What is Travel Physical Therapy?

Did you know that you can get paid to travel for work as a physical therapist (PT)? In fact, physical therapist’s assistants (PTA), occupational therapists (OT), occupational therapist’s assistants (OTA), and speech language pathologists (SLP) can all get paid to travel!

Maybe you’ve heard of travel therapy (or travel nursing) before, but don’t really understand what it is or how it works. Travel physical therapy (“Travel PT”) and other travel therapy careers are growing in popularity, and for good reason, as it is actually a very accessible and lucrative career path.

Keep reading if you want to learn more about the basic ins and outs of travel physical therapy (and other disciplines!), and how you can get started!

 

What Is Travel Therapy?

Travel therapy is a career option for PTs/PTAs, OTs/OTAs, and SLPs/SLPAs allowing them to work temporary, short-term contracts while moving around to different facilities all over the United States. The length of each contract varies from a few weeks up to a year, but the most typical travel therapy contract length is 13 weeks (3 months). Travel therapists work at facilities that need a temporary employee for various reasons which could include: a temporary medical leave, a seasonal increase in caseload requiring increased staffing, or a short term staffing need while trying to hire a permanent employee.

Why Choose Travel Therapy?

There are many benefits of choosing a career in travel therapy. Financial gain is a major reason many therapists choose to travel, since travel therapists typically earn a higher income than permanent therapists. Another perk of choosing travel therapy is being able to explore new areas of the country and experience new adventures. Therapists can also gain experience in new practice settings, learn new skills, and meet new friends and co-workers. Plus, travel therapy can afford therapists significant lifestyle flexibility, as they can choose to work when they want to and take off from work when they want to. For example, we have been able to work only one or two 13-week contracts per year, while taking 6 months or more off from work each year to travel around the world for leisure!

For more on our domestic and international travel adventures, check out our travel physical therapy blog

How Does Travel Therapy Work?

There are different ways that a therapist can become a traveler, for example by working through a travel staffing company, working as an independent contractor, or working as an internal traveler through a particular medical system. The most common way is working through a staffing company, often referred to as a “travel company.”

Travel therapists, especially new grad travel therapists, often ask, “Which is the best travel company?” The truth is that there are well over 100 different travel companies out there, and they all have their pros and cons. Each travel therapist has their own unique situation and needs that will influence which travel company is best for him/her. Finding the ideal travel company for you can be difficult, but it helps to get individualized recommendations based on your situation.

If you’re wondering which travel company to choose, send us a message and we’ll give you personalized company recommendations based on our experience!

When working through a travel company, the therapist’s primary point of contact is the recruiter. Your recruiter helps you find travel therapy jobs, assists you throughout the process, and is a resource to you during your contract. The individual recruiter you work with can make or break your experience with a particular travel company. It’s vital to find a great recruiter at any company you choose to work with in order to have a successful travel therapy career. You want to search for a recruiter that is personable, trustworthy, attentive, and understanding. Unfortunately there are many recruiters out there that are willing to low ball travel therapists on pay and push therapists into a bad situation just to make money off of them. Be sure to choose wisely and reach out if you need help!

Travel therapists should communicate with more than one company in order to have the most job options, because not all companies have access to the same jobs. This also introduces a bit of healthy competition between recruiters, which discourages low ball pay offers that I mentioned earlier. Since the recruiters are working to get your business and are aware that you have other options, they are much more likely to present the therapist with the highest pay offer possible in order to not lose out to a different recruiter/company. Therapists are free to work with as many companies as they want, and they are only employees of one company during the length of one contract. There are no binding commitments to stay with one company for a certain length of time. Travel staffing companies are simply there to help you through the process and offer positions for you to pursue.

Travel therapists have a choice to take as many or as few contracts as they wish. They can work one 13-week contract, then decide they want to take a permanent job after that, or they can continuously work travel contracts for their entire careers, with short or long breaks between jobs. They also have a choice as to where they would like to go and when they would like to work. However, finding a position depends on the jobs that are available and the timing. Therapists have three major factors to consider when searching for positions: location, setting, and pay. The more flexible therapists are on these factors, the more job options they will have. If they are too particular, for example only willing to work in one setting and in one state, there will be less job options and may lead to extended periods of unwanted time off.

How Much Money Do Travel Physical Therapists Make?

