Of all the fun questions I get asked about this work in my DMs, my favorite is “how do you travel all the time?” Surprisingly easy. I spent the first few years of my career learning what travel conference interpreting required. I quickly realized that the vast majority of interpreters out there doing, are doing it wrong. This is mostly due to the fact that as a field we do not discuss how to further our business and increase our income.
A couple things come to mind when I teach people how to travel for work. First, it really helps if your rate is appropriate. I know this seems obvious but it’s harder to travel if you’re under-earning. It’s not impossible but certainly a barrier that is easily removed by doing a little bit or research. The other thing is you unfortunately need to plan. I wish I could say that every trip was a last minute whim of an idea where I grabbed a bag and ran out the door. It’s simply not. For every trip I take, there’s a database I use where I track confirmation numbers, dates, pricing, potential locations for working and wifi information for hotels that I’ve pulled from sources like TripAdvisor.
You can learn more about how it works and why I’d never plan a trip without it in this blog post. It’s available for purchase here.
Regardless of the obstacles, being able to travel and work is really one of the best experiences. To me, it’s really important that as a business owner I am always growing my business. I use traveling as a way to find and convert new clients as well as meet interpreters that can refer me into jobs/agencies when I’m available. I would strongly suggest that if you are planning to travel and meet people from other places that you get comfortable in conversation with strangers. Practice ways to explain your work to someone who might want to hire you for their company or at least connect you to someone who can. It can be incredible to sign new clients on the road, it’s certainly not a requirement.
It’s easier if you have your own clients
Working in partnership with agencies can be great. They also don’t need to know you’re traveling. I work with plenty of agencies that I don’t have a regular dialogue with. They will reach out to me when something really fits my profile but otherwise they’re not really updated on my whereabouts. Those agencies have seen my reliability and trust that I’m going to show up at the time confirmed. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Bogotá or Boston. What matters if that I have great WiFi and a professional VRI station.
You can use informing agencies to your advantage when searching out specific types of work (which I’ll dive into) but you shouldn’t feel a pressure like a corporate 9-5 job. As an independent contractor, you don’t have to accept pressure from agencies (read:clients) into adjusting your schedule to accommodate their workload. You might feel that you have to play politics through the year in order to maintain a stable income, which is sadly the case for the majority of freelance interpreters. However, your vacation can happen completely independent of their insight into your whereabouts if you feel that is best.
I prefer to work with my own client list when traveling whenever possible. I love being able to post up on a hotel bed or by the pool to interpret. I don’t mind setting up my VRI background and throwing on a black t-shirt but if I can do the gig in a tank top with my client who doesn’t care about the palm tree in the background… I’m going to pick my client. Plus, working with my own clients versus through an agency means I’m keeping more of my own rate which helps pay for the next trip faster. It also reduces the amount of time I need to fill on the road in order to maintain a decent income.
The Gear I Use
Here’s a breakdown of the gear I use! It hardly takes up any space in my carry-on bag. I recommend never checking your technology. I keep my VRI background, tripod, cables and MacBook with me at all times. You don’t want to risk losing any of it. You should always have a backup plan if something does go sideways on your trip.
Last week I left Mexico City to interpret for a luncheon in LA and return back within a day. When I landed in LA my MacBook wouldn’t turn on. I wouldn’t be returning to NYC for another week and a half but I needed a computer. With the amount of work I had planned of rest of my trip, I had no choice but to go into an Apple store and pick up a new one. That sucked. I’ll recoup the funds I spent on it and get rid of it once my computer is repaired but still, it’s a terrible situation to be in.
I’m not buying a new computer with every trip I go on but I always keep an emergency credit card handy for emergencies like this. I’d rather lose a couple thousand dollars that will be paid off over time than lose a client which could jeopardize my long term income. Do yourself a favor before you leave, get an emergency card.
