How Two Young Americans Afforded 9 Months of Travel with Workaway
Two twenty-somethings from the United States, a barista and a bartender, get on an international flight. They have one-way tickets to Europe and no return date in mind except for a vague notion of “when the money runs out.”
This isn’t the premise for another Nicholas Sparks novel. We actually did this. Nine months later we returned home, after visiting two states on both sides of the U.S. and sixteen countries across Europe. Our Schengen Visa ran out – twice – and we did everything from kiss in front of the Eifel Tower to walk across Abbey Road to swim in the Mediterranean Sea to storm the beaches at Normandy to herd goats in the mountains of Bulgaria.
Many people have wondered, even without directly asking us: how did a young couple afford such a long trip? Surely they must be from an affluent family and their parents paid for a major portion of it. Or they had some other source of income, maybe they are travel writers. Or they were irresponsible and took out a loan for something else and used it on travel instead.
Actually, no. We aren’t from an affluent family. We aren’t the kind of people who judges let off for crimes because we don’t understand the consequences of our actions. We self-funded our trip, without loans or parents, and we did it all with out supplemental income during the nine months of travel.
Alright, well you must have had pretty high paying jobs then.
If a barista and a bartender is your idea of high paying jobs, then yes, consider us part of the 1%. And since we spent all of our travel funds, we’ll be expecting a golden parachute soon. (Just kidding. We didn’t waste all of our money, we’re not that irresponsible.)
But if those sound like pretty normal jobs to you (as they should), and not the kind of jobs that typically afford people nine months of travel, then you’d be surprised to learn that we paid for our trip the old fashioned way: hard work and diligent saving.
Don’t get me wrong, we were lucky people with good paying jobs, but we lived well below our means for a long time in order to save for a travel nest. The kind of nest where if we both had a bad few days at work we could say, screw it, let’s not come back from vacation. Let’s quit our jobs, get out of our apartment, and buy one-way tickets abroad.
Which is exactly what we did. We changed our plans from a ten day tour of a few major European cities to a life changing year abroad. We had plenty of money for the ten day trip, but once we started thinking about going for as long as possible, “until the money ran out,” especially since we were quitting our jobs, we started thinking about ways to stretch our finances for as long as possible.
And that is when we stumbled upon the beautiful thing called Workaway.
What is Workaway?
Workaway was first mentioned to us when I was discussing our trip with a guest at the bar I worked at. She told me that there was a program where, in exchange for a few hours of work a day, you could have a place to stay and food to eat. There were all sorts of different types of programs, which makes Workaway different from WWOOF (World Wide Opportunites on Organic Farms), although they are both the same concept. You could work on farms if you wanted, but there were also BnB’s, child care, house renovation, random projects, au pair work, and even opportunites on vineyards or yoga retreats.
Within two days of hearing about Workaway we had a profile set up (a couple profile subscription is $38 and a single account is $29 for a year) and were in contact with someone doing an olive oil harvest in Puglia. Italy hadn’t even been in our original plans and now we were talking about spending a whole month there!
There are thousands of options on the Workaway site for places all over the world. It was so exciting scrolling through the pages and thinking we could sheer sheep in Ireland, work on a horse farm in Greece, help at an animal sanctuary in Cyprus, or any number of things all across Europe. Our trip quickly turned from a short sight seeing trip to a full cultural immersion across Europe.
There were moments of trepidation while preparing for our trip. How did we know to trust these people that we had never met, from a country we had never been to, on a continent across an ocean from our families? If you have ever felt hesitant about a blind date, where you meet a person in public for drinks, imagine the fear of moving in with a person in another country that you’ve only met via a website! Our parents were asking us how did we know to trust these people and we weren’t sure how to respond.
At the end of the day, we had to put ourselves in the good graces of other people and put a little faith in humanity. Of course, we were diligent in picking out good hosts. We only chose ones that had previous reviews (obviously only good reviews too!) and that had good email communication. The site requires a bit of personal safe guarding. If something feels off to you, you are probably correct. If the wording is weird, if they do not explain the work or accommodation properly, or if the reviews are negative, then don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Follow your gut feeling.
