What I Learned Working and Living Remotely From Hostels


When I decided to become a digital nomad in 2018, I ran into an obstacle almost immediately. One of my clients told me they were letting all freelancers go. With only a few small projects left, I was worried but thankfully I had made friends with one of the volunteers at my hostel and he told me about how he was staying there for free.

Many hostels often run on volunteers who stay for weeks or even months at a time. Though they offer accommodations, volunteers are typically be placed in the room with the maximum amount of people. This can mean staying in rooms with as many 17 other people, or as little as three to five, depending on the circumstances and whether or not it’s high season. Finding myself in a tight spot, I wound up volunteering at hostels in Chile and Peru and found that

they can be a great place to make friends when they’re well-run. Most volunteers are people with limited finances and as a digital nomad and volunteer you’ll be working double, but it’s important to have fun on your time off. 

I had mixed experiences volunteering at hostels while also working remotely. Some days were emotionally taxing, but in the end I still met great friends and became a better traveler. If you’re thinking about saving money on your digital nomad journey by working at a hostel part-time while you travel and work remotely, here’s what you need to know.

Check the Reviews Before You Commit

Always check reviews for hostels on sites such as HostelWorld or TripAdvisor. Places with good reviews will likely be good places to work. Beware: many hostels offer guests complimentary drinks or snacks when they post a favorable review. Still, places with low scores usually have them for a reason and can indicate bad or disorganized management. 

Don’t Expect a Private Room

When you volunteer at a hostel, you’ll deal with everything from snoring, people with different schedules, outside noises, loud music, drunk people, and roommates who insist on having loud conversations at night. Although many hostels have quiet hours, people don’t always abide by or enforce the rules. A few pairs of earplugs and a sleeping mask are a great way to deal with unruly guests whom, by the way, you technically work for as a volunteer. 

If you’re not already, you will need to get comfortable with gently stating boundaries. I had to ask several guests not to put their dirty shoes and items on my bed. On a few occasions, guests would unplug my chargers or remove my devices without asking and plug theirs in and I had to explain that this is my personal property and not the hostel’s. In general, you’ll always need to keep a close eye on your things if you volunteer at a hostel. Be kind, but firm. It’s possible that your things might get stolen, but also some guests may assume that they can carelessly move them around or that they belong to the hostel and not you.

Be Prepared for Hard Work

Regardless of how nice a hostel owner and management may be, volunteering at a hostel is hard work. It means answering the same questions over and over again, lots of cleaning, and sometimes dealing with entitlted people. Most volunteers are tasked with things such as cleaning rooms, folding sheets, receptionist work, bar work, helping with breakfast, and welcoming guests. Even though hostels are a cheap way to travel, some guests assume you’ll carry their things for them. Others may be unable to safely lift their own luggage, and your help will be expected. 

You Will Be Working Double

Every hostel works differently and since you’re not getting paid, it’s perfectly fine to let managers or owners know that you will work remotely when not on shift. You can usually let managers know what kinds of trips you want to make while visiting their country, and they may even offer you discounts on tours if these are a part of their business. Others could introduce you to companies they have a good relationship with or explain which tours are scammy or overpriced.

I tried to have roughly three days off per week to explore my local area, and to have mornings or evenings off so I could unwind. While in Peru I did a few complicated hikes while I was staying there as a volunteer: Rainbow Mountain and Macchu Picchu. For these, I scheduled time off and was given a discount on my tour from my hostel. I also had to work frantically to meet all of my deadlines and ensure I had no upcoming work due the day after the trek. 

I worked roughly six hours per shift up to five days per week. Eventually I was able to get my business back on track and didn’t need to volunteer anymore. After that, I ended up staying in hostels so I could save money.

Keep Safety Top of Mind

Volunteering at hostels while working as a digital nomad was full of challenges. Time management, putting my devices away safely, and knowing when to stay away from people was a must. Sadly, not all guests have good intentions. Trust your gut. Though it will be your job to help all guests, you can and should keep your distance from people who elicit a bad vibe.

Lock your things when you’re not using them and keep track of smaller items such as headphones, chargers, and power banks. Almost every hostel offers wall-mounted or drawer lockers for their guests. This is the best place to store valuables such as electronics, passports, and other items. I also used a money belt for my passport and when using my debit card. For women, having pants with pockets is essential. You should always carry enough change for a taxi or bus ride. 

Have a System for Protecting Your Belongings

If you want to prevent theft, good organization is key. I kept a designated pouch for this that was always in my locker and only took my debit card with me when I knew I needed the bank. Because I needed my laptop and devices for work, I also never let anyone borrow these even if they asked nicely. One fellow volunteer actually stopped speaking to me because I refused to let him borrow my laptop. Since our hostel had computers that guests and volunteers could use, I explained that he’d have to stick to those.    

Use packing cubes so you won’t forget important—and sometimes expensive—clothing or shoes. This was especially helpful for me because it got me into a routine of packing things a certain way, and I got faster every time. I also had a designated bag for my devices, cables, and adapters. A good luck will also come in handy!

Ingrid Cruz
May 19, 2023
min read

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer and comedian. She enjoys travel, food, and coffee.

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