Be a Workawayer: An Affordable Travel Option

conneaut sign

Conneaut, Ohio by Conneaut Kid

Thanks to Gina Minick from Conneaut, Ohio, USA for writing all about her trip to New Zealand which was planned using workaway to find host families to stay with there.

This article illustrates very well the process of organising a journey and the way that anyone regardless of age can use the site.

Using Workaway to travel to the other side of the world

January, 2012

Resolved: We will travel to New Zealand. For me it was the most improbable place to ever visit and for Len it meant Hobbit Village. Everything should fall into place by 2013: I would be retired from teaching and Len… well, his semi-retired lifestyle always allowed a green light for adventure.

Our first concern was finances. What was the most economical plan for stretching our dollars? While reading an outdated Sunset New Zealand Travel Guide, I came across the suggestion of staying with host families, which would not only reduce the cost, but offer the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Kiwi culture. Green light! I googled “find a family to stay with in NZ” and up popped I was dazzled!

A bit of history before I continue my story. was created by a Brit named David Milward. In the early 90s David extended his two-week Hawaiian holiday to two months by exchanging a few hours of work each day for his room and board at a hostel. He then began to put this concept of free exchange into action by opening his own home to travelers.

Signing up

So for then Len signed us up as potential workawayers. We filled in our personal information page including our individual descriptions, type of work we can do and skills we possess. Len is a handyman/jack of all trades; I, on the other hand, am not. But I’m not entirely without “handy.” I love adventure, love to say, “Let’s give it a go!” and can handle most domestic stuff. But…and it was a big “But” for me, there was the dreaded “age factor.” On the workaway website it says, “There is no minimum or maximum age to sign up.” But, being 69 and Len being 61, I wondered if our ages (especially mine) would limit the number of host responses. Well, I am pleased to say New Zealanders apparently don’t pay much attention to age. I did discuss this with Donna, one of our hosts, and got a kick out of her response: “Well, Dennis and I weren’t too sure about bossing older people around, but we got over it!” Age is not an issue, Gina. Get over it!

The website offered almost 200 New Zealand host families to contact. It didn’t take long to get the hang of it. First we read the description of the place (geographic location in NZ) and the family, their work needs, their expectation of daily work hours (usually 3-4 with weekends off), and what living accommodation is available. We also took time to read workawayer rating and feedback before placing them on our host list. This included a four smiley-face rating (number four indicating “excellent”), and an opportunity for them to speak their mind. We then sent off emails to selected hosts and waited with bated breath for replies.

water and mountains

Fiordland by Trey Ratcliff

There are two variables to consider. First there are the people, places and things we wish to see or visit: Hobbiton in Matamata, the hot springs in Rotorua and the kauri forests in the Northland of North Island; and Christchurch (where the earthquake of 2011 hit the hardest), the replica gold mining town of Shantytown near Greymouth and Fiordland National Park in South Island to name just a few points of interest. The second variable is finding available host families who live near these points of interest. Sometimes the two come together and sometimes not.

Planning the trip

This is where we as workawayers need to possess a high degree of flexibility coupled with a low degree of frustration. Thank goodness Len and I are well honed in both qualities! Our itinerary went through two complete overhauls. Things happen. One host family accepted our offer, but then regrettably reneged due to undisclosed “family issues.” The calendar dates for another host were set, but when a returning workawayer showed up, we were bumped into another time slot which conflicted with dates already set for yet another host family. Although one host had “iffy” workawayer feedback, we included him in our host list because we wanted to visit that particular island. More about this later.

We purchased our airline tickets (Air New Zealand through our AARP membership…$3609.80) three months prior to departure. A good move on our part! Even with that amount of lead time, our connections were limited (airline stipulated a minimum of two hours between connecting flights) and available seats were disappearing fast. We decided on a six-week stay and chose New Zealand’s late summer/early autumn (off season) for arrival. There was some conflict with our selected time frame (March 1 through April 15) and the availability of connecting flights so we had to concede a couple days to make the booking work. Finally…our booking was confirmed! We would depart on March 4 and return to the US on April 14.

