Is #VanLife Feasible as a Travel Therapist?

With Whitney and I being well known throughout the travel therapy community for traveling in our fifth wheel camper for several years, we often get questions from current and prospective travelers about whether or not they should embrace some form of tiny living while on the road.

When we started out as new grad travel PTs in 2015, tiny living was a relatively new concept, but it seemed to explode in popularity soon thereafter. In addition to tiny houses and campers, living in renovated vans to save money and easily move from place to place became much more common. This naturally led to people considering the van life (#VanLife) as travel therapists as a way to reduce costs and bypass having to find short term housing while on assignments.

At first glance, this seems like an awesome idea and might be great for some, but let’s discuss some considerations that may make it less appealing to many.

Cost Considerations

Around the time we bought our fifth wheel travel trailer (camper), I did some research on vans to see if buying one could work for Whitney and I. My primary motivation, like many others, was to reduce our expenses while traveling. After all, if we could get a van and renovate it for less than the cost of a camper and then have drastically reduced monthly costs, that seemed perfect. To my surprise, vans big enough to renovate and live in can be pretty expensive, even when buying used with higher mileage. Used Sprinter vans (the most popular type) that are in decent shape with around 100,000 miles sell for around $20,000, but can be even more expensive than that. Newer vans can cost $50,000 or more, and that’s not including the cost of renovation!

Cost of renovation will vary drastically depending on wants and needs, as well as how much of the work can be done DIY. For a travel therapist planning to live in a van full time for 13 week assignments, it probably makes sense to make sure it’s comfortable and not skimp too much on amenities. Renovation costs can range anywhere between $30-$25,000, but realistically the actual cost will likely be at minimum $5,000-$10,000. There are companies that will do all of the renovations for you, but even the basics can be over $20,000!

So when you take into account the cost of the van itself, then the renovations, you could be looking at total costs of $25,000 to $75,000 or much more in some cases!

Duplicating Expenses

Now you might be looking at the cost of purchasing and renovating a van as replacing all your housing costs, so maybe the upfront cost is worth it in the long run, right? However, this still doesn’t take into account the housing requirements that many travelers have in order to maintain a proper “tax home.”

The majority of travel therapists need to “duplicate expenses” in order to maintain their tax home. Maintaining a tax home and meeting these requirements allows the travel therapist to qualify for tax-free stipends on their contracts, which is a major part of what makes travel therapist pay so lucrative. Unfortunately, having to maintain the tax home rules makes living off the grid while on assignment to save on housing costs very difficult. This is because one of the major tax home requirements is that you “duplicate living expenses” at home and at your travel location.

According to Joseph Smith at TravelTax, one of the three factors that determines whether or not you are maintaining a tax home is, “You have living expenses at your main home that you duplicate because your business requires you to be away from that home.” Therefore, even if you have a tax home at your permanent residence, you’d still have to duplicate expenses at the travel assignment location for it to be legit. Just living in the van that you’ve already paid for doesn’t qualify as duplicating expenses. You have to pay for a place to live, or in this case, a place to park the van, and keep evidence of your housing expenses. This likely means having to pay for a site at a campground or RV park.

Since many travel therapists consider living in a van to save money, having to duplicate expenses means that the monthly costs in the van won’t be much lower than the monthly costs in a RV or camper.

 Comfort and Hygiene

While tiny living has its perks and is definitely in vogue, there are still certain basic facilities and comforts that we all need. Van life is very popular right now and seems cool on the surface, but when you really start digging deeper to understand what’s inside the van and how you’ll have to live, you might think twice.

Even the most awesome van modifications don’t alwasy have running water, electricity hookups, and a bathroom inside. It’s definitely possible to get some of these additions, at a price, but most often they do not have a fully functioning bathroom with a shower, and even if there is a kitchen, space and amenities are going to be limited. This makes some vital tasks much more difficult, including getting ready for work and cooking. Most people that live in a van full time have to rely on the amenities at an RV park or gym for things like showering and toileting. They also may have to choose to cook less often due to limited space available to cook and store food, and limitations in running water and electricity.

In addition, space is very limited in general inside a van. Depending on the type of van, you may not even be able to stand all the way up. Some vans you have to crawl around, and you have to spend your time standing outside at the back to use any cooking features. Of course, the really souped up Sprinter vans with actual kitchens will allow standing room, but you’re still going to be crammed in with limited room for living space and storage.

These comforts are things to consider before you make the leap to van living as a full time solution to housing as a travel therapist, vs. someone who just wants to have a cool van for camping and road trips.

