Yeah, you are right on here: the best way to find temporary traveling work in Europe is to just show up and ask around. I don’t think your lack of success at finding work from afar is because it is necessarily difficult to turn up some employment, but because such deals are usually worked out in person. Few places seem to be willing to take the time to make any sort of commitment to travelers who they do know and never seen before who are not even in their country yet.
I say just go to Europe and ask around at everywhere you go, and I am sure that you will find enough work to keep you traveling. I would recommend operating on the premise that you will work for less money than any local person would and undercut any competition. You do not mention having any special trades or experience – and this is not needed for hostel work – so there has to be some reason why someone would want to hire you rather than a local person. Make it know that you will work for peanuts, and you will find yourself employed.
Look for short term temp jobs, odd jobs, and anything else you can find. Ask around for work at construction sites, bars, hostels, farms (this is your best option), and English language schools. If you keep looking you will find enough employment to keep you well fed and able to move on to a new location.
I would only recommend emailing hostels in advance as an introductory letter. I would just send off mass emails to all of the hostels in cities that you are sure you want to go to explaining that you are looking for whatever work you can get. Send these messages addressed to directly to the manager/ owner (if you can get their name) and then when you show up there is a small chance that will remember you or they may be more willing to help if they know that you are serious about working.
Make it clear that you are not just asking for work in their hostel but are looking for any temp employment that you can get. They may have heard of someone who heard of someone who needs someone to paint their house or something like that.
But, as far as preparation goes, I say that your best shot is to post messages on Couchsurfing message boards. The people in CS tend to be really helpful, and I have used that system for many other things besides finding a place to stay. I would write down every city that you would like to visit, and post messages that you are looking for temp work on the city message boards. Explain that you are working your way around the world (or just looking for some good traveling work) and that you will do ANYTHING for any wage. Include in these messages a brief conglomeration of your education work experience, and skills, when you think you may arrive and approximately how long you would like to stay. Make sure you do not make these messages overly formal but include all of the necessary information. You never know what may turn up.
Also, you may want to consider trading hotel webpages on Hobohideout.com for Free Accommodation while Traveling. I have found this to be a good way to buy some time in places while looking for work, and it also gives you a small in that regular paying tourists do not have. In point, if you are trading work for a bed it shows that you are willing to work while traveling. This is something that is surprisingly rare, and the subsequent resolve that is shown through doing this could lead to other opportunities.
Couchsurf as much as possible and try to talk with as many people as you can about finding work, don’t get discouraged, and keep trying. Searching for work is a good way to really get into the underbelly of the places that you are traveling in, so get into the community as much as possible and talk to anybody you can. You will have at least a 99% failure rate, but a 1% chance is enough to justify the effort. Ask around enough and try hard, and you will find what you are looking for.
Basically, if you keep your nose in the air and your ear to the tracks you will be able to find employment almost anywhere you go. Get some TEFL English teaching certification before you leave, take a quick job on a farm in your hometown to get a little experience (even a little experience means A LOT when looking for farm work) and ride out what ever wave you find yourself on.
Never worry, something will always come up.
Further information on working while traveling
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Original question about finding work in Europe
Found your website via google so thought I’d drop a line since you seem to have a lot of travelling experience. I’ve been trying to find work during the summer in Europe at hostels by e-mailing around before I leave. My success has been zero. I don’t know whether it’s the current economic situation or the fact that most places are fairly unresponsive to e-mail. What is the best way to pick up work both in cities and in more rural areas?
I’m in a catch-22 situation. I’m reluctant to go withuot some sort of back-up on the way in case I run out of money, but most places won’t prearrange work.
-Iain Bell, UK