Volunteer Vacationing: Tips to Live Like a Local in a Far-Away Land

[ 0 ] November 26, 2013 |

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Have you ever wanted to get really local in a foreign country without breaking the bank, but were unable to decide how to do it with only a week or two of vacation each year?  Volunteer exchange vacationing — exchanging work hours for room and board — can be a great way to do this, but can be daunting to research because of all the options out there.

Having first heard about volunteer vacationing in the Laotian countryside a few years ago, I had been dreaming of a similar experience of my own ever since.  It turns out, there are a lot of volunteering websites that proffer posts requiring the volunteer to pay; but there are a few that are truly and simply volunteer exchanges, including WWOOF.net, HelpX.net, and WorkAway.info.

Volunteer exchange opportunities available on these platforms vary from organic farming (WWOOF stands for World-Wide Organization of Organic Farming), to construction and outdoor restoration, to nannying or education. Here’s how it works: hosts from around the world post opportunities and projects at their home or under their purview, and, for a small membership fee, helpers can browse and contact hosts whose needs fit their interests and skill-sets.

In our search for a fitting volunteer opportunity, my husband and I contacted several hosts, and ultimately selected (and were selected by) a host who matched our flexible, open-minded nature and our interest in traditional industry — I mean, who do you know who has ever worked at a water-powered flour mill?

I call choosing a host “the screening process” because, not unlike picking dorm roommates or finding a good stylist, it’s often the intangibles that make for a perfect fit. Here are a few questions to ask yourself that will help you get the most out of your volunteer vacation:

  1. What are your goals? Are you looking to meet new people; discover culture; learn a new skill; travel on the cheap?  It’s important to be clear on what you hope to accomplish out of this experience, because the spectrum of opportunities is so vast and because it’s a collaboration with the host.  The better you define your goals, the better chance you have of achieving them.
  2. What is your work style?  Do you need structure, flexibility, privacy, company?  Be realistic about who you are and what you have to give.  There are so many cool opportunities out there, but that doesn’t mean that they are all a good fit.  Just because you have always thought it would be fun to be a farmer in the Italian hills, you might not be cut out for a remote garden in a town of two thousand people if you are a social butterfly and night owl.
  3. What accommodations do you need? Rather than making mistaken assumptions, be sure to establish what you are expecting in terms of lodging and meals as well as supplementary support, like whether or not the host will show you around, pick you up at the train station, provide bikes or a car to get around, etc. The terms of the agreement are flexible and customized, so make sure to ask questions to feel comfortable with the parameters of the exchange.
  4. What is the worst that can happen?  It’s a good idea to get comfortable with unpredictability because you won’t be checking into the Westin.  The worst that can happen (outside of Hollywood horror film story lines) is that it isn’t what you expect.  In this case, you make your excuses and you check in at the closest Westin — and you have a great story to tell when you get back to your real life!  When put like that, it doesn’t sound that bad, does it?

For us, the answers to these questions led us to Gennes, in the Loire Valley, working in a field during fall morning hours in exchange for a private bedroom, all meals included, access to a car for touring through the valley, and invitations to join our host in his social activities during our stay.  My romantic visions of provincial French farm life were realized.  We toured a dozen beautiful chateaux, discovered the history of the Troglodytes, and we had an unforgettable two weeks building lasting friendships to take away.

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Category: Europe, France, Sage Content, Travel Tips

About the Author ()

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lynn has been hooked on traveling and eating weird things ever since her first trip to Vietnam at the age of 16. She loves to discover new places, people and things to eat, both around the world and in Brooklyn, New York. Recently embarking on a year-long journey through South America, Europe and the Far East, she has been documenting her travels for friends and family, and looks forward to sharing her experiences as a Travel Sage! When she’s not traveling, she lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and three orchid plants.

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