Pros and Cons of Travel Therapy

After over eight years of being travel physical therapists, starting as new grad Travel PTs in 2015, we’ve learned just about everything there is to know about the ins and outs of the travel therapy world, with lots of lessons learned the hard way. In the past few years we’ve also mentored many thousands of aspiring and current travel therapists, which has helped us to get a great perspective on all of the pros and cons of travel therapy for different therapists’ situations.

Usually travel therapists talk about and focus on all of the positives of choosing to take short term contracts around the country, but there are certainly downsides as well which shouldn’t be overlooked. Although the pros and have significantly outweighed the cons for us, which is why we’ve continued to travel for so long, that won’t be the case for all therapists. In this article, I’ll lay out all of the pros and cons of travel therapy so that you can weight them and decide whether being a travel therapist is the right choice for your situation.

Benefits of Travel Therapy

Since most therapists considering travel therapy are looking for reasons why travel would be a good choice for them, I’ll start with the benefits side of the ledger.

1. Higher Pay

Of all of the travel therapists that we’ve talked to and mentored over the years, by far the most commonly cited reason for choosing to, and continuing to, travel is the higher pay that goes along with taking short term contracts. This is also the reason that Whitney and I chose to start traveling right away as new grad PTs. The mechanics of how travel therapy pay is structured can be a little complicated when first starting out, so if you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, you can learn more about it here and here.

How much a travel therapist makes on each contract can vary greatly depending on the setting, location of the contract, and the travel companies they work with (some companies pay better than others), but in general most travelers can expect earn between 1.5-2 times as much as they’d make at a permanent position. In some cases, we’ve seen therapists make nearly 3 times more than they were earning in a permanent position when transitioning into travel therapy! That is a major incentive, especially for a therapist with tons of student loan debt.

2. Flexibility

The longer we’ve traveled, the more we’ve appreciated the flexibility that comes along with being a travel therapist. In fact, after a few years, we chose to continue traveling not because of the higher pay anymore but because of the flexibility that it afforded us. You see, when taking travel contracts, you can take as much or as little time as you want off before taking your next job. Travelers use this benefit in a variety of ways, but for us we used it to semi-retire and take several-month-long trips around the country and around the world between our travel therapy contracts. We’ve now visited all 50 US states and nearly 40 countries internationally since graduation, which wouldn’t have been at all possible at a permanent job with just a few weeks of vacation time each year. Some version of semi-retirement is something that we now recommend to all travelers!

3. Trying Out Different Settings

When we first started traveling, I was pretty sure that I wanted to work as an Outpatient PT, but I wasn’t positive that this was the only route for me, because I had minimal experience in other settings. Many other new grad therapists are in a similar situation. We’ve also talked to lots of experienced therapists that have been working in the same setting for many years but are burnt out on it and want to try out other settings without a long term commitment. Travel therapy is perfect for this!

Within my first three years as a Travel PT, I was able to get experience in outpatient, acute care, skilled nursing, home health, and even wound care, all while getting paid very well to try these different settings. Ultimately, I decided to stick with outpatient for the majority of my contracts, but getting to try other settings made me much more confident that outpatient was the right setting for me. We often talk to therapists that want to try working in home health but aren’t sure if they’ll like it, so don’t want to commit to a permanent job. Taking a 3 month home health contract is a great option to try out this setting, and we’ve actually known many therapists that fall in love with it after giving it a shot.

4. Deciding Where to Settle Down

Prior to starting my career as a travel therapist, I’d never lived more than an hour away from my home town. I really had no idea what it would be like to live outside of my home state of Virginia. Because of that, I was very unsure if I really wanted to settle down near my home town or if there would be somewhere else in the country that would fit me much better. I’d taken vacations to areas all over the country, but it’s very difficult to get a realistic feel of a location in only a week or two on vacation.

Although not my top reason for choosing to travel, getting to try out different areas of the country that I might want to stay permanently for a few months at a time has been amazing. Many travelers will take a contract in a location and then end up liking it so much that they take a permanent job and stay there!

5. Exploration and Adventure

Another major factor for choosing travel therapy for us was to be able to explore more of the country. Whitney and I set goals to visit all 50 US states and to visit all of the US National Parks. While working toward these goal during and between contracts, we’ve gotten to explore the majority of the country and have had countless amazing adventures along the way. Most travel therapists are pretty adventurous people, and traveling back and forth across the country for travel therapy jobs gives the perfect opportunity to explore areas they never would have been able to otherwise.

Downsides of Travel Therapy

Now that we’ve taken a thorough look at all of the benefits of travel therapy, let’s dive into some of the parts that aren’t so great and can make this career choice a challenge.

1. Finding Short Term Housing

Depending on the location of your travel assignment, and the time of year, finding short term housing can be a major hassle. It can also be very expensive with recent housing and rent price inflation. In most places in the country, finding reasonably priced short term housing isn’t too difficult, but for travel assignments around sought after cities like San Diego or Austin; in Hawaii; or in rural Alaska, it can be very tough. Whitney and I chose to buy our fifth wheel camper to live in for our first few years of Travel PT to avoid some of the headache, but campers come with their own pros and cons. Overall, arranging housing can be one of the biggest downsides for travel tehrapists.

Check out this article for all of the tips and resources we’ve utilized over the years to minimize frustration when finding short term housing.

2. Packing and Moving

No one likes to pack and move, and if you’re a traveler taking a new assignment every 3 months, you’ll almost certainly be doing a lot of it. This was by far our least favorite part of travel therapy when starting out, but we gradually got better and more efficient with it. Over time we realized that we could get by with significantly less stuff than we originally thought we’d need on a contract.

We discuss how we’ve refined the packing and moving process over the years and what we bring with us to each new contract in this video.

3. Licensing

The licensing process varies drastically depending on the state and your discipline. We’ve gotten a new license in as short as two weeks with minimal cost and effort, and as long as nine months with a lot of cost and effort. Whether the process is short or long for the state you’re applying for, it’s never fun. Some states require a jurisprudence exam at a testing center as well as a background check and fingerprinting before they’ll issue a license, which means time spent studying and making appointments, in addition to all of the paperwork and application fees. Each discipline is now in various stages of approving a compact licensure which helps significantly, but it will be a while before the majority of states are participating for each discipline.

To learn all about the ins and outs of the licensing process for therapists, this article is a great place to start.

4. Higher Costs

Part of the reason that travel therapists are able to make so much more than permanent therapists are the tax free stipends that are often included in our pay packages. In order to qualify for these tax free stipends, travel therapists need to maintain a tax home and meet certain tax home rules. It’s possible to travel without a tax home as either an itinerant worker or when taking local contracts, but this means taking home less money each week. Part of maintaining a tax home is duplicating living expenses, which means paying for housing in both your assignment location and back home.

Depending on how much it costs you to maintain your living situation back home, this can be a major expense for some travelers. We’ve used various strategies to reduce this cost over the years, including renting a room in a house and house hacking, but these are possible for all travelers.

In addition to higher housing costs, travel therapists will also have additional costs from driving to and from assignment locations including gas and wear and tear on their vehicles. These are big considerations when looking at your bottom line as a travel therapist and determining if travel therapy is actually more lucrative for you.

5. Loneliness & Being Away From Friends/Family

There’s no doubt that being many hours away from friends and family for extended periods of time can be tough for some travel therapists. When we first started traveling, we took the majority of our contracts within a few hours of home, partially in order to be close by for weddings and holidays. Missing events back home can make travelers feel more disconnected from their support systems. While some therapists have no issue with this at all, others can run into feeling lonely and homesick, which seems to apply more so to solo travelers. In terms of loneliness, we often find that therapists who travel in a pair or with pets have less difficulty.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Travel Therapy

Each of the pros and cons of travel therapy above will apply in various degrees to you depending on your situation, but all are important to consider. The vast majority of travel therapists that we mentor find the pros to outweigh the cons when everything is considered, but there is a small percentage that don’t feel that way and stop traveling after a contract or two.

One thing that we consistently find is that the travelers who spend more time doing their research on what to expect and start their travel therapy careers more informed do better overall. Whether you plan to make a career out of travel therapy or just plan to travel for a year as a new grad to help pay down debt, you’ll benefit from doing your research in advance. One of the biggest things you can do to improve your odds of success is to find great companies and recruiters for your specific situation. If you’d like us to help you find a few based on your needs, fill out our recruiter recommendation form!

Reach out to us with any questions as you get started on your own travel therapy journey!

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Jared Casazza
Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT – Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and has mentored thousands of current and aspiring travel therapists over the years

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