Work exchanges are my favourite way to travel on a tight budget. Here's how I do it.

Trent Burns for InsiderWork-stay programs can take travellers around the world.
  • I think work stays are one of the best ways to travel because you can stick to a tight budget, meet new people, and do things you’ve never done before.
  • Work stays, also called work exchanges, are when you agree to do labour for a family in exchange for a place to stay and sometimes food.
  • In my experience, it’s been important to set boundaries, expectations, and parameters with my hosts before starting any kind of work-stay program.
  • When I’ve gotten to know my hosts and embrace hard work, I’ve been able to enjoy all the benefits of working for accommodation and food.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As my partner and I travel across New Zealand in our camper van, we routinely stop at public libraries, coin-operated showers, and outdoor kitchens to give ourselves short reprieves from van life.

But sometimes we’re looking for a longer break.

We have Working Holiday Visas, which give us tax ID numbers so we can work for pay, but it’s hard to find jobs when we’re only spending a week or two in each location. Thus, work stays- also called work exchanges have become one of our favourite ways to travel.

Work stays are when you agree to do labour for a farm or an individual family in exchange for a place to stay and sometimes even food, too.

Here are seven things I’ve found to be helpful when doing a work-stay travel arrangement.

Using online work-stay databases has helped me sort through work-stay options.

Trent Burns for InsiderWork-exchange programs aren’t without risk.

When my partner and I partake in work stays, our parents get a little nervous about our safety when we tell them we’ll be staying in a stranger’s house, rent-free, with no specific timeline in mind.

And although work-stay travel isn’t without risk, using platforms like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) or HelpX help our families ease their concerns a bit.

In my experience, WWOOF stays tend to be more structured farm work, and HelpX usually connects workers to families who need a bit of help keeping up with their property and day-to-day tasks.

I use websites like these to view several work-stay options at once. Plus they allow me to look over the parameters of the agreement, location of the site, photos, and reviews for each host.

Notably, there’s no vetting process on most online work-stay services. That said, these websites often require a fee for both hosts and workers, and this small barrier to entry helps us feel more confident that we’re connecting with someone who is genuinely interested in being a host.

I always make my travel intentions clear with my host.

Lara Bruce-Miller for InsiderEnsure your host knows how long you’ll be staying.

Whenever a host asks me how long I intend to stay, I’m honest with them, especially since I can often find something that works for my schedule.

I don’t suggest applying for a months-long work stay if you only intend to be in the area for a few weeks. This person or family is welcoming you into their home and they probably genuinely need the help, so try to be respectful of that.

I’ve also found that being clear with your timeframe is a great way to get local recommendations and advice.

For example, when my partner and I told a host that we were in the area to do a specific hike, they advanced us some time off so we could use a window of good weather to do our walk.

I’ve also found that it’s important to set parameters for your work ahead of time.

Zoë Hannah for InsiderHosts should set work parameters before your stay begins.

This is the most vital piece of advice I can give on work stays.

I’ve found that if your host doesn’t set parameters ahead of time, this could be a red flag – they may be purposefully looking to work you harder than necessary.

If you stay with a host who hasn’t set expectations for the type of work you’ll be doing, the length of each workday, and the kind of payment (accommodation, food, etc.) you’ll get in return, I suggest you take it upon yourself to agree on clear rules before your first day of work.

In my experience, having a clear agreement has helped me avoid situations where I’m asked to do tasks I’m not comfortable with while also helping my host make the most of the time I spend working for them.

Offer what you can give, but try not to do more than what’s asked of you.

Zoë Hannah for InsiderDon’t do more than what the host is asking you to do.

In my experience, when you’re working for accommodation and pay, it’s best to do exactly what you’re asked – no more and no less.

You aren’t working toward a promotion or bonus, so it may not be worth your time to constantly go the extra mile to impress your host, in my experience.

That said, if I’m ever caught in the middle of a task right at the end of my workday, I usually just finish the job. In most cases, I’ll just be able to start later the following day so my work wasn’t for “free” but I also didn’t leave my host out to dry.

Consider what you’d want if it was your property, and be careful not to overstep the boundaries created in your agreement.

Sometimes getting to know my host(s) has led me to get great recommendations and secure future stays.

Lara Bruce-Miller for InsiderI think meeting new people is one of the best parts of a work stay.

Throughout multiple work stays, I’ve found it really pays off to get to know the hosts whose home I’m staying in.

I’ve had luck with this by setting up times to get to know my host over drinks or by working alongside them. By doing these things, I’ve been able to become friends with some of my hosts and sometimes even be invited back.

I think this is general travel advice as well – when you get to know the people you’re staying with, you can often get better recommendations, forge a deeper relationship with the community, and learn more about where you’re staying.

Of course, not everyone who partakes in this program is looking to make a friend, and it’s important to respect boundaries your host may set in place.

I always remember that I’m a guest in someone’s home.

Trent Burns for InsiderBe respectful of their space, and find ways to make space for yourself.

Doing a work stay is kind of like staying at a vacation rental where the host is always there, and I keep this in mind when I’m moving about the home I’m staying in.

I take ownership of the space I’m given, especially if I’m there for longer than just a few weeks – but I remember that I’m primarily a guest.

I try to be courteous and clean up after myself and help with dinner dishes when working for accommodation. I advise you to do the same, but don’t feel like you have to walk around on eggshells – after all, you’re working to be there, so reap the rewards.

Embrace the work, but don’t forget to make time for yourself.

Trent Burns for InsiderHave fun and make time for yourself during your work stay.

During a work stay, you might find yourself doing work you never pictured yourself doing – like shoveling chicken poop or spending hours burning thick weeds.

And for me, the best strategy for conquering tasks is to go in with a good attitude and embrace the fact that I’m experiencing something brand new.

The work can be unglamorous, but I’ve found that the better my outlook, the more fun I have, and the more I learn for my next work stay.

I always remember to take time for myself, especially if I’m doing manual labour all day.

One of my favourite ways to give myself and my host space is by taking time away from the property. It gives me time to rest and recharge from the work I’ve been doing while allowing my host to have alone time, too.

And of course, I always make sure I get some rest before hitting the road again.

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