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The Ultimate Guide to Volunteering at a Hostel: Tips from My Experiences (2024)

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If free accommodation in exchange for work sounds pretty good, then volunteering in a hostel is going to be right up your alley!

When you’re travelling solo, accommodation is by far your largest expense. Any costs you can cut are going to help big time and allow you to do more while travelling longer. It’s a win-win!

As a solo female traveller, I loved the opportunities volunteering at a hostel opened up for me. Not only did it allow me to save a huge amount of money which is perfect for budget travel, but I also met some awesome people, got to know the local area and learned a ton about the countries I was staying in.

Some of my favourite travel memories were when I was volunteering (minus the work part).

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, there are pros and cons to everything so to help you understand what you’d be getting yourself into, I’ve put together a list of pros and cons when it comes to hostel volunteer work.

If after getting through these, you decide volunteering in a hostel is definitely for you then keep reading for some key tips on how to land your first volunteer gig!

Volunteering at a hostel – quick guide

Pros of working at a hostel

  • It’s SO much fun
  • You get to immerse yourself in the culture
  • It’s a fantastic way to meet people
  • You save a ton of money

Cons of working at a hostel

  • You don’t have a lot of flexibility
  • Sometimes it takes a while to find a hostel to volunteer at
  • You usually need to stay for at least a month

Pros of volunteering in a hostel

1. It’s SO much fun

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Working at a hostel is such an awesome way to meet people and make friends when you’re travelling solo. Sometimes it can be a bit lonely and tiresome having to make new friends every couple of days while moving around. I felt a bit like this after a while. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a ton of fun moving around and meeting new people all the time but it is exhausting.

Depending on the size of the hostel you volunteer at, it’s likely there will be a few other volunteers as well. Unless it’s a particularly small hostel, however, one of the places I volunteered was a tiny surf hostel in Sagres, Portugal and there were about three or four volunteers most of the time.

So it really depends on whether the hostel has staff or volunteers. The others you’re volunteering with are quite likely to be similar to yourself since you’ve all wound up in the same location. You’ll be spending quite a bit of time together over the next month or so.

On the flip side, I volunteered at a large party hostel in Mexico and there was a mix of staff and volunteers. This was particularly cool cause not only did I get to know other volunteers but I got to know the locals too! They even tried to (unsuccessfully) teach me Spanish.

Making friends with other volunteers (or staff members) is the best because on your days off you can go and explore together or continue travelling after your time volunteering is up. I did this in Portugal and it was so much fun having a travel buddy that I had known for weeks as opposed to days. The funny thing was that she was also a New Zealander! So we ended up having quite a bit in common.

2. You get to immerse yourself in the culture

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Nothing says you’ve travelled to such and such a country like experiencing living there for numerous weeks or months. When you’re volunteering at a hostel, it really is all about travelling slow, getting to know the local spots and discovering the best of what that country has to offer. How else would you know that the little food shack down the road has the BEST pastel de nata’s!

Personally, I prefer this way of travel over just visiting all the tourist hotspots. Travelling slowly allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture. Time is on your side which allows you to explore more places that are off the beaten track and that you wouldn’t necessarily get to experience if you were only in the country for a week.

You also get to chat with all the people staying in the hostel as well and figure out where they’ve been and what they would recommend. This leads me to my next pro of volunteering in a hostel…

3. It’s a fantastic way to meet people

For example, if you work in reception, you get to meet everyone who checks into the hostel. Then when you see them around the hostel again it’s easy to strike up a conversation because you’ve already met them.

It doesn’t matter whether small talk isn’t really your thing or you’re a bit on the shy side (I like to classify myself as a bit of an introverted extrovert), a reception job is extremely easy to learn the ropes and helps you get out of your shell.

A huge plus that makes it easier to talk to other travellers staying at the hostel is they all know who you are. They are likely to come to you with any questions they might have and hey, there’s your conversation starter!

Other travellers tend to stay at hostels for only a few nights so if the sound of saying hi and then bye to people every couple of days doesn’t really float your boat, then definitely look into surf hostel volunteer work.

Why? Because surf hostels often run week-long programmes that teach people how to surf, especially in a town like Sagres that is known for surfing.

What does that mean for the travellers staying there?

They will be sticking around for at least a week, sometimes two! So it’s a great option to look for volunteer work in surf hostels if you want to meet people who are hanging around the area for a bit.

hostel-volunteer-work

4. You save a ton of money

Possibly the biggest driver behind wanting to volunteer in a hostel is to save money and that is one hugeee pro!

It can vary from hostel to hostel but most places will offer you free food and accommodation in exchange for about 4-6 hours of work, 4 or 5 days a week. It sounds like a lot but most of the time it’s fun work, and in places where hostel costs can be expensive such as Europe, it is weeeell worth your while.

I also volunteered at a hostel and Mexico which was only $13 NZD a night but it was still worth it because I was there for a month in total. So when I did the math and worked out that I was able to save $390 NZD it was a bit of a no-brainer.

Mexico was also my first destination as a solo female traveller and starting with a hostel volunteer job made me feel a lot more secure.

It was also fun to try and learn a new language even though I failed miserably!

If you’re new to travelling solo I would highly recommend starting out by volunteering at a hostel, it really helps you find your feet and ease into the whole solo travelling thing. You will realise it’s not as scary as you think and in turn, your confidence will improve.

Volunteering somewhere first also gives you time to build up knowledge about the country you’re in and get to know some people before heading off on your own.

Another way that you’ll save money is by taking on the recommendations of the locals. Even though the savings of this aren’t as visible as cutting out your accommodation bill, it can be pretty valuable. For example, say you want to travel to another city on your weekend off, you talk to some of the other staff or volunteers and discover that there’s a much cheaper way to get there that you hadn’t thought of and voila you’ve saved money without even trying!

