Did someone say free accommodation and board? Yes, that was Agnes. Today’s author.
I’m Agnes and up until recently I’ve been living and working in the UK. As a keen traveller, I’ve always focused on creating memorable experiences and interesting human connections as opposed to ticking off tourist attractions. So, when I recently travelled to New Zealand, I knew that was the kind of trip I was craving. But enough about me, let’s talk the budget-friendly travel stuff.
You may have heard of coach-surfing (and thought it too good to be true). It does indeed happen, but it really is just a couch for a night or two in a stranger’s house.
You may have heard of house-sitting (and thought: that DEFINITELY sounds too good to be true). That does happen too, but opportunities come few and far between, peak around Christmas time and then dwindle.
You may have heard of WOOFing. And that’s great too, if you enjoy farm work and often communal sleeping arrangements.
By now you can probably see what’s happening here: if, like me, you’re a more discerning (yet very broke) customer, it can be a little tricky to find your own personal ‘Goldilocks Zone’ in the world of free accommodation. And don’t get me wrong: this is a problem you could only ever encounter in New Zealand, a country overflowing with the kindness of strangers.
“How did you get so picky?” I hear you ask. Well, I’m 36 (so not your usual kind of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed backpacker). I’m lucky enough to own my own property back in the UK, so I’m used to my own creature comforts, and I hold a permanent, full-time job, which gives me a very addictive sense of security. And to top it all off, I really like being organised and can’t imagine not knowing where I’m going to be sleeping a few nights from now on! Surely, I can’t be the only one wired this way out there, right?! Enter companies like WorkAway and HelpX, aka how I have been playing my whole trip to New Zealand for six weeks so far and absolutely loving it.
In the simplest terms: in exchange for a few (2-4) hours of unpaid work per day you get free accommodation and food. The rest of the day (and usually weekends) are yours to do with as you please and you can ‘stack’ your hours to create whole days free for any bigger adventures. Both WorkAway and HelpX websites use a very similar model, providing a platform connecting the ‘hosts’ (i.e., local people needing your help and willing to open their homes to you) with ‘WorkAwayers’ or ‘HelpXers’ (that’s you). They both operate worldwide and require a small subscription fee for access to their core services, which then covers you for 1-2 years.
Once you’ve signed up, you create a profile (which should include a bit about you and all the skills you’re willing to offer) and start hunting for your preferred hosts (both websites offer a handy map view). Having found someone/somewhere you like the look of, you reach out to them via an in-built messaging system, check if they’re able to host you, and, hopefully, agree on the details of your stay. You may be able to stay with your host for anywhere between a day or two and six months+, but the typical stint seems to be 1-2 weeks.
I’ll admit, I think this system of exchanging skills for a roof over your head is an amazing way to truly absorb yourself in the country and its culture as well as give back. So this is going to be a biased take:
- Real Kiwi life experience | Live like a local, not like a tourist.
Insider insights | Your host will often know all the best spots and attractions in the area and they might even show you some ‘undiscovered gems’.
Cultural exchange | You’ll get to experience everything from the local Kiwi-isms to their cuisine, hear many fascinating life stories, and have countless interesting conversations
Never get bored | Each stay is completely different from the last, so you get to meet a variety of people, stay in a variety of places, and do a variety of things.
Learn new skills | Most hosts are more than happy to teach you anything you haven’t attempted before. You never know, it may just turn into a career.
Tailor your stays to you | Like animals? No problem, look at farm stays. Children? Au pair listings are available. Hikes and nature? Look for more remote locations in spectacular settings. Want something for your CV? Try hospitality listings. Passionate about the environment? Eco projects for you. The list goes on.
Stay in comfort and style | Some of the properties I have lived in have been the sort of properties that I would have never been able to set foot in otherwise! And, most crucially, they are homes, not hostels.
Feel rewarded | Giving back to the community which is so incredibly good to backpackers.
Save heaps of money | Did I mention FREE accommodation and board?
In my experience, none of the ‘work’ has been hard or unreasonable, and it usually directly benefits the very environment you’re staying in, so both you and your host get to reap the rewards of your hard work. So far I’ve been asked to do the following things or have seen them requested:
Most hosts will ask you to undertake a variety of jobs throughout your stay, so you’re unlikely to be bored.
