Are you thinking about becoming an au pair, or want to know whether you would suit the role? I’ve been an au-pair two years running, a month each time with two different families in Catalonia, but before my first experience I really didn’t know what to expect. What if the kids hated me? Would I get to practise speaking Spanish? Would I be able to afford the trip on my own?
In this post, I hope to answer your questions, with 5 top tips to consider before you sign up to be an au pair this summer.
1. Ask yourself if you would really enjoy all the parts of the being an au pair, and not just the free accommodation.
Okay, so free meals and accommodation, and trips out with the family, are major perks of being an au pair. It’s certainly a major factor which drew me to the idea of au-pairing the first time round – I wanted to really practise my Spanish and learn about the culture of a new country, all without having to pay for hefty amount of accommodation which a student without a job just couldn’t afford. But that’s the thing – it has perks, but it is fundamentally a job.
You will be paid (pocket money, not a salary) by the family and in return they will expect you to fulfil your side of the deal – whether that’s through childcare, informal and formal English lessons, playtime with the kids when you’d rather be exploring, and tidying up after yourself and the family just as you would at home.
If you don’t like children, this is not the job for you. It might sound obvious, but it’s quite easy to assume the childcare will only be a small part of the month away. It won’t. You might not be looking after the kids alone for much of the whole duration, but you will be living, eating and sleeping in close quarters with them, and it won’t be like in a hotel. Depending on their age and the system laid out by the parents, they might wander into your room in the middle of your afternoon and ask you to play with them; they might knock on the bathroom door every single time you go to the toilet demanding you let them in; they might spend every mealtime arguing with the parents, leaving you feeling a bit awkward in a conflict which isn’t yours. But if you’re prepared for living in a family and not a hotel, and you know you can cope with younger children, all of that can be absolutely worth it.
Just don’t go looking for a full-time holiday if you are an au pair. It isn’t one.
2. Get to know the family properly before you agree to anything.
You joined an au-pairing website, and you’ve been flooded with applicants. Some of the families fit your dates and requirements, and they seem eager for you to agree to go and live with them. Great! But don’t go signing your summer away without knowing the family properly, and don’t be afraid to talk openly about both your expectations.
It’s best to have a Skype conversation if you can, to talk to the family face-to-face – you can make sure they’re real, and they can reassure themselves you’re real. They don’t want to entrust their children to a stranger any more than you want to live in an unpleasant environment. It’s really useful, too, to meet the kids and let them know who will be staying with them in the summer, as younger kids can find the change quite unsettling.
3. Ask questions.
Don’t be afraid to get all the details ironed out! Better to ask now than to get there and find out there’s no wifi and you’re sharing a bathroom with four other people and they can’t let you have the time off for yourself that you want. You’ll need to think about things like…
What’s the weekly schedule?
- how many hours will you be looking after the kids per day? Do you get weekends off totally, or will they expect you to go along to family events and trips out? Will you look after the kids all morning and then have the afternoon free? Or maybe the kids are at a summer school in the morning and you’ll need to pick them up at lunchtime?
How will mealtimes work?
- Will you need to (help) cook meals for the kids, or will you simply be in charge of giving them breakfast? Do you have any special dietary requirements which the family will need to accommodate? I got quite far with a family in my first year before I told them I was vegetarian and they ran a mile.
What language will be spoken in the house with the kids and the parents?
- Will you need to speak English all the time, or can you switch to another language to allow you to get some practice in too? If you don’t speak the language of the host family, do they have a good enough level of English to be able to communicate with you? Perhaps most importantly, will the kids understand your instructions?
How and when will you get there?
- What are the precise dates they need you to arrive and leave on? Which airports can they collect you from, and do these airports have good (cheap) connections from your local airport? Will the family be willing to cover any of your travel costs? (Neither of my families did, and I think that’s quite standard).
How much will you be paid per week?
- Make sure to look up any legal requirements or recommendations of the country. Bear in mind where you will be living and what the costs of tourist attractions or transport to the nearest big city will be. Will the host family cover any transport tickets, or pay for any language classes for you if you’re there for a long time?
I recommend telling the family you’d like to sign a contract / au pair agreement. Various samples can be found online for each country, such as here. Adjust the terms to suit both of you, and get it signed so that you can be sure that neither party will go back on what has been discussed unless absolutely necessary.
4. Consider the cost.
Au-pairing might be a job, but you probably won’t be making a profit. Most families won’t cover your travel expenses, and even if the pocket money they pay you over the duration of the stay will cover the flights, it’s unlikely you’ll manage to save all that money – you’ll want to use it for exploring once you’re there! A coffee trip here, a croissant there, a ten-journey travel pass for getting to the city centre every week… It will all add up!
Overall, it will be so much cheaper than going on holiday, but don’t go into the experience expecting to make a profit. Be realistic and work out whether you can afford the upfront costs yourself, so that any savings you manage to keep by the end from your earning can be just a bonus.
5. Do your research about being an au pair.
What exactly is it like to live with a host family for a month or several months? How easy is it to make friends? What is the weather like in your chosen country and what parts of the culture are you most looking forward to?
It definitely helps to find out all of this and more before you go, so I recommend doing a bit of a google to read some testimonies of other au-pairs. Why not check out my au pair diaries series to get an insight into some of the exploring I did the first time I was an au pair?
If you have any questions, do feel free to ask me – I’m always super happy to give any advice on the process!
If you’ve already been an au pair, what other tips would you offer to your younger self?
Let me know in the comments below!