How I became an au pair in the vibrant capital of Catalonia, how you can become one too, and tips and tricks for navigating your au pair experience from beginning to end.
Just a year ago in the early months of 2018, I moved to Spain for the first time by myself to become an au pair for a Spanish family in a small Andalusian town called Palma Del Rio. A year prior I first heard the term “au pair” and had waited patiently until my 17th birthday to open a profile on Au Pair World, one of the most popular networks to connect au pairs with host families.
Despite having had an amazing experience in Palma, and upon moving back to Spain semi-permanently the following September I had no intention of ever being an au pair again. I lived in Tenerife with my family for a few months, but as everyone was getting settled into school and jobs I realized that I didn’t really have a plan for the next six months and found myself yearning (as freshly turned 18 years olds often do) for independence and the experience of living in a bigger city.
I opened Au Pair World on my laptop for the first time in months one night, read the first message I received and instantly got a great feeling from the family. We skyped and just over a month later my flight landed in El-Prat.
I’ve been living with them for about two months and it has been wonderful, to say the least. I feel I got very lucky in finding a family who not only completely integrated me as a member of their unit (can’t tell you how many amazing dinners I was invited and welcomed to at Abuela’s house), but also whose lifestyle and mentality is almost exactly aligned with my own.
Being an au pair in two very different situations has shown me how diverse the experiences of au pairs can be, but regardless there are so many positive benefits, opportunities, and things to learn from this job.
Since becoming an au pair the first time around I’ve received a lot of questions from friends, family, and strangers from what it is like to be an au pair, where to start, how to calm your parents nerves when you first explain you’ll be moving abroad, to how to find a family, where to buy insurance, and etc. I hope with this article to not only give a solid jumping off point for starting your au pair experience but also to encourage more young people to consider becoming an au pair or taking a gap year. The majority of this blog’s audience comes from the USA, and I’ve noticed that very few kids from my pool of friends there, compared to those in Europe, have decided to take gap years. Doing so is not a very well explained nor greatly encouraged option as far as I’ve heard/experienced in the States, but it’s definitely a valid one.
What is an Au Pair?
An au pair is essentially an 17-20something year old person who commits to living with a local family in a foreign country. The jobs and lifestyles of au pairs can be quite different depending on country and individual agreement with the host family, but most of the time and from what I’ve experienced the typical tasks are acting as a babysitter or nanny for the kids, tutoring or playing with them in your native language, taking them too and from school, and maybe some light cleaning or cooking. Work usually amounts to about 5 hours a day, and in exchange, most au pairs receive weekly pay, room and board, weekends free, and the ability to live in a foreign country and learn a new language.
Au Pair World requires you to be at least 17 to be an au pair in Spain and France, and 18 for the rest of Europe and most other countries in the world. Contrary to popular belief both men and women can be au pairs, though families will have their individual preferences.
Why Become an Au Pair?
Being an au pair is one of many ways to live abroad very cheaply. You don’t have to worry about paying rent in places like Madrid, Barcelona, or Paris where that would be impossible without a hefty savings account or a solid job. If you are creative, frugal, or pick up side hustles like teaching private lessons in the mornings it’s very easy to live on the au pair weekly stipend (usually around 70-100 euro depending on country).
The ability to travel is another huge benefit. If you find a family in a major city with an airport or train station you will have the freedom to explore nearby cities or even countries at the weekends. During the mornings before work you are free to explore the local area, hangout out with other au pairs, or attend language classes.
Living with a local family is amazing in that you will be able to experience the country’s culture firsthand, be able to practice the language, and not feel as deeply the homesickness or loneliness that solo travel or moving abroad sometimes causes.
And finally, if you like kids this job is super rewarding and fun. You’ll see your host kids get better at speaking the language you are teaching them, and you’ll get to experience the city you live in an entirely different way than you would solo traveling.
The other day I took my host kids to Parque Güell in Barcelona for an afternoon activity and they immediately ran to those giant bubbles, the ones you often see in touristy photos by the Arc de Triumf or in the Barri Gòtic. Parque Güell was lovely and relaxing on my solo trips there, but on this occasion in particular it was amazing to see their excitement and feel completely immersed in normal Catalonian life.
