8 Lessons Learned After 6 Years as a Travel Therapist

Whitney and I began our careers as Traveling Physical Therapists in 2015 when we were new grads. Since then, we’ve taken over a dozen travel contracts each and mentored thousands of current and prospective travel therapists. We’ve also talked to and interviewed nearly 100 recruiters at over 15 different travel companies while in search for the best travel therapy companies and recruiters.

Over the last 6 years we’ve learned a lot about the travel therapy industry, from both the perspective of the travel therapist and the travel therapy company. In this article I hope to share some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in order to help you become a more informed travel therapist.

1. It’s Not What You Make, But What You’re Able to Save

The vast majority of new travelers who contact us have decided to travel in order to improve their financial situations. This was also my main motivation for wanting to pursue Travel PT as a new grad. Many therapists assume that I was able to reach financial independence in such a short period of time as a traveler by taking only the highest paying contracts, but this actually isn’t true. Often, the highest paying contracts in the country are also in the highest cost of living areas. Unfortunately, traveling to high cost of living areas, even when the pay is higher, often doesn’t lead to the best outcome financially. I learned early on in my travel therapy career that taking moderately paying contracts in lower cost of living areas where housing and other expenses are more affordable was the way to make the most of my travel contracts to get ahead financially.

If reaching financial independence or improving your financial position is your primary goal with travel therapy, then keep in mind that the amount you’re able to save on each contract after taking into account your expenses is more important than just looking at the weekly take home pay alone.

2. The Recruiter You Choose is More Important than The Travel Company

New travelers are often in search of the best or highest paying travel therapy company, and I was no different. But Whitney and I quickly realized, after talking to recruiters from a few different companies, that each travel company has its pros and cons; but what will impact your experience as a traveler the most are the recruiters you choose to work with, not as much the travel companies themselves. This has only become more clear as we’ve mentored more and more travelers over the years.

For example, a travel company could have great job options, high pay, and great benefits; but if your recruiter there is not on top of communication, you may be late in getting submitted to jobs and never have the opportunity to get the contract you wanted. Since the recruiter is the main, and sometimes only, point of contact with the travel company, a traveler’s perception of a travel company is shaped almost entirely by the recruiter they choose.

Finding the best recruiters for you isn’t always easy though and can require some trial and error. In the past, Whitney and I have occasionally had awful experiences with recruiters that were highly recommended by others, and had great experiences with recruiters who we’d never heard anyone talk about or had heard less favorable things about. Recruiters aren’t one size fits all, and sometimes the personality and communication style of a recruiter that are great for another traveler, won’t fit you at all. Ideally you’ll find a recruiter and company that are both perfect for your wants and needs, but keep in mind that if you find yourself choosing between a great recruiter at a less desirable company and a bad recruiter at a more desirable company, your experience as traveler will almost certainly be more enjoyable working with a recruiter that you mesh well with and that has your best interest in mind.

3. It’s Important to be Very Selective on Which Contracts You Take

When I started traveling, I was focused on working and savings as much as possible early on to reach a point of financial security quickly. This meant trying to take back to back contracts as often as possible and occasionally settling on the facilities that I went to in order to make that happen. While this undoubtedly allowed me to reach my financial goals more quickly, it also caused me more stress and hassle than it was worth. Some travel contracts are absolutely amazing, while others are terrible. The more selective you are on which contracts you take, the better your experience will be as a traveler, and that is often more important than working as much as possible or only taking the highest paying jobs. Knowing what I know now, I’d much rather take a travel job paying $1,600/week take home at a great facility where I’ll enjoy my time, than one paying $2,000/week take home with a stressful work environment with unrealistic productivity expectations.

4. Arranging Short Term Housing Can Be a Hassle

Finding affordable short term housing can be very difficult, especially recently with rent prices seemingly increasing all over the country. Mistakes with housing are also the most common way that travelers lose money. As a traveler it’s very important to avoid locking yourself into a lease any longer than month to month if at all possible, because if your contract happens to get cancelled then you’re in a bad position. It’s also important to watch out for scams where you’re asked to send money prior to ever seeing the property. These scams are becoming increasingly common, and the scammers often prey specifically travel healthcare workers. For therapists who travel with a family or with pets, which further limits housing options, sometimes buying an RV is a very good choice. When looking for housing, make sure to consider all options, and spend some time choosing the best fit for you.

5. You’ll Always Be Nervous When Starting a New Contract

When I started traveling, I can remember being very nervous about my first day at a new facility. I thought that after I did a few contracts and increased my confidence that I’d no longer be nervous. But now, 6 years later, I realize that was naïve. In this regard, my experience taking travel contracts has been similar to public speaking. The more I do it, the easier it becomes, but I still get nervous each time. This is only natural because each contract is brand new and no matter how good you are at asking the right questions in the interview, there’s always going to be some uncertainty prior to starting the job. It’s important to not let that nervousness deter you though! Realize that this is a normal part of the process.

