This is, in lots of ways, a great thing. Working holidays are usually affordable, exercise and fresh air come as standard, and meeting lovely people is easy. Of course, there’s also a downside. With countless host farms now listed online, it’s no surprise that some are taking advantage of volunteers. Here are some things that first-time volunteers should consider before applying:
1. Working holidays often involve early mornings.
No matter how idyllic the thought of working on an animal farm might be, don’t expect it to be easy. Early morning feedings are part of everyday farm life. When I applied to work on a miniature horse farm in Spain, I pictured fluffy foals and sun-drenched afternoons. The reality involved climbing over electric fences at 6 am and sliding around in dark, muddy fields.
2. Apply to hosts who have space for more than one volunteer.
Whether you’re volunteering in rural Mexico or a German town, expect to see a lot of your hosts. You’ll probably live, work and eat with your hosts for the length of your stay. This can be a wonderful experience. You might find yourself bonding over a glass of wine, learning about each other’s cultures, and sharing stories late into the night. If, however, you end up with hosts who have little interest in talking to you, having another volunteer on your side will help. Even the most exhausting day can be fun when you have someone to laugh and share the work with.
3. Working holidays can be physically demanding.
Depending on where you volunteer, the work might be tough. At times, you’ll work harder than you ever have before. You might have to shovel rocks (I did), or push a van out of a muddy trench (I did that, too) and you might not enjoy it. But you might also get the chance to see a foal being born, or explore beautiful forests, or make some new friends. Getting the work done is a requirement, but there should also be plenty of time for fun. It’s finding a balance between the two that results in the best experience overall. That way, if you go to bed with aching arms and fingers full of splinters, at least you’ll have a smile on your face.
4. If you aren’t being treated fairly, don’t be afraid to leave.
Working holidays are supposed to be an exchange. Volunteers are expected to help their hosts and, in return, should be treated with respect. Working 12 hour days without a word of thanks isn’t fun for anyone. Neither is being trapped on a remote farm, with no time off to explore the surrounding area. If you have particularly ungrateful or nasty hosts, don’t be afraid to speak up. It might not end well, you might even have to grab your stuff and head for the nearest train station. It’s not the end of the world, though, because there are plenty of other hosts to choose from.
5. Make the most of the experience.
Volunteer working holidays can be frustrating and tiring, but they can also be completely wonderful. If you’re up for the challenge, you can experience things you’ve never experienced before. You might find yourself feeding husky dogs in Finland, working in a busy hostel in Budapest, or teaching English in Prague. No matter where you volunteer, expect to work hard, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, and try to enjoy every minute of it.