Workaways: Transform a Ho Hum Retirement Into Something Extraordinary

“Working twenty-five hours a week for room and board? Are you crazy?”

That is the comment we often hear from friends when we first begin telling them about our experiences with Workaways.

However, after we explain that we do it to learn a new skill, to experience a new area, to ‘give back’, and that we meet the most interesting people, they sometimes change their minds.

Or, at least they begin to understand our love for this part of our retired nomadic lifestyle.

What are Workaways?

In essence, a workaway is volunteering your time to help someone in exchange for food and lodging. The time suggested is typically twenty to twenty-five hours a week (four to five hours a day for five days). In return, you have a place to live and food provided.

The type of work you do depends on your interests and skills; gardening, child-care, language practice, building, helping with an eco-project, computers or tourists, teaching, and elderly care are only some of the areas where you may choose to volunteer your time.

We all have skills we can share, and like us, you may have skills you want to learn.

Retirees are often involved as volunteers in their home communities. However as nomadic retirees, we have to create our sense of community wherever we are in the world. Workaways allow us to choose not only how we want to volunteer but where we want to spend time.

Does living in a chateau in France while helping with a bed and breakfast pique your interest? Perhaps you are or want to be a sailor; a host in Puerto Lindo, Panama is looking for someone to help out refitting their boat.  Have a yen to visit Indonesia – there are many opportunities there to teach or practice English. Workaways are available in almost every country in the world so no matter where you want to travel, you could add workaways as part of your experience.

Where Do You Find Workaway Opportunities?

Several platforms offer the opportunity for travel/volunteering:  WorkawayHelpx , Wwoof are some.  They may focus on different areas of the world or different types of experiences, but all operate in a similar fashion; you create a profile giving your background and listing the skills you have to share or wish to learn.

You then decide when and where you want to volunteer, and select the types of ‘work’ you are wanting.

What Are Workaways Really Like?

The accommodations we have had, have varied from our own tiny house (a converted garage) complete with private patio, to a room in a quirky home overlooking the Inside Passage to Alaska from which we regularly spotted whales, to a bedroom in a lovely home where we shared a bathroom.

Our meals have always been plentiful, and we have benefited from some of the home owners’ passions. One couple insisted we stop work to join them in early afternoon espresso breaks – complete with home-made German pastries; another couple always stopped what they were doing at 3 pm – that was time for a beer, a snack and catching up on everyone’s day.

At times, we offered to cook some or all of the meals. We did this when an owner didn’t enjoy cooking (and we do). In those cases, the owners purchased what we asked for, and we often counted the cooking time as part of our volunteer time.

Some of the things we have done during our workaways, are reclaiming arbours, limbing trees, staining and painting, helping restore a Victorian home, creating a patio for a tiny house, and installing windows.

As you may guess, our areas of interest include gardening and building.

Most importantly, we made many new and eclectic friends including an 80-year old woman whose zest for life is unparalleled, a sculptor who can create art from almost anything, and an older-than-us couple who shared fascinating stories about growing up in Eastern Europe and immigrating to Canada.  All these people have remained friends and have left an unforgettable imprint on us.

So, How Do You Get Started?

Like in any new venture, the first thing is to check out the situation. In this case, take the time to look carefully at several of the sites offering travel/volunteering.

  • Are there postings which ‘call’ to you perhaps because of the location or the project involved?
  • What about the hosts; do they sound like someone you would enjoy working with? Remember, you will be not only working but also living with them.
  • What is the accommodation? Where you will be sleeping can vary from a bedroom to a trailer to a ‘bring your own tent’ situation. What are you comfortable with?
  • Read carefully the information about food. Most hosts provide food every day of the week. Others may provide it only for the days you work (assuming you will be touring the area on your days off). Do you have special dietary needs e.g. gluten or dairy-free? Many hosts will adapt their usual meals somewhat, but asking them to completely change how they cook can be off-putting. Do the hosts follow a special diet – vegan or vegetarian for example? While that gives the opportunity to try out a different way of eating, it is not for everyone.
  • Do the hosts have pets? If you have pet allergies or phobias, that is important information.
  • If, like for us, good wifi is mandatory, look at what the hosts have.
  • Look at all of the sites you can find which offer travel/volunteer experiences. Each of them is slightly different and you may find one which, for some reason, is more attractive to you.

After taking a close look at the opportunities out there, you need to look at yourself. Take a good honest look.

While the idea may be of interest, you may realize that living closely with a complete stranger is not for you. We cannot stress enough how important this step is. No one wants to end up in an uncomfortable situation – you don’t and the host doesn’t either.

Creating a Workaway Profile

The next step is creating a profile. Looking at other workawayers’ profiles is a great way to see what you should and should not include.

  • Keep it short but informative.
  • Briefly outline your background and why you are interested in travel/volunteering.
  • Mention specific skills you have to share or want to learn.
  • Select the important options for you; types of work you want to do, with or without pets, internet availability and the host’s language(s).
  • Say where you are willing to travel and when you are available.
  • Add some photos showing you working in an area of interest.

Set it aside for several days and then return to your profile. How would it look to someone who doesn’t know you? Edit if needed and then post it.

For an example of a Workaway profile here is the link to our profile.

Finding Workaways That Are The Perfect Match

Now comes the fun part.  Apply for volunteer/travel opportunities of interest to you. You may also find that hosts contact you about working with them.

You may want to start out ‘small’ beginning with an experience nearby or of short duration as part of an already-planned trip.

By starting with small steps you may become adventurous and comfortable enough to plan trips using only travel/volunteering.

Once you are in contact with a host, set a time to phone or Skype; this gives everyone the opportunity to exchange information, ask questions and see if your personalities will mesh.

Remember, you do not need to accept every opportunity that you apply for or that comes your way. If it doesn’t feel right, then it likely isn’t.

Finally, pack your bag (whether it be suitcase or backpack) and head off to your new experience somewhere in the world.

Why Volunteer With Workaways?

Although we are still in the house-sitting / traveling mode, we have begun thinking about when we do decide to settle down again.

In our future lives, we have visions of building a home with natural or recycled materials, living mainly off-grid, having composting toilets and grey water systems, and being partially self-sufficient.Workaways

We, alternatively, are toying with the idea of renovating an older home in some interesting, eclectic neighbourhood.

Our dilemma is that we don’t know if these are pipe dreams or possible realities. We use workaways as a means of being exposed to these lifestyles and ideas, and learning and sharing with others engaged in projects of interest.Workaways

We have done five workaways so far, our next will be two months in Baja helping build a home.

Our workaway profile

Our housesitting website

Meet the Author

Gail Harrison

In early 2014 my husband Randy and I sold our acreage home in Alberta. Already retired we have taken advantage of the opportunity to explore various cultures and countries, learning about other people and ourselves. We have traveled (often house and pet sitting) in Europe, Central and North America.

3 comments… add one
  • Maria Sep 16, 2020, 10:46 am

    This was so great to read as I don’t hear many websites talking about retirees volunteering when they travel! It sounds like you have had some great Workaway experiences.

  • Kathryn Ryan Sep 23, 2017, 8:21 pm

    We got to meet this dynamic couple when they came to couchsurf with us. They are still two of our favorite guests. Sometimes when I’m explaining about couchsurfing to skeptics, I mention Gail and Randy as examples of alternative thinking and living. I find them inspirational.

    • Gail Harrison Sep 25, 2017, 7:15 pm

      Thank-you Kathryn. Your comment means so much coming from you – a person who we both find inspiring. Thank-you and Achem for opening not only your home, but also your hearts to us.
      Gail and Randy

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