Europe, Travel Stories

What I learned from my 1st Workaway

I’ve been intending on writing this post for the last week but as I’m sure some of you can relate, my travels have been keeping me busy! I’ve been on the road traveling down the coast from northern to southern France and I hope to share some photos soon! In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of questions about my experience doing Workaway and I hope this answers some of them. I’d love to hear about your own experiences with Workaway or other similar organizations (Help-X, WWOOFing, etc). 

1) Do your research
Workaway.info is an organization that allows travelers to spend an average of 25 hours working per week in exchange for free room and board. It is similar to WWOOFing but the work can vary from renovating a house to language exchange. The number of workaways for France alone is over 800, so the most important thing I advise is to do your research! Hosts all over the world set up profiles for volunteers to see what kind of work they will do and what kind of living conditions they can expect. Before agreeing to a Workaway assignment it’s important to ask about things like wifi availability, sleeping arrangements, meals, and the work schedule.

 

TheBarefootBeat

Fourteen of us shared the cottage with only two bathrooms!

I would also ask if there are bicycles available to use to explore nearby towns. The majority of the hosts I’ve looked at are in rural locations with limited public transportation. This can make it difficult to explore the surrounding area unless they are willing to take you on excursions. Some hosts have multiple volunteers at one time so it can be a great chance to meet other travelers.

TheBarefootBeatEven the most menial tasks were fun with these girls!

Other times you will be working alone or independently which may feel isolating in a small country village. If the host has had previous volunteers, read the references! This is an added safety measure for you to make sure you are not agreeing to a bad situation. Ask for the host’s phone number as well so you can arrange drop off/pick up times.

One of the difficulties I’ve had is finding last minute hosts. Summer is high season in France and many Workaways already have all of the volunteers they need until September or October. It’s best to plan at least several months ahead and to start contacting hosts earlier rather than later. This ensures you are doing the kind of work you enjoy and helps you plan a specific direction of travel.

2) Be flexible
My first Workaway experience was helping renovate 17th century French cottages in rural Bretagne.

TheBarefootBeatI spent an entire week in this cottage getting it ready for guests to rent!

I worked with a large group of volunteers ranging in age from 18-73  from Europe, Australia, South America, and Canada. Working, eating, and living among such a diverse group of people can be challenging but also very rewarding! When so many strangers come together and spend all of their time in a shared space, conflict and tension are inevitable. Each person has a different way of eating, speaking, and working.

There were times when the stress of our job and being in an isolated place made us irritable and brought out frustrations. Instead of turning on each other and fragmenting into common nationalities and peer groups it was important for us to stick together and support each other. Rather than giving into our frustrations, we poured another glass of wine and tried new recipes. We practiced vocabulary words and played chess. We built a bonfire and went to the beach.

TheBarefootBeat
The beaches in Biarritz are some of my favorite in France!

The solidarity and the bonds we formed were priceless when the unexpected happened, which leads me to #3…

3) Always have a back-up plan
The week before I arrived I contacted my Workaway host to confirm dates and travel arrangements. I carefully wrote down his phone number and double checked all of the details. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same. When I arrived at the train station to be picked up, no one came. I waited for half an hour and tried calling but no one answered. Suddenly I found myself stranded in a strange city with nowhere to go and no other arrangements for the next two weeks. After spending a few hours wandering around at night looking for a place to stay, I finally checked into the most expensive hotel (the only one open) and frantically wished I had made a back-up plan. Thankfully, I was able to get in touch with him the next morning but this was only the first red flag I should’ve paid attention to.

During my two week stay my host was non-communicative and unclear about his expectations for us. The work he asked us to do was tedious- scraping and painting, clearing brush, ripping up old carpet and scrubbing everything clean. It wasn’t so much the work we minded but the disorganization and chaotic way we were expected to perform our tasks. When we had questions about our work he was never around to answer. The promised excursions to the nearby villages never happened. He yelled at his wife in front of us and barked orders without ever saying thank-you. More than that, there was this feeling of uneasiness and fear that permeated the air when he was around. I had the sense of not being able to trust him or his behavior.

