I am currently halfway through a three-month stay in Canada learning how to drive a dog sled team. I’ve stayed with two families, who provide mushing tuition plus bed and board in return for me helping out around the place.
My gross expenditure for the entire three months is limited to the flights to get out here, plus the odd beer, which means I’ve had a winter’s-worth of fun for less than £1,000, which I think is great value.
And you can do it, too; tens of thousands of families across the globe are offering the same sort of deal, which means you can have a holiday (almost) for free and get to learn a new skill while you are at it.
Want to know more? Read on…
How does it work?
The concept is simple: You give your labour – on average 4-5 hours a day, five days a week – and get a bed and full board in return.
Plus, if you choose something you are interested in and want to learn more about, you get to learn a new skill, too.
Where are these things advertised?
I used Workaway, which is one of the better-known volunteering websites. I found it easy to use and full of kind-hearted folk who are happy to reply to my emails offering support and encouragement in addition to more work than I could ever hope to take them up on.
There are others, including WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which links volunteers with organic farmers and growers, and TrustedHousesitters, which links homeowners with house sitters willing to look after their pets in return for a place to stay.
You won’t learn a new skill if you try the latter of course, but it’s a great way to get a ‘free’ holiday for only a little work.
What sort of jobs and skills are they looking for?
Most hosts are looking for fit and healthy people to carry out pretty mundane, unskilled tasks. In my case, I spend a couple of hours a day scooping dog poop into a bucket, mixing food up and then feeding around 60 dogs.
The rest of my time is spent building kennels, walking dogs, hitching the dogs up to a sled, and, of course, learning to drive one across the frozen Canadian wilderness on a sled.
I’ve also helped advise on setting up a small tourist business, cut down trees, cleared forest rides, and taken photographs for them to use on their website.
So, if you have a skill – and everyone can scoop poop - then you will almost certainly find an outlet for it.
Learning new skills in later life
Is there an age limit?
No, there isn’t - and a lot of people seem to appreciate the benefits of employing an older person. After all, we generally have a good work ethic, don’t spend our days peering at a mobile phone, and aren’t likely to want to party every night.
But surely I’m too old?
I worried about this but only one host said I was too old, and that was only because he employed half-a-dozen teenagers and didn’t think I’d fit in with the group dynamic.
Everyone else saw my age as a positive rather than a negative, which was refreshing to know.
What does it cost?
There is a sign-up fee of €36 but after that there are no hidden or extra fees for Workaway.
TrustedHousesitters charges £89 a year, while WWOOF charges $50. I haven’t tried either of the other two organisations so can’t offer any personal comments but both seem to be well respected and have good online feedback.
All offer either single or joint memberships, which means you can do it as a couple, too!
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How do I apply?
You need to pay your fee and then create a profile. Take your time writing your profile because this is your virtual CV, and a bad one will leave you floundering when it comes to competing for positions.
It’s also worth taking the time to list all your experience and qualifications on a piece of paper; I did and it amazed me at how many useful skills this old man has! Even stuff like being able to use a chainsaw, building simple animal housing, and having experience of driving in the snow were attributes that both hosts commented on and undoubtedly helped me to gain a place with them.
But, if you don’t have such practical skills then being able to take a photograph, cook, clean and even read out loud all help; some hosts simply want someone to help them with some household chores for a couple of hours a day, or even just someone to keep them company.
After that, all you need to do is to contact the hosts you like the look of and start applying for positions. You can filter hosts by country, and, with Workaway you can further narrow down your search by skill. It can be a bit bewildering, so don’t expect to complete it all within an hour or two!
What were the responses to your enquiries like?
I found that more than half replied to me very quickly, either asking more questions or explaining that they didn’t have any vacancies – and I found I got the best response from those hosts that I took the time and effort to send an individualised enquiry; I did cut-and-paste the bulk of it for them all but tried to add a paragraph or two to make it more personal.
I am still receiving offers to go and help people now, months after my initial enquiries. Sometimes this is because they have been let down at the last minute, while others simply don’t seem very well organised and have only just got round to reading my application.
How do I make sure I’m not applying to stay with an axe murderer?
Hosts have feedback, so the chances of you applying to stay with an axe murderer are slim.
