If you’re a budget backpacker planning a long-term trip, you’ve no doubt come across the idea of working for accommodation in hostels. You work for a couple of hours a day and in exchange don’t have to pay for your bed. It’s truly a great trade off: you get a bed for a little bit of work and still have plenty of time to explore the place you’re staying in (or find a part time job to help save up some more cash.) But working for accommodation isn’t just some bippity-boppity-free-bed situation. So here are some things you need to know before you sign up:
You actually need to be willing (and able) to do the work required. You’d be amazed by how many people I’ve seen sign up to work for accommodation and then are completely incapable of completing the tasks they are given. Don’t sign up to help someone build a shed if you’ve never held a hammer before and are afraid of heights. Cleaning for accommodation when you have no idea how to make a bed and refuse to clean toilets is probably not the best idea. (The number of people (adults!) who we’ve had come in to clean for accommodation that do not understand the basics of making a bed astounds me, honestly.) Read the posting carefully and make sure you are actually going to be able to do whatever the job requires. And if you don’t know how but still really want the job, be willing to learn. If you’ve never done the job before, do a little bit of research beforehand to see what it entails, and make sure to ask questions when you begin work.
Saying that, also make sure that you aren’t being overworked and taken advantage of. Yes, you do need to do work to get the accommodation. But some people take it too far and take advantage of their workers’ labor. Calculate how much a bed would cost weekly in the hostel, and then divide that by how many hours you work each week. Is it minimum wage? If so, cool. If it’s far below minimum wage, you’ve got a problem. You shouldn’t be working 4 hours a day, 7 days a week just for a bed in a dorm with no pay or food or anything else provided. Be willing to do a reasonable amount of work, but if you feel like you are being cheated don’t stick around.
Learn how each specific hostel likes things done and do them that way. You like to fold your sheets one way, the hostel owner wants them folded another way. You’re working for them, so just do it the way they want it. If you really have some inventive way to do the job that you think would improve things or increase efficiency, feel free to bring it up. But if it gets shot down, then just do things the way they ask. A lot of business owners get set in their ways even if it isn’t the best way to do something, but they pay the bills so they can stay set as long as they want.
Check out the hostel before agreeing to stay long term. Most hostels only have a minimum stay requirement of around 2 weeks, which is easy enough to live through even if you don’t really like the place. It is much more difficult to stick it out through two or three months. So if you’re planning on staying and working somewhere for an extended amount of time, don’t just agree to it over the internet because you’re desperate. Show up and see how you like things first. Of course, even if you agree to work for months and then really hate it you can always just leave. No one is going to chain you to the floor (hopefully). But it is generally just good work etiquette to not duck out way before your set leaving date without notice. A lot of hostels do talk to one another and share info about people that have worked there, so only cut out if you’ve got a good reason to back it up.
Teamwork makes the clean(ing) work. Whatever kind of work you’re doing, you’ll likely be working with other people who are also working for accommodation. You are all in the same boat, so help each other out. If you finish all of your tasks early and someone else has fallen a bit behind, help them out if you can. Don’t let someone con you into doing all of their work for them, but an extra set of hands when you’re swamped with tasks is always appreciated. And hopefully if you ever get overwhelmed they’ll return the favor.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you some insight into things you need to think about before you start working for accommodation. It is a great way to save money, meet cool people and give yourself more time to explore a location, but it is also work. Make sure that you’re willing to find a balance. (And please, if you don’t know how to make a bed, look up a tutorial online or something. If you’re old enough to travel on your own, you’re old enough to know how to put on a fitted sheet correctly!)
Have you ever worked for accommodation? If so, please share any tips you picked up in the comments below, especially if you did the work somewhere other than New Zealand. I’d love to hear how WFA works in different parts of the world.