Affordability is key
Contrary to what viewers of my instagram story might believe, I don’t make insane money. Full disclosure, I’m probably making more than average in our field because I work directly with my clients and refuse to let agencies take advantage of my time. However, I travel very cheaply using some resources I’ve found over the years. One important note , I don’t do trips for as cheap as I could. Truly I could save a lot more money if I made some concessions and backpacked. I’m just not 22 anymore and if I’m not in a decent bed for the evening with AC, I’m not my best self. If you do want to travel for the bare minimum, you can absolutely still work on the road (with a little more planning).
I have status with Delta because of how much I fly with them but I still occasionally have to use other airlines. I’ve found the best way to find the flights is a combination of services. Most of the time when I’m traveling I have a region in mind but no real preference of where I touch down. If it’s affordable and interesting, I’m game. What takes priority most of the time is the impact it will have on my wallet. Of course I could take one fantastic vacation per year for a few weeks and start saving up to do it all over again next year. If I focus on making sure the impact of the trip low and the income I’m making while away fairly decent, I can continue to take multiple trips a year without going broke.
I use a couple of great resources and blogs but I never write something off entirely. I genuinely enjoy watching YouTube channels and reading articles about maximizing opportunities for traveling. I’ve outlined a couple of my favorites here but this certainly isn’t all I use, great information can come from anywhere.
Kayak has a really cool feature called Explore. You can put in the airport you’d like to leave from and a rough idea of when you want to go (or specific dates) to get the best deals to destinations around the world. This way you can look at a map or list to find the cheapest and best options that fit the vibe you’re looking for.
Sometimes you’ll find options that are fantastic but the dates just don’t work. I typically check once a week to make sure I’m never missing a last minute fare that’s become available or a great sale on tickets that might sell out. In other cases, you might be willing to overspend for a specific destination, I always find it helpful to keep all of the calculations together to make sure that it evens out with the costs of hotel, food, transit etc… If I’m getting a fantastic hotel for $100 off per night, an elevated flight ticket might be worth it.
Kayak will often offer hotels available in the area based on your dates of travel. I recommend double checking these with other search engines and directly with the hotel to ensure you’re not overpaying for a bundle deal.
Google has really similar features but will also find you specific ticket combinations to make your trip work within your budget. Google is the one I use the most often because they have a trending feature that will tell you where prices typically fall for the destination you’re eyeing. Google also tells you if you’re getting a good deal or not.
Sometimes I’ll have Kayak and Google next to one another to check the flights in succession. For example, on this last trip I flew from New York to Bogota then on to Mexico City, Los Angeles (added last minute while I was in Bogota), Mexico City again, Puerto Vallarta, Zipolite then back to New York.
Regardless of the service I use to find the flights, I always book directly with the airline once I’ve signed up for their rewards programs. Even if a flight seems like a one-off for very low miles, I want to ensure I keep them as they usually don’t expire. I have miles from airlines I haven’t flown in years sitting in accounts I never check but if I ever need them or start flying with that carrier more often, I’ll be glad to have them to use.
Bounce around for the best fares
On my last trip, I used this flight itinerary-
NYC – BOG – MEX – LAX – MEX – PVR – HUA – NYC
I was able to score tickets as low as $12 by bouncing city to city via the resources Kayak and Google provide. If you’re interested in going to Rome but the tickets are too high, you might be able to fly into Oslo or Lisbon and connect with separate tickets for a fraction of the price. Often it’s getting out of the US that is the problem but once out, flying place to place becomes astronomically more affordable.
It can become complicated quickly if you’re just scratching notes down on napkins like I do. prefer to keep multiple screen shots of the pricing for a potential itinerary that includes the price, time and flight number so I can then compare on a larger planning board. Once that’s done, I plug in all the information to my Airtable database to begin mocking up itineraries that make sense and are financially doable.
When the tickets are set, I start to scout for hotels and other workplaces I’ll use along the way. Once I have everything together I put it all into a final table that will become my itinerary for the trip. Then I go through my credit cards to ensure I’m purchasing with the right one to maximize my points before I book everything.
Finding the perfect hotel
I initially start by searching the zone I want to stay in then I source a few hotels as options before checking out the photos on TripAdvisor. I’m always looking for four things.
- Central to where I want to be
- Decent lighting
- Potential workspace / background
- Strong wifi
I’ve learned my lesson in staying outside my preferred area. While a really picturesque hotel might be only 3 miles from the area I’d prefer to be in, the cabs can add up. Worse, I can’t bounce out the door between meetings to explore because of time constraints. If I’ve agreed with my schedule to fill my Monday with meetings, I want to be able to enjoy the city should a weird portion of my day end up empty. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a hotel room with a dreamy destination just out of reach.
The room has to have decent natural light. Even a courtyard overlooking a pool can work but I need something to keep my biological clock as undisturbed as possible. Having a large source of natural light also means that I have more control over my lighting on video. This opens me up to more formal work or “studio” gigs where the client needs a specific look to translated materials even if I don’t have a full lighting set up. I also check for a business center in case I need to print any prep materials. Working on two screens isn’t terrible but as many of my colleagues would agree, sometimes you just need the hard copy.
When possible I look for a large blank wall to reduce the need for me to set up a background. I’m never going to suggest you leave a background at home, especially with how small they can pack down. Hotel rooms always change and with the diversity in decor, you’ll likely not be in a room exactly like the one on the website. Even when you do get the right room, you might need a plug on the other side of the room from your station – making the popup backdrop a necessity. I do always enjoy not having to set up though, so if they’ve got large blank walls in their rooms, I’m more likely to book.
Lastly, good wifi is obvious. If it’s extensively advertised on their website I get a little suspicious. I’ve experienced many hotels where the wifi is the main selling point only to find out they advertise it so heavily because they’ve had issues in the past. I will usually narrow down my options by using Tripadvisor and highlighting “wifi” as a keyword I’m interested in. If the reviews I find are all decent, I check with the hotels front desk for a speed test ahead of time. This isn’t uncommon but if you’ve never asked for them to run a test it can be awkward. I typically will ask the representative to use speedtest.net and tell me the download and upload rate. 25-50/download & 10/upload is the lowest I would ever trust. One thing that is important to keep in mind, network speeds often taper down depending on the volume. I strongly recommend calling at the time you intend to accept work and also to ask if they have any large events or conferences during the dates of your stay that might impact connection speeds. If you’re only planning on doing remote translation or transcription work, this is far less important as you can travel to a wifi spot to send drafts during the day if needed.
When I’m satisfied, I book with hotels.com, my credit card travel program or directly with the hotel. With hotels.com I get every 11th stay free but that’s based on the average I spend per night. So if I want to maximize my points on a cheap room, I’ll book directly with the hotel for 10x points with my American Express. If I’m booking an expensive suite, I’m going to use hotels.com to up my average for that free night. If neither of these will make a huge impact, I’ll book through my credit card travel service to get any promotions they may be offering. Often credit cards will offer a night free or a specific upgrade package for specific dates.
If your credit card offers you a status perk within a specific family of hotels, you can skip the hostels and travel in much nicer places for the same price. Be sure to check out the cards you use to see if any of them offer perks that could support a more comfortable night sleep on the road. For many nicer establishments, you’ll get $100 as a resort credit. This is great especially if you’re booking in the off season and getting a nightly deal on the rate. I find that many destinations are much more my vibe in the off season and I can use that resort credit for the spa, which is easier to book with less people competing for time slots.
Once I’ve got the hotel booked I find places I can work from in the area that are cuter than a 10×10 room. While there are tons of blogs out there on the topic and it’s easily google-able, in my opinion the best way to find the most picturesque and feasible spots is on Instragram. I really enjoy working in hotel rooms but nothing beats the beach and if you can find really incredible places to work outside of where you’re staying, you can explore even more.
