When traveling long-term, sometimes it’s just nice to be able to settle down in one place and unpack your bag. Even if you are just traveling for a few weeks, finding a place to volunteer can feel like moving temporarily and can be a unique travel experience. Hostels sometimes offer to house volunteers in exchange for a few hours of work each day. Taking advantage of this probably won’t earn you any money (although some pay a small stipend) but you probably won’t spend much money, either. If you can find the right hostel that suits your personality, it can make for an interesting time and you can feel like a local on your trip!
What to expect
In both the hostels I’ve worked at (one in Switzerland and one in Montenegro), I worked in exchange for a bed. Of course, there are many different situations you can find yourself in (some better than others), but here are my experiences.
In Switzerland, I was one of the housekeepers and worked 2-3 hours each morning turning over the beds for new guests, replacing linens, mopping floors and cleaning the kitchen. I was working with the ‘real’ housekeepers and my biggest challenge was that they didn’t speak English. This wasn’t as big of a problem as it could have been since one spoke Spanish and we were able to communicate with that. It was summer and I had a lot of free time, so I visited with guests a lot and often went out with them during the day.
In Montenegro, I was working in a small hostel and the owner was going on holiday for a month, so I was basically running the hostel while he was gone. I washed the sheets by hand after each guest left, I kept the guest rooms and kitchen clean and I had to stay in the hostel most of the day. While this could have been perfect, it wasn’t the best situation since it wasn’t busy (just a few guests a week) yet the owner wanted me to stay in the hostel most of the day just in case a guest dropped in unannounced. The worst part was that there wasn’t internet. My daily routine involved walking 10 minutes away to get an internet signal and download podcasts to listen to in the hostel and going to the market to buy food for the day. The owner didn’t keep the refrigerator running since it used a lot of power (I kept yogurt outside at night) and he only had a single burner propane camping stove in the ‘kitchen’. A major plus was that I only spent about €1 ($1.50) a day since Montenegro was such a cheap country and all I had to pay for was food.
Finding a hostel & what to look for
When I try to find a hostel to volunteer at, I do a simple search on one (or two) of the hostel booking websites. I check out their location, photos and description of amenities. If it’s important to you that you are in the city center, in a new, clean hostel or have access to a kitchen, you need to do your research. If you sign up to volunteer in a hostel that is in Paris and you assume the building will have character and a kitchen, you might be disappointed when you arrive to discover it takes an hour to get to the center and it’s a modern, sterile-feeling building with only a fridge and microwave for a ‘kitchen’. Do your research and make sure it’s somewhere you’ll want to be.
If you wouldn’t want to be a guest, you shouldn’t be working there
When you search for hostels on a booking website, take advantage of the reviews left by previous guests. If a review mentions the staff, these are the people you’ll be working with. If the review says negative things about them, it’s probably not a good sign. If they say the hostel is dirty, far from the center or unsafe, then it is probably dirty, far from the center and unsafe. Trust the reviews left and if you are worried about something, either bring it up with your contact at the hostel or don’t bother applying.
When to go
Hostels don’t usually place ads looking for volunteers. They let the potential volunteers find them. Their needs vary seasonally but in general, they look for help in the summer and shoulder seasons. Trying to find a winter job will be harder than a summer job, but the competition will be tougher in the summer. If you are flexible, I suggest trying to find a hostel in the spring and see if you can stay on through the summer if you are looking for something long-term.
Contacting the hostel
Usually, you can find the hostel’s email address somewhere on the hostel booking site or on their own website (often you can often find them on Facebook). Send a quick message introducing yourself, explaining when you’d like to volunteer, what type of work you’re interested in (housekeeping, front desk or giving tours if they offer them) and what skills you offer (languages you speak, computer skills, previous experience working in a hostel). I like to include a summary of my travels and mention a few of my favorite hostels so they can see I’m a traveler. Keep it brief and casual. Hostels are usually easygoing so you won’t need to send a full resumé. Once they respond, pay attention to your interactions. Different cultures communicate differently and while it’s interesting to explore cultural differences, if you can’t communicate easily with the people you’ll be working with, you will go crazy. Trust me.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but unless you hold a work permit for the country you’re in, it’s usually illegal to work or volunteer (if you’re working in exchange for a bed, it is kind of like you’re being paid). I know, I know- I should have told you this earlier. But don’t get discouraged. Many people volunteer in hostels without the proper documents and most don’t have any problems. Hostels usually aren’t very concerned with the lack of paperwork since so many volunteers go through their place each season and it’d be hard for the government to keep track of whether they’re working or just passing through.
Working in a hostel can be a great way to connected more intimately with a country and get to know other travelers. When I’m working at a hostel, I feel like all the hostel’s guests are my personal visitors and I like to show them around the city, give them advice and spend time with them. I’ve met a lot of travelers in hostels and some I still keep in contact with. If you get the chance to volunteer in a hostel, definitely take it! It can be a welcome pause from a long-term trip or a laid-back working holiday on a short-term vacation. Either way, your trip will be more memorable and you’ll have a unique experience!