Leaving Work Behind

The Traveling Freelancer: How to Trade Services

Written by Anne Dorko on July 19, 2016. 0 Comments

Boots walking on train track.Taking “as you need” freelancing work to support your travels can work out really well…most of the time. Unfortunately, every so often you may find yourself on the low end of the cash flow cycle. How can you put a roof over your head or afford meals without cold, hard cash?

I have good news: the barter system is alive and well. By pitching your services the right way to the right clients, you can work out deals to help you survive until your next traditionally paid gig.

Today, I’m going to share with you a few times I was able to use this technique on my own journeys. It helped me make the most of situations that may not have otherwise turned out so well. Ideally this insider look will help, should you ever find yourself up a creek without a paddle.

Create Your Own Opportunities

When I first decided to fly to Germany, I didn’t have a solid plan. I only knew a few things:

Before leaving, I arranged my first month and a half by saving up and booking everything in advance. It cost me $1,000 to sign up for a one month intensive German course, which included a hosted room.

The street I walked to class every day.

The street I walked to class every day.

Once I was there, I realized I quite enjoyed Germany. It was my first time experiencing fall, and it did not disappoint. Not to mention, I was having a blast in my language classes. Unfortunately, I was running low on funds. There was no way I could afford to continue attending, let alone secure a lease for an apartment.

While reviewing the language school’s website for cheaper classes, I noticed their design was terrible for mobile users. This gave me an idea: I pitched a trade of web design services in exchange for classes and continued hosting in an apartment.

After discussing it with the owner, we came to a three month trade agreement.

How to Do It Yourself

1. Know Your Value

Your dollar evaluation is important so you can ensure a fair trade for both parties.

In my example, I calculated the dollar value of the language classes and apartment as compared to my own services. I knew exactly how many hours of my time was worth trading.

2. Create a Quality Pitch by Identifying a Win/Win Outcome

Take the time to understand what your client needs and how you can fix their primary problem. Try to find a solution where they don’t have to pay out of pocket, but still end up giving you what you want. Businesses are slow to part with cash – it’s much easier to ask for merchandise or services they already planned to part with.

I knew that keeping a seat open for me in classes during low season (the time I was there) wouldn’t cost the school anything. Meanwhile, the apartment arrangement was very affordable. In the end, they only needed to pay for half the value out of pocket.

This meant I could live virtually rent-free for three months while attending daily intensive language classes! This turned out to be invaluable, as these were the tools I needed to land a better visa in Germany.

Upgrade an Existing Barter

If you’ve ever traveled on a budget, you may be aware of sites like WorkAway and HelpX. While each arrangement is different, the concept is the same: you volunteer 3–4 hours of work per day in exchange for a bed, and sometimes meals. The tasks vary widely, but are most often simple labor, such as housekeeping or gardening.

When I was traveling in New Zealand, I found myself needing to live free for at least two months. With no existing connections, what was a girl to do?

I arranged a WorkAway in Fox Glacier, where I started in housekeeping. It didn’t take long before they found out I was a web designer, and they jumped on the opportunity to launch a new website.

The manager and I talked it out, agreeing that web design is worth more per hour than housekeeping. In the end:

How to Do It Yourself

1. Know How Much Time You Have and Arrange Projects Accordingly

Even if it sounds more fun to design websites than scrub shower walls clean, it’s often not worth the extra commitment in these trade-offs. On multiple occasions I refrained from fancy barters and stuck to housekeeping when my stay was limited to 3–7 days.

This is because a big web design project takes time. It worked well when my agreement lasted two months, but would have become a terrible drag if I tried to make the same style of agreement in every single scenario.

2. Start Your Agreements Small

Think of it this way: under promise, over deliver. This helps you avoid situations where you can be jerked around.

If you come in to do housekeeping but turn out to be much more valuable, you have the advantage of leverage. If there are a lot of red flags about the client’s requests, you can choose to stick with the original agreement. Or maybe you realize you won’t want to stay long – you can choose whether to reveal your additional skills at all.

In any case, it’s important to set boundaries. This helps you control the situation, and gives you the opportunity to shine beyond expectations.

Maintaining your freedom on a gig means you’ll have more fun doing it. By keeping my autonomy I was able to treat my work trade as a hobby without worrying about food or rent.

Anne crouched by a beach bonfire, with the sun setting over the ocean in the background.

Fox Glacier turned out to be an amazing place to take things easy.

This dynamic also leads to more fruitful relationships based on mutual respect. If the manager wasn’t clear on the value of my work and pleased with our arrangement, he never would have gone out of his way to send me up over a glacier on a helicopter!


As fun as it can be, funding your travel lifestyle as a casual freelancer can leave you in less than favorable financial situations.

However, with a bit of creativity, you can often barter your way into getting exactly what you need – even when you’re strapped for cash.

Let’s recap my two key tips for trading services:

  1. Look for opportunities to pitch a potential client who has what you need.
  2. Find chances to grow a small barter into something much more beneficial to you.

What odd situations have you gotten yourself out of by thinking outside the box with your work arrangements? I’m happy to answer any questions you have in the comments section below!

Image credit: Blanka.

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