Work Exchange: The Perfect Way for a Six Foot One and a Half Inch Black American Man to Save Money While Traveling Through Finland*

by curious keith

If you can’t tell, I loved my trip through Finland in late February and March.

I was able to see different parts of the country, learn about the Finnish culture, visit some Finnish schools, and best of all, stay with Finnish families and learn about their lives.

And I was able to do all of this through work exchange.

For those of you who don’t know what a work exchange is – and I was just like you a few months ago – it’s a way of budget traveling where you get food and a place to stay for a few (four or five) hours of honest work each day.

By traveling this way, the only significant cost you have to worry about is the cost of the planes, trains and buses to get you to these various locations. But after that, your “elbow grease” pays for your food and lodging.

For me, discovering work exchange was a revelation. I saved for a long time to do this year of intermittent traveling, writing and volunteering (aka my Quarter-Career Gap Year). But unless you’re raking in money bins of dough (which I’m not), it’s pretty difficult to do this just on money saved.

So the biggest thing to love about work exchange is that it’s less money out.

But another great reason why I love it – which rivals the low-cost – is that it allows me to spend time with local people. I can work around them, talk to them, see their lives and gain a better understanding of their culture. This is a huge benefit for me, because that’s one of the major reasons why I’m traveling in the first place. I want to learn about other cultures, but not just in a beach-to-ancient-ruins-to-museum kind of way. I want to get to know people and interact with them on a deeper level – and where possible, I want to volunteer and help in some way, in order to give back since I’m already getting so much.

I did some research on volunteering with international organizations, but in many of the cases I saw, it required that I planned several months in advance, filled out a bunch of applications and went through several phases of approval. However, with work exchange, I can contact potential hosts a month – or even a few weeks – before I arrive, send them recommendations or references from folks who can vouch for my character, and then, once the hosts approve, I can make arrangements to stay and work.

So how does a traveler set up a work exchange?

Well, first you need go to a work exchange site and set up a profile.

Three popular sites where you can do this are Help Exchange (helpx.net), Workaway (workaway.info) and WWOOF (wwoof.net), which stands for WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms. On these sites, the people who need help, the hosts, post a profile and give a brief description about themselves and the kinds of things they need help with. On WWOOF, you’ll see organic food farms as well as plenty of animal farms. Workaway and HelpX have farms, too, but the hosts have a much wider range of needs. For example, in Finland, there was a host who owned two husky farms near the Arctic Circle and needed help with their dog-sled safari business. Other hosts owned hostels, bed and breakfasts and even ski resorts. But the majority of profiles seemed like they were created by friendly families who needed help on building projects, painting, and other tasks that would be easier to complete with an extra pair of hands.

So what did I actually do for these hosts?

All kinds of things.

Since fireplaces and wood-burning stoves played a large part of warming the homes where I stayed, I did lots firewood chopping Image

and helped to build a firewood drying cage,Image

but I also cooked some food (these carrot pancakes were my host’s invention, but I cooked them),   Image

built small wooden perimeters around currant trees, Image

and did a bunch of other tasks around the house and around my hosts’ businesses. Some days were busier than others, but overall, it felt good to help everybody get some things done.

Of course, this was more than just a working holiday.

When I wasn’t working, I was free to do whatever I liked. Naturally, I used much of that time to write, read, and relax. But I also took in some of the local tourist sites and wandered throughout the local areas when I was able. Funny thing was, I didn’t have as strong a desire to wander and check out museums and other points of interest as much as I usually do. I learned so much about the culture and history from interacting with my friendly and knowledgeable hosts, their friends and other locals, that I would say that my most valuable experiences came from spending time with them.

What’s more, because I was interested in learning about the Finnish school system (for those of you who don’t know, I run a small student program in NYC which is currently on hiatus as I travel), all of my hosts arranged for me to visit their local schools. And during my visits, not only did I get to observe the classes and talk to teachers, but in many cases, I talked to the students and answered questions about life in the U.S.

If I roamed around the country with only a guidebook and map, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the kind of access I had by way of the work exchange and my host families.

So, needless to say, I’m a huge fan of work exchange as an alternative to Airbnb, hotels and hostels. It gets you up close and personal with the local people, and helps you have a unique cultural exchange that may be hard to come by through other means.

(Of course, this is only my first work exchange experience, so I’d have to have many more experiences to give an extensive, well-balanced opinion on it. But for now, I’m sold.)

If you want to learn more about work-exchanging, check out the sites I mentioned above and these links below:

1. http://mashable.com/2012/11/07/workaway-free-accomodation-work-abroad/

2. http://wondergressive.com/wwoofing-seeing-world-one-farm-time/

3. http://www.lashworldtour.com/2011/08/volunteering-gone-waaayyy-wrong-and-10-tips-to-avoid-a-bad-volunteer-experiences.html

(Note: I included the last article, because before I do something I always like to hear the good AND the bad, so I can learn how to have the best experience possible.)

Have you done a work exchange? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comment section below. What was your experience like? And would you do it again?

*Admittedly, the “Six Foot One and a Half Inch Black American Man” part has no relevance to the story except for the fact that I’m describing myself. Just thought the image of a “Black man in Finland” was an interesting juxtaposition.

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