There was one more financial concern: Once on New Zealand soil, it was our (the workawayer’s) financial responsibility to get from one host family to another. In our emails host families often mentioned picking us up at local bus stations. That was a good starting point…and thank goodness for the Internet! I was able to check out the cost for bus, ferry, and rail travel to our confirmed host locations on both North and South Islands. Our estimated cost was around $1000. In real numbers, however, our transportation, including bus, rail and shuttle cost $898.45. Bus and ferry (between North and South Island) connections were such that we had to secure overnight lodging. Each time while crossing Cook Strait between islands, we (accommodation for two) stayed at DownTown, a BBH/World Traveller Accommodation in Wellington. The first time the cost was $65 (w/ shared bathroom) and the second time $85 (bathroom ensuite).

sunrise on the beach

Waihi Beach by davidr

At the time of our departure on March 4, our itinerary looked like this: March 6 through March 8 we would stay in Waihi Beach (NZ is one day ahead of us. We never experienced March 5 due to crossing the International Dateline), from March 9-12 on Waiheke Island, from March 13-20 in Morrinsville, then to South Island where we would stay in Amberley from March 25-31. All other dates were either unconfirmed or up for grabs. We were going almost 9000 miles away from home to an undisclosed place of residence. We would arrive baggage in hand along with the name and phone number of a host…that’s all. Just a little bit scary! This leads me to another important topic. Trust. And I have a lot to say about trust.

As returning emails from host families unconditionally invited us into their homes, I was simply blown away. I know I am who I say I am in my workaway description. I am kind, I am willing to work, I can do the things I say I can do. But the workaway host knows only my words, not my actions. This is where trust comes in…


By the time of departure, however, at least 4… maybe 5 or more…emails passed between us and individual host families. They were personal conversations and we, as well as they, got a “feel” for what quality of people we were. Len and I felt safe; I think the host families felt safe too. It almost felt like we were going to a friend’s house, someplace we’d been before and couldn’t wait to return.

Both of my daughters, however, were not feeling “safe” vibes about our forthcoming trip. Our adventure, in their eyes, could easily become a mis-adventure. The younger daughter said to the older daughter, “If Mom disappears, you’re in charge.” My confidence did not allay their concern. I sent the older daughter our itinerary which, of course, included the uncommitted dates and meant we didn’t know for sure where we would be staying. But Len and I had a plan. We were in touch with two other possible host families who told us to contact them mid-March to see if work was available. We trusted the universe would put everything in its place in its own time. The most important thing at this juncture was to have a place to hang our hats upon arrival in Auckland…and we did!

A note about our “iffy” host. There was only one workawayer response to go on and it was somewhat negative; however, we decided to give him a try. The last email we got prior to leaving the US confirmed the March dates, but we had no address and nothing was settled about meeting the ferry. We sent one more email after arriving at Waihi Beach, but no response. When we explained the situation to our host, she graciously invited us to remain with her for the week. Thank you, Lorna! Later in our travels we did receive an email from the “iffy” host. Apparently we had a communication mix up; he thought we were scheduled for those dates in April instead of March. These things happen and life moves on.

Last minute idea

While packing, it occurred to me that I just might get the opportunity to cook…or maybe even bake…so I included some of my favorite recipes. Boy, I sure am glad I did! While we were in Morrinsville, our hosts, Donna and Dennis, had a big event coming up. Every year their family and friends get together for a combination St. Paddy’s Day /Pumpkin Festival. In addition to wearing green, everyone who grew pumpkins brought his/her biggest to enter in the “Who grew the biggest pumpkin” (measured by weight) Contest.

vegetable shorteningDonna asked me if I had any ideas for dessert. “Pie,” I said, “I’ll make an apple pie.” I called out the ingredients I would need while Donna checked her cupboards. The only ingredient I needed and she didn’t have was solid vegetable shortening for the pie crust. “Let’s go shopping,” she announced, and we did. I found a product called “Kremelta” that fit the bill and home we went. That evening I prepared my pie dough and left it in the fridge overnight just as I would if I were in my own kitchen.

The next morning I was up at 6am and ready to bake my pies. I opened the fridge, took out my pie dough and…Uh…oh! Shock of shocks! My ball of pie dough was a solid rock! A little small perhaps, but other than that, it would’ve made a fine bowling ball! An hour later…no progress. Len arrived in the kitchen about that time, assessed my distress and suggested I slice it. Now it looked like I had a plate of pork! I began to warm the smaller pieces between my hands, then knead it, and soon it was pliable enough to roll out. The crisis was over! One other comment about the dough made with Kremelta. It was a very heavy dough, but still flaky when baked.