Parking, Driving & Getting to Work

As we discussed above, you will have to consider where you’ll park the van to live in it if you plan to use it on travel assignments. While vans are easier to park in places like parking lots or on the street, if you plan to receive the tax free stipends you will have to pay for a place to park it and keep your records of living expenses, rather than just planning to park for free somewhere, like in the parking lot of your facility for example!

This brings up the issue of how you’ll get to work and get around places. Will you live in the van and use it as your vehicle you drive? Will you drive it to work everyday, the store to get groceries, the gym, to bars and restaurants, and on weekend trips? Will you take it on the road in cities, through mountains, in parks, and everywhere? Or, will you haul another vehicle with you, like a car, bike, moped, or motorcycle to be your daily driver, while you leave the van parked as your “house”?

If you do plan to drive the van as your daily vehicle, it might be convenient to park some places, but not all places, like in a busy city or narrow lots. In addition, if you have to drive it daily, it will be challenging to have to always have your belongings put away so they don’t fall and slide around in the vehicle. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to maintain a daily outdoor “camp” setup like many people enjoy, with outdoor rugs, lights, chairs, etc. Since the van is a small space, many van lifers utilize their outdoor space a lot. We know from experience that it can be tough to get your “camp” set up and then take it all down again especially on a daily basis.

Van Life vs. RV Life

Taking into consideration all of the above, it brings us to our main point. Is van life really the best option for travel therapists? Or would RV life be a better choice? This is ultimately the conclusion we came to… to choose RV life instead.

While Van Life and van conversions are definitely popular and seem cool, we feel there are so many limitations. We think that for a longer term solution for living and replacing your short term housing as a travel therapist, RVing is the way to go. Vans might be cool and convenient for short term road trips and camping, but we don’t think they’re the answer for housing for the vast majority of travel therapists.

If you’re really into tiny living and don’t want to go with a bigger RV such as a Class A motorhome, fifth wheel or pull behind travel trailer, a good option for you might be the Class B Motorhome. Class B’s are basically a larger van, already set up for you the way you’d need in order to live. They have many of the same perks as a van conversion, but with lots of amenities built in that are going to make daily living much easier.

Class B or Class C motorhomes are still relatively compact, ranging from the size of a larger van to the size of a school bus, but they are built inside the way that other RVs are, usually with a decent size kitchen, bathroom, living space and bedroom space. The big kicker is that they have running water, full bathroom facilities, a fully functional kitchen, and the hidden gems underneath- water, sewer, and electric hookups!

Plus, they’re already built for you. They’re made by the manufacturer to be a living space on wheels, so you don’t have to put in so much work to convert a vehicle (van) that’s supposed to be a car, not a house, into both. Of course a big draw for many people wanting to pursue a van conversion is the customization, but in our opinion putting in all the work (and the headache) at what can often be double the cost, is not worth it! The cost of a decent used Class B or Class C Motorhome can range from $20,000-$60,000. Plus, it’s already fully equipped with light weight materials made for moving around and withstanding driving down the road. If you end up finding a Class B or C used and at a good price, you can make some small DIY modifications and tweaks to make the space your own, while the structure and amenities are already there for you.

Our Conclusions

Saving money on monthly costs while pursuing travel therapy contracts is a common reason to go with a tiny living lifestyle. In fact, this was the primary reason we purchased our fifth wheel about 5 years ago. While van conversions seem awesome at first glance, there are some major downsides and limitations when compared to an RV. Living off the grid in a van to completely eliminate monthly housing costs isn’t feasible for most due to having to duplicate expenses to maintain a tax home which means monthly costs similar to that of a camper/RV. For about the same cost as a van and the conversion to make it livable, a Class B or C motorhome can be bought and it is already made for living in with electric hookups, water tanks, larger kitchens, and bathrooms. Having some extra space, even when living alone, can definitely be needed at times, especially when the weather isn’t ideal outside.

Caveats

It’s important to note that this is just our opinion and analysis based on the factors we’ve discussed above. We know there are a lot of van-lifers out there who disagree with us. And there certainly are travel healthcare professionals living full time in a van and traveling around the country, loving life! We’ve mainly laid out some of the cons and challenges to consider in this article– while a quick search on Google, YouTube, or Instagram will show you tons of the pros/benefits of van living, laid out by those who’ve done it!

Ultimately, choosing to pursue tiny living by whatever means is a personal choice, and we’re continually inspired by seeing the amazing things other travelers do! This is just some insight for you to consider based on our journey and conclusions!

Happy Traveling!

 

Jared Casazza

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Pursuing Travel Therapy in an RV

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC


A common concern when considering pursuing travel therapy is how to set up housing for each travel assignment. Some therapists will choose to have housing set up by their travel company, while some will choose to find short term rentals, but another option that is growing in popularity is choosing to live in an RV.