Travel physical therapy salary is a major concern for many prospective travel PTs. This is no surprise with the massive amounts of student loans that many new grad physical therapists begin their career with these days! Travel physical therapists can sometimes make up to double what a permanent physical therapist would make! Similarly, travel OT’s, SLP’s and assistants can make quite a bit more than permanent therapists in these professions.

A typical weekly pay for a Travel PT would be between $1500 to $1800 after taxes. This is the equivalent of a permanent gross salary of over $120,000 in many cases! Some travel physical therapy jobs can pay as high as $2,000/week after taxes, although these jobs are usually on the west coast and in the home health setting. Travel SLPs and Travel OTs make similar weekly take home pay, while assistants can expect to make between $1100-1300 per week after taxes.

Travel therapist pay works a little differently than salary pay. Typically the travel therapist will be paid an hourly rate, plus a stipend for housing, meals and incidentals. The stipend is not taxed, as long as the therapist meets the IRS requirements for maintaining a proper tax home and traveling away from that tax home. Since part of the pay is untaxed, the net amount that the travel therapist keeps is much higher than with a permanent, salaried position. The bottom line is that a travel physical therapist salary, when working consistently throughout the year, is very high, and that is even the case for new grad travel physical therapists!

In What Settings Do Travel Therapists Work?

The most prevalent travel physical therapy jobs are in Skilled Nursing Facilities and home health, followed by outpatient and acute, then schools. Specialty settings such as pediatrics, neuro, and women’s health are less common to see for travel physical therapists. Skilled Nursing and home health are by far the most common for Travel PTA’s and Travel COTA’s. Travel OTs and Travel SLPs most often work in Skilled Nursing, acute, home health, and schools.

Do You Have to Be Licensed in Each State?

When moving to a new state to work as a travel therapist, you must have a license to work in the new state. Traditionally, therapists apply for licensure in each individual state in which they plan to work. Currently, physical therapists in some states are eligible for an an interstate licensure agreement called the “PT Compact” which makes licensing easier between states. Hopefully in the future, all 50 states will participate in this agreement, which would be a huge perk and make life much easier for travel physical therapists! Occupational and speech therapy organizations are in the process of working on this type of compact licensure as well, which would greatly benefit Travel OT’s and Travel SLP’s.

Do Travel Therapists Receive Benefits?

When therapists take travel contracts through a staffing agency, they become employees of the staffing agency, just like the recruiter with whom they’re communicating. During that contract, they are eligible to receive benefits (including health insurance, liability insurance, 401k, etc.) through the staffing company. They would maintain these benefits as long as they are on contract, and the benefits would carry over to the next contract and during short breaks between contracts if the therapist takes the next contract with the same company. If, however, the therapist switches companies, the benefits would change and switch to the new company.

If therapists choose to work as independent contractors, or choose to decline the benefits from the travel company, they would be responsible for maintaining their own benefits. For more information, check out this article explaining how benefits work as a travel therapist.

What About Housing?

There are many options for housing as a travel therapist. The staffing agency can help you set up housing, however it is often better to set up your own housing. If they set up your housing for you, they will not pay you a housing stipend, and your weekly pay would be reduced. If you opt to set up your own housing, they will pay you the tax-free housing stipend, and you are responsible for making your own housing arrangements.

There are a variety of ways to go about searching for short term housing as a travel therapist. Some real estate agencies and apartment complexes allow short term housing arrangements. Therapists can stay in extended stay motels, or many therapists choose to use sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, Furnished Finder, and Craigslist to find short term housing. Some travel therapists choose to stay with friends or family, or search Facebook communities to find housing options using their peer groups. You can also contact the facility where you would be working and ask if they have any housing leads. Others choose to live in an RV and stay at campgrounds, like we did for several years! Finding short term housing as a travel therapist can be a hassle, but there are many options!

Is Travel Therapy Limited to the United States?

The typical travel therapist is licensed to work in the United States and takes contracts within the United States or the US Territories.

Therapists who are trained outside of the US can pursue travel therapy within the US, but there are more regulations and hoops to jump through, so often this is not an easy career path. It is generally recommended that foreign-trained therapists apply for their work visas within the US at a permanent position prior to pursuing travel contract positions.

