One of my major concerns when dreaming about my two-month solo trip was no surprise, the all important money. So when I stumbled upon Workaway, it felt like I found the perfect balance between keeping to a budget, and traveling beyond a week. The prospect of free food and accommodation was too tempting to resist, and I quickly begun scouring through the host list, hoping to find a fit for my time in New Zealand.
Workaway (or similarly Helpex and WWOOF) is a hospitality exchange site in which travelers can contact “hosts” from all over the world requiring a certain number of hours of help every week (usually 4-5hrs per day), in exchange for food and accommodation.
The site is extremely popular amongst backpackers who wish to experience the country in a more unique manner, and often mentioned under budget traveling tips, especially for backpackers thinking of heading to New Zealand or Australia, because the number of hosts there, are amongst the highest.
But before you get all excited about the possibility of traveling for free, you might want to first consider:
Is Workaway for me?
Are you ready to work part of your holiday away? Will you be comfortable with sharing the same space with not just one, but perhaps two or three other strangers? Will you be able to adjust to the family life of your host? These are all questions to ponder about before delving into Workaway.
Having only done a short stint in New Zealand, I am definitely not qualified to talk in depth about this subject. But hopefully, you might find my experience helpful in deciding whether or not, to sign up for that Workaway account.
(It costs around USD22 per year by the way)
1. So, why did I decide to Workaway?
Besides the obvious money-saving aspect, I was intrigued by the idea of “working” in a foreign country, having never done that before. Instead of going through the lengthy and likely futile process of applying for a work visa, going for a help exchange seemed like a much more feasible idea.
I had begun to fall in love with the idea of slow travel, and taking my time to immerse in the way of life of another country. The more I researched about the hosts, the more the idea of working on a farm, milking a cow, or simply talking to customers as a receptionist at a hostel appealed to me.
Working and living with a local felt like the best way to experience New Zealand in an authentic manner, and I wanted to try a hand in doing that.
2. Having done that, how was the experience?
Despite my harrowing welcome, honestly, pretty amazing.
Coming from Singapore, we do not even have enough land for housing, let alone open-space greenlands. So you can imagine the liberation and fascination I felt, to live in small towns with low-rise buildings or to wake up and chase alpacas in the mist.
Sure, I had to wake up at 7.30am every morning to make it in time for breakfast, and to start with changing the sheets in the motel rooms. Days might seem awfully long when business is slow, and I might be stranded in a tiny town, miles away from proper “civilization” or points of attraction. But I learnt to appreciate relaxing, and not having to rush from place to place.
My Workaway experience in the tiny town of Waipu saw me making my first friends in New Zealand, supporting the All-Blacks and chanting their cheers like I had been a long-time fan, witnessing a live rugby game of men in kilts, gardening in the backyard for the first time in my life (because unless you are a millionaire, you can’t afford a house with a backyard in Singapore), standing in awe in front of a live and dead Kauri tree, and attempting silly TV quizzes with my host and her best friend over a beer, every weekday evening.
Soon enough, Claire felt like a kind grandmother to me. She took care of our meals, and was constantly concerned when I was planning my itinerary for the rest of New Zealand. It feels good to have someone care about you especially when you are alone in a foreign land, and Claire did it for me. Workaway helped me forged an unforgettable bond with an original stranger.
My experience might be over, but the bonds forged can last beyond that Workaway time. And to me, that is pretty amazing.
3. Any thing negative?
Living with the host meant being subjected to their moods whether good or bad. And it was a weird position to be in. As a helper. I was neither family, nor stranger. There were times where my host was frustrated with her personal matters, and I had to be careful to tread around the issue, to strike a balance between being concerned and being intrusive.
There were also times where my host, in dealing with a personal matter, sounded hostile to me. I slowly learnt to deal with it, leaving her enough personal space and time, before speaking to her again.
It was all about adaptation, and knowing what to take into heart, and what not to.
Staying in a small town also meant that entertainment were limited. I had to get used to sleeping at 10pm every night, and settling into a routine that was foreign to me. But I was glad to “accept the challenge”, and see the positive side to it (healthier lifestyle yeah!)
4. Would I recommend Workaway?
In short, yes.
Especially for city kids, Workaway is a great way to experience life beyond white-collared jobs. A short two weeks is all it takes, and at times, some host might even take helpers that can stay for a week or lesser.
I do not regret spending my time “working” while on my trip, and would not change any of my experience that I had during my time Working Away.
I genuinely feel that if you are looking for a different travel experience, you should try Workaway at least once.
That being say, if you are someone only looking to leech on free food and accommodation, or only intending a short stay (less than 1 month), Workaway is probably not for you. I have heard so many horror stories from hosts, about workers who come in and refuse to work, or expect to be served. This, is extremely unfair for the hosts. There needs to be a fair give-and-take. Workaway is not for freeloaders.
5. Tips for potential “Workers”?
A positive mindset is important, so is the skill to adapt. Be prepared to take the humble pie at times, and admit if you do not know how to do a something. I am sure 99% of the hosts will gladly teach you and would in fact, appreciate your honesty instead of you going ahead to blotch the job.
Know that while you are a “worker”, you have the right to voice out if you feel that you are unfairly treated. I have heard that there was one particular host who threatened workers to give him a glowing review before they left. Do not feel obliged to do anything you do not want to, and do not be afraid to leave before your agreed dates if you are unhappy with the place. Remember, “workers” are not paid, and we have no legal obligation to stay if the place makes you uncomfortable.
While the reviews on the site is a good starting point in assessing the host, they might be made up (e.g. the host I stated above). If you are really concerned about the safety, try to reach out to the previous workers who had left a review, to get a better understanding of your host and the job you will be doing. Some hosts accept two helpers at a time, so you can consider grabbing a friend along with you.
Usually, you will have the time prior to the job, to chat with your host. This is the time to clear any doubts you might have about the job. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Lastly, and most importantly, go with the flow. I find myself enjoying “working” more, when I relaxed and accepted the difference in culture. Things might be vastly different from back home, but isn’t that the main point of putting yourself in a new environment? Workaway can be a fulfilling experience, if you make it to be.
I hope this was helpful in helping you understand more about Workaway, and deciding if Workaway was something you want to do. Feel free to ask me anymore questions about Workaway! I will be glad to answer them.