Both Jared and I, as well as Travis and Julia, all have chosen to live the RV lifestyle and travel this way. There is a lot to learn when it comes to going this route, so I’d like to share with you some of the basics of pursuing travel therapy in an RV.


Our Journey to the RV Life

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Jared and I first decided we wanted to travel in an RV during our second year of physical therapy school, in 2014. We knew that we were going to begin travel therapy immediately after graduation in May 2015. We started looking into some of the logistics of finding short term housing for travel assignments, and we realized that moving every 13 weeks, including packing all of our stuff and setting up housing, was going to be a real pain. We decided that for us, having our own little home with all of our stuff packed in would make life easier moving from place to place. We figured we could move more quickly between assignments, decreasing down time/unpaid time off. We also figured it would be cheaper in the long run if we purchased a used RV and could resell it later. So, we were sold on the RV life, and started our search.

We ended up waiting until 6 months into our travel physical therapy careers to purchase our rig so that we could buy it outright and not finance, so we have only had one experience with short term housing in 3.5 years, which was during our first 6 months of work, and we found housing on Craigslist. Since then, we have traveled exclusively in our camper.

Our journey with the camper life hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and we’re honestly not sure if we actually came out significantly ahead financially after all is said and done, but overall we are happy with our choice! There is a lot to consider though, so you need to weigh all the options before you pursue it. Let’s go over some of the main considerations.

Most of these considerations are for newbies to the RV life who plan to do it only because of travel therapy. If you’re already an experienced RVer, and already have an RV, then what are you waiting for?! ūüėČ


Considerations for Choosing the RV Travel Life

  1. Are you going to travel more than 1.5 to 2 years?
    • This is important to consider whether or not the financial investment of purchasing an RV is worth it in the long run.
  2. Can you find a reasonably priced RV and/or truck/trailer combo?
    • If you’re paying a high price for an RV, or financing a new RV, the financial investment will likely outweigh the financial benefit of you working travel contracts. That is, if financial gain is a primary motivator for you.
  3. Are you handy, or willing to learn what it takes for repairs and maintenance?
    • Having an RV is like having a home– on wheels. Things break. It does require quite a bit of upkeep and maintenance. You need to know that going in.
  4. Are you up for an adventure if breakdowns or malfunctions occur?
    • These things do happen, and you have to know how you’re going to respond in a situation with a breakdown or major malfunction. You could wind up stranded somewhere for a while, waiting on repairs, making you late for a contract (hopefully not if you plan ahead). You could have to vacate your RV for a little while to have repairs done. Are these things you’re willing to deal with? It sure can be a relationship builder if you are!
  5. Are you comfortable staying in an RV park/campground setting?
    • RV parks and campgrounds are generally very nice. They are not the same as “trailer parks.” But, you do have to be willing to be a little outdoorsy.
  6. Are you (or your partner) comfortable driving an RV?
    • You need to know if you’re comfortable driving, parking, and backing in the RV; unless you plan to pay to have someone move it for you.
  7. Are you comfortable dealing with emptying waste water and sewage tanks?
    • This is something that us girly-girls might not be okay with. I thought it would bother me at first, but it really isn’t a big deal.

Logistics of Buying an RV

  • New or Used?
    • You can choose to buy new or used, but we recommend used because new ones can be very expensive and depreciate rapidly the first few years! And with our financial independence mindset, financing something like that is not an option. It’s as bad of a financial decision, or worse, than buying a brand new car. The depreciation is significant!
  • How old is too old?¬†
    • When you buy used, you want to choose one that’s less than 10 years old, because some RV parks don’t allow older rigs for aesthetic reasons. Also, the older ones are likely to have more mechanical problems. So you’ll need to consider your budget, and try to find a fairly nice used rig preferably.
  • Motorhome vs. travel trailer?¬†
    • For newbies, do your research on the difference. Motorhomes are the kind you drive (like a bus/van) and come in Class A, B, and C. Travel Trailers are the kind you pull with a truck, and there are Pull Behinds, Fifth Wheels, and Toy Haulers. There are a couple other types, but for the purpose of long term living, these are the best options for most people. Unless you want to consider a Pop-Up Trailer, but I feel they’re too small for long term living although we did live beside a couple that was making it work.
    • Our biggest consideration between a Motorhome vs. a Travel Trailer was that we needed to have two vehicles for work. So we figured if we got a truck and travel trailer combo, the truck would serve as one vehicle, while I would drive my car separately. We figured if we had a motorhome, we’d still need two cars, so then we would have three vehicles with engines that could potentially have issues! And we figured that if there was engine or other trouble with the drive train of the motorhome, we’d have to take our whole¬†home in for repairs. So we chose the truck and fifth wheel trailer combo!
  • Do Your Research.¬†
    • Read up on pros and cons of different brands, layouts, model years, etc. This is especially true for trucks and motorhomes, as different model years could have had recalls, known problems, or certain parts that didn’t operate as well, such as the engine!
  • Choosing the Best One.¬†
    • The best thing to do is go to a couple dealerships or RV shows and go inside a whole bunch! This will help you narrow down what you are looking for as far as size, layout, and amenities. We chose a fifth wheel vs. a standard pull behind travel trailer because it seemed to be more spacious. We also found that with Jared being 6’4″, he had trouble standing in a lot of the showers, so check the showers and ceilings, tall guys!
  • Getting it Inspected.¬†
    • If you’re buying used, and you’re not familiar with RVs, it’s a good idea to pay someone who is familiar with RVs to come and check it out for you. We didn’t do this, and we wound up with one that had some water damage we later had to repair, because we didn’t know what to look for.
  • Where to buy?¬†
    • We scoured RVTrader.com, Craigslist, and local dealerships. We ended up finding one listed on RVTrader.com, then went to see it where it was located 3 hours away. We bought through Camping World, which we felt comfortable with because we also bought an extended warranty plan. We found our truck on Craigslist.
  • Payment/Financing.¬†
    • Again, we’re not fans of financing, so we chose to work hard for 6 months in order to save up and buy with cash. We realize this may not be an option for everyone. So do what suits you. But generally speaking, it’s along the same lines of the process of buying a car as far as loans go.