So what was the difference between American vegetable shortening and New Zealand vegetable shortening? After reading the ingredients, the best answer we came up with was coconut oil. Kremelta contains it and Crisco does not. Oh by the way, my American apple pie was a great hit with the Kiwis. One woman even told me her mother-in-law made the best apple pie ever, but my pie bested the best!

As it turned out, I had more than one opportunity to cook and bake in Kiwi kitchens. I experienced a variety of ovens and learned to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius. Not only did I prepare American dishes, but I tried my hand at preparing Kiwi recipes, too. My apple shortcake wasn’t as good as Lorna’s, but I’ve got the recipe now and will keep trying. I left behind (by request) my recipe for American apple pie and brought home recipes for Afghan and Anzac cookies and pikelets, all Kiwi favorites.

Making arrangements on the move

Back to the issue of the uncommitted days and… where in the world are we going to sleep? Before we left Lorna, our first host, and headed to Morrinsville to stay with Donna and Dennis, we queried her about returning to Waihi Beach for the final week of our stay, and she agreed. So… where in the world are we going to sleep? Well, Waihi Beach, of course!

Lorna (a sparkling kid of 86 years), introduced us to her married-with-children daughters. We met and visited with Jenny and Greg who live in Katikati (North Island) and with Carolyn and Richard who live in Nelson (South Island). When we arrived on South Island, we needed a place to stay. Carolyn and Richard ran a B&B, and, although they were not workaway hosts, invited us to stay for four nights at a reduced rate. They graciously included us in their evening meals, gave us access to their WIFI so we could catch up with family/friends, and…let’s not forget…catch up with our laundry. They lent us their bikes so we could picnic at Rabbit Island and gave us suggestions for other sites we could see by foot. Seeing the sheep trim the cemetery landscape was an unexpected treat!

End of the adventure… for now

By the time our six weeks of adventure came to an end, we had expanded not only our social connections, but had acquired a new family! Who would’ve thought! Len and I look forward to returning to NZ, but for a longer, much longer length of stay.

Well, there’s lots more stories to tell; I could go on and on! But that’s all for now, folks! Hopefully this article will encourage you to give a try and let your travel dreams come true!

6 replies
  1. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I would like to have a question…from this article I would say one doesnt need to have any kind of work permit to work for a host family…am I right? Is it enought to have a tourist visa for this kind of travelling? Our dream was to travel throught New Zealand with working holiday visa, but we (my boyfriend and I) did not fit into the quota for our home country for this year so I am trying to find other ways to discover it in low budget.

    • Gina Minick
      Gina Minick says:

      Hello Brittany!

      Sorry about the delay in my response. Len and I have friends/relatives in Painesville and Mentor and travel in your neck of the woods regularly. Let’s get together. Len and I are planning an extended trip to NZ (Australia too) in late 2014. We have lots to talk about! Gina

  2. Gina Minick
    Gina Minick says:

    Hello! Sorry about the delay in answering your question but I do not check the website very often. Yes, you are correct. You do not need a work permit when exchanging work for room and board with host families. We are Americans and traveled freely with only our passports. We needed/secured visas only for our visit to Australia. Your country (I don’t know your citizenship) may have other restrictions. I hope this information has helped.

  3. Brittany
    Brittany says:


    I loved this article. I have been preparing for my trip to New Zealand and it was a huge encouragement to read through your recent experience with Workaway. Until now, I just noticed that you live in Conneaut, OH. I live in Willoughby, OH and work in Mentor. Small World. If possible, I would enjoy emailing with you for more information on your travels. You seemed to have such a wonderful time and I need all the advice I can get.



  4. Angeline
    Angeline says:

    Gina, thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story. I loved the part about the Kremelta. I cook with cocoanut oil usually, so that made me giggle. It is a different texture and process. Your journey really helped me to feel more interested in this idea to work with Kiwi families on their estates and so forth. I like the idea of the exchange “work for stay”, but I liked how you mentioned to “immerse yourself into the Kiwi culture.” That’s exactly why I have considered this, to better give opportunity to how the communities live and learn the ways, and learn more deeper about the regions. Cannot wait to experience this. Thank you Gina!

  5. Gina Minick
    Gina Minick says:

    Hello Angeline!

    Thanks for your comments! I love to tell the story of me and Kremelta and my American apple pie. I keep coconut oil in my cupboard but as you can see I haven’t had much experience putting it to use! Len and I are planning an extended stay in NZ (with some time in Australia too!) in late 2014. I hope you enjoy NZ as much as we did. Gina


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