US-trained therapists who would like to travel for work outside the US will encounter similar challenges. It is possible to arrange short term travel contracts in another country, but it is certainly more challenging and not the norm. US therapists may have more success applying for a work visa in another country and applying directly to a certain facility to work there, rather than searching openings to try to obtain short term contracts.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re interested in getting started as a travel physical therapist or other travel healthcare professional, check out our guide to starting your travel therapy career to learn what steps to take.

If you’d like our recommendations on travel therapy companies and recruiters that we’ve had a good experience with, fill out this form and we will send you personalized recommendations for your situation!

To learn even more about travel therapy, you can visit the other articles on our Travel Therapy Mentor website, and check out some of our own personal stories on our travel physical therapy blog “Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist.” Feel free to send us a message if you have more questions about pursuing a travel therapy career!

 

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

Whitney Eakin headshot

Factors to Consider when Comparing Pay Rates to Other Travel Therapists

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Background

One of the biggest fears for travel therapists, especially those new to traveling, is getting taken advantage of by recruiters. There is good reason for this fear since there are plenty of recruiters out there that are willing to low-ball those that don’t know what is reasonable in terms of pay and benefits. This is actually one of the main reasons that we created this website and began mentoring those new to travel therapy. Whitney and I  have had such an awesome experience while traveling, and we want to do our best to ensure that other travelers have a positive experience as well.

Since travelers are often so worried about their pay being inadequate, there is often open discussion regarding weekly take home pay between travel therapists. In general, I think this is a great thing and that everyone (not just travel therapists but therapists in general) should be more open to discussing their pay in order to have more transparency in this area.

Alas, as a travel therapist, there are some pitfalls to these discussions and comparisons that should be considered. If another travel therapist is working in the same state and at a similar facility but making significantly more than you, are you being taken advantage of? Sometimes, but not always. Let’s look at some of the factors that can affect discrepancies in pay. (If you’re completely new to travel pay then check out this comprehensive article on how it works for some background information)

Differences Between Travel Companies

Each travel company does things differently in terms of pay. Sometimes these differences are minor and sometimes they are major. The biggest difference affecting pay is your hourly taxable pay rate. For example, getting a pay offer from two different companies offering different taxable hourly pay rates is going to make the total take home pay each week much different even if the bill rate is the exact same. Some companies have a policy of not allowing taxable pay to go below a certain level (this can be as high as the $25-$30/hour range) whereas other companies will allow a much lower hourly rate (we’ve seen as low as $15/hour for PT, OT, and SLP). If your taxable rate is higher, that means your total weekly take home pay will be lower. The reason for that is not only do you have to pay extra money in taxes on that higher hourly rate, but the travel company has to pay a higher amount toward FICA taxes on your behalf as well. The difference between a $15/hour taxable rate and a $25/hour taxable rate can be $100-$200/week or more on your take home pay! If comparing your weekly take home pay to a fellow traveler, make sure to always consider your taxable pay rate compared to theirs.

Cost of Living

A huge factor to consider is the cost of living and desirability of the location in the area that you’re working in. In general, areas with higher costs of living (big cities) are able to offer higher stipend amounts for housing, meals, and incidentals. These stipends usually aren’t able to be fully maxed out in those areas though because the bill rate won’t support the full amount. Keep in mind that in general, rural areas are willing to pay more due to a lower demand in the area. As you can probably imagine, most travelers (and permanent therapists) want to go to the desirable areas in the country, which means that the demand for therapists there is lower and the facilities can offer lower bill rates and still know that someone will still take the position. If you’ve looked into a  contract in Hawaii then you’ll know what I mean. Hawaii is an extremely desirable location for travelers, and despite the high cost of living there, pay rates are very low due to the high demand. If you’re taking a job in Hawaii, it’s for the experience of the island life, not the pay.

Be careful comparing your weekly take home pay in lower cost of living states to others taking assignments in higher cost of living states (such as the west coast). Even though someone on the west coast might be making significantly more per week, you have to remember that their living expenses might be significantly higher there as well!

Up-Front Reimbursements

Some companies may offer up-front reimbursements as part of their pay packages, while others don’t and instead add that money into the weekly pay. This isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing either way, but it can affect weekly take home pay significantly and cause a discrepancy in pay between you and a fellow travel therapist, which is something to be cognizant of.

