Here we go, I hope we are all ready to embark on the next series of blog posts. I am now moving away from the travel blog posts and onto the next portion of my summer plans. My plan for this part of the summer was to spend just under two months volunteering in a hostel in Tenerife through Workaway. I had an absolutely incredible experience and there is plenty to tell you about my time in the hostel and on the island. For now I’m going to start with how I was able to do it in the first place. Let me introduce you to a little site called Workaway.
What is Workaway?
When thinking about the best way to go about organising this, I turned to Workaway. Workaway is a website that provides opportunities for work exchanges. This can take many forms whether it be working in a hostel as I did, as an au pair, helping renovate a house, working on a farm or a whole host of other options. The idea is that you as a volunteer or ‘Workawayer’ contribute an agreed upon amount of time into whatever the task is and receive accommodation and some amount of food in return. As a potential Workawayer it is free to browse through the website and look at hosts but if you want to contact someone you need to register an account which costs £42 for a year long subscription. This might sound a little expensive but if you think that this is pretty much the only thing you will have to pay for (other than transport) during your experience and that it’s a one time fee that allows you to arrange as many Workaway stays as you like, I think it is worth the money. You are also paying for their experience and the security of using a trusted platform. Workaway currently boasts more than 50,000 opportunities in 170 countries so the world is your oyster! There are also other features that allow you to find a travel buddy or to find opportunities as a pair with a partner or a friend, although I have no experience using these.
Of course, there are other options out there as well. I can’t vouch for them because I’ve only used Workaway and I will say that Workaway is the biggest platform offering this kind of thing. But in case you want to check out some of the other options, here they are –
Choosing Your Host
When it comes to finding a host on Workaway I think the more flexibility you have the better. You might be looking for a host in a particular country or location, there might be a certain type of work that you fancy doing or specific dates that you are available for. Having one, or at a push two, of these criteria pretty set in stone is fine but the less flexible you are, the more difficult you will find your search for a host. Saying all of this, I did not follow my own advice! (Hindsight is 20/20 right?) I knew roughly where I wanted to go, had a type of work in mind and had a window of time in which to do it. I was searching for hostels mostly in mainland Spain of which there were a decent amount but I have to admit that I did not have a lot of luck. I think a lot of Workaway experiences are organised more at the last minute but being the kind of person that I am, I wanted to have something arranged in advance. Because of this I started looking in February for an arrival date towards the start of May. At that time many places were looking for a more immediate start.
So what should you look for on a host’s profile? Once you have used the filter tools to wade through the thousands of hosts on the site to find the ones relevant to you, the first thing to do is check the availability of this Workaway. Helpfully this is one of the first things on a host’s profile. It will tell you if they are completely full or not looking, if there is a possibility or if they are actively seeking Workawayers. Next, check the description to see if it seems like a good fit for you. You can usually get your first feel of the energy of the project through the description. Depending on where you are looking for a host, their first language might not be English so bear that in mind when reading their profile.
Important things to look for in the description –
- Working hours – will you be happy working that much?
- Compensation – what do you receive in return for your work? Does it seem like a fair exchange to you?
- Duties – what is expected of you? Do you have the skills to carry out these tasks or at least to learn how to do them?
- Languages – do you need to be able to speak a certain language? (Sometimes specified but many Workaway opportunities double as language exchanges so don’t stress if you don’t speak any other languages)
- Specific requirements – Will you need a visa in order to enter the country? Do you need a drivers licence?
- Covid restrictions – do they require you to be vaccinated? (Some hosts have also not been active on Workaway since the pandemic, even if their profile is still live.)
- Personal preferences – do they fit with any personal preferences you have? Do you need your own bathroom? Would you prefer to be in a non-smoking location? Are you allergic to pets? Is wifi an absolute must for you?
