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Volunteers vs Receptionists [Free Download]

Pros and cons of hosting volunteers at your hostel

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Tim Zenderman

Founder & Former CEO

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Download a copy of the Volunteers vs Receptionists Model spreadsheet template here.


It's common enough in hostels, but most business owners don't understand when it makes sense to hire volunteers or not. A lot of hostel owners do it because they are sure they're saving money, but are they?

Let's take a step back and explain for those that are new to all this.

At hostels you generally need to staff receptionists. You can hire receptionists and 1) pay them an hourly wage, or 2) you can pay them with room and / or board. When you pay for a receptionist with room and / or board, we refer to that person as a volunteer.

So, why all the fuss? Seems pretty straightforward that if you save cash by paying staff with a bed, then you're saving money, right!?

Not so fast. It depends!

Opportunity Cost

You see, it all comes down to Opportunity Cost. Think about it like this: When you pay a receptionist with a bed, you can't sell that bed. And that's cash that you're not pulling in - which is pretty much the same thing as paying someone in cash! Make sense?

The reality is that you are always paying staff for work, whether they are volunteers or paid receptionists.

So, when do volunteers make sense at your hostel?

It depends on two different things:

  1. Weekly cost of receptionist: Hourly wage and weekly hours for receptionists.
  2. Weekly cost of hosting a volunteer: Average daily dorm rate and the weekly food cost per volunteer.

It's easier to understand in the Excel file, so make sure you have it open. You can find the link at the top of this post.

First, make a copy of the file in your Google Drive, or download it to use in Excel. Once you have your copy open, update the yellow cells on the left side with answers from your hostel. Don't update anything else on the sheet! Once you've filled in those answers, you'll see what the model predicts is the best economic choice for you.

If hosting a volunteer costs less than paying a receptionist an hourly wage, then it makes sense to have volunteers.

Another time it almost always makes sense to have volunteers is during low season! The reason is that you have empty beds, and giving them to volunteers doesn't mean you'll sell fewer beds. In high season, if you give a volunteer a bed, then you won't be selling that bed at that more expensive daily rate! This might sound a bit confusing, so let me explain:

If you have an empty bed and you don't sell it, you've missed out on selling it, right? So, when you hire a volunteer for a bed, you are basically charging for that bed (something you wouldn't have done because the bed was empty anyway), and paying for their work hours (something you would have done anyway because you need people working at the front desk).

Finding Volunteers

By now, you should know whether volunteers make sense for you now (or later on?). Here are some websites to help you find volunteers:


Very popular site for travelers looking to volunteer at hostels. See:

Hostel Jobs

A simple job board, built by the people at Hostel Management. See


This site is more for volunteering around the world in general, and it's a great place to find volunteers. See

Facebook / Instagram

You know how it goes - post what you're looking for and that should help word get around to people that are traveling!

Final Notes

So there you have it. Now you know when it makes sense to have volunteers or receptionists, and how to find volunteers! Some final notes:

Training Costs

Note that we did not take these into account. Sometimes, volunteers stick around for less time than receptionists. That means you'll be spending more time and money on training them. So, if that's the case, then you should take that into account when calculating the opportunity cost.

Backpacker Vibe / Environment

Some hostel owners also talk about how volunteers help keep a backpacker vibe in the hostel, and there is definitely some merit to this. Volunteers are generally from out of town or out of country, and they are usually backpackers themselves on a long trip. It really depends what you're looking for. Having them be from out of country too also means that you'll be able to support more languages at the front desk, which is an added plus.

Local Laws

In some countries, hiring receptionists for room & board is illegal, so tread carefully and make sure you research local laws before doing this.

Photo by Cristi Tohatan on Unsplash.

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