Hopping a flight to the South of France for an extended period of time is a romantic notion that few can actually afford — or so you’d think. But what if there was a way to stay for free, or close to it?
For those with a flexible enough schedule, work exchanges offer free accommodations — ranging from rustic to regal — in return for a few hours of work per day.
While exchanging labor for room and board is by no means a new concept, it’s never been easier thanks to websites like Workaway, which has a broad approach to cultural exchange and features all sorts of “working holidays” including farm stays, language exchanges, au pair duties and hospitality work. Other established sites that offer forms of work exchange are WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) or Trusted House Sitters, which are, respectively, exactly what they sound like. (WWOOF is dedicated exclusively to connecting visitors to organic farms, while Trusted House Sitters connects travelers to those who need someone to care for their home — and often their pets and plants — for a period of time.)
These sites help connect those looking for accommodations and new ways of engaging with a culture with those who have projects they need a hand with and who can provide space to house visitors. Workaway is our favorite for the wide variety of listings it offers (upwards of 50,000 globally!) and for the easy-to-use filters that allow you to narrow down your desired region and seek out whatever type of projects you’re looking to get involved in, from pet sitting to harvesting grapes, establishing permaculture farms or tidying up storage closets. Whether you’re traveling solo or in a pair, there’s something for everyone.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to get started on Workaway and how to make the most of your account, as well as some inspiration for some of the most magnificent places you can stay for free in France this Fall, from a designer home just outside of Bordeaux to an off-the-grid commune in the mountains of Corsica.
What is Workaway?
Workaway is a platform dedicated to cultural exchange and learning new skills that connects travelers with local hosts around the world for “working holidays.” That typically means helping out on the property for five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for accommodations and meals. Expectations around the hours and the type of work ranges from host to host and should be discussed at the outset.
Outside of working hours, your time is your own and you’re typically free to explore the local area and immerse yourself in the culture. The platform also makes it easy to connect with other Workawayers who are traveling nearby, facilitating friendships along the way.
How to Get Started:
An annual subscription to Workaway costs $49 for one person or $59 for two friends or a couple. After you’ve set up a subscription, it’s time to create a basic bio for yourself. Here’s your chance to talk a bit about who you are as a person and a traveler: what you’re passionate or curious about, what languages you speak and if you’re open to language exchange, what experience (if any) you have in the sort of work you might be interested in doing (i.e. gardening, babysitting, household tasks like doing laundry or light repair work, etc.). If you have prior experience being a guest in someone else’s home — whether through Airbnb, a prior cultural exchange or anything of the like — mention that! It’s a relief to hosts to know that you’ve shared a home before and know how to respect their space.
Next, pick 3-5 photos that show off your personality as well as your interests (and ideally, your face!). If you have any photos of you that show you have prior experience with the tasks you’re looking to do, those are great to include as well. But don’t feel limited to applying to things you have experience in — many hosts are glad to welcome first-timers who are eager to learn a new task. Just be upfront about your experience level and discuss it from there!
How to Reach out to Hosts
Now, the fun part: reaching out to potential hosts! Workaway has a range of filters that you can use to narrow your search. Under the “Find a host” tab, you can search by host type (i.e. family homes, farmstays, boats, sustainability projects, hostels and more), accommodation info (whether there’s internet access, if it’s a non-smoking property, etc.), host availability (the time of year they’re looking for help and if they have a minimum stay period — most require at least two weeks) and more. Note that regardless of what their availability is marked as, it never hurts to reach out — sometimes hosts have a last minute opening that you can take advantage of.
When it comes to actually sending a message introducing yourself to hosts, it’s important to personalize your note — otherwise Workaway will mark it as spam if you’re just copying and pasting the same request to different hosts. It’s okay if there are some bits that are repetitive (after all, you can only introduce yourself in so many ways), but you should have a line or two that’s tailored to that specific property: perhaps saying what draws you to it and how you think you could be of help, or asking a question.