The last thing to do when looking at a host’s profile is to look at the reviews. Absolutely don’t skip this step and don’t just scan the number of stars they have been given. There are often valuable tidbits left in the text of reviews. Hopefully the host will have good ratings and reading these can help form your overall impression but even more important than the good reviews are the bad ones. Whenever I’m booking a hostel, I will read a couple of good reviews and then read ALL the bad reviews. I want to see what people were taking issue with, whether it is something that is important to me, whether I think it is a warranted review or whether this person just had a bad experience, whether it was in their control or not. It’s the same when deciding on a Workaway host. Sometimes people take things too personally or are too harsh so you can disregard those bad reviews but sometimes there are real red flags in them that alert you to a potential issue before you commit to anything.
When it comes to contacting hosts, it is important to make a good impression. All of my messages were sent in both English and Spanish, considering I speak Spanish already and was looking at hostels in Spain. I introduced myself and my skills, why I wanted to work at the hostel and as with any good cover letter, I mentioned something specific from their profile. You might not get a response for a while so don’t be afraid to send a follow up message. Having seen it from the other side while working at the hostel in Tenerife, I can vouch that hosts can get a lot of messages and it can be a bit overwhelming. They might not be active on Workaway until they actually need someone and by then your message will have dropped down so a follow up will go a long way to keeping you in the mix.
Between contacting hosts on Workaway and emailing hostels directly with my CV and a cover letter, I must have contacted at least 30 places. I didn’t get anywhere near that number of responses and the ones I did were all negative. Most of it was that they were either already full for the time period I was looking for or they weren’t looking for volunteers in general. It was disheartening and I did start to wonder if I was going to be able to find anything at all. In the end it took persistence, hope and also relaxing my expectations a little. Once I widened my search a little, that was when I finally got some positive responses and eventually a spot in the hostel that I ended up spending seven wonderful weeks in.
As with anything you have to approach a Workaway experience with a bit of caution. Hosts are all verified but if it’s anything like being verified as a Workawayer, that just involved connecting my Facebook profile to my account. If anything strikes you as suspicious, better to follow your gut. In the same vein, once you arrive you are free to leave any time. There’s no contract so if you don’t like it or worse, feel uncomfortable with anything, you can just leave. For me, I felt comforted by the good reviews on the profile of the hostel I was going to, not a single one under five stars with glowing words of praise from and for the host. I was also comforted by the video call I had with the manager of the hostel. Speaking to someone in person (or through a screen) is so different to messages or emails and it’s much easier to gauge the feeling that way. I could tell from speaking to Ale that this hostel was going to be a good fit for me.
My Experience with Workaway
To start with I want to explain what led me to embark on this specific experience. I finished my teaching at the university in Mulhouse in April and had a long four month summer holiday stretching ahead of me. I had a deadline of the second week in July to be back in Scotland for a family holiday but I knew I wanted to pack in some travelling and something a little bit different into the months running up to that. As you can imagine one of my aims in moving to France was to improve my French and it has improved, massively. It’s been a little while though, five years to be exact, since I gave my Spanish any TLC. I thought remedying that would be a good start in figuring out what to do with my summer.
I’ve also always quite fancied working in a hostel for a little while. I always enjoy staying in them. I love the atmosphere and the mix of people plus I feel like my skills are really suited to that kind of environment. I speak a few languages which helps in what is usually quite an international environment. I have experience working in a residential centre for a charity cleaning bathrooms and changing beds and I like to think that I’m a friendly, welcoming person who can create a nice atmosphere for guests. It seemed like now might be a good time to do this and combine it with my desire to work on my Spanish.
I have forayed into the world of Workaway once before but hadn’t gotten very far with it. In March 2020 I was trying to figure out how to spend several months in France on my university study abroad year after being forced to leave China early due to Covid and Workaway was something that I looked at. Of course I never got the chance to see that through because Covid arrived in Europe shortly after I did. This time I returned with a little more hope that I would actually get to see this idea through to completion.
Like I mentioned, I had some pretty inflexible criteria when it came to finding a host. I had a seven week gap between a family event in Dublin and a family holiday back in Scotland. I wanted to work in a hostel and I wanted that hostel to be in Spain. Initially I had been focusing on mainland Spain because given that I was already in Europe it seemed to make more sense and I felt like it would be a cheaper option in terms of transport there and back. However, not having much luck with this (lots of rejections and one unsuccessful interview) I started looking at several hostels in the Canary Islands that were looking for people on Workaway and that actually seemed like they would be a good fit for me.
