What does it mean to be an Au Pair?

Overlooking Blanes, Spain, my Au Pair hometown

I had heard the term Au Pair before but wasn't really hip to what it actually entailed. Until one December, I stumbled upon the very creative way to live abroad while on a rampant Google search. It struck me that month, during one frustrating day of contemplation and confusion about life and where to turn next, that I wanted, needed, to travel often and experience new cultures. While I've been able to take the international/domestic trip here and there I was craving more frequent jet-setting. But, given my financial situation, I wanted to do it for free, or at least at a low enough cost.

By far, Au Pair felt the most creative.

An Au Pair is a person who lives with a family in another country to help with the kids.

I vaguely remembered Au Pair from a made-for-TV movie back in the day but not as something that seemed accessible. Plus, I had never personally known anyone to do it so I thought it was out of my league. But upon looking deeper into it, my eyes were opened to the opportunity awaiting. I couldn't help but think, Why haven't I looked into this sooner?

That day, I found aupairworld.com and signed up on a whim. Two days later, I had completely forgotten about it and moved on from my moody episode when I checked my e-mail to find multiple applications from families needing an Au Pair. At least 10 families had reached out to me and over the next week, applications kept rolling in. By the end of January, I was practically booking my flight to stay with a family in Italy! However, it didn't quite work out last minute and I thought, what a relief, it was all moving kind of fast.

Nine months later, a family from Spain that I had previously spoken with reached out. "I noticed you still have a profile on here and I would love to chat again if you are available to come in November," the mom had said.

It was mid-October and in reality, I didn't think it would be feasible. I had pushed aside the thought of being an Au Pair and was focused on saving money and finding a full-time fashion job. But, though the turnaround was tight, something inside told me not to say no just yet.

Day trip to Barcelona with my Au Pair little sister

As it turns out, that same week, a friend of mine found out that they had to leave their apartment by the end of October. The family needed me in Spain by the first week of November. Instantly, I felt as though everything was falling into place and the universe was telling me that it was time to take this chance. My friend took over my apartment and before I knew it, my flight was booked and I was off to Spain for six weeks. I decided that since I would already be in Europe, I would travel to different countries for two more months after the gig.

And that's how six countries, 10 cities and three months later, I'm wishing I would have jumped on and benefitted from this opportunity years ago instead of waiting until I was 26.

But I just didn't know! Being an Au Pair is the perfect launch pad for girls coming out of college who don't want to go into the workforce just yet or for young women who just want to travel in general. And while it is certainly not limited to girls in/finishing college, fewer responsibilities back home make it an opportunity more accessible for young women.

A photo taken by my Au Pair little sister in Catalunya, Spain

As I shared my travels on social media, many people reached out to me asking how my experience was, how I did it, and how they too could do it because they felt inspired. So, below is a round-up of key points from my experience as an Au Pair. I hope it sparks a fire in other travel-hungry women like myself and can specifically encourage more black women to seek this out as a travel opportunity.

What is an Au Pair?

According to aupairworld.com, "An au pair is an unmarried young adult aged 18 to 30 years, who has no children and travels to a foreign country for a defined period of time to live with a host family. The au pair is considered as a full member of the family during the entire stay. As such, he or she helps the family with childcare and can be asked to assume some light household tasks. In return, the host family provides free board and lodging, as well as pocket money. However, the au pair is neither a housekeeper, nor a nanny."

From my research, it's true that Au Pairs do generally have to be under the age of 30. Many sources, such as AuPair.com, also state that having no kids of your own is a general requirement. However, with the site that I used, the terms and conditions are always personalized between the family and the Au Pair. Don't be discouraged based on these guidelines alone because I'm sure being 31, for example, would not count you out.

Photo by my Au Pair little brother while walking him to school

How do you get started as an Au Pair?

I used an independent website, aupairworld.com, in which both families and Au Pairs register for free. After registration, I simply made a profile featuring general information about myself, why I want to Au Pair, my experience with kids, and a few pictures. Families that register will also complete similar sections on their page. From there, the site's "easy find" feature is available to search for matching families. And, like in my situation, families will send applications directly to Au Pairs.

Screen shot of my profile on Au Pair World

How to choose the right family?

Of course, there's more to it than registering, picking the perfect family on paper, and flying to their home. After speaking with different families, I exchanged e-mails with my favorites. From there, our e-mail communication consisted of multiple questionnaires about each other, recommendations from close friends/acquaintances, and Skype calls. I also spoke with their previous Au Pairs for firsthand insight on the experience. Finally, I had my parents Skype with the family so they could all meet "face to face."

