If you want to travel overseas but not spend TOO much on it, this article is for you. To be clear, this article does not give you typical ways to save money while traveling/choosing a travel package. You folks already know how to do that, and you can also refer to my travel articles.
Rather, this article is to review an alternative method to travel on the budget – via HelpX.
HelpX stands for Help Exchange
What is HelpX? Exactly what it says on the website. It’s an “online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.”
HelpX is considered a volunteering platform, and more widespread in Western nations – I’m talking Europe, (North) America, Australia, places like that where these travel methods are more accepted. Without food and accommodation to worry about, your travel costs gets way, way cheaper.
Is it legit? As someone who’ve used it, yes. I’ll share my HelpX experience below.
Note: I am not paid for this review. Just sharing my amazing experiences.
My HelpX experience
The gist of HelpX travel is – contact hosts you like and ask if they have space for you on your preferred dates. If they say yes, book your ticket and turn up. Some hosts prefer shorter stays, some prefer longer. Hosters and Helpers can give each other reviews, so you can see experiences of volunteers before contacting them.
You can make a HelpX account for free, but you have to pay the HelpX membership to contact hosts. Becoming a member of HelpX costs 19 Euros for 2-year membership. If you plan well, you can travel for up to 2 years, which is extremely worth it.
All hosts expect you to work in exchange for food and accommodation, but in reality this was only like, 4 hours a day, more or less. The type of work also greatly varied.
Personally, I did 3 stints with HelpX:
- Rural France for 7 weeks in 2009,
- Balingup, Australia for 3 weeks 2010, and
- In a hills-part of Japan for 1 week (can’t remember the year nor actual location)
Hopefully this will give an idea of what happens in a HelpX experience.
1st HelpX Experience – France
I was hosted in rural France, in lower Normandy. My hosts, a retired British couple, picked me up from the airport. This was my first stint, and for some reason they agreed to take me in (a newbie during the time) for 7 weeks.
It was honestly one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences in my life.
My main ‘work’ was taking care of farm animals. These included 3 goats (one of them extremely horny), 2 geese (one named, without irony, ‘Lucifer’), 2 dogs, 5 cats (including 1 old, blind, deaf, arthritic cat with liver problems, but otherwise very sweet), a bunch of rabbits and guinea pigs, and a bunch of chickens.
The work was easy enough – wake up, feed the goats, geese and chickens, collect the eggs, feed the guinea pigs, clean the pen every other day, walk the dogs, cuddle the cat, stuff like that.
After ‘work’, I did whatever I wanted. Most of the time I read books (they had a big collection), or go online, or take walks. They had a cherry tree that I climbed (I kinda ate the whole tree, whoops). It was very rural – the nearest town was some drive away, but it was peaceful and slow. The host took me to a few touristy places, but that was only out of the kindness of his heart.
There’s a very personal story here: about a week in, I was told that the lady’s cancer came back. They asked if I wanted to leave, but by this time I was extremely attached to them, so I said I’ll help around. In a few weeks, her health worsen. She passed away about 4 weeks in, in her home, surrounded by her family and loved pets. I will always remember that I fed her last meal: chocolate pudding.
It wasn’t sad, per se. She was a very joyful person. She was just like, ‘I hope I get to reincarnate into a seagull so I can steal your fries’. I am very happy I got to meet her. RIP Debbie.
2nd HelpX Experience – Balingup, Australia
My second HelpX experience was in Balingup, a town about 3 hours north of Perth. I stayed 3 weeks with a couple who owned an organic farm and slept in an old van in front of their farm. It was fitted with a good mattress and blinds – a lot more comfortable that you’d think.
The couple had an ambitious goal of collecting every type of seeds from Australian plants. They were very environmentally conscious, and promoted sustainable farming.
That means no chemicals. I brushed my teeth with baking powder and washed my hair with apple cider vinegar. Even human waste gets decomposed into (supposedly good quality fertilizer). Most items were handmade, thrifted or traded. However, they do have a generator which provided electricity for a couple of hours a day – needed that for internet.
My work there was also quite minimal. I don’t know if I appeared to be useless for hard labour, but I was given just simple stuff. I seeded artichokes, planted onions, and weeded. They taught me a lot of stuff that I still practice/incorporate into my life today – how permaculture works, making jam, how to knit, and handling an op-shop (second-hand shop).
I will always remember this place as the place I beat my fear of the dark. The generator was turned off at night, and I navigated my way to the van outside the house with a manual light. This is one of those things that you have to wind up to generate enough electricity to light up, and I would wind it for hours because I was scared of the dark.
But as my arms got tired, and the light dimmed, and I got scared, looked up to the sky in frustration… and I saw the galaxy. The beautiful, magnificent galaxy.
Now I don’t mind living in places with no electricity, if you can give me that view. It was gorgeous.
3rd HelpX Experience – Japan (I forgot the prefecture)
I wanted to visit my Japanese host family, so to make the trip extra memorable I squeezed in a week-long HelpX experience, my third.
My host was an elderly Japanese man, who took me to his second house, a place that he rents out for short-term vacationers. I was supposed to help him with the cleaning up and general homekeeping before the next tourists came in, but in reality I was more like a granddaughter accompanying a grandfather.
He treated me to fancy sushi, made me homemade yogurt, introduced me to his neighbours (including someone who appeared to be an ex-yakuza, judging from his tattoos), and even discouraged me from working so he could take me on photography trips.
You see, he was a photography buff. We went to take pictures of proud Mount Fuji, witnessed the changing colours of leaves in forests, and he was happy to show me his nature photography collection.
I mean, I still worked – I helped him to clean the toilet and sweep and stuff (had to earn my keep right), but he would thank me profusely. He was a sweet man. I wish I stayed on longer.
Those are my HelpX experiences. If you choose to go, your experiences will not be the same as mine.
I had extremely good experiences, but to be fair some HelpXers had terrible experiences too. You’re basically juggling a friendship/family/worker relationship so you have to keep all these in balance so you, or your host, won’t be taken advantage of.
It also boils down to your personality. Are you willing to adapt?
HelpX is good if you are willing to follow the schedule of your hosts, and are willing to forgo typical tourist experiences/locations. It’s also great if you want to have a taste of the rural life without the long-term commitment, see if the Harvest Moon life is for you.
Why I support HelpX-type travel
I believe people need to travel and see the world. Not only this is personally enriching, experiences-wise, but you also get to practice your language skills, and get to know different types of people. Your worldview is broadened.
However, I also know travel – especially long travel – is not financially accessible to most people. Therefore platforms like HelpX (and WWOOF – similar but focus on farm work) allow you to save money on accommodation and food.
You may ask – can I do this with my friend/partner? Yes, you can. Some even travel from one host to another as a family. I’ve met them on my HelpX experience. I’ve even met couples with toddlers. However personally I’ve only done it solo so I can’t elaborate too much on this.
If you want to know more about how it works, or just generally more info so you can start HelpX-ing too, let me know. I would recommend it to anyone who is easygoing and open to alternative travel.