By searching location and hashtags with the explore feature, you can see places people have set up office. I follow tags like #remoteworkvibes and #officeviews so that when an interesting spot pops up I can add it to my list. Within the app I’ve got a few albums I use when I’m going to that destination and when I’m planning a trip I add more tags ahead of time. I’ve also found that DM’ing other people who have traveled there you end up with tips like how to get on the better wifi or the best place for a quick swim nearby.
Whenever possible, I save my billing and admin work for when I can do it by a pool. I find that I’m much more productive when I get listen to SZA and write invoices with my feet in the water. If I don’t have any admin work but I’m just not up for interpreting, I’ll reach out to agencies and let them know I’m available for asynchronous work like subtitling, editing, captioning or coordinating a project. This way, I’m still getting some work in and covering the cost of the trip but only after I’m caught up on my own personal stuff.
As a sidenote, I think most of us don’t carve out time to focus on things like development of our practice. Sometimes, I just need to sit in a cave in Mexico and think. I put on some good music and daydream about what’s next for me and my practice. This way I can start to form goals and plan out how I’m going to achieve them. If we don’t allow ourselves time to think and consider our futures, we can get really comfortable in the same lack of longing at the distraction of constant and stable work. If none of that strikes a chord with you, work on building your social media so your clients notice and want to hire you.
The wifi in many remote places can be spotty or nonexistent. This is the largest reason why I don’t worry about providing VRI as much out of my hotel. I like to keep things as stress free as possible. I used to be much more focused on finding the right wifi than I am now. I have much better luck in most places on my AT&T hotspot which gives me access to unlimited data and is already built into my plan. While it will support most VRI calls, I’d rather not chance it, especially with a client who lacks patience.
Of course places like WeWork are available in other countries. There’s a wide variety of services, communities and apps you can sign up for. I’ve actually found much better luck on my own by doing a bit of research on my own and connecting with other travelers. For me, the largest factor is cost. When traveling with friends who are also working, renting a private conference room near the beach is fairly affordable and convenient should I need to step out leaving my things behind. When going alone, I’d be much more inclined to find a hotel with one available to guests as apart of the nightly rent or a restaurant that offers cowering space throughout the day.
I almost always find the right place on Instagram scrolling late at night. Wasting hours of your life on social media can actually make your vacation better, who knew?
Booking the work
While I don’t plan out every hour of my day on the road, sometimes I’ll add in specifics like museums or parks I want to visit so that I don’t overbook myself with work and end up missing out on something I really wanted to do in the destination I chose. Having decent organization is crucial for this. I block those times out first and any chunks of time I want to spend exploring.
Once I have everything in my final itinerary, I’m ready to start reaching out to clients and booking jobs. One thing I work really hard to keep in mind is that working in another country is great but if that’s all I ended up doing, I’ve only rented an expensive office. It’s important to keep a healthy balance, especially if you’re someone who tends to overbook and exhaust yourself when work is available. I’ve been on vacations where I ended up working most of the time because of a lack of organization. Missing out on the destination to do the same thing I do at home made the whole trip really lousy and I felt worse leaving because I had wasted so much money. Do yourself a favor, carve out the time to enjoy where you’re going before booking work.
I don’t change much about how I book the work, but occasionally I will inform a specific person I’ll be out of the country if I need a specific type of work. For example, if I want to do some captioning work I’ll send an email that mentions “I’d really love to take on some asynchronous projects for next week. I’ve got a couple days I’d like to fill. If you have any projects you’d like support on, don’t hesitate in reaching out!”
If I need to fill the time with VRI but I know the agency isn’t offering it to me because they can get someone to do it for a lower rate, I might send: “I’d love to offer you a my availability on Tuesday and Thursday after 2pm EST at a rate of $00.00 for VRI work. I’d like to fill that time this week but I’ll still have some availability for last minute work as well in case that becomes a need.”