On the surface it seems a little daunting, but it’s really not that different from calling an Uber or staying at an AirBnB when you think about it. Once you’ve done it once, most of the fear wears off too. Even our parents changed their tone after the first few turned out just fine.
Our Workaway experiences were overwhelmingly positive. It’s truly amazing and humbling to put your life in a backpack and have people all over the world open up their homes and share their food and companionship with you. At a time when so many people are talking about building walls and keeping people out, being welcomed into other people’s homes and cultures is a truly incredible experience.
We lined up two Workaways before flying to Europe and built our trip as a mix of travel and Workaways. Travel fatigue is a real thing. No matter how exciting it is sightseeing, meeting people in hostels, and trying new foods and drinks, at some point you need to slow down. That’s the great thing about Workaway. You still get to meet new people and try new things, but at a much slower pace, and you get to sleep in the same bed for at least a few weeks! Plus, it is rewarding to feel like you are working and contributing to something while traveling, and not just relaxing (although we did plenty of that too!). By the time we arrived at our first Workaway in Austria, we had spent two weeks being ultra tourists in Dublin, London, Paris, and Munich and were ready to take a break from metros and buses and live the farm life for a bit.
The same is true in reverse, though. Spending too much time at a Workaway can give you itchy feet and make you want to get on the road again! Sometimes a few weeks on a project is all you really need (or want). A few weeks to a month at a place gives you a snapshot of how their lives work and you get to feel like you made an honest contribution. More than that, though, and you can start to feel like an employee and some of the allure of learning new skills and volunteering can wear off. We found that three to four weeks is the sweet spot. The first week you are learning the ropes, the second/third week you are in a groove, and the last you a wrapping up and planning for the next spot. It always gives you plenty of time on your days off to explore the surrounding area.
(That’s just for us, though. We heard of numerous people who stayed at places for several months. Oftentimes they had signed up for just a few weeks and then ended up liking the place so much that they stayed for much longer. Some people also only stay for a week, but that seems too short and you want to make sure that you are worth it to the hosts. Maybe you learn faster than us though: just play it by ear!)
While you don’t get paid to do Workaway, you are rewarded with some amazing cultural exchange. The reason, ultimately, that we chose to quit our jobs and leave our home was because we knew that there was a big world out there, full of interesting places and unique perspectives. Had we simply chosen to sightsee our way through Europe, we would have never gotten the chance to actually experience what life is like there and we would have seen everything solely through our lenses as American tourists. As volunteers, though, we got to experience these countries with a bit of inside experience. As much as you want to believe that the Guiness Factory is true Ireland, it’s not. Most people live on farms outside of the city, so if you want an authentic Irish experience, you have to get out on a sheep farm (and maybe bring some Guiness with you).
You also get an actual opportunity for true cultural immersion. In Italy, in exchange for harvesting olives, we got authentic Italian meals cooked for us by Nona and Rosanna and sat at a big table with a big Italian family. In Austria, in exchange for working on a small farm, we were paid with actual weiner schnitzel made by actual Austrians. In Spain, while walking dogs and helping a family, we got to spend our free time learning Spanish and eating tapas (and taking siestas!). The programs are oftentimes far more rewarding than any monetary value as your paid in a lifetime of authentic, unique experiences.
In all of the places that we stayed we got to eat with the family and share meals and stories with them. When not at home chatting over food that we made for one another, we oftentimes would go out and eat at the restauarants that actual locals eat at, places that we never would have known about otherwise.
How quitting your job to travel can be good for your resume
In many ways, Workaway is the best internship program of our lives. We got to travel while learning new work skills and build our resume while living abroad. Who would have known that quitting our jobs and traveling would be so good for our careers?
Before you go ahead and quit your current job, though, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, do you have enough money to enjoy your time and feel comfortable? While the Workaway can make your travel almost free, minus the cost of transportation and things like your phone bill or insurance, it does help to have a safety net of travel cash. Make sure you have enough saved up to enjoy your time and be able to take a bus to a sight, pay the admission, and go out for some food and drinks on your time off. It’s a lot less than you think, but make sure you have enough money to support your lifestyle!