How to Find a Host Family
So you’ve decided to become an au pair! The next step is to find a family and figure out where you want to live. I ended up in Barcelona by pure coincidence, but many au pairs specifically choose families by location.
The most common ways to find host families are:
Au pair networks: Aupairworld.com, which I’ve mentioned twice in this article already, is the only one I’ve ever used. There are plenty of others and 1,000’s of host families all around the world, but for the sake of time and making your search as easy as possible I’ll spare you a massive list. The majority of families on Au Pair World are in Europe, and the platform makes it really easy to filter families based on country, region, city size, ages of the kids, number of kids, and much more. Au Pair World also lays out the base pay and the number of hours you are required to work by country so you can ensure you are getting paid fairly and not exploited.
Facebook groups: Search Au pairs in… (country, city, region) and you will instantly find Facebook groups full of families and current au pairs. This method is great for finding a family and in a very specific place, for example, central Barcelona. You can also reach out to current au pairs, ask about their experiences, and make some connections before you arrive your first day.
The con’s of Facebook groups and finding families using this method are that there aren’t really standardized pay, hours, or tasks. The families might pay way more than the country requires or way less. If you plan on finding a family this way make sure to have a skype interview to get a good feel for them as there won’t be a profile for you to look at. Make sure to talk about and understand standard pay and hours. It’s definitely okay to negotiate with families and ask for what you want.
Agencies: I’ve personally never used an au pair agency nor met anyone who has. If you decide to use this method be sure to read the agency’s reviews. Definite pros are that there will be less preliminary research and work for you, but agencies will more likely than not charge fees for their services.
Word of mouth: If you have friends or acquaintances who have been au pairs you can ask them if their past host families might be looking for a new au pair!
Once you’ve found a family you should both sign the au pair contract, and then you’re nearly ready to pack your bags and get ready for an amazing experience abroad!
Insurance, Visas, and other Formalities
Before you hit the road some other important things to look into are insurance and visas that might be required for the country you will be living. Non-EU citizens travelling in Europe generally get a free visa for 90 days upon arrival to the continent. After your three months are up you’ll have to leave for another complete 90 days before you can re-enter. This is called the Schengen hop and it’s very, very frustrating. If you want to stay longer you will need a long term visa from the nation’s consulate in your home country. It is 100% possible to get one but I can’t stress enough the importance of planning ahead for this and doing your research! I have a student visa in Spain as do most au pairs, but it took months, appointments in LA, and many hours of sweat, tears, jumping through hoops, and paperwork to achieve.
The first time I was an Au pair I never even considered getting insurance. Luckily I was 17 (i.e. a minor) and in Spain where socialized healthcare would have covered my irresponsibility of not buying any form of coverage before arriving in the country. In Barcelona, my host family offered to pay half the cost of my insurance, and since student visas holders aren’t included in the social system I purchased Spanish private insurance through Sanitas.
Sanitas and World Nomads travel insurance were my top two options, but in the end I decided on Sanitas since it is a national company and would be accepted across Spain, therefore saving me the trouble of paying upfront the costs of medical care and asking my travel insurance for a refund.
Sanitas was also cheaper. I pay 24 euros (27 dollars) a month with co-pays, but only 12 euro out of pocket since my host family pays half. Travel insurance would have cost between 200-500 euro for six months, but I will pay 100’s less for the whole year.
Travel insurance does cover things like being robbed, damages to your belongings, and cancelations so it is still a good option to look into. I had to commit to Sanitas for the whole year, which is fine since I will be in Spain for a year at least, but travel insurance you only have to buy for the length of your trip.
Consider all your options, and read the fine print on every insurance contract to make sure your plan will cover what you need or might need while abroad.
My greatest piece of advice, however, is to not be cheap and skip insurance. I nearly did this, but when I got very sick for two weeks and ended up visiting the emergency room, having blood work done, and seeing two specialists I was beyond overjoyed that the bill for the private clinics I visited would not be charging my bank account. You never know what could happen, but a 300 euro doctor’s trip would sting for sure when you think about how that money could have gone towards two weekend trips to Paris.
With all that being said… hop on that plane! Start your adventure! Make amazing friends and learn something new every day! The world is yours to explore so don’t let fear, societal pressure, nor the idea that you have to have a lot of money to travel stop you from seeing it.
Published 14/02/2019 from Brussels, Belgium