For example, let’s imagine both you and a fellow traveler recently accepted 13 week travel contracts in California after getting licensed there last month. You’ll both be traveling there from your home state of Tennessee. Your company offers you $500 in reimbursement for your CA license, as well as $400 to travel from Tennessee to California, and another $400 to travel back to Tennessee when your contract is completed. The other therapist’s company does not offer any reimbursements. Their take home pay is quoted to be $1,900/week after taxes, whereas your take home pay will only be $1,800/week. If you met this traveler while in California and discussed your pay, you may very well think that your company is taking advantage of you by paying you $100/week less, but in reality when you factor in the reimbursements, your pay is the exact same!

Be careful comparing weekly pay without considering reimbursements. Some companies and recruiters will purposely not offer reimbursements in order to be able to offer a high weekly pay rate since that’s what most travelers are concerned with. This is just moving the same money around, don’t be fooled!

Travel Company Size

As I talked about in the post I wrote on bill rates, travel companies take a different percentage of the bill rate depending on their overhead. Bigger companies are going to have higher overhead due to more people on payroll, bigger marketing budgets, more buildings, etc. Small companies usually have lower overhead and can get by with taking a lower percentage of the bill rate, although this isn’t always the case as we’ve found over the years. If bigger companies have higher overhead, isn’t it always better to work with a smaller company? Not necessarily. Bigger companies often have more jobs as well as exclusive contracts. They also tend to have better benefits and lower costs for the benefits due to having more employees working for them.

Combining Multiple Factors

When these factors are added together, differences in weekly pay can huge. If you compare weekly pay amounts between a big company that pays a high taxable rate and offers a lot of up-front reimbursements with a job on the east coast to a small company that pays a very low taxable rate with no reimbursements with a job on the west coast, you can see differences of $500/week or more in some cases!

Conclusion

Be careful when comparing weekly pay rates to other travel therapists without also considering all the factors influencing weekly pay rate. Don’t automatically feel bad about your pay the next time you see another travel therapist bragging about their high weekly pay rates when working with small companies on the west coast, when you’re working with a big company with more jobs and better benefits on the east coast.

If you’re in need of a company/recruiter that you can trust, send us a message with some info about yourself and your reason for traveling and we can set you up with a few that match well with you and that we trust!

Intangible Benefits to Consider When Choosing a Travel Company

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

The biggest concerns for most therapists when considering starting out as travelers include pay and benefits. Whitney and I were no exception here. I wanted to make as much as I possibly could while also getting decent health, dental, and vision insurance.

However, over the past several years as travel therapists, we’ve learned that there are other important factors to consider when deciding between travel companies which we call the “intangible benefits” of the companies. The reason these things are intangible is because they don’t show up directly on your weekly paycheck or in your health insurance package, but they can make a big difference in some cases.

Day One Insurance

Depending on your situation, not having to wait 14-30 days before your health insurance benefits take effect can be really important. For Whitney and I, this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker when working with a particular company since we rarely use our health insurance anyway, but it is important to consider. We prefer to work with companies that offer health insurance benefits starting on the very first day of the contract and encourage you to ask this question when interviewing potential recruiters as well.

401k Contributions and 401k Matching

I’m a big proponent of contributing to tax deferred retirement accounts. Not only does contributing to these accounts lower your income taxes, but also your income based student loan payment as well, so working with a company that doesn’t offer a 401k is not something that I’d do very often except in some sort of extenuating circumstance. A 401k match is also a perk that isn’t always offered and may have limited usefulness to travelers in some cases, but should be considered when deciding which travel company to work with.

CEU Reimbursements

Not all companies will offer CEU reimbursement, instead putting that extra money directly into your weekly pay. Depending on your weekly pay and your other reimbursements for a contract, this may or may not be a big deal to you. For us, if we are offered jobs by two different companies with similar pay but one offers a certain amount of CEU reimbursement per contract, that can sway us toward that company. Others may offer access to MedBridge or other online CEUs while on contract with them, at no additional cost to you, which can be a nice perk.

Free Gifts and Trips

Some travel companies will reward their therapists with free gifts such as: shirts, cups, mugs, bags, food, or even all-inclusive trips! These things are always exciting and can be a huge benefit in some cases. Usually we’d prefer to just make more money each week instead of that money going toward gifts and trips, but if two companies offer similar pay, but one offers a free trip each year in addition to the pay, then that company would be hard to pass up! Depending on the traveler’s personality, even small surprise gifts can turn a bad week into a good one, which can make a big impact over the long run.

