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

Top 5 Things to Avoid During Your First Travel Therapy Contract

Top 5 things to avoid during your first travel therapy contract

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Starting your first travel therapy contract is an exciting time, but there are definitely a lot of factors to consider when choosing your first contract, and mistakes to avoid once you get there! Since we covered choosing your first job recently, now we want to cover things to consider when you’re working at your first travel placement! These things apply both for new grads and experienced clinicians starting travel therapy for the first time. Some of these do have to be negotiated in advance as well, and they will come into play once you start working!

Productivity

Productivity is a dreaded word in healthcare. But, unfortunately, it is a part of our jobs as healthcare professionals. It’s important that you ask about the productivity expectations during your phone interview for the travel therapy job and consider whether the expected productivity is reasonable and realistic.

This will look different based on your discipline and setting. For example, for a SNF placement, the expectation could be anywhere from 75-95% (or potentially even higher with the new Medicare Patient Driven Payment Model changes on the horizon)! We urge you to consider whether the suggested productivity expectation is doable if you remain within ethical and legal guidelines. In general, we feel anything close to 90% or above is not realistic, especially for an evaluating therapist (PT, OT, SLP). In most cases, 85% is probably the max we would accept. For an outpatient physical therapy clinic, you might be looking for how many patients per day or per hour you are expected to see. In our experience, for an 8 hour day, between 10-14 patients is what we feel comfortable with. But, the therapist’s ability to meet these productivity standards in any setting is going to depend heavily on how the clinic is set up and how it operates.

When presented with a productivity standard that sounds high, we would encourage you to have a discussion with the manager or interviewer. Find out how the facility operates on a daily basis to help you decide if the productivity will be achievable. Are there techs or aids to assist with ancillary tasks such as setup/cleanup or patient transport? If it’s an inpatient or home health setting, is the productivity weighted based on what type of patient session is performed (evaluation, treatment, discharge, etc.)? When are the full time therapists able to complete their required documentation throughout the day? These are all important things to consider and ask during your interview.

In general, we don’t recommend you sign a contract that has the productivity standard written into the contract. This happens sometimes with SNFs, and sometimes they try to use this to say that if you drop below the written productivity, they can deduct your pay. If possible, avoid taking contracts like this, and if you see it written in a contract, talk to your recruiter to get it removed.

Once you’re on the job, be aware whether the productivity, and the various factors that affect productivity, are in line with what was discussed (and promised) during your interview. Is the clinic what you were told it would be, or is it totally different? Are you being asked to suddenly meet unrealistic productivity standards? Are things like the documentation system, support staff, and scheduling conducive to you being able to meet the productivity?

As a travel therapist, you are generally expected to be able to “hit the ground running” without much ramp up time. Sometimes facilities are able to provide more or less ramp up time or training than others, it just depends on the contract. But regardless of these expectations, you have to be honest with yourself and your supervisor. If the productivity expectations are not reasonable enough for you to meet them within your regularly scheduled hours, you need to stand up for yourself as a healthcare professional. Don’t let anyone guilt you in to stretching the limits of your ethics and legality, or your personal sanity, to meet unrealistic productivity expectations. Always remember, it’s your professional license and your quality of patient care at stake.

Working Off The Clock

Discussing productivity leads directly into our next topic, working off the clock. All too often, if the productivity standards at a facility are unrealistic and cannot truly be achieved during a standard workday, it leads to employees working off the clock to get their documentation done. For permanent employees who are on salary, there isn’t really such a thing as “working off the clock.” So, often, they will be in the habit of coming in early, staying late, working through lunch, or taking paperwork home with them. If you’re a practicing clinician, you are undoubtedly familiar with this, and as a student having gone through clinicals, you may be as well.

However, as a travel therapist, it’s important to remember that you are an hourly employee. You are paid by the hour that you work. Therefore, you should be able to complete all required work (including documentation) during your scheduled work hours. This can be difficult for employers/supervisors to cope with, because they’re used to their salaried employees. So if necessary, if this becomes an issue, it may require a conversation with your recruiter and/or your supervisor.

We encourage you to get paid for all of your time. So if the schedule and productivity expectations are not conducive to you completing your required work within your regular hours, something needs to change. This could mean a conversation about your schedule to reduce the caseload or allow built in time for paperwork. Otherwise, if you are working beyond your scheduled workday, you should be getting paid overtime.

Overtime

This leads in to the next topic. As stated above, if you’re working overtime hours, you should be getting overtime pay.

Typically as a traveler, facilities do not want to pay overtime. So, we have approached this situation in a couple different ways. Either we would let them know upfront that based on our schedule and our documentation, we would be going into overtime, and see what they say. Or, we would just do the required work, and if this required 30mins to an hour of overtime, we would then write that on our timesheet for the week. If nothing was said, we would just continue to write our hours down as we worked them, even if that meant overtime. But, often if you put down overtime hours, this will spark a conversation from your recruiter or supervisor. This is then the time when you would want to discuss the various factors of your day that make you unable to complete the required patient care and documentation within your normal hours. Then, perhaps the supervisor will work with you to make changes to your schedule, or they will agree to allow you overtime.