The morning we left I realized my gut instinct had been right all along. After finding another volunteer’s clothes in the swimming pool (an innocent prank) he came into the breakfast table and yelled at everyone, singling out one of the girls and swearing at her to get off his property. His anger and overreaction were enough to convince all of us to leave. We had nowhere else to go, but seven of us packed our belongings and promised not to leave each other until we had all made next arrangements. We hadn’t planned on walking away but staying was no longer a safe option. We formed our own community and were able to face the unpredictable and unknown, refusing to be discouraged when something went wrong.

TheBarefootBeatWe walked for over an hour to the nearest town with a bus station, happier each step we took farther away from our Workaway site! 

This is what I love about traveling. I love that the best is brought out in people in spite of the worst circumstances. Individually we were vulnerable and alone, together we were capable and strong. The mutual respect we had for each other enabled us to depend on one another even though days ago we had been strangers. I believe we all have this capacity to face adversity collectively, whether we are travelers or not. When we realized we had each other, no amount of abuse or problem seemed insurmountable.

4) Keep trying, keep traveling
It would be easy for me to write this off as a negative experience and to search for other ways to travel- to chalk it up as something I shouldn’t do again. I could stay angry at the injustice of the situation and doubt my ability to travel alone, letting fear cloud my decisions. I could tally all of the bad experiences I’ve had and choose to let them outweigh the good. I could hang my head in defeat and see my vulnerability as an Achilles heel, something to protect and hide away.

Honestly, it’s been a tough road so far. It’s only been four months since I quit my job and started traveling but I’ve felt every extreme of tired, hungry, scared, and alone. I’ve questioned my sanity and shed hot tears of frustration. I’ve gotten so tired of saying the words, “I don’t know” (in multiple languages!) that I’ve avoided people’s questions altogether, letting them pile up until I feel my head will explode. When this journey is over I’m not sure where the scale will rest. But I do know each moment of joy and contentment outweigh the doubts that try to creep in. Each new friendship formed, each new memory created outweighs the moments of loneliness. I have to keep going, I have to keep learning and struggling, questioning and believing. Faith and fear go hand in hand.

*My next Workaway assignment was the exact opposite from my first one. I stayed with a lovely couple just outside of Bordeaux and was spoiled rotten by Francesca’s kindness and good cooking! The work was fair and I felt completely at ease and at home with Philippe and Francesca. We shared many stories of traveling the world and became instant friends. One more reason to forget the bad and cherish the best.

TheBarefootBeat
Enjoying homemade milkshakes with Philippe!

How do you stay positive when things go wrong? Is the community around you important in helping you deal with unpredictable situations? Have you ever had a bad experience while volunteering or doing Workaway? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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22 Comments

  • Reply Backpacking advice for an INFJ? September 3, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    […] about this company but found these articles.Is Workaway Worth It to Travel On the Cheap? | HuffPostWhat I learned from my 1st Workaway – The Barefoot Beat Reply With Quote […]

  • Reply Experiences of Working in France | Nouvelle Prof February 19, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    […] You can read about someone’s Workaway experience here. […]

    • Reply Ettienne Martinez April 25, 2017 at 2:14 am

      So I’ve recently heard and found workaway and excitedly told my parents about it. I’m in my 20’s and in College now btw. And something my dad told me has discouraged me from wanting to travel. He says that workaway sounds unsafe because it sounds like some sort of human trafficking who might take advantage of my labor and force me to work for them and stay in the country forever or something. I was wondering, have you come across anything that you would perceive to be unsafe about using workaway? Or do u have any safety tips or anything that I could tell my dad to put him at ease? Because you are going to a stranger’s house in a strange country, makes me think twice about traveling at all now.. :/

  • Reply Landers November 16, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Workaway is the worse site. Helpx is the best. I’ve tried both workaway and helpx and helpx is much better, better quality of hosts, the website is better, workaway is tough to navigate, the people (admin) team of workaway are also difficult to talk to, as my friend was charged twice on her credit card, also helpx since is less expensive, more hosts and overall a better quality experience.

    • Reply Mariah November 18, 2016 at 8:03 am

      Hi Michael,
      I’m sorry you haven’t had such a great experience with Workaway! I’ve never tried HelpX but it was the first volunteer exchange program I heard of. Where have you volunteered?

