You’ve probably heard of volunteering on your travels, as your sister’s friend/ your neighbor or that hippie girl at school can’t shut up about their WOOFF experience in Australia. However, you don’t see yourself fighting off bugs the size of your head, venomous enough to wipe our your entire family as soon as you take them home in your suitcase (and in your imagination you will.).
I’m not that adventurous either, but I did want to get rid of my accommodation costs. When I discovered HelpX I found out volunteer work wasn’t just organic farming (but you can!), there was a world of baby sitting and hostel work out there I hadn’t heard of before. Eager to explore it I signed up and ended up working abroad for a month.
This all happened just as I started out blogging. Because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with this blog, I documented my trip poorly. Right now it’s make up time: you already knew I was slow but now, 1,5 years later, I’m documenting my own HelpX experience. It’s about time, isn’t it?
In this article you’ll find everything there is to tell from my personal HelpX experience, plus some tips to make yours unforgettable. Writing this post brought back so many memories, a few of them I tried to share with you below.
Accommodation usually makes a big dent in your travel budget. Even when you decide to crash in a cheap backpackers hostel, you’ll have to pay for your beauty naps. HelpX is a way to avoid those costs.
HelpX is a website that helps travelers and local companies to connect. The X stands for exchange, which practically means organic farms, B&B’s, hostels and even boats offering a free room (and sometimes meals) in exchange for work. Travelers who want to indulge in local life, learn practical skills or simply want to tighten their travel budget can apply by responding through the HelpX website.
The kind of jobs vary from making beds and reception work to physical work such as building and renovating jobs. When you already have experience in this field, finding a job is pretty easy. When you don’t, many places will give you the opportunity to learn. Just think about the skills you have, even your social media skills will be much appreciated!
How much time do I need?
HelpX does take some of your time as it isn’t interesting enough for people to train you for a week and then let you go. In average volunteering will take about a month up until six. The amount of hours and days you will have to work is to be agreed upon by you and your new ‘boss’, however the average amount of work according to HelpX is 4 hours a day.
How to apply for a HelpX job
HelpX isn’t free. The easiest thing to do is browse for jobs first (which can be done without paying the $20 member fee.). Browse through the website and use the filters HelpX search offers, categorized by country or type of job. All you have to do is find a listing that speaks to you.
When you have a few places in mind, register yourself and pay the $20 member fee. At first I was reluctant to pay for anything, but when I saw the amount of listings available, I knew for sure I was going to find something, even as a beginner. Complete your profile by filling in the form, tell something about yourself and don’t forget to list your skills and work experience. A photo increases your chance of a response.
When you’re ready to apply for a job you like, invest some time in making your letter personal. Try to learn someone’s name and most important: don’t copy paste your letters. People will notice and they will pick any personal letter above yours. Also do not apply to too many jobs at once, in my experience it’s very easy to get a response, even when it’s your first time volunteering.
Another thing you have to carefully watch is the job description and what you’ll get in return. What’s the sleeping situation? Private or dorm? Are there any meals involved? These are things that should be agreed upon before you start your job, don’t be afraid to ask when the job description isn’t accurate about that. Reading reviews (and leaving one after you’ve finished work) can be a great help too.
So remember to:
- Create a complete profile;
- Upload a photo of yourself;
- List (and be honest about) your skills and work experience;
- Make your letter personal;
- Only respond to a few jobs at a time;
- Be clear on what’s expected;
- Read (and leave) reviews.
My HelpX experience
Since I’m the clumsiest person on the planet, I already knew farm work wouldn’t be my cup of tea, so I applied to a job I was more familiar with: working in a backpackers hostel. I’ve always loved to work with people, so I thought I would be great checking in people, giving out information and since I’m doing okay(ish) making my own bed, I figured I wouldn’t totally suck at doing that, too. (I was wrong.)
Both hostels I reached out to replied within a week, I was welcome to show up. I chose the Explorers Hostel in Bucharest over another hostel on Hvar Island, since I had been on Hvar the year before. Funny enough they didn’t like me because of my experience in restaurants, but because of the fact I am a school teacher now. Another example of the wide range of skills accepted by the HelpX crowd.
I applied months before the actual date (I’m an idiot, you don’t need to do that), giving me plenty of time to prepare. As you might know I am a planning geek, so by the time I was ready to go, I had memorized most of the area around the hostel and the things to do in Bucharest as well. I don’t have to tell you this came in handy in the end, but it isn’t necessary at all.
The day I arrived I was welcomed by one of the owners, a lovely, young couple living in Bucharest. I immediately liked her for her directness and sense of humor and as she showed me the place, it reminded me more of a big shared house than a dirty hostel. I didn’t know back then how soon I would start to feel at home.
I got a bed in a small dorm, it was half empty when I got there. The big, light room had wooden floors, just as the rest of the hostel. They squeaked as you walked on them. The more I got used to the environment, the more I used those squeaky floors to indicate where the guests where walking, even when I was doing my work downstairs. At night I knew where to step when I didn’t want to wake anybody. It’s crazy how something grows on you so fast.
The first few days I got to get to know the city. A regular – and long stay – guest showed me the ropes of Bucharest. He’d take my hand, walk me up a few streets – explaining the scenery like a professional tour guide – before he’d let go and walk off like he had some kind of affair that just came up. It left me with incredible knowledge on beehives in abandoned buildings, why the government doesn’t take down the excess electricity wires on the streets and how to find a mobster café – True story!
By the time I got to work, I noticed there wasn’t much to do than be there, do some laundry and make the beds. The day was divided in 3 shifts: morning, afternoon/ evening and night. I checked in guests, gave them a map and some information and on the night shifts I made sure I was present downstairs (while asleep) and that there was breakfast in the morning. Easy right?
It was, and in the meantime I made friends with the people around me. After every few days of work, I got some days off to travel Romania (which I victoriously did!) and before or after my shift I would explore Bucharest as well. Romania – and especially Bucharest – get incredibly hot in summer so I would roam the city step by step, making acquaintances repeatedly with some of its residents.
It’s incredible how time flies and how fast you’re able to find your own routines in a new city. In the morning I would take a stroll through a nearby park, always greeted by the dirty man, hanging out of his – seemingly pee-drenched, as I recall from the smell that came out – apartment. I knew it was coming, yet he always surprised me by whispering in my ear, while I was desperately waiting for the street light to turn green, escaping the dead end street corner he lived on. Afterwards I would celebrate my escape with coffee, always at the same place, always with the same waiter who tried to teach me Romanian.
‘Make sure you do everything you want to do, time flies’ they said. It was true, before I knew it I was approaching my last days in Bucharest. A month of making beds (poorly), new friends and a new lifestyle had come to an end. I remembered crying in the taxi when we drove off and I vowed to come back as soon as I could. By the time I did, Explorers Hostel didn’t exist anymore, but the people I worked with did. We did an amazing road trip and the rest is history.
If it wasn’t for HelpX I wouldn’t have indulged in this thing called slow travel, I wouldn’t have discovered Bucharest (and the rest of Romania) as a local. Working in someone’s company allowed me to take a peek at real life in Romania, being it conversations about politics, history, geology and even religion, I found it mesmerizing to be so close to something so different and yet the same. And yes, I would do it again.
However, you should realize it’s not all fun and games. Although the work is easy, you do need to be responsible and care enough to be able to make the most of your experience (and to not get fired). I personally love to get involved with local companies and help them grow. If that requires me to make beds, that’s fine. I know from my own HelpX experience that when you invest your time in something, you’ll get it back.
HelpX isn’t the only website offering volunteer work for room and board. You can also check out these sites: