How I Travel for Free

Workaway is the platform for budget travelers.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

It was the spring of 2016. I spent the whole season — from the late winter snow through to the April showers — in the medieval architectural-inspired country of Belgium. It may be a small country, but it packs a strong cultural punch. With several of its largest cities no more than an arm’s length away from each other, it seemed like the perfect place to stay awhile.

I was backpacking through Europe but was ready to settle down and take it easy. I had enough of all the hostel-jumping and tourist havens; I wanted to travel in a different way. That’s when I started looking for an apartment to rent in the student city of Ghent.

Ghent was no further than forty-five minutes on a train from Belgium’s capital, Brussels. In addition, Brugge and Antwerp, another two popular Belgian destinations, were but half-an-hour away. Ghent was the perfect base while I took a breather and learned more about the rich medieval history of Belgium.

The Struggle of a Backpacker

It didn’t take long in my apartment search to realize that just because I was settling down did not necessarily mean I would save money. Apartments in Ghent are expensive. I am a long-term traveler and therefore every day is a budget mission. I couldn’t fathom how I’d make a low-budget work in Ghent if I was already forking out a majority of my budget for monthly rent.

I started looking into alternative ideas. On Airbnb, I found an opportunity to camp in someone’s backyard which was roughly half the price for a room in Ghent. As the snow fell outside my hostel window, I could hardly imagine myself surviving the tent life for a long period.

I contemplated staying in the hostel for a while, but at that point, the dormitories were becoming exhausting — always with the same conversations and excited backpackers ready to jump to their next destination. I felt like I couldn’t give the energy people wanted out of a temporary travel friend until I took a break from the dorms.

Then, I ran into a platform that changed the way I would travel for years to come. What if I said I spent one month in the beautiful city of Ghent and only spent 50 Euros while I was there — would you believe me? I’ll share how Workaway could help you do the same.

What is Workaway?

Workaway is a traveler’s platform used to find free accommodation in exchange for a variety of simple services that often don’t require experienced hands.

The premise is simple: Travelers on Workaway (often backpackers, drifters, or foreign seasonal workers) join the membership-based platform looking for a place to stay while on their travels. There is no set length you must stay in order to use the Workaway platform, however, most travelers end up staying at least a week and up to several months in their host’s accommodation. This gives them time to properly assimilate to the culture and form a bond with their host and others in the city.

Likewise, local people put their ad on the Workaway platform in hopes of finding a traveler in their area who would like to stay a while and help them out with a specific project or task they cannot manage themselves. Some examples of these tasks could be as common as nannying children while the parents are at work. Or, they could be as experience-based as decorating the interior of a house or apartment for a local whose house’s aesthetic is sub-par. It could even be as experimental as what I did in Ghent (wall reconstruction in an attic)

There are thousands of opportunities from all over the world and arrangements are generally easy to make. It just takes proper communication and a knowledge of how to behave — both of which I will go over as we cover proper Workaway etiquette.

Is Workaway Right for You?

Workaway isn’t right for everyone. On paper, it may seem like a great deal. I mean, free accommodation — how could you pass that up? However, the reality is, if you are crunched for time, you may be better off staying in hostels as you don’t want to use half your days working for free accommodation.

Workaway is more suited toward the long-term traveler. The kind of person who wants to learn more than just the tourist route of any given destination. Workaway is for the people who want to have conversations with locals and speak about more than what kind of local delicacies and alcohol they should try.

Workaway is for the people who want to acquire new skills and hobbies and perhaps gain an education in a new place. If you have a busy itinerary while you are traveling, then this platform probably is not best suited for your trip.

How to Use the Service?

Workaway is a pay-to-play service. Luckily, it isn’t that expensive and usually pays for itself within a few days. Currently, its services are based on an annual fee of 42USD (or 54USD for couples). It seems like quite a bit until you realize how much the service actually provides.

Workaway provides ample opportunity for you to find a host that will provide you a bed and meals for a given length in a plethora of countries all around the globe.

Simply, register as a “Workawayer” on the site, create a profile, add photos of your experiences traveling (or any photos which don’t make you look like a suspicious character), and get to looking for hosts in the areas you’ll be traveling.

How to Find what you are Looking For

Arranging a Workaway that works for both parties is quite simple:

1. Choose a destination.

With opportunities all over the world, you won’t be hard-pressed to find somewhere that fits your wanderlust.

2. Determine what opportunity you are looking for.

Whether it’s a skill you are experienced in or you are trying to learn a new skill, there are hosts who are looking for just about anything you could imagine.

3. Find a few hosts and reach out to them over the safe and verified platform.

Workaway is 100% safe so rest-assured that safety is not a concern. There are no rules on how early or late-notice you can reach out to a host. Whether it’s several months prior or the night before doesn’t matter. However, the earlier the initial contact, the better chance there is availability.

4. Communicate with your host until an arrangement has been set.

The beauty of the Workaway platform is how independent each arrangement is. There are no rules set by Workaway. Every detail of your arrangement is set between host and guest. Therefore, if you want to suggest you work only three days a week for three hours a day but you’ll feed yourself while there, go ahead and suggest it! Find a deal that works for both parties via email on the platform.

5. Continue to communicate with your host until you arrive.

Don’t go quiet on your efforts to connect before arriving. Build a relationship with your host so that it feels as natural as possible when you finally get there. Have the foundation of your friendship already in place.

Are you staying with a family? In a hostel? Try to arrange a Skype call so that you can speak to the whole gang. Try to make connections and reach commonalities with as many people you will be living with as possible before you arrive. At the same time, observe if these are really people you could foresee yourself getting along with long enough to stay in their house.

6. Communicate even after you have arrived to ensure everything is going as planned.

See a pattern here? Communication is dire during any Workaway experience. Be open with your expectations and concerns as you go. If something is bothering you, don’t be afraid to bring it up with your host (respectfully). If you need to ensure you are being a good guest, don’t be afraid to ask what you can do differently to make the experience more beneficial to your host.

How to Act/ Represent Yourself

The number one thing to remember as a Workaway-er is that you are a guest stepping into your host’s world. Your efforts should be put toward blending into their lifestyle. Don’t let yourself become a liability or inconvenience to their everyday life. Be conscious of their time, be aware of their schedules and priorities. And most importantly; respect their rules.

It may feel like you’re back at mom’s house under mom’s rules, but it’s not permanent. Remember how much money you are saving that will extend your travels that much longer.

Also, try to take an interest in your host’s day-to-day life. Don’t be too nosy or creepy, but show interest in the person that they are. Learn the local culture and customs from your host. Ask if you can help cook dinner, join your host in grocery shopping — do normal stuff that a local would do!

Be genuinely interested in cultural exchange. At the core of the idea of Workaway is a keen interest in learning about other parts of the world away from your own. Do the tourist things around the city in your off-time, but spend equal amounts of time with your host (if they will allow). You will learn so much about the place you are visiting almost without noticing.

Is Workaway Worth the Annual Fee?

Workaway is a great opportunity for hosts to receive help on their everlasting projects and for travelers to see the world on the cheap.

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