Workaway, Couchsurfing, WWOOFing, and Helpx have been on the tongues of the young budget traveler, but how good are they and are they safe? More sites like Volunteerbase ($5), Worldpackers ($50), are cropping up where you pay a fee (per placement) once you have a confirmed place with a host instead of an annual subscription. Voluntourism is big business, so you need to be careful and weigh up whether it’s worth it.
Most of these sites offer the traveler the opportunity visit another country or place for cultural purposes, and receive accommodation and food in exchange for a few hours work. It has helped many people to travel, learn languages, and to experience other cultures, but with all schemes there are some drawbacks. First, you must remember that these sites are a business even if they don’t seem to be run as such. Don’t let the casual blurb (just email us and we’ll see what we can do) fool you—the small print always protects them against anything. Many of these sites have been set up by former travelers who now want to make money, with the exception of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) which is a non-profit which is run on a regional level rather than an international one. Couchsurfing is generally free, but a host would appreciate a gift of a bottle of wine or something in exchange. Here is a brief breakdown of the account costs involved for those seeking a placement, as hosts often are allowed free accounts:
- Workaway (based in Hong Kong) cost is free to hosts, one year for an individual account is $29, and $37 for a couple to enable access to the messaging service.
- Helpx is 20 Euros for two years.
- WWOOF varies depending on the region you are in, but is from £20 for a year for an individual to access the database.
- Volunteerbase has a discretionary $5 service fee upon confirmation of a place, but it does seem to be listed as free.
- Worldpackers seem less transparent about their fees, but it’s a fee per confirmed place of $50. They claim it helps with reliability as if people pay there are less no shows.
There are several things to note, hosts are not verified; some WWOOF ones maybe as some are organic farms, but no one has the manpower to check all the hosts. Worldpackers makes a claim that all their hosts are verified, but unless they have a dedicated team with unlimited funds who can fly to all countries and interview the hosts, it’s an empty claim. Verifying an IP address, email or Facebook account is very basic, and isn’t a true verification. Instead many rely on the feedback system. It doesn’t take a genius to know that some reviews will be fake, or coerced. There are tales of travelers being told if they post a bad review they will get the same back, or will get kicked out. The consequence of bad reviews for seekers is that other hosts won’t take them on, and in some cases like Workaway your account can be closed with no refund.
The volunteer tasks can vary from helping with housework, farming, gardening, language lessons, building, or childcare among the popular ones. Upon glancing through many profiles it is apparent people are using these sites for free and cheap labor. Some have elaborate details and rules, and other listings look as if they are on a recruitment site rather than a cultural exchange site. Needless to say the good gigs get snapped up, and the hosts who treat the helpers well, also get booked up. Many listings are for childcare with pretty outrageous demands, and the majority seem to be people who have bought buildings and have no money to renovate them and want free qualified builders and carpenters.
As voluntourism is on the increase, immigration are also aware of this and some countries now insist on a visa for voluntary work. Ireland is one such country, so even if it is innocent house or pet sitting, if you say the ‘v’ word at immigration and you don’t have a visa or the right to work there, then it’s likely you will be turned away and sent back.
There are other ways where you can find a cultural exchange for some countries with BUNAC and Camp America where you pay a fee, but the hosts will be verified and a visa is also supplied. It’s more structured than the other sites that act purely as the middleman, with no responsibility; there is no visa advice or assistance, and they state that you are responsible for your own safety and health, and if no hosts reply there is no refund of the fee. In effect it’s like a dating service that allows people to find one another. However, like a dating service if a profile is considered dangerous and reported as such, then it should be removed, especially if there is violence or abuse involved. Sites should be accountable if they have been warned, to stop potential criminals or murderers posting their profiles.
I support the ability to travel on a budget, but these sites do make money from the travelers and not the hosts. So who wins? The site does because regardless; a host can advertise for free and find help for very little cost, but must stick to their guidelines, and if a seeker never finds a placement they don’t have to give them a refund. People can browse all the profiles for free, but some sites don’t allow any contact details in the profile, so that people must sign up and pay for an account before any contact is possible. My favorite site is idealist as it’s completely free; some jobs are paid, others have a stipend and some offer accommodation.
Some great friendships have been made via these work exchange schemes, and they do help others to live briefly in another cultural environment. If you want to try life on a farm, or see what running a hotel is like, this could give you that opportunity. Look out for those who obviously want cheap and free labor, as what is written in the profile, isn’t always what is on the table. Read some advice on what to look out for here and enjoy a safe journey.