6. Your First Week Likely Won’t be Perfect

No matter how experienced you are as a traveler, the first week at a new job is almost always pretty tough. Even at the best contracts, you’ll have to get used to all new patients, new coworkers, a new clinic setup, and a new documentation system. On top of that you’ll be familiarizing yourself with a brand new area of the country. We often hear from new travelers that they’re overwhelmed after their first few days at their first contract and worried that they made the wrong choice. Whitney and I have had this experience many times ourselves, and almost every time, once we give it some time and get comfortable at the clinic, we end up really enjoying it. So don’t worry if your first week doesn’t go as well as you hoped. Things should get much easier after the first week.

7. Thirteen Weeks Goes By Really Fast

When starting a new contract, 13 weeks can seem like a long time, but inevitably before you know it, you’re looking for your next contract and this contract is almost over. When we started traveling, we’d often get toward the end of a contract only to realize that there was going to be no way to fit in all the things we wanted to do and see in before we left.

To avoid this, in the first week at a new travel assignment, it’s a good idea to get some recommendations from coworkers and patients for things to do and see around the area. Then make a list of the things you really want to do before you leave and a rough plan on which weekends you’ll do each thing. If you don’t plan things out, it’s very easy to get to the end of the contract and have regrets about not doing everything you wanted to because the time goes by faster than you think it will.

8. Travel Therapy Can Really Improve Your Clinical Skills

Many new grads considering travel are worried that they won’t improve their clinical skills as a traveler. In my experience, this has not been the case at all. In my first couple of years as a traveler, I worked with dozens of PTs in many different clinics and made a point to ask questions and learn from each of them. I picked up wisdom, manual techniques, and exercises from a large variety of therapists with different treatment philosophies each place that I went. This was very valuable to me in my practice as I learned not only how I wanted to structure my own evaluations and treatments from great therapists, but also things I wanted to avoid doing as well. If you go into travel therapy with curiosity and a hunger to learn, you can significantly improve your clinical practice from all the therapists you meet along the way.

Summary

When starting out as a new travel therapist, there is a lot to learn. Over the years Whitney and I have learned a ton, and we do our best to share these lessons and experiences with you all in order to improve your travel therapy journey. The more time you can spend becoming educated on all the ins and outs of travel therapy prior to starting, the better your experience will be. If you’re brand new to travel therapy and looking for somewhere to start, our free Travel Therapy 101 Series is a great place to begin!

You can also message us with any questions you have, and get our recommendations for recruiters here!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT – Jared has been a Travel PT since 2015 and has mentored thousands of current and aspiring travel therapists.

Jared Casazza, PT, DPT, Travel Therapy Mentor

Working Internationally as a Speech Language Pathologist

Photo of mountains and ocean at Ha Long Bay with words "Working Internationally as a Speech Language Pathologist" Guest Post by Noel Erik Simon for TravelTherapyMentor.com

Since we have spent a lot of time traveling abroad, we often get questions about working internationally as travel therapists. We have actually never worked abroad and don’t have plans to. However, we do know that there are American therapists who do work abroad in different capacities. We want to share with you Noel’s story: a speech language pathologist (SLP) who has had a unique career working internationally. Noel highlights his variety of work experiences, some of which have been unconventional, and he provides insights to other American therapists who are considering trying to find work abroad. Get ready to get inspired!


Noel’s Story

My name is Noel Erik Simon and I’ve been an ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) certified SLP since 2006. During my time as an SLP I’ve worked internationally in several different countries. If I had to point to the reason why I’ve chosen my current lifestyle, it would probably go back to my time as an ESL teacher in the Peace Corps. I was stationed about 3.5 hours south of Moscow at an experimental school in Ryazan. Since repatriating and finishing grad school, I always had the dream of living abroad again.

The opportunity came as I was completing my clinical fellowship year (CFY). I saw a posting on the ASHA website for an SLP position at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia. Serendipitously, I had taken a linguistics course in the past couple of years and remembered my professor saying that he had grown up in Indonesia. I reached out to him and he was very excited about this possible opportunity for me. That was the first step that led me to an SLP career abroad. Ironically, I didn’t end up moving to Indonesia. I ended up moving to Cairo, Egypt in August 2007 instead. Since that time, I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Beijing, China; Warsaw, Poland; and I’m currently in Hong Kong.

Riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi in Kigali, Rwanda.

