As a child, Will Hansen used to spin his family’s desktop globe and declare that he would someday visit every spot on which his finger landed.
After college, one of his favorite procrastination techniques was planning hypothetical travel over coffee in the morning before heading off to his work as a personal trainer.
Then COVID brought that job to a halt, and Hansen suddenly had the time to see the world — but not necessarily the money he needed to do it.
About the best he could do during the pandemic was Zoom into a virtual travel club at Boston’s French Library. And it was there that he heard about Workaway, through which travelers can work their way around the world by trading their labor for accommodations.
“You can create your own adventure,” said Hansen, 27, of Worcester, who in December began an around-the-world Workaway trip in which he has so far worked at a family-run hostel in Vietnam and a farm in Nepal, as a photographer in Oman and a home health aide in Switzerland, and as a builder of eco-friendly houses in Tunisia, all in exchange for room and board.
As inflation and pent-up demand make travel more and more expensive, people are finding novel and expanding ways to do it cheaply or for free.
Also in exchange for accommodations, travelers can work at hostels and as house sitters, helpers on organic farms or couriers (who get not only room and board, but transportation).
Even in an era of suspicion and division, there are growing numbers of hosts worldwide who let strangers crash on their couches through organizations including Couchsurfing and WarmShowers. Travelers can use HomeExchange to swap houses with people in 130 countries and MindMyHouse and HouseCarers to find house-sitting gigs worldwide. And like Workaway, Worldpackers helps people trade their work — usually 25 to 30 hours a week of it — for room and board.
These approaches appeal these days to not only the traditional twenty-something backpackers, but to everyone from high school graduates on gap years to workers between jobs to early retirees. And while it often starts as a way of saving money, traveling this way turns out to be about much more than that, sometimes to the surprise of even the people who do it.
“Most of the time when you travel you just get on a plane and you’re teleported to someplace different and then you get back on the plane and you’re teleported home, whereas this is a way to slow things down,” said Hansen, who on his travels has been a guest at a Vietnamese wedding, heard stories of the Nepalese civil war over barbecue on the farm where he worked in the foothills of the Himalayas, and coached the son of another host in soccer.
“It’s completely leveling the playing field” compared to the usual travel dynamic of parachuting in and buying hospitality, he said. “It’s more about: I’m a human, you’re a human, I can learn something from you, and you can learn something from me.”
CouchSurfers is completely free but most other services charge annual fees: $29 for MindMyHouse, $49 for Worldpackers and Workaway, $50 for HouseCarers. WarmShowers has a $30 lifetime membership for access to a list of hosts and ratings.
Many of these programs report fast-growing interest. A Workaway spokeswoman said demand is up, and a spokeswoman for an organization that arranges volunteer bone marrow and stem cell couriers said there’s a long waiting list (though she also warned that the logistics are complex and that seeing the world for free was not the best motivation for that kind of an undertaking).
Membership is also rising fast at WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, said Tori Fetrow, outreach and marketing manager for the US chapter of the organization, which places people on farms worldwide to work for room and board; accommodations can be yurts, RVs, tents, or bedrooms in farmhouses.
Many find their way to WWOOF to save themselves money while they travel, Fetrow said. But then it turns out there are other, less tangible benefits.
“WWOOF at its core is all about connections — the personal connection that’s formed between the WWOOFer and the farmer,” who may live vastly different lives, she said.
“They’re working alongside each other every day. They’re making meals together. They’re eating meals together. No matter what their differences might be, they find ways to connect.”
Other than tourist visas, where required, people who travel through WWOOF, Workaway, or similar programs generally don’t need work permits, since they’re considered guests and are paid in room and board and not with money.
Hostelling International USA, or HI USA, is bringing new attention to a program under which people who provide free tours and other services to guests in their local hostels get one complimentary night at any other US hostel after 45 hours of volunteering and an additional night for every 15 hours after that.
Even for volunteers who don’t take advantage of those free nights, there are benefits, said Danielle Brumfitt, spokeswoman for HI USA, which has started hiring volunteer coordinators for its urban hostels as it continues to expand the program.
“This gives them an opportunity to meet our guests,” said Brumfitt. “They might not be traveling, but they’re meeting people from Europe or from Asia.”
That’s the main reason John Donnellan volunteers to lead weekly tours of Boston for guests of the Stuart Street hostel, he said. “I get to know people from everywhere,” said Donnellan, 56, who’s done it long enough to earn a free stay at a HI USA hostel in Santa Monica, Calif.
People who volunteer for other kinds of community service can also apply for free overnights in hostels through a separate arrangement called the Great Hostel Giveback.
Meanwhile, more people are choosing to pay to stay in hostels — some of which have private rooms — as the cost of hotels and homeshares goes up, Brumfitt said.
Between jobs, David Terwilliger of Brighton flew with his bike to the West Coast and rode from Seattle to Vancouver, then south to Tijuana and back to Los Angeles, finding places to stay, and meals, through WarmShowers. The price: telling stories to his hosts about his trip.
“For the most part, these were people who had done this, too, when they were younger,” said Terwilliger, 30, a software consultant.
The experience “really changed the adventure for me,” he said. “I was going to go as fast as I could and impress my friends on Strava. And then I started talking to the WarmShowers people. It made me slow down and smell the flowers. Those human interactions reinforced the sense of the goodness of humanity, which I wasn’t going to get staying in hotels by myself.”
Hosts get as much out of it as the cyclists do, said Richard Martin, a retired woodland firefighter on the Pacific Coast Highway who was one of Terwilliger’s.
“I want to hear about their travels,” Martin said. “I like meeting people. You’ve got people who have been on the road for months on end, and I try to make them feel like family for a night.”
Hansen, who is now in France, said living cheaply on the road has widened his horizons rather than narrowed them.
“That’s the whole purpose of travel: to challenge you and push you,” he said.
“I know I will be welcomed by friendly people who I’ve never met before,” he said. “It’s a big world, and it’s all accessible. If you have a passport, you can just spin the globe and go.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.