    • Reply Mariah May 7, 2017 at 8:31 pm

      Hi Etienne,

      Thank you for voicing your concerns! It can definitely feel risky and scary to put your trust in strangers while traveling. I can see why your parents might show concern. Personally, I have had very positive experiences using Workaway and Couchsurfing and there are thousands of users who agree. The best thing I can offer is to read the reviews people leave for their hosts and to ask them questions if you still feel unsure.

      I truly believe it takes a leap of faith to use a program like Workaway, but the reward is so huge! Having faith in humanity, connecting to locals, and finding common ground are just some of the benefits. The more we open our hearts to each other (including those we don’t know) the more I believe our world can change for the better. Feel free to send me an email if you have more specific questions. Best of luck on your travels!

  • Reply tropicalangel September 19, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Yeah, I am a bit disappointed with workaway too. The fact that they don’t allow less than stellar feedback is a form of false advertising to me. I was in a situation that was not as described. I left accurate feedback as gently as I could. The host even admitted to a neighbor that it was the truth. But workaway would not allow it to show. It appears they cater to hosts – not fee to be a member and they present them sometimes in a false light.
    They also somehow read private messages. Here is part of a conversation between me and workaway: “Workaway does not read your messages, we care a great deal about our user’s privacy. However there are filters on accounts that check for profiles being used by people who are not registered. This is to protect users of the website.”
    My Response: “This was not a profile being used by someone not registered. It was a message sent by me and I wasn’t sure if it would just be me as I was also entertaining the possibility of traveling with someone else. And, by the way, another workaway contacted me asking if I wanted to travel together. I did not make mention in my message specifically who I was thinking of so there is no way to be flagging someone who didn’t have a profile or not”
    There is more but I think someone reading will get the picture.

    • Reply Mariah September 21, 2016 at 7:06 pm

      Hi, I’m sorry you’ve been disappointed with Workaway. I understand your frustration with feedback, just like Couch Surfing it can be a delicate matter to leave honest reviews especially if you’ve had a bad experience. I would encourage you to try and work it out though, it’s important for volunteers to know what they are getting into, as many of the locations can be rural. I have not experienced any issues with Workaway flagging my messages. To be honest, the experience I wrote about was my first and only negative experience and even then I made long-lasting friendships and learned a great deal. I hope you keep going and don’t give up on your travels and volunteering!

  • Reply Hazel Despain September 18, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Hey Mariah!
    I loved reading this post! It’s awesome that you are able to quit your job and travel. I’m sure it’s so stressful, but also an amazing experience! 🙂 my hubby and I also use Workaway and wwoof a lot and absolutely love it! Your #3 point reminded us of an experience we had wwoofing in Italy, hah. I had that same gut feeling when I was emailing the host, but thought for sure we’d be able to make friends with him haha.
    We have our own (very very small) travel blog that i just started, so it’s fun to read your blog and see how well you’ve done with it!
    Greetings from France 🙂

    • Reply Mariah September 21, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      Thank you for the lovely comment Hazel! I hope everything turned out okay for you in Italy! How long are you traveling with your hubby? What part of France are you in, it’s one of my favorite countries! 🙂

  • Reply Regina May 27, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Maria,

    I am thinking of doing this and SO excited! Two quick questions for you:

    1. Did you go alone? I am thinking of going alone — is this too unsafe?

    2. I am nervous about walking away from a workaway situation… Without other arrangements, you suddenly have to learn about the public transit system, get a hotel with WiFi, etc. Do you have any tips for this kind of thing?

    • Reply Mariah May 28, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Hi Regina, Hooray! I did go alone and no, I don’t think it is too unsafe. I did several Workaways in France and one in Ghana. My younger sister (20 yrs) did several in Central America, also alone and she loved every minute!

      I would recommend always having a back-up plan or next step in place for any Workaway. This is just good sense for traveling alone in general. This might mean checking out where the nearest hostel might be, being in contact with more than one couch host, or Workaway host, etc. Learning the transit system will be a breeze, Wifi is everywhere, and if you need help, simply ask!

      Where are you thinking of traveling? If you’re worried about safety, you can check out some of my other posts about solo female travel, and couch surfing too. Or always shoot me an email @ thebarefootbeat@gmail.com. Wishing you the best of luck and many happy adventures!