“I have found my ‘working’ time really valuable – it forced me to stop, do the mundane things for a while and prevented me from doing this supersonic tourist route I was inclined to do otherwise.""
This will be the section where I tell you about this one time I stayed in Kerikeri, on a building site, in a freezing camper van and 11km away from civilisation, with no car…
Okay, look: just like with any other type of accommodation, any other geographical location, or, in fact, any other human interaction you will ever have, things are not always sunshine and roses, right? So here are a few potential challenges that you may or may not have to account for at some point:
You ‘lose’ some of your precious, limited holiday time, which you could be spending exploring. Yes, you do. There is no way around this fact, unless you look at the whole thing as a series of experiences, all of which are a valid part of your time in the country. Having said that, I have found my ‘working’ time really valuable – it forced me to stop, do the mundane things for a while and prevented me from doing this supersonic tourist route I was inclined to do otherwise.
You meet fewer people. - as in fellow travellers. On the upside, you do meet plenty of locals and quite often their friends and family too. Depending on whether you are keen to find a travel buddy, or just fancy a bit of a party with your own crowd, this could be an issue that you’ll need to address. But hey: fellow backpackers are available for meeting at local bars, on public transport and during the trips to local attractions. It only takes one good conversation to forge a lasting connection, and if you do, both WorkAway and HelpX have got their own systems for connecting with and keeping up to date with your friends.
You could end up with a host you don’t really ‘click’ with. People are people – some of them you will get on with better than others. There are some things you can do to try and minimalise the risk of this happening (always read their reviews, check how recent they are and be sure to strike a meaningful dialogue when messaging your host, so you can work out what kind of person they are, etc.) The good news is the whole arrangement is entirely voluntary, and you are well within your rights to leave whenever you wish.
You could end up in a location or accommodation you’re not really enjoying – a classic example for me is the ‘too remote/nothing to do in the area’ scenario (I don’t drive). Again, this is nothing that a healthy dose of common sense won’t prevent: always ask for the exact property address and look it up on Google Maps to check the distances to local shops and attractions. If your future digs are not described in the listing itself, be sure to ask about them. And if you still have doubts, book yourself in for a few nights only for a start.
You fall in love with the place/your host/their lifestyle so much so that you end up staying there for quite a bit longer than you intended – I mean, I don’t know, is that really a problem?
If you’ve made it this far, chances are that you’re already intrigued and think that staying with locals and exchanging your skills for accommodation and food might just be the thing for you. If you’re still on the fence about the whole thing, just remember that there’s no reason why you couldn’t mix up some hostels or even an AirBnB with some WorkAway/HelpX stays to get the best of both worlds: meeting heaps of fellow travellers and enjoying your own personal space during a homestay. Or you could fall back on the system I’ve described above when the money gets tight and you just need to count your pennies for a while.
But let me see if I can end with a clincher: here are the absolute top five moments I have experienced during my various stints so far:
Hiking up and down a privately owned valley in beautiful Coromandel, complete with a private stream with swimming holes, enjoying the spectacular views and using a sort of ‘grippy-yanky’ tool to wage war against some weeds.
Waking up to a sunrise over the Bay of Islands in a master bedroom which was two thirds glass and offering panoramic views from its position on top of a cliff directly above the beach.
Having a go at a turning wheel and throwing my own plates and bowls in a pottery studio on Waiheke Island, followed by being driven to all five of the local beaches in one afternoon, just so I could compare and contrast to choose my favourite.
Helping prepare and getting the recipe for a delicious frittata from my host in Whangarei.
Going to a geothermal spa with my host in Rotorua, followed by a trip up the Skyline gondola and a classy evening of cultural performances, cooking demonstrations and a traditional meal served in an authentic Māori village.
So, if you’re travelling around New Zealand in between working and want to do it on a budget, head over to WorkAway or HelpX and get started on that profile. If you're still in the fantasy travel phase check out the JENZA Work New Zealand page to help you navigate your working holiday in New Zealand
Disclaimer: This is a community blog that gives traveller-to-traveller advice. JENZA does not work with WorkAway or HelpX. Always make sure that you do your research and follow those organisations' own guidelines on safely booking accommodation.
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