Cons of volunteering in a hostel

1. You don’t have a lot of flexibility

This is probably the biggest con and depending on how you plan to spend your time in a certain country or city, this could influence your decision on whether you choose to volunteer or not. You will always get days off but it’s not always guaranteed these days will be back to-back, it totally depends on the hostel and the work that needs to be done.

Also, you are likely to be working during the day, which works great if you’re a night owl or plan on hitting the town but it can be a bit restrictive and leaves limited time for visiting beaches etc

surf-hostel-volunteer

2. Sometimes it takes a while to find a hostel to volunteer at

Not all hostels offer work in exchange for free accommodation and food so it’s important to plan ahead. There are a few sites like Workaway that you can sign up for but all my volunteering gigs I scored outside of the platform. In Mexico, I actually DID have a volunteering gig through Workaway setup, although I wasn’t too keen on it as it was a bit far out from Cancun, which is where I decided I wanted to base myself.

What I ended up doing instead, was volunteering at the hostel I booked my first few nights in Mexico at. It was a total coincidence and I guess I got rather lucky but the whole reason I was able to score this hostel work exchange was talking to people.

I would chat to the staff about how long I was planning to stay in Mexico etc and then it turns out one of the staff members I was talking to was the manager. He offered me a volunteering position the following day and I ended up staying for a month.

However, when I volunteered in Portugal I used a pretty different approach. I had a look on Workaway but again there wasn’t any hostel in places that I was super keen on. I had my mind set on the Algarve and being near the beach so that did limit my options a little.

What I did instead was search Hostelworld to help find the hostels in the area, find their email listed on their website, and send then reach out asking if they were in need of a volunteer.

3. You usually need to stay for at least a month

This could be a pro or a con depending on how long you like to travel but usually, with volunteering gigs, you’re unlikely to score something unless you are planning to stay for at least a month.

From my experience, a month seems to often be the minimum a hostel is willing to have a volunteer for. The reason is they need to train them up to learn the way things work in the hostel and that isn’t something that happens overnight so they aren’t too keen on repeating this process every couple of weeks.

In my mind, I was totally fine with this, as my goal was to make my money go as far as possible and travel the world long-term. My longest stay was 6 weeks at a hostel in Sagres, a gorgeous little surf town in the south of Portugal.

Tips for working at a hostel

Tip #1: Embrace the chaos

Working in a hostel can be chaotic. You’ll have guests coming and going at all hours of the day (and night). But instead of trying to fight it, embrace it! Learn to love the constant buzz of activity around you. After all, no two days are ever the same in a hostel.


Tip #2: Be prepared for anything

Working in a hostel means that no task is too big or too small. One minute you could be cleaning toilets, and the next minute you could be helping a guest plan their itinerary for the week. So always be prepared for anything that comes your way!


Tip #3: Stay professional

Everyone else around you may be on holiday but remember, you’re at the hostel to work so keeping up some level of professionalism is quite important. You want the hostel guests to respect you so they listen to you if something happens.

Staying professional also shows you have a good work ethic and who knows, maybe the staff at the hostel will be impressed and therefore happy to keep you on longer. You never know what opportunities may open up so just bear that in mind while volunteering.


Tip #4: Keep an open mind

Hostel life can be unpredictable at times – but that’s what makes it so exciting! Keep an open mind and don’t get too attached to plans or routines. Sometimes things won’t go according to plan, but that’s okay! Just roll with it.


How to find volunteering opportunities at hostels

As mentioned, I found hostel volunteering opportunities in two different ways. The first was talking to the right people (and a bit of luck I suppose), and the second was reaching out to hostels directly and asking them if they wanted volunteers.

The email I sent told the hostel a bit about who I was, why I wanted to volunteer there and my relevant experience. If you don’t have any hostel volunteering experience yet don’t worry, just highlight some skills that you’ve gained from other work experience and explain how these would make you a great volunteer.

Don’t waffle too much, keep it to the point but be friendly and relatable. Aim for about 3-4 brief paragraphs.

Then the third way you can find volunteering opportunities is through the popular site Workaway. You’ll need to create an account but it’s a fantastic way to start your volunteering journey and I know people who have had great success with it.


What kind of hostel jobs are available?

It really comes down to the kind of hostel and how big it is. For example at smaller hostels, it’s likely you’ll work on reception and have other responsibilities as well such as cleaning bathrooms and changing bed sheets when guests check out.

If the hostel is a bit larger then your duties will probably be a bit more siloed. In the hostel I worked at in Mexico, was considered a larger-sized hostel so my job was purely to work on reception with other staff members. I didn’t have to do any cleaning as there was dedicated staff for this.

Basically, you just need to be prepared and willing to help out with a variety of tasks.


Conclusion: Volunteering at a hostel

If all of that sounds pretty great and the cons don’t phase you too much then volunteering at a hostel is going to be the perfect option for you! Your wallet will thank you later, but what’s even better is that you will have so. much. fun.

As I mentioned, I had some of my best travel memories while I was volunteering and the countries that I volunteered in, are still some of my favourite to this day. Overall it is a really great way to see the world and connect with like-minded people. If one of your travel ambitions is to see how far you can go on the amount of money you have, volunteering at a hostel will get you soo much further than you could ever imagine.

So start volunteering today and work in hostels for free accommodation!

Best of luck and just remember to go for it, even if it doesn’t look like the hostel you want to stay at has volunteering opportunities, reach out anyway. The worst thing they can say is no!

If you’re curious about solo female travel in Portugal (which I hope you are because it’s AWESOME) and want to read more about my experience, check out my Ultimate Guide for Lisbon Solo Travel blog post here.

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