Finding Where to Stay

Now, the big consideration with using your RV to take travel assignments around the country, is figuring out where to stay! Sometimes, it can be slightly limiting on your job search, because there are not places to park your RV just anywhere, especially in big cities. Generally, your contracts will need to be more on the outskirts at places they are more likely to have campgrounds. We personally never accept a contract before we have found out for certain that we will have a place to park our RV nearby.

  • Campgrounds/RV Parks:
    • Search Google, use the Good Sam website/app, and call around!
    • You need to make sure that when you do your search, you check to see if it’s just a “campground” or an actual “RV Park.” Some campgrounds are just for tent and weekend camping, not to park RVs, and not for long term.
    • You want to find out if the RV park has “full hookups” (this includes water, sewer, and electric at your site).
    • You want to find out if the campground is open year round because some of them close for the season during the winter, especially up north!
    • You need to call and see if they do monthly stays. Some of them only allow a few days up to two weeks, and will not allow you to stay month to month for your full 13 week contract.
    • Find out if they actually have availability/open sites when you’re going to need to be there for your contract. Places like Arizona and Florida when the snowbirds/retirees come down in Winter to live might be full months in advance!
    • Find out about the amenities they offer, like wifi and cable, and if it’s included in the monthly price or it’s extra. Find out of the electric is included in a set price or if it’s metered based on how much you use.
    • Find out if they have any other amenities like a pool, a store, laundry facilities, or a bathhouse in case you just need a real shower (or in case your water freezes in the camper)!
  • Other Options:
    • Sometimes you can find places on Craigslist that are not exactly campgrounds, but have hook ups for campers. This might be someone’s house or property, maybe a farm or a field that they’ve equipped with hook up sites.
    • Depending what type of RV you have and how easy it is to move around, you could potentially get away with staying somewhere that just had a water source and electric source, then you could go occasionally to a separate dump site for your sewage.
    • Another option if you didn’t have direct sewage hookup at your site is having a Septic Service come out periodically to pump your sewage for a fee, so you don’t have to move your rig.
    • There are some people out there that choose to “boondock” or “dry camp.” This involves staying in a parking lot somewhere or at someone’s house where you didn’t have hookups, just a place to park. You can generally get by on this for a few days or possibly a couple weeks by filling your water storage tanks, having some source of electricity such as a generator or solar panels, using other sources of energy such as a gas stove or battery power, going to a dump station as needed (or as mentioned above utilizing a septic service), or just finding alternative bathroom solutions instead of using your actual bathroom facilities in the RV (think: shower at the gym? I’m not saying it’s the greatest, but sometimes people do what they gotta do)! —-But personally I would not recommend this long term!

There is a ton more I could discuss regarding the RV Travel Therapy Life, but I hope I’ve covered at least the basics for now! I will write future posts going more in depth on issues you might encounter with traveling in an RV, such as logistics of moving place to place, maintenance and repairs, living in different climates, and various pros vs. cons!

Are you considering pursuing travel therapy in an RV? Do you have questions? We have mentored many people on their journeys to living the RV travel life. Jared and I now have 3 years of experience living and traveling in an RV, and Travis and Julia have over a year of experience. Please feel free to reach out to us with your questions, or leave us a comment below!

Whitney

Author: Whitney Eakin