As far as overtime pay goes, this works a little bit differently for travel therapists. Typically, overtime pay is a standard “time and a half” on your hourly pay. However, this amount does not make sense for a traveler, because time and a half on our hourly is actually lower than our standard 40 hour pay when you account for the stipends received during our normal working hours. To learn more about overtime pay, check out this article.

The bottom line is that if you are going to be working overtime hours, you need to get compensated appropriately for the overtime hours. Hopefully you were able to negotiate an appropriate overtime rate when you signed your contract (in general for PT/OT/SLP this should be at minimum $45/hour but could be up to $85-100/hour). But, if for some reason you find yourself in a travel contract where you are actually working a lot of overtime hours, and your overtime pay is still only time and a half of your hourly, you need to discuss this with your recruiter and get it increased. Sometimes they can create an addendum to your contract to add a higher overtime rate, or they may be able to pay you a bonus at the end of the contract to compensate you for the difference in what you should have been receiving for overtime. Either way, make sure the overtime pay you are receiving is worth your time. Otherwise, don’t agree to work overtime, and instead make sure your schedule is adjusted accordingly.

Work Drama

Switching gears a bit, our next recommendation for your first contract (and all subsequent contracts!) is to avoid the work drama! As most of us healthcare professionals know, there is usually some type of work drama at any facility, whether it be interpersonal relationships, a bad manager, a bad coworker, staffing issues, or new rules and changes happening at the facility. This should be one of the best parts about working as a travel therapist. You’re only there temporarily, so you shouldn’t have to worry about this drama at work!

Not only is it good for your mental health to avoid work drama, but this recommendation will also help you to be more productive and get out of work on time. I can’t tell you how many times I made the mistake of getting caught up in the work drama and happenings of the clinic, and I ended up sitting there talking to a coworker for an extra 20 minutes, hour, hour and a half, when I should’ve been getting my notes done and getting out of there! Take our advice, and avoid the work drama as a travel therapist, and you’ll come out ahead in all respects!

Planning for Your Next Contract

The last thing we encourage you to consider during your first contract is planning for your next contract! This can be a tricky part of being a travel therapist, and this will be your first time navigating the transition. If you wait until the end of your current contract to start looking for your next contract then you’ll be way behind! We recommend that around mid-contract, you start to consider where your next move will be.

Are things going well at your current contract, and maybe you’re considering extending? Usually you can get a feel for this after the first few weeks. You might also already have an idea whether the facility might need you to extend or not. Have they found someone to cover their staffing needs already, or are they still searching? Is the caseload still high, or has it dropped and they won’t need anyone any longer? By about halfway through your contract, if you want to extend, you should start talking to your supervisor about it. Sometimes they will approach you themselves, but often you have to ask. In the past, we have usually approached the supervisor and said something along the lines of, “It’s about halfway through my contract and this is when I need to decide what my next move will be. I was wondering about your current staffing needs, and if you think you might need me longer than my 13 week contract?” This is usually a good opener to the conversation. If you do want to extend, and they need you to extend, you then go back to your recruiter and proceed with the contract extension negotiations.

If extending your contract is not an option or not something you want to do, then you need to start thinking about where you want to work next, and when you want to start. If you’re interested in going to a different state, you need to already be working on the next license. We always recommend having the license in hand before applying to a job in a certain state. Sometimes while you are already on contract with a company, they will be able to help you start the process of getting your next state license.

If you plan to start work immediately after your current contract, it’s best to start looking for your next job about 6 weeks out from your end date. We usually try to have our next contract locked down within 2 to 4 weeks of our end date. If we get down to 2 weeks from our end date, that’s when we start getting a little nervous, and also when we might consider expanding our search criteria and getting a little less picky.

This is an important factor to consider as a travel therapist on your first contract and on all subsequent contracts. 13 weeks goes by a lot faster than you think! In order to avoid a lot of unwanted (and unpaid) time off, you need to be on top of your job searches. Hopefully you have a team of recruiters that is proactive and will also be reminding you of this and helping you with the process. But we encourage you to be proactive in your job search, because ultimately you’re the only one who is going to go without work and without pay if you don’t lock in a contract.

Conclusion

While there are lots of things to think about during your first contract, these are the main ones we wanted to highlight that we think pertain to all travel therapists. There will undoubtedly be a lot of other factors, especially various clinical nuances, to consider. But, in terms of being successful as a travel therapist, the biggies are: making sure you’re not being taken advantage of in terms of productivity, not working off the clock, and overtime; as well as avoiding work drama; and planning ahead for your next contract!

We hope this information helps to set you up for success during your first travel contract! If you have questions for us, don’t hesitate to send us a message!

If you’re still in the process of getting started with travel therapy and would like recommendations for recruiters we have worked with that will have your back during your journey as a traveler, fill out this form and we will get back to you with recommendations!