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Travel

These Retirees Volunteer Abroad

They’ve crisscrossed Europe doing everything from picking grapes to teaching English.

Betsy and Greg Ball are volunteering abroad in retirement. Photograph by Alberto Alicata

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Who: Greg and Betsy Ball, 55
Where: Stazzo, Sicily
What: Working for fun and free room and board

Did you have a plan to do what you’re doing? Betsy: Not exactly. When we retired in May 2017 as teachers at Tarleton State University, in Texas, we wanted to figure out how we could afford to travel a lot. When I heard about volunteering our labor in exchange for room and board abroad, I thought, We can do that. We love meeting people, and we want to be immersed in the culture of the places we visit.

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Where’d you go in your first year? Greg: Between September 2017 and May 2018, we went to Denmark, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Hungary and three times to Italy. We spent last summer at a family cottage in Quebec.

What kind of work have you done? Greg: House-sitting, pet-sitting, dog-walking and handyman jobs in wonderful places. We’ve run a gin bar in England and taught English in Poland. For house-sitting, it helps that we’re a couple in our fifties.

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Where do you find the gigs? Betsy: We look for postings on websites including wwoof.net, workaway.com, trustedhousesitters.com and helpx.net. We don’t have work permits, so we can’t be paid. As Americans with passports, we’re allowed to be in most European countries for 90 days [within a 180-day period] without a visa.

Do you have a favorite stay so far? Greg: We love wine, so we wanted to be in wine country for the fall harvest. We’ve twice picked grapes for the same winery in Dogliani, in northwestern Italy. We love the owners, and this fall, we saw some of the same people we worked with last year. It’s amazing to sit at the dinner table with people speaking four different languages.

How have the accommodations been? Betsy: Most have been nice, and some better than others, but you judge them by the bed and the shower. Greg: We often ask each other, How many of our friends would do this? At a certain age, people may expect certain niceties. You sort out a lot of it beforehand by e-mail and Skype, so you have an idea of what you’re getting into. We are going to help with building and gardening on a farm in Kilkenny, Ireland, next; we’ll stay in the owners’ Airbnb.

How are your finances? Betsy: We spend about three-fourths of what we did living in Stephenville, Texas. When we sold our house in Texas, we took a chunk of equity to live on and invested the rest. We haven’t tapped our retirement accounts. Last year, I taught online for the university for pay. This year, we’re focused on expanding our business, Euro Travel Coach (eurotravelcoach.com). We create custom itiner­aries for clients and lead small-group tours, and we have some income from that. We have health insurance through Greg’s retirement plan.

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How do you get your mail? Greg: We try to get as many things electronically as we can, but our physical address is my parents’ home in Ohio. My dad goes through our mail and calls me if anything important comes in.