18 Sep How to Save on Travel Accommodations with Help Exchange
There are many different ways to travel. Personally, we like to spend time getting to know a place, its people, and its culture. We aim to keep our costs low and stretch our dollar to create meaningful experiences. Whenever possible, we try to stay active as we travel; and we’re always looking to learn something new.
That’s why we were drawn to Help Exchange. I discovered this valuable online resource about three years ago (and we’ve done unofficial help exchanges with friends), but it’s only now that we’ve really been able to try out the real thing. Currently, we are participating in a Help Exchange for two weeks in the French countryside. Here’s how the website, HelpX.net, explains the concept:
HelpX is an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.
HelpX is provided primarily as a cultural exchange for working holiday makers who would like the opportunity during their travels abroad, to stay with local people and gain practical experience. In the typical arrangement, the helper works an average of 4 hours per day and receives free accommodation and meals for their efforts. [Time range, tasks, and accommodation arrangements vary depending on the host.]
How The Site Works
You can browse the Help Exchange site and the various host profiles around the world for free. The Premier membership, at a very reasonable 20 Euros for a two year membership, allows you to contact hosts, read and write host reviews, refine your search criteria, and keep a list of favorite host profiles. Below is a screenshot of the Premier members’ search tool for hosts in Europe:
The search will pull up a list of host profiles so you can see where they’re located, what seasons they’re taking helpers, how many helpers they can host at a time, a description of what they’re about and what the helper’s role would be, photos or videos, contact information, and reviews by past helpers. Here is one example:
Our First Help Exchange
We decided to try a two week Help Exchange as a way to extend our trip in France for no added cost. We wanted to spend some peaceful time in the countryside, and we had also been hoping to find a way to learn more about sustainable farming or the hospitality business. Since we’re interested in running a small farm and/or Bed and Breakfast one day, we thought it would be a good idea to test the waters.
Finding A Host
I started searching the Help Exchange host profiles for rural placements, with a hospitality component, that would take couples. There are hundreds of farm/garden hosts in the French countryside, and quite a few of them run part-time B&B’s or vacation rentals. I sent out messages to a few of the hosts that looked interesting and had positive reviews.
We ended up connecting with a host who lives in a 15th Century chateau in the Loire Valley. They do ongoing repairs and restoration to the castle, maintain 9 acres of land, host events, and run a part-time Bed and Breakfast. In exchange for six hours of work, five days per week, they are putting us up in an apartment on the property and providing all our meals.
Each host has different expectations and requirements. Here, we work from 9am to noon, stop for lunch, and complete another three hours in the afternoon. Every morning, we water plants and flowers all around the castle. Then we take on tasks like picking vegetables, weeding, cleaning, even putting together shelves from Ikea. This coming weekend will be a Heritage Day, where the chateau is open to the public and will host a big dinner. I’m told that I may need to use my French to help give tours of the underground tunnels and caves.
So far it has been an interesting experience to see the inner-workings of this unique, historic place. Though the manual labor can be taxing, we have been treated at the end of each day to some really great dinners. (And our host has been very generous in helping us try to track down our missing luggage, which still has not been delivered to us, 8 days after arriving in France!)
Alternatives to Help Exchange
If you want to see the world without spending a ton of money, and if you have the time and ability to work a bit, then this kind of arrangement is probably a great option for you. There are actually a number of similar networks and online postings for working abroad in exchange for room and/or board. We’ve been happy with what’s available on HelpX, but here’s a bit more about a few other options, for comparison sake:
- WWOOF: “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” links people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help. This is one of the most well known organizations of its kind, and we know a number of people who have done it- especially in Australia and New Zealand. The main differences from Help Exchange are that a) it only lists organic farm stays and b) you have to purchase a membership for each country you want access to. For example, the WWOOF USA membership is $40. If you want to then go to Canada, that’s another membership purchase.
- Work Away is much more like Help Exchange and we know a few people who have enjoyed participating in it as well. The sign-up fee is comparable ($23 for an individual for two years, $30 for two people).
- Global Help Swap helps people find free volunteering opportunities all over the world, and you can include housing and food in your search criteria when looking for placements. There are fewer listings with this site but the registration fee is a donation amount of your choice.
A neighbor setting up a pig roast for Heritage Day in the French countryside
Have you ever participated in a work exchange like this? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience. Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
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