40 Hour Guarantee

40 hour guarantees (sometimes also called guaranteed work weeks “GWW”) have been huge for me and Whitney! In fact, in almost 4 years of traveling, we’ve never accepted a contract that didn’t have a 40 hour guarantee included. If we take contracts, we want to be sure that we will always be getting full pay even if the facility suddenly starts having fewer patients for some reason and tries to decrease our hours. The security of knowing we’ll be getting paid our full amount no matter what is vital for us.

Most companies offer 40 hour guarantees on some or most contracts, but this varies from company to company. Also, as we’ve found out over the years, all 40 hour guarantees are not created equal. Some companies will only pay you for the full 40 hours if the census is low at the facility, but not if there’s a holiday or inclement weather that causes the facility to be closed. In most situations, we go with companies that pay the full 40 hours no matter what, with all other things being equal. Getting paid even on days when the facility is closed has meant I’ve made thousands of extra dollars over the course of my traveling career. This is one of the biggest intangible benefits for me.

Number of Available Jobs

I’ve talked in the past about smaller companies being able to pay higher weekly amounts with a given bill rate due to lower overhead, but this doesn’t always mean that smaller companies are the optimal choice. Bigger companies often have more available jobs, including exclusive contracts, which means more options for the traveler and potentially less down time between contracts. An extra $100/week can easily be offset by a few weeks of unintended time off due to not finding a contract that fits the traveler well, which could sometimes happen with smaller companies with less job options.

Job availability is even more important when traveling as a pair like Whitney and I, or Travis and his wife, Julia. Having one person in the pair accept a job while hoping to find something for the other person before the job starts can lead to a lot of unpaid time off. Whitney and I have had very good luck with finding two jobs that started exactly when we needed them to over the years (except a couple cases), and we attribute most of that to working with several different companies (most of them bigger) that have the most job options.

Conclusion

Having a high weekly pay rate is certainly important as a travel therapist and the most important thing to me, but it’s important not to forget about the intangible benefits that can directly or indirectly lead to more or less money in your pocket over the course of your traveling career. Make sure that you’re informed and consider all of the variables when deciding which travel companies to work with and which travel assignments to take to ensure that your travel career is a success!

If you would like some suggestions for companies/recruiters that we’ve found to have the best offerings in terms of pay and intangible benefits over the years, then reach out to us here! If you have any questions about travel therapy or these intangible benefits then feel free to contact us!

Travel Therapy Licensing Process

Written by Travis Kemper, PT, DPT with contributions by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC


Licensing and housing are probably the two most frustrating and challenging aspects of being a travel healthcare professional. We will cover housing in future articles, but let’s dig in to the current state of licensing, and I’ll give an overview of how my wife Julia and I, as well as Jared and Whitney, have attempted to navigate licensing as traveling physical therapists thus far.

How Does Licensing Work as a Travel Therapist?

In general, if you want to work in a different state as a travel therapist, you need to get licensed in each individual state where you plan to work. There is a “PT Compact” license that has begun for physical therapists, which makes the licensing process much easier for those who are eligible for the compact. Some type of compact license is also in the works for occupational therapists, but has not been passed yet. But, with the exception of the small percentage of therapists that can take advantage of a compact (or multi-state) license currently, the rest of us have to take care of licensing the old fashioned way.

What does licensing entail? Generally, an application, a fee, sometimes a jurisprudence/law exam (usually can be taken online or sent in on paper, but some states require you to test at a testing center), sometimes fingerprinting, and sending in a lot of verifications including: school transcripts, original board exam scores, and verifications that your license is in good standing from all other states in which you are licensed.

In some cases, travel therapy companies can help with the licensing process. Generally, this means they will reimburse you for a license once you’ve obtained it yourself and have accepted a contract with their company in that state. Sometimes, they can help you with the licensing process up front, including paying some of the costs and doing some of the leg work for you. But this is usually only once you are already a current traveler of theirs and are looking into your next contract with them in a new state.

Our Approach to Licensing Thus Far

We certainly don’t have all the answers, and like housing, there are multiple approaches and techniques to the licensing process that can all be successful for different travelers at different times. As a couple, finding positions has generally been time consuming and difficult, and starting contracts when we want has been challenging. Our friends who travel solo have found it much easier to find positions in the states in which they are interested and in a more timely manner than we have.

