Staying in Europe for Free
Volunteer at a Youth Hostel for Room and Board
For years I tried to think of a way to live in Paris. But the expense and the near-impossibility of getting a work permit discouraged me. Then a miracle happened: I found a way to live in Paris for free.
I stumbled onto my situation after a disastrous evening on my first night in Paris. I didn’t have a plan when I left the bus on a cold, rainy night and wandered the city for hours looking for a place to stay. All the youth hostels and affordable hotels were booked, and I couldn’t afford anything more extravagant. I was cold and miserable hiking around with all my belongings in a backpack. So I decided to go to the nearest hostel and beg mercy—or at least get a recommendation for somewhere else I could go.
A large sign at the hostel confirmed what they told me over the phone— they were completely booked. However, I also noticed a small sign reading “Waiter/waitress needed for two weeks in exchange for room and board.” I had no waitressing experience, I wasn’t fluent in French, and I didn’t have any working papers. Hesitant, I asked about the position. Next thing I knew I had a room in Paris and a meal waiting for me downstairs. Best of all, I didn’t pay a penny for it.
Types of Jobs Available
I worked as a waitress and a cashier while most of the other volunteers worked the reservation desk. On alternating evenings I either waitressed in a restaurant or worked as a cashier at a buffet food line. This left my days free for sightseeing and exploring the city.
As a volunteer I didn’t receive a salary from the hostel, just the room and board. But I did receive a few meager tips each night. Every hostel’s needs are different. The one where I worked had a bar and restaurant, but many do not. And you never know, special circumstances may come up where a few extra bodies are needed, such as more help housecleaning or accommodating a school group.
Benefits and Drawbacks
You’ll meet wonderful people, both from the country you’re visiting and travelers from around the world. You get to talk to locals about what it’s like to live in their country and see it through the eyes of a resident. With fellow travelers, you talk about the places you’ve visited, where you’re heading next, and pass on tips about what to see and what to avoid as you learn from each other’s experiences. And you may even land a few places to stay on your upcoming travels. I received several invitations for a place to stay from the travelers I met. Likewise, I offered them a place if they ever came to my town. I still stay in touch with my roommate at the hostel from Quebec City, the waiter from Columbia, and the receptionist from Brazil. I was able to learn a little about each of their cultures while we sat around eating, drinking, and having a grand time.
Another advantage to volunteering at a youth hostel is that there may be reciprocity with other hostels. Other volunteers were able to use their days off to travel to another destination and stay in the local hostel for free.
If you travel to experience new cultures and meet new people, then volunteering is a wonderful experience you won’t soon forget.
Getting a Job
Michèle Obert of Eufed, The European Union Federation of Youth Hostel Associations, says that for volunteer opportunities or student summer jobs you must contact individual youth hostels. There is no central database listing the hostels that need help, so it’s best to call or email individual hostels in the city or country you would like to visit. Tell them your dates and ask if they need any volunteer help for that period of time. Let them know about experience you may have, such as customer service, waitressing, or cleaning.
It’s best if you know some of the language of the country you’re planning to visit so you can communicate with other workers and native visitors, but you don’t have to be fluent in it. I found that I spoke English much more often than French since many of the travelers to France knew English but didn’t necessarily know French.
Not all European countries, such as Switzerland, allow visitors to volunteer. England and France do allow visitors to volunteer for a period of up to 90 days without any special work or visa requirements. Check with the consulate or embassy in your country.
Lisa Cordeiro has found several ways to live abroad for free. She served in the Marine Corps in the early 1990s in Okinawa, Japan. She volunteered in a youth hostel in Paris and then returned a few months later to volunteer as an au-pair. She currently lives in Boston and writes about her travels and Marine Corps experiences. Read more of Lisa’s adventures in her book Parris Island: A Woman's Memoir of Marine Corps Boot Camp and in Europe from a Backpack, both available at Amazon.com or through www.lisacordeiro.com.