Once you have committed to traveling and have saved up, though, there are a few things that will help you to be a good volunteer and have the best time possible. First and foremost, be positive and have an open mind. Hosts and other Workawayers want to spend their time with someone who is willing to work hard and have good engery. I’ll be honest, mucking stalls is not the greatest job, but there is no reason to drag yourself down. Sometimes you can spend the whole 5 hours alone, but you still need to be ready and excited everyday. You don’t want to look back and be disappointed with your time. Like life, you get what you put in. Your time spent at a Workaway will be wonderful if you work hard and give off positive vibes.
You should also consider what skills you actually have before you start applying. There are an amazing amount of people, young people who are traveling the world, who do not have the slightest idea how to make a bed, clean, or to cook for themselves. If you are one of those people, then you ought to work on some self-suffiency before you show up at somehow else’s house and ask for free room and board. Yes, they provide a bed and food, but you still need to be able to clean up after yourself and to cook your own meals. Especially if you have dietary restrictions – don’t force your hosts to cook two seperate dinners because your gluten free or vegetarian, but don’t know how to cook for yourself! Create a nice trade off by cooking them one of your favorite meals. Even if you are not a master chef, your host can probably show you a few tricks.
Beyond self-suffiency, consider what skills you actually have that would be helpful for hosts. Most of the jobs on the site revolve around either cleaning, like maid, au pair, and hostel work, or small-construction, handyman stuff. As a couple, Chynna and I make a great pair because she is great at one and I’m decent at the other. But before you kid yourself and say that you are a handyman, be sure to check yourself before you offer your services. Do you actually know how to build a greenhouse, by yourself, without supervision? Have you ever actually fixed plumbing or built a barn, or did you just hold the flashlight for your dad that one time? Remember, you are probably only staying for around a month, so you don’t really have much time for “on the job” training. In order to contribute, you should at least have a baseline of whatever skillset the Workaway requires before showing up. Don’t disappoint and overstate your skills!
That said, many of the places simply need hard working people that are willing to help. The tasks are pretty straightforward most of the time and the only thing required of you is some dedication and hard work. Again, this is where that positive attitde comes in. Once we were asked to put in flooring. We watched a dozen “how-to” videos on YouTube, but were still not convinced. We admitted we were nervous, but willing to give it shot. After 3 long, hard and confusing days we managed to piece the floor together. It wasn’t beautiful and we apologized, but out host was just thankful that we put our minds to the task and said it was only a closet.
Don’t be turned off if you’re not a master carpenter. Just be sure to read the profile closely and choose one that best fits your skills and things you want to learn about. If you find a place you are really interested in, but do not feel qualified, just send an hosnest email. We do not know the first thing about bee keeping, but we emailed a person explaining that we would love the opportunity to learn from her and she happily accepted us into her home!
Experiences of a Lifetime
All told, we spent about 6 of our 9 months traveling on Workaways. We did an incredible array of work, things that we would otherwise never had gotten the chance to do back home. In Austria we got to harvest apples and turn them into apple juice and apple cider, something I’ve always wanted to try and now know how to. We also took part in the humane slaughter of turkeys, an intense experience but one that made us appreciate where our food comes from and why humane practices matter.
We are now ambassadors for real Italian olive oil and appreciate the hard work that goes into the real stuff. Before Workaway, we had never tried authentic, 100% Italian olive oil, even though we thought we had. By volunteering on the harvest, we learned the ins and outs of a crazy underworld of fake food and what it takes to make the good stuff. We also got the chance to help out on several organic farms and can really appreciate the amount of work that these people put into making good food, free of chemicals, make it onto our plates. All because of Workaway.
One of the most rewarding parts of the Workaway experience is watching your work pay off down the road. The olives that we harvested in Italy are now being sold around the world, and we get to say that we had a part in that process. The BnB that we renovated is open for business, and we can look at their pictures and see the walls that we painted and trenches that we built. I can’t help but smile when we see pictures of the baby goats that we took care of that are now all grown up. Even though we only took part in a small snapshot of their lives, we got to see our hard work pay off further down the road, something that you simply cannot get if you only go to be a tourist and to sightsee. We made lasting contributions to the places that we visited and, in return, we got so much more back from those countries.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to quit your job and travel the world.