Extend Your Travels Abroad with a Hostel Job
How to Find Work at Hostels in South America
Article and photos by Isabel Eva Bohrer
9/2/2010 with resources updated 8/21/2018 by Transitions Abroad
Are your travels more limited by money than by time? Then finding work at a hostel might be a remedy for your dilemma. Working in exchange for accommodations, or even food, is becoming more and more common among travelers. In fact, in some places, it almost seems as if foreigners are running the local establishments entirely. Travelers know how to cater to travelers. Here’s how you can become part of the catering in South America.
The First Step
In short, there are two options for setting up work at a hostel. You can either arrange a placement beforehand or once you have already arrived on site. Though the latter is more common, both are possible, but depending on various factors, one or the other might work better for you.
Arranging Work from Abroad
If you know from the start that you want to work at a hostel, setting up a job placement in advance might be advantageous. Again, there are several options.
Googling a hostel job abroad will yield results, as some hostels advertise online for positions. Depending upon the prevailing demand, postings change all the time, but one example would be Hostel Suites in Mendoza. Portals such as HostelJobs can also be useful. If you are looking for a job in a specific location or even at a specific hostel, sending them an email or even calling them up is always worth a shot. But just as a note of caution, this is South America we are talking about; people may not reply or even if they do, their answers could change by the time you actually arrive. Use your judgment and common sense to evaluate the responses you receive. If at all possible, go with a hostel one of your friends or relatives has stayed at.
If you want to be entirely sure to have a placement, there are also organizations such as Contact Chile and Voluntario Global which facilitate jobs abroad, some of which are at hostels. Note, however, that these intermediary services involve a fee, and changing your placement, for whatever reason, results in an additional charge.
Getting Hired On-Site
Whether or not working at a hostel is part of your initial travel plans, it can certainly become a reality once you are abroad. In fact, some hostels require that you show up in person before they hire you; this way, they not only know that you are already in-country, but can also evaluate whether you are the kind of person they want to hire. But don’t let that scare you off; after staying in several hostels in South America you will find that getting hired is much less formal than you expect it to be. Usually, there is no set procedure, which is why it is a lot more common to be hired on-site than from abroad.
Getting a job frequently results from becoming friends with the people who either already work at the hostel or own the place entirely. In such a case, travelers who were initially guests are the ones who end up becoming employees. Some hostels, such as 1004 in Bariloche, Argentina, will have signs saying that they are currently looking for people to join their staff. Others, such as La Casa Roja in Santiago, Chile, had a wait-list of travelers looking to work there when I went there in search of work. And establishments such as Hostel Independencia in Mendoza, Argentina, have a steady staff of locals who run the place perfectly.
Bottom line: finding a job at a hostel in South America can be a bit hit-or-miss. It can involve going around town to various hostels to scout out a position, or being extremely persistent in order to find the one that you want. The latter was the case with Seba de Praxis, an Argentinean seeking to work at the Hostel Inn in Bariloche. Despite the plenitude of hostels in Bariloche, he only wanted to work at this particular one. His downfall, however, was that he knew little English. Nevertheless, after an intensive language course and a lot of perseverance, he was hired.
This last example brings us to some of the fundamental skills necessary to work at a hostel. Languages, especially English, are a must. So are people skills, and persistence. And if you have specific skills, such as Web-page design or cooking, flaunt them as well.
Reeve, a current employee of La Casa Roja, started out by offering his epicurean talent when his funds dwindled; having graduated from a culinary institute, he would suggest cooking travelers their food if they let him eat with them afterwards. His was a successful story; he now cooks twice a week for the entire hostel! Arturo; a permacultura fanatic, came to El Bolsón in Patagonia to complete a construction course at CIDEP. After completing the course, he was hired for a work-exchange at La Casa del Viajero to construct a new cabaña (guest house). .
Regardless of your specific skills, arriving at a place just before high season is advantageous. While most guidebooks may clue you in on high and low seasons, keep in mind other unexpected factors may enter into the equation. For example, the earthquake in Chile decreased tourism; even during Easter, hostels were receiving fewer guests, which meant less of a demand for hostel employees.
After all this talk about getting a job, what does the position actually involve? Of course, the kind of work will vary from hostel to hostel. To offer some examples: at La Casa Roja, 18 hours of work per week will get you free accommodations. Work hours are a combination of shifts working at reception, at the bar, cleaning rooms, and bathrooms. While 18 hours may not seem like much, don’t expect to make your own schedule; that is up to the supervisor. Keep in mind that night shifts are part of the deal.
The above is usually the standard for hostels in larger or even mid-size cities. If organizing the next pub crawl is not your thing, then Patagonia might be an option. Here, work may include gardening, watering plants, chopping wood and some construction. La Casa del Viajero, for example, offers travelers the possibility of working in exchange for accommodations. Demand for work may vary (all the wood might be chopped already), so don’t count on it. The Casa also has one or two regular volunteers working there long-term in exchange for accommodations and a food stipend.
Is Working at a Hostel Right for Me?
While working at a hostel may be a great way to extend your travels, it is not a job for everyone. More often than not, working at a hostel requires a minimum time commitment that some travelers simply cannot meet. But even more than the time frame required, not everyone is cut out for the actual responsibilities necessary to work at a hostel. Cleaning bathrooms is nobody’s idea of fun, but some may dislike the task more than others. And coming from an academic background, some people may not feel mentally challenged by simply checking in guests. Night shifts at a reception can also be long and tedious. While some places, such as La Casa Roja, have separate rooms for employees, usually you will be living among travelers in a dorm room. Life can get noisy and privacy is limited.
However, having limited privacy and a series of noisy nights does not discount the advantages that hostel work can bring. No doubt you will get to know people from all over the world, as well as having access to the culture of the locals that surround you (make sure to actually leave the hostel in which you work to do so!). It is hypothetically possible to work and live at a hostel all your life, but even a couple of months can really enrich your travels.
Isabel Eva Bohrer is the Director and Founder of ROOSTERGNN Global News Network, a non-profit news agency.