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‘Help exchange’ is a cheap way to travel, learn new skills and meet people, Claudia Cahalane discovers

Help exchange volunteers share a meal

Preserving coral in far-flung places, working on summer camps for deprived children in the US – I often read about worthwhile working holidays like this in my early twenties. The trouble was the price. I resented being asked to pay to do something good, and besides, I needed to spend my holidays working to pay for my studies.

But, earlier this year, as I realised I was edging towards my mid-thirties, I found myself revisiting the idea of a working holiday adventure. I thought I’d try WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), but when I started researching I found myself on a site called Helpx, where a whole new world of free, awe-inspiring work opportunities opened up to me.

Short for ‘help exchange’, the site has a bulging list of fascinating projects around the world, from eco house builds and garden design projects, to assisting with women’s community groups.

The deal is that your host pays you in food and accommodation in exchange for up to 28 hours work per week. Some hosts will also take you on day trips, lend you their car, bikes and more. The only charge is an £18 site registration fee, which gives you access to more than 5,000 projects in more than 80 countries across all continents.

This summer, I started my magical helpx journey and have found myself working on the restoration of a 13th century monastery deep in the French countryside; serving local beer at a charming Tirolean hut in the Austrian mountains and helping create a website for a cooperatively-owned Berber guest house, made from local stone and clay, in Morocco.

In each place I’ve had traditional food, a lovely room, fantastic company with locals and fellow travellers, and importantly for me, I’ve learned new skills. I’ve become an amateur sander, chicken keeper and gardener who can restore buildings using lime plaster.

There is a wonderful cooperative feel to helpxing. A lot of the hosts are ethically-minded, generous people who love opening their home to a colourful pallet of guests. Often your fellow helpxers span all generations, from teenager to grandmother, some come as families, and many have an interest in sustainable living and travel. There are currently over 135,000 registered helpxers worldwide.

Part of the reason I’m helpxing is to enjoy the outdoors more, to do practical work and to see how local communities around the world do things differently to what I am familiar with. And I’ve not been disappointed yet.

It’s also, of course, an extremely cheap way to travel. Most people stay at a host’s place for around a month and there are few outgoings. You might want to take your host out for a meal or a few drinks at some point, or buy a few bits and pieces, but other than that, I’ve rarely found myself dipping into my pocket.

I’ve also found that with careful planning, travelling between places, particularly around Europe, can be fairly cost-efficient using popular car sharing schemes. I took one 600km trip from Rodez to Lyon, sharing the car with three other friendly people for the princely sum of 15 euros.

In between helpx places I did a bit of couchsurfing – that is, staying in strangers’ spare rooms or on their sofas for free, via couchsurfing​.org. The site has a good reviews system and again I met like-minded people who helped me to make the most of their neighbourhood and enjoy what the locals enjoy.

Of course, helpxing is not always fun. It can be hard work and some hosts can be unsavoury characters who expect far too much. You could find yourself childminding when you’d prefer not to, or shovelling animal waste all day, and it’s rare that you will not end up doing your fair share of cleaning. As is natural with humans, there can be simple personality clashes too, which can escalate. You could also potentially find yourself in hazardous situations, particularly if you’re working on a house build or renovation.

The key is to take your time getting to know your host before you go. Rob Prince, who founded the helpx site ten years ago, says he is increasingly encouraging hosts and helpers to have conversations on Skype before they meet in real life.

Helpx, unlike the WWOOF site, has a very useful review system for hosts and helpers. Bear in mind that some people feel uncomfortable writing bad reviews for fear of getting a bad one back, but if you read between the lines, you should get a reasonably good impression of your host.

It’s also worth considering helpx if you have a project that you need help with. The site is free to join for hosts and it can save you money as well as making your life instantly more sociable and broad.

Rob Prince will visit you if needed to help you understand how to be a good host. But, as a start you will need to be sociable, fairly organised and flexible – it’s good to expect the unexpected with helpxing, and that’s all part of the adventure for everyone.

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