work), and 3) full meals.

Now Workaway is stricter on requiring hosts to provide meals, but back in 2017/2018, it was more optional. Since I have dietary requirements that mean I can’t live off of bread and cheese (in fact, those are the two worst things for me to live off of), I needed to be sure they’d provide real food or money for real food.


3. Stay at places with more than one Workaway volunteer

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you’re solo travelling for months on end, it gets pretty boring when you’re on your own. Hosts usually interact with you, but they have their own lives as well. My host family in Austria were amazing, but they had full-time jobs and school. So for most of the day I was alone with the dogs and horses.

Even when they were home, they needed some family time or had their own chores and lives to deal with.

They always made time for me and ensured I had a great time. But if I’d been there for more than three weeks I think I’d have needed a weekend at a hostel to have some more social time.

Typically places with multiple Workawayers have more social structure built in and you’ll have a lot more fun. Other travellers are looking for similar experiences, will travel with you after your placement is over, and are as into the experience as you are.

I met so many kindred spirits who felt the 9-to-5 life was awful and that travelling full-time wasn’t a crazy dream. I’ve kept in touch with them to this day and have even met up with them around the world!


4. Read host Workaway profile reviews!!

If I knew enough about coding to make this flash and jump around the screen I would.

Reading host reviews are the most important thing when it comes to choosing a good host.

Since they write their own profiles, hosts can say whatever they want. Reviews verify whether it’s true or not.

Listen to your gut when you’re reading reviews, too.

I signed up for an opportunity in Berlin – solely because I wanted to be in the city (remember when I said you shouldn’t choose experiences based on location?). I had a bad feeling in my gut when I read the reviews. People seemed like they were choosing their words carefully – even if they weren’t saying negative things. For example, someone noted that the host worked a lot and wanted to spend all of her time at home with her kids. What it didn’t say was that she didn’t want the Workawayers around during that time.

She wouldn’t even respond to my messages 2-3 weeks beforehand with her address. I literally found out the address 30 minutes before my train arrived in Berlin. That doesn’t sound terrible, but it signalled the start of a lot of communication issues.

I ended up living in their storage closet with no heat or a bathroom during December. I lasted a week (mostly out of guilt) before I was fed up with only being allowed to eat while they were out and not being allowed to shower more than once a week.

If I had thought more about the reviews and compared them to the glowing ones from my other successful Workaways, I would have realized something was wrong ahead of time and not had to endure that.


5. If it’s not what you signed up for, leave

Like I said above, my stay in Berlin was not what I signed up for. I felt really guilty leaving them in the lurch (good ole Catholic guilt for ya), but essentially they’d left me in the lurch too.

I wasn’t getting a real room, real food, or even real internet (literally my only 3 requirements).

If they weren’t fulfilling their end of the deal then I had no reason to fulfil mine.

I got myself out of a situation where I felt unsafe and moved into an Airbnb in Wedding (which had its own ups and downs, but that’s a whole other post).

There’s some risk involved because you worry about getting a bad review from the host and having that effect your future Workaways. But you are more important than a review.

Hosts will typically ask you about a bad review surrounded by good ones. Often bad hosts won’t even leave a review for fear that you’ll leave a bad one for them as well.

I’ll add, if someone puts you in an unsafe situation like that: report them. Workaway has 24/7 customer service and a way to report bad hosts. You can actually help future travellers by informing them that one of their hosts isn’t behaving accordingly.


6. Talk to the Workaway hosts ahead of time

I learned from my bad experience and started chatting with hosts before I arrived. It’s something I’d naturally done with my first host, a lovely woman from Switzerland. She and I were both young women so messaging each other felt natural. When I arrived, I already felt comfortable with her.

It’s ok if hosts are slow to get back to you, but if they don’t even have the time to send one quick message a week, likely they don’t have the time to fulfil the cultural exchange that Workaway was founded on.

Some hosts will even require talking ahead of time or having a video interview. The yoga retreat I worked at in Spain required a short interview with the owner and the volunteer manager (a Workawayer who ended up getting promoted to a paying gig). It actually made the process seem more legitimate and calmed me a lot since they were my first hosts after that bad experience.


7. Know your skills

Host profiles list what type of work they want volunteers to do. Travellers can filter their host searches based on these.

Before you start looking for hosts, write down at least 10 things you’re good at.

These can be anything – they don’t even have to be on the searchable list.

For example, I’m a writer. That’s not something Workaway specifically offers, but it’s a unique selling point I could offer my hosts. It got me out of dish duties at the yoga retreat to do some copywriting work for them.

In fact, my tour guide experience got me a job on a tourist ranch in Croatia when I had no building experience (one of their desired skills).

I was honest that I didn’t know how to build, but that I could learn (thank God it was minor stuff like fences). And I got the job!


8. A picture is worth a thousand words – for you and them

Pictures are key on a Workaway profile. You need a clear profile image that shows your full face. It’s not so you can show off your model good looks, it’s so they know what to expect.

