Posted March 17, 2012 by in Backpackology 101

Weekend Destination: Top 10 Free Vacations (4/5)

This article is part four of the five part series, “The Top 10 Free Vacations.”

You can find destinations #10 & #9 in Part One, destinations #8 & #7 in Part Two, and destinations #6 & #5 in Part Three.

4. WWOOFing in Tuscany

Aside from hipster skinny-jeans, ironic glasses, and Whole Foods, there’s only one thing that trendy, green-minded backpackers enjoy more than a good vacation. And that’s migrant labor. Behold the phenomenon known as WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), a program that allows a new breed of blue-collared cosmopolitans to plant carrots and battle pestilent insects for free room and board. Associated farms can be found in nearly every corner of the globe, but perhaps the best experience to be had is in the hilltop village of Riparbella, Italy, where all those wine-soaked stereotypes of Under the Tuscan Sun can be discovered en masse. If you decide to take up the shovel and spade here, expect to work four hours a day, tending to grape vines or working among the olive groves.

While most feedback for the program is exceedingly positive, I can’t personally recommend it, as I’ve never participated. You see, my fragile, Irish skin is pale, so very pale, like a geisha, and even fours hours of sun leaves me an excruciating shade of lobster-red. This then peels, exposing new vulnerable, porcelain skin underneath, and the vicious cycle repeats. Woe is me. Plus, I look awkward in sunhats.

If you’re itching to get your fingernails dirty, however, check out to get you started, and for tips on getting your first gig.


When to Go: Depends on where you’re looking. November marks the olive harvest in Tuscany.

Length of Time: Depends on the farm. Your stay might be as short as a weekend, or as long as a year, or more.

Cost: Nothing but the sweat off your back. Oh, and a $30 fee for joining the WWOOF network.

Airfare Estimate: New York to Rome, $1,000 RT; Los Angeles to Rome, $1,200

3. International Vipassana Meditation Ashram, Nasik, India

If you’re disappointed with the vacation ideas I’ve presented thus far, I can’t really blame you. I don’t imagine the Travel Channel would ever do a special on fantastic vacations that happen to involve grueling physical labor, manipulating charities, and blindly entrusting your safety to potential sex offenders. Samantha Brown would shit her pants.

At number three, I’m happy to give you a completely free, no-strings-attached vacation. And if you’ve ever fancied the idea of a spiritual quest (a la Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love), this one takes the cake. The International Vipassana Meditation Academy, in Nasik, India, runs intensive, ten-day courses on—you guessed it—Vipassana Meditation. Each student’s tuition, food, and lodging are provided at absolutely zero charge, though you’re free to make donations once you’ve completed the program. Over the course of ten days, participants are immersed in the ancient tradition of Vipassana, a strict form of sitting meditation devised by Gautama Buddha himself in the sixth century.

And it is no picnic. While graduates often describe the course as ‘profound’ and sometimes ‘life-changing,’ they stress that the training is pretty hard-core (if the phrasing ‘hard-core’ is even applicable to Buddhist monks).

If you’re interested in the program, I urge you to try the following: Find a nice, quiet room with a comfortable floor (perhaps grab some pillows or cushions). Now I want you to get comfortable. Sit cross-legged, take a few deep breaths… and then stare at the wall for forty-five minutes.

No fidgeting! Just stare… stare… If you fall asleep or punch a hole in the wall, reconsider your interest in Vipassana. You’ll be required to sit in a similar silent fashion for hours upon hours each day, starting at 4 AM.

If you’re still interested, awesome! Be sure to book well in advanced, as spaces are limited. The food provided is simple, vegetarian Indian food—expect an embarrassment of lentils. For more information, and to sign up, head on over to

When to Go: October through February, when the weather is warm and balmy. May through September is insufferably hot and humid.

Length of Time: The course runs for ten days.

Cost: Free, free, free.

Airfare Estimate: New York to Mumbai, $1,200 RT; Los Angeles to Mumbai, $1,200 RT

To be concluded next week, when we lose ourselves in some of the world’s greatest scenery, and some of its most fervent spirituality…

For destinations #2 & #1, continue to Part Five.

This article is Part Four of the five part series, “The Top 10 Free Vacations.” You can find destinations #10 & #9 in Part One, destinations #8 & #7 in Part Two, destinations #6 & #5 in Part Three, and destinations #2 & #1 in Part Five.


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