What if I told you it was possible to stay in a nice hostel without it costing you a penny?
My partner and I had been Wwoofing (working for food and accommodation on organic farms / properties) for several months and it had come to the Christmas break. We went to stay with some friends in sunny Nelson and the break from heavy labour and early mornings that Wwoofing requires of you as welcomed with open arms. However come January we knew we had to get back out into the world and we still felt like we were not ready to go back to Wwoofing. On our travels we had heard about the option of working at hostels in exchange for a bed. A simple exchange and one that seemed less time sucking and less demanding. We liked the region and decided to see if we could find ourselves such a deal.
How we found our hostel and how you can do the same
New Zealand has a lot of hostels to serve the huge amount of tourists that pass through every year. Many of the hostels are part of the BBH New Zealand hostel network. New Zealand BBH hostels list staff work exchange vacancies on the boards at BBH.co.nz so that’s where we started.
Putting together a simple email introducing ourselves we started contacting hostels in the Nelson, Abel Tasman and Malborough Sounds region that needed cleaners in exchange for a place to stay. Initially we just had rejections either because the hostels only needed one cleaner or they had filled the positions already. So we expanded our search to hostels not listed on the boards and started emailing them directly. One hostel on the BBH board was only looking for one cleaner but it looked really nice, had a great BBH score and was in downtown Nelson. We had sent them a mail anyway but they only needed one staff member. Luckily a few days later we received a message that they actually needed two members now and it came just at the right time. We were in town so we skipped down for a brief meeting with the owner and she got back to us that evening to let us know we had the opportunity for three weeks if we wanted it. Easy peasy!
New Zealand is well set up with the BBH but not all hostels are members. Work exchange usually exists in the areas of cleaning and also things like reception or general jobs around the property. The best way to find yourself a work exchange, I believe, is to get a list of all the hostels in the area you want to be then send them a direct email one by one introducing yourself, explaining you are looking for work for accommodation and why that hostel / area. This method will work for all countries and will save you finding forums and dead ends. If you prefer pick up the phone and call them rather than email!. Just go to the source!
Our hostel and our duties
So we became cleaners, not a life aspiration of mine but certainly nothing I have any problems doing.
We did our work exchange at Almond House Backpackers owned by a lovely couple Fiona and Paul. Fiona and Paul have worked in the tourist industry for years and have backpacked a lot themselves, this is reflected in the hostel. It’s a very well presented, clean and friendly 9 room hostel. Only two of those were dorms and the rest were double / twin rooms. You could tell when you entered that this place generally attracted a more laid back crowd than some of the party places, perfect for us.
Our duties for the next 3 weeks would be 2-3 hours per day cleaning, a pretty standard arrangement for cleaning duties. This involved making beds for the day, cleaning the two kitchens, multiple toilets / shower rooms, vacuuming and a few other bits. Day one was a little overwhelming but we quickly settled in and generally found our work to take 2hrs 15mins on most days. These duties ran for 6 days a week with a day off. We didn’t get the same day off as one cleaner needed to be on and Fiona or Paul would cover the other.
Our room was a medium sized triple bunk room sharing with the reception work exchange. Luckily we really liked his company so sharing our room with Scott was easy. Some hostels put you in larger more cramped conditions and some give you a private room so be sure to know what the deal is before hand.
Work would start at 10, generally by 13:30 we had eaten lunch, showered and the rest of the day was ours.
Upsides and downsides
With the worry of spending $50-$60 a night on a hostel taken away we could relax in Nelson. We enjoyed our stay enough to extend our 3-week stay to 4-weeks at the hostel. Once we had the routine nailed the cleaning could more or less be done on auto and the 10am start was late enough to be comfortable no matter what time you are up to the night before. As we were recognised faces in the hostel people would often let us know if they had left food behind so basics like rice, pasta and flour were hardly needed to be purchased and every now then something fancy would be left behind. We enjoyed chatting with all the interesting people passing through and got on well with the owners and our room mate Scott. The month flew by and we were in the centre of Nelson.
However it’s not always perfect. Cleaning dirty toilets isn’t ever fun. Poor Lara was cleaning one day and a guy walked in the bathroom, took a huge dump, and left stains all up the bowl. She kindly found him and asked if he wouldn’t mind using the toilet brush! Luckily he obliged but you don’t always catch people in the act!
Some times everyone left their rooms on time. Other days it would be closing in on 11 and no one would have checked out fully. You would have to repeatedly ask nicely for them to get the hell out of their rooms!
Even though the days were short only having an afternoon meant that activities had to be planned strategically We love to go on long hikes and only having half a day prevented some of the walks we wanted to do from happening.
Working where you live isn’t always the best idea but we made sure we got out of the hostel as much as possible.
Towards the end of the month stay we were definitely feeling ready to stop cleaning day in day out.
Was it worthwhile compared with getting a minimum wage job and just paying for a hostel?
With work exchanges I always like to look at their actual monetary value. It’s not all about the money but is always worth considering if you decide to do such things. Here are some calculations based on one person.
- Hours worked per week – 15
- Accommodation value per week ($25 x 7) – $175
- Free food per week – $3
- Value per hour ($ / hrs) – $11.86 ph
So at just under $12 ph tax free that more or less correlates to the New Zealand minimum wage of $13.50 per hour once you take a little tax off (bearing in mind working very few hours). That’s not bad considering it’s fairly laid back, you work where you live so have no travel expenses and is practically unskilled, you have no contracts and it’s a social job.
Would I do it Again?
I definitely enjoyed my stay at Almond House so if I could find a similar environment I would not hesitate to do a work exchange at a hostel again. I don’t think I would like it to be my only way of traveling but mixed in with Wwoofing (posts coming on that in the following weeks), other forms of work exchange, hopefully soon house sitting and couch surfing and just paying for my accommodation I think it’s a great way to broaden your experience of a country.
Would you consider work exchange a hostel, do you have any questions or thoughts? Have you worked at a hostel anywhere in the world?
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