For plenty of students, studying abroad may seem like an impossible dream. Between the high cost, and the reality that you won’t be working while traveling, studying abroad just isn’t feasible. But what if I told you that there may still be a way for you to travel abroad during the semester and gain some unforgettable cultural experiences? While you won’t be able to get course credit, no one really studies abroad to actually study. Au Pairing is a great alternative to studying abroad. You work for a family, usually picking children up from school and providing English lessons. In return, your accommodations and food are covered, and you get a small allowance each week.
Sound like something in which you may be interested? Well lucky for you I’ve compiled a list of factors to consider when narrowing down countries and looking for a host family.
First things first, decide where you want to live. This decision is 100% up to you, though it may be more difficult in some countries. You should do your research. You will be LIVING where you choose, so consider things like entertainment, proximity to public transport, and even contact with other au pairs. It may seem like a great idea to live in the heart of the city as an au pair, but it is also very expensive. Likewise, residing in the countryside may seem perfect, but you can feel isolated very quickly.
Research the culture as well. Culture shock is very real, and depending on how experienced of a traveler you are, you may want to ease in. Research the food! Mealtimes and structure differ in each country so it is good to know what to expect. As an au pair in Spain, for example, I am adjusting to breakfast being the smallest meal of the day, lunch being the largest and served at 2, and dinner being served at 9. Many foods you consider common may be much harder to find abroad. I have found it really difficult to get my hands on peanut butter to make myself PB&J . Although you do get to enjoy the authentic cuisine of the locale you choose.
- Matching with the Right Family
Once you’ve selected your location, the next thing to do is find a family for which to become an au pair. There are a number of ways to do this, mostly divided by going through an agency or on your own. I opted for the latter, using a site by the name of Aupairworld.com. This site is arranged like a dating site, where aspiring au pairs can search for and message families, and families can contact au pairs. This was the most exciting part of the process for me because it was one of the first real steps I took towards becoming an au pair.
While this is all great and exciting, you shouldn’t jump and accept the very first offer you receive from a family without asking a pile of questions. There are plenty of families, so you should make sure you find the perfect match. I spoke to around 3 or 4 different families before committing to one. With each family I made sure to ask questions about the kids and skype multiple times. Below are some crucial questions to ask before committing to a family.
How many children will I be responsible for?
What is my schedule during the week?
Will I be expected to work weekends?
What will my weekly wage be?
(Don’t accept less than 70 euros)
Will I live in the house or in a separate apartment?
Is there internet connection?
Will I be expected to pay for cell service?
Will I have the day off during school holidays?
Will I be able/expected to cook?
What specific tasks will I be expected to perform?
These are just a few examples of questions to ask potential families. I would also suggest that you ask for the references of previous au pairs if available. This offers a chance to find out what working for the family is really like. If it is your first time as an au pair, I would recommend that you find a family who has prior experience with au pairs to make things a little easier. Feel free to ask as many questions as you want while searching for a family. Skyping a few times with the family would also be a good way to get a genuine feel for the dynamic before you pick up and fly across the globe.
- Living in Country
Now that you’ve found the perfect family, it’s time to fly over and begin a new, interesting chapter in your life. In all honesty, however, no matter how shiny and new the family and country seem, the adjustment period can be tough. Caring for someone else’s children can be difficult. Being an au pair is a great experience, and you get to cultivate some great new relationships, but it isn’t all sunshine and butterflies.
It’s pretty common for au pairs to have mornings free. Between getting the kids ready for school and picking them up from school, you have time to explore the area, go to the gym, meet other au pairs for coffee, or whatever else your location has to offer. Once the kids are out of school, you are with them until the end of the day. You may be expected to help with homework, make them a snack, have English lessons, and create fun games to play. It helps to tap into your creative side during these hours. The family may already have a regular schedule for you to follow, or the order of activities may be entirely up to you. The ages of the children also factors into this.
If you are expecting to do a lot of traveling once in-country, this will mostly be done on the weekend. Usually, from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning you are free to hop aboard a train and explore a new city. If the family leaves town for the weekend you may be granted an extra day, or even have the option of joining them. This is where it comes in handy to have off on school holidays as well. Planning longer trips can be easier to do on three-day weekends.
I got super lucky with my position. I only care for one child, who is already fluent in English. My mornings and early afternoon are completely free. My main tasks are just speaking English to the family, giving a daily English lesson, making a snack, and playing games. My family doesn’t require me to cook or clean, as they have housekeepers. My time is completely devoted to the child.
My weekends are free as well. Saturday I stay with the family until lunch, and then I can do whatever I please until Monday morning. This situation isn’t the norm. Most au pairs care for multiple children, are expected to help with housework and homework.
- After Au Pairing
The main attraction to becoming an au pair stems from the aspect of travel. During employment, however, trips spanning longer than a weekend are difficult. After your time as an au pair for the family presents the perfect opportunity to continue traveling.
Europe is the most common destination for au pairs, but if you are not an EU citizen, continuing your travels may be difficult. If you are an au pair in Europe, it may be easiest to only stay for 3 months. This is the maximum time allowed for tourist visas. If you wish to stay for longer, you will need to apply for a student or work visa. I am currently in Spain for the maximum 90 days allowed, since obtaining a student or work visa was too much of a hassle. This presents an issue when planning to continue traveling, however.
In order to continue traveling, I needed to find countries with a longer time allowed for tourist visits. In Europe, those countries with the same 90-day tourist visa policy fall into what is known as the Schengen Zone. Countries may belong to the EU, but not fall into the Schengen Zone, such as Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. Ireland and the United Kingdom also do not have the same 90-day maximum visa.
If you have already obtained a student or work visa prior to becoming an au pair, this time limit won’t be of any concern. But, for those who wish to avoid the hassle of a visa and continue traveling, I highly suggest you read up on the Schengen Zone and the visa requirements before making concrete plans.
Au Pairing is a great opportunity for those who might not be able to make a study abroad program work, but still have a sense of adventure. Most of the time, language isn’t a requirement. Host families want to learn English and be exposed to new cultures. In return, you’ll get to learn a new language, culture, and have an unforgettable experience.
image by: Rick Ligthelm