I was drawn to one hostel in particular on the island of Tenerife that combined their business with supporting a number of social projects, one a paediatric hospital in Port au Prince, Haiti, and the other a free dentist consultation service in Brazil. That caught my attention but you could also feel the good energy through the description of the hostel in the profile. I sent my usual message, an introductory paragraph in both Spanish and English and actually got a positive response! I then arranged a video interview with Ale, one of the managers of the hostel, and by the end of it he was offering me a spot! The only thing that had to be worked out but in the end I was able to go for exactly the dates I wanted, starting mid-May and leaving just after the start of July. I was thrilled! I have to admit here that I knew very little about Tenerife other than it is a prime choice for British tourists who want an all inclusive, relaxing by the pool kind of holiday, but I was still excited to get to know a new place. I won’t go into everything I learned about Tenerife right now but know that there are plenty of blogs to come on that subject as I share my love for the island.
Pros and Cons
This will not be an exhaustive list of pros and cons of using Workaway but I want to share a few. Once again, this is focusing on the Workaway website and the general experience and not the one that I had with my specific host.
- Workaway is by far the largest platform of this kind – That brings a whole host of advantages including security and variety. It gives you the most opportunities and a bit more trust than the smaller platforms.
- Meeting like-minded people – By choosing to do something like Workaway, you are guaranteed to meet other people who share the same curiosity and sense of adventure as you. Obviously there are always people you don’t click with but I would say that Workaway is one of those experiences where you are much more likely to get on with the other people doing it. You are at least going to have Workaway in common!
- It makes long term travel more accessible – There’s no way I could have done the length of time I did if I was just travelling as normal. Something like Workaway where there is an exchange in services allows you to stay somewhere for longer without breaking the bank.
- You can really get to know a place – Or as Workaway says ‘travel like a local’. It’s another advantage to being able to stay somewhere longer as well as work with people who do actually live there. You get to see a side of a place that you wouldn’t get to just as a tourist. There is always a lot more to see than you can fit in to a one week visit or aspects of life that aren’t visible to outsiders.
- The more specific the more difficult – Like you saw with me, if you are looking for something to fit a very specific set of criteria there might not be as many options.
- It’s volunteering, not work – At the end of the day, even if you are getting something in return for your work, you aren’t getting paid. That means you will still need to have some of your own funds going in. At the very least you will need money for transport to and from your Workaway. You might also need a little money for some food if not everything is covered as well as any activities you want to do during your stay. It’s also good to have some money set aside in case things don’t go to plan and you need to leave early.
- Workaway can be an intense and sometimes overwhelming experience – Just because of the nature of it, living with a host family or other volunteers, being very involved in life with your host, immersing yourself in local life, that can all get a little much sometimes. There are ways to get around this like taking some time to do something by yourself but embracing it for the limited period of time that you are there can turn this from a con into a pro!
In general I think Workaway is a great way to make long term travel more accessible. It’s a great way to save money by working for just a few hours and there’s a lot you can get out of that work. For example, the whole reason I wanted to do something like this was to improve my Spanish and that’s not an uncommon motivation. It’s a great way to learn new skills – for example I got trained on reception at the hostel where I learnt a lot of new things. There is no way that I would have been able to spend seven weeks in Tenerife on my own dime but with Workaway I was able to use the money that I was saving on accommodation and food to explore as much of the island as I could and have some amazing experiences. While the amount of hours you do depend on the specific host and type of work, it generally leaves you with lots of time off. Saying that, it’s still work and you have to be prepared to put the effort in. It’s not fair on your host if you turn up and then don’t fulfil your end of the bargain. In general and as with anything, you get out of Workaway what you put in.
Next up I’m going to tell you a bit more about the specific hostel I was working at and what that work involved. If you have any questions about using Workaway or anything you want me to cover in the next post about the hostel, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them!