Questions you should ask before doing a cultural work-exchange

I love ‘volunteering’ or rather work exchange, meaning you work for free food and accomodation in a foreign country. I think it’s an amazing experience and it has taken me all around the globe. It’s a great way to learn more about the local culture and stay in an area that no tourist would usually set foot in as well as saving some (or a lot) of money, making it easier on your travel budget.

So far, I have used wwoofing and workaway, the latter being my preferred volunteer/work exchange website.

In case you want to know how these organizations work more specifically check out my post – workaway – more than just working for free food and accommodation.

Speaking from experience I wanted to list some questions, that I am trying to get answers to before agreeing to stay as a volunteer. These are questions that apply to most workaways and people. Some might be obvious but others might sound like a given to you but not necessarily be the case.
Many of the following should be answered on the profile but if not, you might want to double-check.

These are questions I would ask in case they were not answered on the profile of the host.

  1. How many hours do you work per day?

  2. Do you work on weekends? /When are days off?
    VERY IMPORTANT! You’re not automatically guaranteed to have Saturday and Sunday off and if you might not get food –> see Q4

  3. What kind of work do you do?
    This should definitely be on the profile, but sometimes this might be vague. There are many places with a lot of everyday tasks, e.g. cleaning and gardening but you could check beforehand. Often the host will see with you what you’re good at doing and what needs to be done at this certain time of the year

  4. Are all meals provided? Is food provided on days off?
    optional: Do you get meals cooked or do you need to cook yourself? (This is something that might not be the most important thing to know right away but it gives you an idea about the level of interaction with the host, i.e. dinners with the family or by yourself/with other workawayers

  5. What kind of diet do you eat?
    in case that is important to you – it’s really important to let your host know beforehand if you follow a specific diet. Some places have a rather limited variety of foods and you might not be able to eat according to your needs

  6. Is there the possibility to purchase things within walking distance?
    Ask whether e there things that are hard to come by in the area and need to be bought beforehand (I’m thinking of rural places that might just have minimarkets with very basic ingredients, so if you have specific products you use/eat you should think of that beforehand

  7. Are there ways to leave the place by yourself or do you need to rely on your host to take you around?
    i.e. you might be staying on a farm without any public transportation

  8. Are there other volunteers ?
    That will give you an idea about how many people you might share a room with and how ‘social/communal it will be.

  9. What kind of weather can you expect, i.e. what kind of clothes should you bring?
    I’m talking rain jackets, boots, gloves, etc. that you wouldn’t automatically pack for a trip. Do you need specific work clothes? Are there clothes left by previous volunteers? (often there are and you can use them for work)

  10. Is there a washing machine that you can use or do you have to wash by hand (a common practice in many places I’ve come across in South-America)? note: sometimes you might have to pay to use the washing machine or bring your own laundry powder, this should usually be stated on the profile of the host though

  11. Is there hot water (NOT a given)?

  12. What about the internet?
    Is the internet reliable? Is it good enough for a Skype call? Are you allowed to use it for that? (VERY IMPORTANT if you work online). extra question: is there a workspace (I’ve unfortunately been at places where this was not the case. There was no proper table and chair where we had an internet connection)

  13. In case you’re allergic to certain animals or afraid of them: What kind of animals do you have?

One final remark: Some host charge a fee to cover the costs of food. This absolutely has to be stated, but I wanted to point this out so that you are checking profiles carefully enough so that you can budget accordingly.

One final piece of advice: Sometimes things can sound as if they’re different from how you had imagined your workaway to be. I would always allow some room for flexibility as the reality is mostly still different from what you imagined it to be, no matter how many questions you asked. After arriving you might find some things that you don’t automatically like. Give it a day or two to see whether you can live with it. There might be other things that totally make up for it, especially the atmosphere or the other workawayers. Those are factors that are hard to describe beforehand and are often a crucial point whether one enjoys the volunteering or not.

Volunteering can show you sides of yourself that you didn’t know before. You will grow in character and learn useful hands-on skills you might never have thought of (such as how to cook rice properly at altitude ;))

The more open you are, the more positive aspects you can draw of such an experience. In the end, you are choosing to be at this place and it stays your choice to be there as long as you do. With this kind of volunteering, even if you agreed to a certain time to stay, no one can ultimately force you to stay. So feel that freedom and make the most of your experience!

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