Even after moving abroad, I haven’t always worked in an international school setting. In Vietnam, a friend introduced me to a group of related professionals made up of special education teachers, pediatricians, a school psychologist, a play therapist, and an occupational therapist. I quickly found that I was the only practicing SLP in the country at that time. My new colleagues started sending me referrals; I made some business cards; and I built a reputation for myself in the expat and international school parent community providing private SLP services. I took my fee schedule from my OT colleague. This allowed me to make a good amount of money and make my own schedule.

Because of this flexibility and increased income, I was able to gain a lot of great experience with some side pro bono work as well. I traveled with Operation Smile on surgical missions to Cambodia, China, Uzbekistan, and Rwanda. I was able to partner with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and special education schools in the city to provide workshops and training for teachers and parents. One of my proudest achievements was partnering with an NGO that rescues women from human trafficking. I worked with the survivors to help them modify their accents so that they could tell their stories to a wider audience in their own voices.

The variety of work that I had done by this time convinced me that I wasn’t as pigeonholed as I thought with my profession. Typically an SLP is seen as either educational (pediatric) or medical (adult). Of course, there are many other sub-categories, but these seem to be the biggest areas. With a little bit of creativity, I was able to branch out of my mindset of what I could do with my skill set and really extend myself.

My Operation Smile team in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Advice for Others Job Searching Abroad

I would say that there are several routes you could take if you’re looking for a job abroad as an SLP:

First: You could go the route of taking advantage of the mutual recognition if you want to work in five of the other primary English-speaking countries. This route requires a lot of research and finding a job first. After that, the job should help you with licensing and a working visa.

Second: If you’re an education-based SLP, I would suggest some search sites for international schools. Most of these have a fee (some cheap, others pretty expensive). A few examples are:

Working for an international school means you get to take advantage of school holidays: 6-10 weeks off during the summer, 2-3 weeks off around Christmas/New Year’s, a week off in the fall and spring, and depending on which part of the world you’re in, another 1-2 weeks some time in winter for Chinese New Year. All of these are what I like to call “Travel Holidays”. These are great because one of the things that can make travel prohibitive from the US is the cost of getting out of the US (unless you’re a proficient credit card hacker). Once you’re abroad, travel becomes significantly less expensive from one place to another. There are usually multiple discount airlines to choose from around the world.

Third: For pediatric and medical-based SLPs, I think there is a misconception about a large part of the world. People assume some kind of language barrier if you’re not looking at just the Anglophone countries. This is not entirely true. There are many countries that are officially another language but they use English as the lingua franca, or English is somewhat of a co-official language and it may not immediately occur to people. I would recommend checking job postings in the Middle East (specifically the Gulf States) or SE Asia (Singapore especially, but also Malaysia and Thailand). 

Fourth: I’ve talked to many people who’ve also recommended government jobs like the DOD, Veteran Affairs, Department of the Army, etc. All of these jobs have been centralized on USASjobs.com. Of course, these are more like a traditional job on a U.S. Army base (or Army base adjacent), but the people who I’ve talked to have highly recommended this lifestyle.

Almost every country has a sizable expat population. Even countries that you wouldn’t consider probably have a great need for “allied health” professionals. If there is a specific country that you have in mind, I would say to just do some research. Better yet, take a vacation and backpack around there and do some recognizance. You’d be surprised what you might find. I had no idea what the situation would be like in Vietnam. I got a job as a whole-school SLP and elementary school learning support teacher. I wouldn’t have known until I got there that there was enough of a need that I could start my own private practice.

I know that, in addition to the Anglophone countries, Europe is always big on people’s wish list. I would say these are all possible, but if you’re trying to do this for the money, then put these places out of your head (except possibly some places in Eastern Europe). If you want to make much more than you could in the US, then Asia and the Middle East are much better options. If you get a teaching job at an international school, even if your salary looks smaller than what you might be making in the states, keep in mind that housing is usually provided separately from this, and your salary will probably be tax-free. What you’re are being quoted is often (depending on the country) your net salary, without housing, flights, visa, etc. (these are provided separately). Plus, often these countries are much less expensive to live in than the US. For example, my first teaching job abroad was in Egypt. My salary was a little more than half of what I was making in the US. However, because Egypt is an extremely inexpensive country to live in (much more so than to travel through as a tourist), I found a cheaper place to live (pocketing the difference in the housing stipend), and I picked up some clients on the side, I was able to save significantly more than I was able to in the US. In fact, my two side clients paid all of my day-to-day expenses, so I was able to save all of my salary (except for what I used to travel on). I also had a 3-bedroom house, a driver, a house cleaner, a gardener, and a cook.