One thing to note: don’t lie about your capabilities! It won’t benefit you or your hosts to pretend you have extensive knowledge of milking cows, pickling vegetables or harvesting grapes if you’ve never done those things before. Rather than set false expectations, be upfront about your skill level (even if you’re a beginner). As long as you’re open to enthusiastically learning new skills it shouldn’t be a problem — and if a host is looking for someone who has prior experience with a specific task, they’ll note that in their profile.
The decision to stay in someone’s home or guest house is as much a risk on a traveler’s end as it is on the host’s end. Sharing a space with someone you don’t know — often someone who may not share the same mother tongue or cultural boundaries — is a balancing act that depends on trust. Here are some key things to keep in mind when looking for a Workaway host:
Read the reviews! The more reviews the merrier. See what past Workawayers have said about their stay and read between the lines if anything seems less than positive. If anything sticks out to you as a red flag, trust your gut and move on.
Once you find options that look like they could be a fit, reach out to the host and ask to set up a video chat to get a sense of how well you connect and to clarify expectations around the stay. This is a great chance to tell them a bit more about you and learn about what they’re looking for as well outside of what’s mentioned on their profile.
Some main areas to go over with your host on a preliminary call are: expectations around hours (most hosts expect five hours a day Monday through Friday, typically in the mornings; ask what time you’re expected to work from and if the days are flexible); what your tasks will be and what level of expertise they’re looking for (are you helping out with household chores like dishwashing and laundry? Or weeding and watering plants in the garden? Make sure you have a good idea of what is expected of you!); what your accommodations will be (do you have a separate entrance? Your own bathroom?); what the local transport is like (do you need a car or bike?) and what the expectations around meals are (will you be sharing 2-3 meals a day? Is there a shared kitchen where you’ll be provided groceries to cook with? This varies widely from host to host!).
Ideas for Where to Go in France
Just to get you started, here are a few Workaway destinations around France with glowing reviews. These are excellent examples of the sort of properties that you should consider: ones with overwhelmingly positive reviews, several photos of the accommodations and hosts/past Workawayers and clear descriptions of what their expectations are. Bon voyage!
Looking to go off the grid for a bit? This bilingual host in Brittany encourages visitors to get off social media and get out into the world around them, whether attending local events or foraging for mushrooms in the forest. He’s seeking cultural exchange with open-minded travelers who are looking to immerse themselves in the local culture.
Dreaming of a Mediterranean getaway on the famously beautiful island of Corsica? Here’s a property tucked away in the mountains where you can properly unplug for a bit. The rustic home is rather self-sufficient, with an onsite fruit and vegetable garden. You’ll be tasked with making jams, soups and fresh bread as well as doing some handy work around the house, like building fences and chopping firewood. The family of five are major music lovers, so if you can play piano or guitar, this might be your spot.
The golden hour glow on this stunning property near the village of Puy l’Evêque in the Occitanie region is reason enough to reach out to the hosts, who are looking for help on their vineyard and with the winemaking process from those who have some prior experience in the field. While most of the reviews are glowing, many suggest that a higher level of French proficiency is required to get the most out of this charmingly rustic stay. As there aren’t any interior photos of the sleeping accommodations listed, this is one listing we’d suggest FaceTiming the hosts or requesting photos to ensure your expectations are aligned.
Passionate (or just curious) about the world of winemaking? A few weeks on this organic vineyard in Bordeaux is sure to quench your thirst. This listing is a paid opportunity (so be sure to check on Visa requirements around that, first) where you’ll get the chance to work in the vines and familiarize yourself with the winemaking process in a super social setting. Reviews say the ambiance is “welcoming,” “awesome” and everyone feels like one big family.
This “troglodyte” cave home in the Loire Valley is ready to welcome travelers for a week or two in late October in exchange for a few hours of childcare each day while parents Anne and Laure are working. The couple share two young children, a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. In addition to spending time with the kids, some light housework and gardening may be expected. The nearby town of Gennes is reachable by bicycle, which the family is happy to loan you.
Sophie Dodd is a travel and lifestyle writer who covers hotels, wine, and all things France. She writes for Travel + Leisure, People Magazine, Frenchly and more. Follow her adventures in Brooklyn and beyond on her Instagram account.