I’ve found both approaches have been warmly welcomed by clients and agencies who were willing to be as flexible as I was. As I mentioned, it’s easier if you maintain your own clients and certainly less of a hassle to ask for work. Still, everyone starts somewhere in the process and one trip is bound to have you craving more. It might be the thing that pushes you further into private practice.
Having autonomy over your work in its entirety can be stressful and complicated of course, but it can also be incredibly freeing. The flexibility to decide when and where you clock in can be empowering. More than anything, it can contribute to your overall quality of life. You shouldn’t have to give up your dreams to work your dream job. I don’t have a perfect day everyday. Nobody does. I can tell you that even on my worst days, this practice is more than worth it and on my best days, I can’t believe it’s real.
If you are a colleague who thinks “I could never do that, I’m only signed to x agency” consider that we’re now in the second year of a pandemic which has shifted the landscape of interpreting. I regularly work with interpreters from all over the world who are zooming in to maintain their practice. You can send an email to any number of providers around the US and start picking up work online. If you can do it from your home, chances are you can do it in another country as well. Diversifying your portfolio and list of clients will only support your autonomy and ability to go further in your practice.
Getting new clients on the road
The most surprising thing I tell people is that I get new clients while I travel all the time. Seriously.
I’m ironically very shy by nature and not the best at just walking up to someone about anything. Traveling makes it much easier because travelers often rely on each other in other countries to share knowledge, experiences and cautionary tales. I’ve met clients in hot tubs at 9pm and signed deals poolside over a couple drinks.
When traveling I always remind myself that while I’m inquiring about someone else’s life back home and how they fill their time, I need to tell them what I do for work. People are so curious about working as an ASL interpreter and at their questions, I often ask if they’ve ever seen one in their company/organization/PTA meeting etc… I always make the offer to exchange information and when they hand me their phone to create the contact, I include my work contacts along with a note “American Sign Language Interpreter”.
There’s a thin line between driven and gauche but if you can toe that line and always ensure you’re not being a social weirdo, you might end up with a new client or two. Even if someone needs someone locally, you can send a referral and open up a conversation. People’s lives and careers change quickly. I still get calls and emails from people I’ve met years ago who finally need an interpreter in their new position or company. Consider that you’re not making a sale with everyone you meet in your daily life at home, why would you be on vacation? Just make great conversation and let life do the rest.
If you’re interested in signing on with agencies in other cities, make the effort to reach out and meet with them. When I know I’ll be returning to a city like Los Angeles or San Diego, I make an effort to meet with local agencies and sign on with them. If I am ever back in the area and open to work, I can be confident there are lists I can rely on. While I don’t suggest undercutting colleagues and disrupting a local market, most agencies will realize that an interpreter visiting from the midwest will accept a lower rate if offered because they’re on vacation. You can use that to your advantage with the disclaimer that you’re accepting really affordable rates for them because it’s in service of you filling your otherwise empty schedule.
Plan for an extra day for longer trips to relax at home before you dive back into the work. I personally like to give myself space and time to readjust back to daily life. While traveling is entirely doable, sometimes getting over the jetlag feels impossible.
I’ve been able to do this for years and I have loved it. Not every day is a great day but the experience has been so incredibly rewarding. It allows me to now visit anywhere I want to go without worrying about my next check.
Always double check your gCal or planning software has updated your timezone.
Don’t pack any technology into checked bags
Bring a backup charger
Ensure you have enough adaptors for your technology in the country you’re visiting.
Get a travel card
Do your research to stack your credit card rewards
3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Traveling & Working as an Interpreter”
This is such a helpful guide! Thank you for sharing all your tips and tricks for travel, will be saving this to come back to for my next work trip!
I’m so glad to see it! My hope is that this guide will inspire more interpreters to get out of their home offices and enjoy their work with some saltwater in their hair!
This is eye-opening. I really have never considered this because I’ve never seen colleagues do it. Watching your instagram has always been really inspiring but this is going to be the post to get me to buy a ticket. I just bought the template and I’m already filling it in!!!