Another thing about working abroad is that many ‘developing’ countries don’t have the same standards as far as licensing goes. Some of our professions don’t have an equivalent in these countries, so there is no license. I was the only SLP in Vietnam when I was there. There was no need to seek out a licensing body. If you’re working at an international school, you’re often seen as a “foreign expert”. It’s more important to have a teaching certification than a license. I think that, with some major exceptions, a lot of the strategies are the same for occupational therapy and physical therapy professionals. I’ve only heard of a handful of international schools around the world that have employed occupational therapists. So, physical therapy might be the only profession out of the three that may already exist as a local profession in most countries. You would need a bit more research, but if I were trying to find a job in those fields, I would still check with clinics in the same areas (Asia and the Middle East). I would also just do a Google search on “working as a (insert job) in (insert country).” Checking LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Indeed have also given me a lot of ideas.

In my experience, most contracts for international schools are initially two years (with school holidays) and then the option to renew yearly after that. Clinics may be just one year. I have been traveling with my wife since 2007. At least one of us has always had a job offer before we’ve moved to a country, sometimes both of us. Obviously, we both try to find jobs, but we have the added challenge that we’re both specialists (SLP and librarian), and basically, we’re both non-teachers. Out of the five countries that we’ve moved to together, we were both offered jobs at the same school for three of them. We’re not naïve going into jobs, but most of the time, when we’ve been offered jobs, it’s because we usually go by our motto “Leap and the net will appear”. Even bad job decisions aren’t permanent, and you can learn from them.

Hanging out with friends in Dahab, Egypt (one of my favorite places in the world).

Cultural Considerations

The countries where I’ve lived have been very easy to go about your daily life with little to no knowledge of the local language except niceties and “taxi language”. But, one of the reasons that I’ve chosen to live abroad is for a chance to learn a new language. I really don’t think there’s any better way to immerse yourself into the culture of another country than trying to learn as much of the language as you can. In most of the jobs abroad, you’re going to be with a mix of locals and expats, probably mostly speaking English. It can be challenging to force yourself out of your “easy” group of English-speaking friends and try to make more local friends, but the payoff is huge.

Most of the places I’ve worked have a very diverse staff. There are many international schools that are only international in that the curriculum is taught in English and most of the staff are native speakers. The student body could be 90% host country nationals. However, the average international school might look like a public school in Brooklyn or Queens, with students from 50-60 different countries. There are definitely cultural differences between colleagues and families. Sometimes it’s misunderstandings with host country people, but I’ve found most of my cultural misunderstandings have been with other “westerners”. I would say for anyone working abroad, it might be helpful to keep in mind that just because you might look like someone doesn’t mean you share the same cultural assumptions. I also think that in many ways it’s easier to live in a country in which you might not look like the majority of the people there. People look at you and assume that you’re a “foreigner”. You’re often treated as a guest. But I’ve also worked in countries in which I more or less look like I could be indigenous to that country. People assume that I must understand the language and the cultural nuances. They might have a little less understanding of my mistakes as I get acclimated to how things are done there.

For me, settling into a new country and discovering how to live, pay bills, find the best deals on groceries, learn to cook local food, etc. are the biggest pluses to living there instead of just traveling there. Most countries don’t have a Home Depot or a Costco. Most shopping is done at little shops or open-air markets. It sounds so mundane, but one of the best feelings I get is when I need to buy something that I wouldn’t think twice about in the states (e.g. a lightbulb). Finding the specific local shop that sells the lightbulb that I need and being able to conduct the entire transaction in the local language is incredible. Having a tourist stop and ask you directions is a cool feeling too. In some places I’ve lived, I’ve even had locals ask me how to get to an address because they weren’t familiar with the neighborhood. 

Color Run with my wife and friend in Beijing.

Conclusion

If it’s your dream to work abroad, there are a lot of different possibilities out there. First, suspend all of your preconceptions about licensing and language ability. Secondly, don’t be held back by your job title. There are more opportunities than you think in related fields. Do some research on a desired location to get started, and then plan a trip to get a feel for what it’s actually like on the ground. Reach out to schools, clinics, etc. Be willing to move on if things end up not fitting. Decide what’s important to you and keep at it!


Noel Erik Simon is an American-trained Speech Language Pathologist. He has worked in a variety of settings including international schools, group homes, early intervention programs, clinics, and NGOs. He has presented workshops and training to parents and other professionals on a range of topics related to speech and language. Over the past 15 years, he has lived and worked in the US, Russia, Egypt, Vietnam, China, and Poland assisting children and adults with a wide range of needs. You can find him via the following social media platforms:
Instagram: @vaguely_vagrant
Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/nesimon1


If you’re an SLP, PT, or OT who’s interested in working abroad, feel free to contact Noel for further insights. If you have questions about traveling for work within the US, please contact us and we can help you!