Diverse Journeys: Volunteering in a Hostel

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Killian Conygham explains the life of a hostel volunteer, and the pros, cons and logistics associated with it.

From the moment I encountered someone volunteering in a hostel I knew it was something I had to do. The individual in question was a boisterous Scottish man named Callum. Hearing him explain how his days consisted of leading pub crawls to pay off his accommodation, with tips paying for everything else, I could think little of little else for weeks. I have since then lived the dream and immersed myself for a time in that world. And in that time I’ve had some thoughts.

To start, logistics. The easiest way to find a hostel is a site called Workaway, which unfortunately has costs associated with it. There are other websites too, but if you have a particular city in mind, or know of a hostel that takes volunteers you can just email directly. Or even better still, if you know someone who has done some volunteering previously, simply ask them where they’ve been and where they have contacts.

What is very important is to choose a hostel that suits your desired vibe. This may seem obvious, but it’s significant to remember that hostels can vary from non-stop party locations to relaxed countryside retreats. Also, smaller differences become colossal when you are living and working there for months at a time. In this regard it can be good to have visited the hostel previously, precisely the way many get involved in volunteering, but it’s usually also easy to discern based on the reviews and listing what the atmosphere will be like.

Another key acknowledgement is that things will be a bit ramshackle. You will usually be sharing a room, showers, kitchen and toilets with the other volunteers or the entire hostel. While this may throw some off, if you can get through the first week I can guarantee it will mostly be forgotten. Indeed, as a friend pointed out, most of the best parts of volunteering in a hostel are hidden within the cons. Not knowing how long you’ll stay and being paid close to nothing or nothing are obviously a downside, but also give you the freedom to just live the experience without the usual concern for career path consequences or similar. The bizarre stop-start nature of living in your place of work, which is also a social space in a foreign country, can be intense at times, but personally gave me both an appreciation of menial work and a boatload of self-confidence. The low hours and lack of direction can be startling, but come with plenty of time for reflection, as well for all those things you always put off tending to. 

I could write a thousand words on the intensity of friendships, relationships and connections of every other kind you establish working and living in close quarters with the same people, as a stream of wandering randomers passing through every day. But I think in this case less is more. I can only recommend preparing yourself for the whiplash of meeting and saying goodbye to such people constantly.

I can only recommend preparing yourself for the whiplash of meeting and saying goodbye to such people constantly.

It is important to note that, as is unfortunately often inherent in the word ‘volunteering’, the setup can sometimes be quite exploitative. While there is usually a distinction between ‘volunteers’ who tend to do less strenuous tasks and fewer hours, and the actual employees such as bartenders, receptionists and cleaning staff, this line can sometimes become quite blurred. Hostels, especially in Europe are much more often chain corporations than small scale, ex-backpacker owned enterprises of old, and yet have kept much of the informal arrangements. So if something feels sketchy or you are being overworked, don’t be afraid to leave. It is after all an experience first, job second.

Ultimately, the main selling point really just is that you get to live, work and stay in a city for far far longer than usual. Something which you’ll find improves the experience in as many countless unique ways as wherever you are has quirks.