As ever though, it’s important to read between the lines; my first hosts had zero feedback. I ignored this but, with hindsight, it should have raised a red flag (more on this later).
Not that they were axe murderers, of course, although I swear this happened, word-for-word:
“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to a bunker in the ground.
“That’s a root cellar. You know what that is?”
I nod. “For storing potatoes, parsnips and other root vegetables through the winter.”
“Yes, but there are no root vegetables in there right now. I use it for storing corpses.”
A long pause followed my nervous laugh as I struggled to find something to say. I was saved from the need to say anything as she continued.
“It’s too hard to dig a grave in the frozen soil, so I put them in there.”
Another long pause.
“Don’t go in there.”
What’s the food like?
Some hosts will give you a budget and you then shop and cook for yourself. Others, probably the majority, will expect you to eat with them and their families. This can be great fun but does mean that you are stuck eating what they eat – and some people do eat some very strange combinations…
If you are a vegan, vegetarian or have a food intolerance or allergy, this shouldn’t be a problem as long as you are upfront about it.
Allergies and food intolerances explained
What about the accommodation?
I have been lucky in that I have stayed in my own wooden cabin on both occasions.
The first was truly off-grid, with no running water or electricity much less a bath or shower. It was fun for a month but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there much longer, especially as it was -25ºC at night.
The second cabin had a huge log burning stove, electricity, running water, a shower, and a huge bed, so I was fine, even when the temperature dropped to -40ºC.
In other cases you will stay in the family home, which brings its own advantages and disadvantages. It is important for me to have my own space, but you might not be as anti-social as me in the evenings and might prefer to stay in the main house.
What are the downsides to it?
The biggest potential downside is when a host thinks you are there for your raw labour and nothing more. My first experience led me to think that I was being misused for free labour rather than engaging in a mutually supportive and beneficial relationship.
I was probably slightly to blame, as I could have re-explained and emphasised earlier that I wanted to learn rather than to just spend eight hours a day, six days a week, working but it did show me that some hosts will abuse a willing worker.
Which brings me on to the subject of working hours. It’s hugely important to clarify what your expectations regarding working hours are. Most Workaway hosts advertise for people to work for between four and five hours a day, five days a week. The reality is that some will want you to work for eight or more hours a day, seven days a week.
I was happy to compromise and work six days a week, but even this led to some barbed comments from a couple who see what they do as a 24/7/365 lifestyle rather than a job.
Do the advantages outweigh the drawbacks?
Oh yes, for me at least! Living with a family means you get to really see what life is like in that country. You eat with them, work with them and, if you’re lucky, get invited to see what their social life and friends are like, too.
Most hosts enjoy hosting foreign workers and see to get a buzz out of ensuring they enjoy their stay. Of course, this cuts both ways but immersing myself in this way was, for me, huge fun and a wonderful way to experience what life is really like for a rural Canadian.
And the value in learning a new skill from an expert can’t be lightly dismissed. I’ve loved getting to know the world of the dog musher, and this is something that simply couldn’t be accessed in any other way.
What do you do in your free time?
I have carried on writing on a freelance basis; I find that I generally have two to three hours free in the middle of the day, plus most evenings, which means I could work as normal. This has meant that my income hasn’t taken too much of a hit.
My first hosts gave me access to their snowmobiles and quad bikes, so I could explore local trails on them, while the second provided me with a vehicle that is taxed, fuelled and insured, giving me free transport with which to explore the surrounding countryside and towns.
Both have taken me out socially with them – and even food shopping can be fun when the culture and diet is so different to what I’m used to.
How about skipping from one host to another without a break?
I absolutely think you could take a year or two out and move from one host to another seamlessly; many offer stays of three months or more at a spell, which would give you plenty of time to find your next host.
Who knows; maybe you could rent your house or flat out for a year and travel the world learning new skills and experiencing new cultures?
Is there anything else I need to know?
You’ll need travel insurance, and will need to make sure that your hosts have third party insurance, too.
Plus, you really need a work visa for most countries, even though you are volunteering.
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If your luggage allowance allows then taking something traditional from your area is a lovely way to break the ice on your first night. I always take a bottle of Penderyn Welsh whisky, which has the benefit of being unusual, delicious – and alcoholic!