Hosts and travellers come from all over the world. They may not recognize your name as male or female. They may just want to look in your eyes and get a feel for you.

Having a relaxed, smiley photo is a great first impression.

Similarly, hosts need photos. I don’t trust a host profile that only has a shot of a grassy landscape.

For me to trust a host with my safety, I need to see images of them, the area I’ll be living in, and the area I’ll be working in.

Many hosts only have an image of themselves or their family (and maybe some horses if it’s that kind of place). That’s ok! Ask them for additional photos of the area and the accommodation so you know what you’re getting into.

If they won’t, move on. That’s not a good host.


9. Pack disposable clothes

Most of the work on Workaway isn’t sitting behind a desk. Usually you’re getting down and dirty (in one case, very dirty when I slid down a muddy hill chasing a stubborn pony). So pack accordingly!

At least 50% of your suitcase should be working clothes: old shirts, jeans you can throw away or get paint on, sneakers or boots. Plan to throw them out at the end of the trip (or keep for those dirty chores at home).

If you don’t have any, head to a thrift shop and grab some cheap options. They usually offer bundles of tees for low prices and have plenty of jeans you can wear short term.

I left half my wardrobe behind in Europe for other volunteers or because they were completely worn out. Once I left a pair of jeans with a hole in the butt, and other volunteers kept wearing them because they needed something to paint in.

A good rule of thumb is to have enough work clothes to get through 10 days without washing. Since you’ll be dirty anyway, you don’t always need a clean tee or jeans, but you definitely don’t want to wear all your dirty gear 10 days in a row.

After a day mucking out the barn I didn’t want to wear that shirt for even another morning without a wash!


10. Apply! Apply! Apply!

One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen is that hosts often don’t reply to applications.

I’m not going to lie: that’s true.

Workaway hosts aren’t amazing at checking their profiles. You can counteract this in two ways: 1) check their response %. If it’s below 50, don’t even bother. If it’s anything below 80% apply but don’t get your hopes up. 2) Apply a lot!

I over applied a number of times and still didn’t hear back. Or I got offers for months in advance because they hadn’t updated their calendars – months when I intended to be four countries over.

If you don’t hear back from hosts within 7-14 days, send a follow up. If you don’t hear back 7 days after that, move on. It’s likely they aren’t accepting travellers at the moment but didn’t note that in their profile.

Worried about how to write messages that hosts will consider? I’ve got you covered in the next section!


How to write the perfect intro message to Workaway hosts

It’s scary to start applying for Workaways. You’re reaching out to total strangers and asking them to take a chance on you.

Since I was already applying for hundreds of jobs, I figured I’d think of my messages as cover letters. That helped me develop a structure that I could edit and repurpose for each host.

The perfect Workaway message guide:

  • Introduce yourself and the position you want. Tell them your name, where you’re from, your age, how many travellers are in your party, and what volunteer role you want. Do they have specific types of volunteers they need? Then state the role you’re applying for.
  • Explain why you want to work for them specifically. What drew you to them? What about the tasks required excites you? Is there a picture or review on their profile that really spoke to you?
  • Explain your relevant qualifications and experience. Go into detail on at least 1 experience to really show them your skills.
  • Summary of how you can benefit them. Tie together your skills with what they’re asking for. Maybe you don’t know how to build a well, but you’ve had experience learning to build fences in 1 day. That shows you can learn to build the well with a bit of guidance.
  • Sign off. Always end your message with a friendly sign off. I usually do ‘All the best’ or ‘Cheers’, followed by my name. This is especially helpful if you go by a nickname so the host knows what to call you. It also shows that you’ve crafted a full message rather than just typing a bunch of sentences and pressing send.


Is Workaway a good idea for you?

I can’t answer that question – only you can.

I will say that I’ve seen literally ever type of person do Workaway: from gap year students to full families to couples to retirees. You can do it for as long or as short as you’d like – some opportunities are 3 days, others are 6 months!

Not sure if solo travel is for you? Learn the pros and cons of solo travel.

If you’re looking for a way to travel the world for free, to meet people while solo travelling, and to get some work experience (maybe even get paid) then $44 seems like a small risk to take. Worst case scenario, you stop doing it and you’re out the equivalent of a couple nights in a hostel or a few good meals. You’ll probably have gotten your money’s worth during your few days trial anyway!

Workaway is a great opportunity to find more varied work experience options than WOOF and more varied locations than home stay sites. It helped me gain more confidence solo travelling, helped me meet new people, and taught me a lot about myself.

Before I did Workaway, I never knew I could pull a 6-foot-pole out of the ground with my bare hands. Who knew?!

Maybe you’ll unlock some hidden talent, too. Or realize, like I did, that times you’re travelling are when you feel most like yourself.

After writing this post I’m already cursing lockdown and familial pressure to get a paying job. All I want to do right now is take off to a ranch in BC for my next Workaway adventure.

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