The family I ended up living with in the Catalonia region of Spain seemed perfect for many reasons. First, the children were 10 and 12 years old, which I felt was an opportunity to hang out with them and help them with English as opposed to caring for younger children, like toddlers. The daughter also dreams of being a fashion designer living in NYC and seeing as I live in NYC now and work in fashion, this was an awesome bonding experience waiting to happen. Finally, I had visited Spain before and knew I would love the opportunity to actually live in the country.

Visit to the Botanical Garden in my Au Pair town; Photo by Au Pair sis

Why Europe?

This was primarily a result of the families that contacted me, with most being from Spain and Italy. The website I used allows you to select the countries you are interested in, and Spain and Italy were among my choices. I also felt most comfortable being in Europe for an extended period as a solo traveler. I had studied abroad in London years ago and much of my international traveling has been in European countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

A colorful street in Blanes, Spain

What about visas?

American citizens traveling to Europe for less than 90 days don't (shouldn't) need a special visa. I simply relied on my tourist visa. However, if a family wants you for longer, then they will likely apply through their government for you to stay legally over 90 days. The families typically indicate how long they want an Au Pair and you should also have an idea, right?

Do you want a short stay just to get a taste of another area? Or, do you want to immerse yourself in the culture for up to a year? Keep in mind, a longer stay probably equates to saving more money. This all depends on your expenses back home and what you want to do while you are abroad. Once you have a timeframe in mind, partner with your prospective family to tie up all the logistics and make sure any necessary paperwork is filed in a timely manner.

Standing on Sa Palomera in Blanes, Spain

What about money and travel expenses?

Here is the tricky part. Technically speaking, as an Au Pair the main element to pay for is your flight there and back. You will be living with the family as a regular member, so food, toiletries, and all essentials are covered and sometimes transportation. Family-led activities should generally be covered, as well. Like how I was lucky enough to be offered an extra ticket to a Barcelona football match (a BIG deal) because my Au Pair mom's father couldn't make it, though the circumstances weren't as lucky for their previous Au Pair who decided to shell out a few hundred dollars for the chance to see the famed team play. And of course, there is also weekly pocket money for any activities you want to do in your free time.

Attending the Barcelona vs. Malaga football match at Camp Nou

With that being said, the pocket money is in no way a means to supplement an income. I would say a high average is about 100 euros/week, so 400 euros/month (about $430). This money is only meant to provide you with funds to enjoy yourself in and around your new city, not intended to support any financial responsibilities. Therefore, it is crucial to save if you want to take trips to surrounding countries, go on shopping sprees, eat fancy dinners, or do anything that cannot be sustained outside of a hundred bucks a week.

Eating mackerel in a ponzu sauce in Barcelona

I committed to my Au Pair family about three weeks before my scheduled arrival so I hustled to build up a small stash of funds before I left. Being able to travel through Europe after I was finished with my stint was the ultimate goal. Plus, I did not know when I would have the chance again. I saved about $1300 in those weeks, separate from my personal savings, and accepted that I would use my credit card when necessary. Due to a few setbacks on my trip, my money definitely ran out! But I still managed to keep traveling in Europe and made it back with plenty of stories to tell, despite not a lot of cash.

How did I find cheap flights for country-hopping?

Once you are in Europe, it is easy and cheap to travel via planes and trains. My favorite sites to check for flights were lastminute.com and cheapoair.com. When I found low prices, I would then check the airline's website before booking because often it's even cheaper on their own site. One note is that many of these low-cost airlines do not allow free checked bags so travel light when possible. I always checked the airline's baggage fees before booking, knowing I would have to purchase at least one bag for my suitcase. Even with my bag, my flights averaged around $75 one-way to each country.

Photographing Lisbon's skyline on a weekend trip to Portugal

What next?

Now, I'm back and I have tons of new destinations under my belt, unforgettable memories, and a new extended family on the other side of the world. At the time that I left, I was freelancing and did not have any major work commitments, so I had the flexibility to leave. I'm now back in the US and able to pick right back up where I left off and am glad I took the chance.

For those of you who may not find it so easy to go, I'm not saying to pick up and quit your job or leave your life behind. But for those of you who are looking for an outlet and a means to travel on your own terms, maybe becoming an Au Pair is the next right move for you.

For more on my journey, visit my blog Eclectic Culture.

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