  • Reply Latasia May 15, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Oh, wow! I’m so glad I found your article. 🙂

    I’ve always wanted to travel. I’ve lived in three states already and I’m only 24. Not too bad.. I’ve just taken some chances and decided to go for it. I’ve been looking into Workaway for a few months and I LOVE the idea of doing it. This article just helped me make a decision. Did you have passive income when you started this or money saved up? Would you recommend doing that? Or did you know people who made money while they were traveling. I’m working on getting some passive income going right now.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

    Latasia

    • Reply Mariah May 16, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Hi Latasia! Thanks so much for stopping by! I had about $18,000 saved before my around the world trip, but I didn’t do Workaway the whole time and I moved around quite a bit to different continents which added to the expense. You can definitely travel long-term for much cheaper! I didn’t work while traveling except for the Workaways I did, but I made a tiny bit of passive income from my travel blog and I also got a refund on my taxes which didn’t hurt! Good luck to you on your journey, feel free to shoot me an email if you have any more questions! 🙂

  • Reply Amanda @ Adventure Year August 5, 2013 at 10:21 am

    It was so great of you to post this. Firstly, because I have never heard of this website and it looks like an incredible resource! Secondly, because of your experience. A lot of people tend to only focus on the great and so I thank you immensely for baring it all! I’m certainly glad your next experience was better.
    Amanda @ Adventure Year recently posted…Traveling When SickMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah August 5, 2013 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks so much Amanda, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! I hope it can be helpful for others because I think we all sometimes have the tendency to only share the positive aspects about our travel. Of course we all have ups and downs and it’s important to be honest about them! Let me know if you give Workaway a try, I’d love to hear your experience 🙂

  • Reply Suzy August 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Even though that one workaway experience was a bad one, at least you all knew when to get up and walk away. It’s great that you didn’t let that ruin your experience as a whole. I haven’t used Workaway but I did try to be an au pair one summer in Italy. The family was terrible, lying to me that I would have a private room and bathroom. When I arrived, they had put a bed in a hallway. That was my “private” room. I knew I had to walk away. You definitely have to get all the details about living arrangements before you agree to these types of things.
    Suzy recently posted…Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of July 29, 2013My Profile

    • Reply Mariah August 5, 2013 at 3:47 am

      Wow, that sounds like a terrible experience as well! Yes, it’s easy to be deceived when you’re only corresponding online and there’s a certain amount of trust that you have to give people. However when that trust is violated you have to stand up for yourself and walk away if necessary. Thanks for reading and sharing, Suzy!

  • Reply Vanessa August 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Hi Mariah! I’ve learnt a lot about your workaway experience. I was so surprised about the angry man who yelled at you!! You did not tell me that, Poor Mariah… Thanksfully, you escaped! I hope this won’t happen again…
    Take care 🙂
    A bientôt!

    • Reply Mariah August 2, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      Yes, I didn’t want to only dwell on the bad because there were so many other good things about it! Thankfully there are more good people out there than bad 🙂

  • Reply Natasha August 2, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Mariah you are brave! I would not have put up with that rude Frenchman from day 1. But I guess when you have no one else to turn to , you bite the bullet! 14 people in one home with only 2 washrooms ? Ouch ! Thank god for the couple to come along and share a civilized experience again! My suggestion is to look at house sitting assignments as well. You have your own space and also get a car on some assignments. I lucked out with mine in nice France – the owner cancelled his maid service and gives me the money as a thank you gift cos I’m so anal when it comes to cleanliness 🙂
    I hope your future travels show you a more relaxed side to travel 🙂
    Natasha recently posted…A dog’s walking tour perspective of the Old Town of Nice in FranceMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah August 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      Thanks for reading, Natasha! Yes, he was actually a very rude Englishman, I’m not sure the French would ever behave that way! Every experience teaches a lesson and I’m so glad I met the other volunteers while I was there- they are the real reason I stayed for two weeks! I’ve heard of house sitting before but don’t know if I would like the isolation of it. I like meeting other travelers at hostels, workaway, couchsurfing, etc. But I will definitely consider it some day!

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