At first, we decided to only look at quick license states, meaning that we could look for jobs in states that would allow us time to find the job first and then get the license second. Therefore, we would ensure that we were only paying for the license once the job was already secured, instead of wasting time and money getting licensed in several states without knowing if we would actually take a job there. This tactic was primarily because we were broke after grad school (I’m sure most of you can relate) and couldn’t afford to pay for multiple licenses out of our own pocket up front, with the hopes of taking positions in those locations and then getting reimbursed.

We started with our first license and job in Arizona, because that is our home state, and we were getting that license no matter what. Next, we went to South Carolina, because it was a quick license state.

A note about “quick license” states: They are quick once they get all your paperwork, but most still require paper verifications from your current licensed states, and this can be a very timely process in itself. Licensing makes me speak very negatively about our state governments when they take two weeks to print out and send a piece of paper that I paid them $15-$25 to send! In the case of South Carolina, our start date was delayed two weeks because of the license verification from Arizona.

After that fiasco, we became more proactive and decided to get licenses up front in West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee while on contract in South Carolina, so we would not have a delay again in starting our next contracts. This seemed like a great idea at the time, and we figured a couple thousand dollars we spent on these licenses could be recouped fairly quickly.

This once again turned out to be a losing plan, after taking two extra weeks to find positions, we finally accepted positions in New Mexico (notice New Mexico was not on the list of licenses we had!) and started that licensing process there due to not being able to even interview for any positions in the other states. Again, the other states where we were already licensed made getting this license expensive and time consuming. New Mexico also lost half of the documents that were sent in. Luckily, the staff there was actually helpful unlike other states (cough West Virginia cough), and after 8 hours on the phone, we were able to get our licenses pushed through even though they did not have all the physical documents that were required.

What We’ve Learned About Licensing

So, where are we currently with licenses and what have we learned? Well, as of this point we are back working in Arizona, and seeing as that is our home state, we will be keeping that license. We still have New Mexico and Kentucky, but will be letting Kentucky expire in March 2019 instead of renewing. We already let the rest of them expire instead of paying to renew them.

Right now we are in the process of getting our California licenses, because California is reportedly a gold mine for travel therapy couples, and it is a gorgeous state. The current plan is to hang out in California and Arizona until our home state of Arizona starts issuing compact license privileges, and then use the compact to be able to move around the country again.

You can find out more about the PT Licensure Compact here.

What About Jared and Whitney’s Experience?

So far, Whitney and Jared have had a little better go at licensing than us, for the most part. Similarly, they chose to start by working in their home state of Virginia. After that, they were methodical in their licensing choices, and chose to get licensed in advance in each state rather than wait until after they found jobs to get licensed. They always chose states based on trends of which states tended to have the most PT jobs, since they also travel as a couple.

They chose their next state, Massachusetts, based on seeing a lot of job options in that area, and that choice worked out well with them being able to find two jobs together for their desired start date after they were already licensed. Next, they chose North Carolina, for the same reason. They wanted to be in South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida ideally, but they were seeing a lot more jobs show up in pairs in North Carolina, so they went with that. And, that ended up being another good choice, with them able to start with two jobs in the same area right on time, after they were already licensed.

After North Carolina, they chose Illinois due to seeing a lot of jobs there in general, but this choice never quite panned out. They ended up letting this license lapse and never used it. For what ever reason, the timing wasn’t right and they weren’t able to nail down two jobs together in Illinois. Similarly, they got licensed in Arizona due to a high number of PT jobs, but so far the timing has not worked out for them to go to Arizona either. They plan to keep this license though and use it in the future.

So, their travels have been a little limited due to licensing restrictions, and they’ve only ended up working in Virginia, Massachusetts, and North Carolina so far in 3.5 years of being travel therapists. But, a big reason for this also is that they were risk averse, and did not want to waste a lot of money on licenses if they didn’t think they’d use them, so they’ve held off on some opportunities because of that.

They too are holding out for their home state of Virginia to start issuing compact license privileges, which will significantly open up their options. Otherwise, they plan to get one to two more licenses, including California and possibly Washington due to lots of PT opportunities in those states, making it more likely to find two jobs together as a pair.

Take Home Points

The licensing process can be challenging and frustrating as a travel therapist, especially when traveling as a pair. All of this is at least twice as easy if you are traveling as a solo healthcare professional, but you may still have some of the same challenges that we have faced.

In general, you have a few different strategies you can use to approach licensing, which include:

  1. Pick a state you think will have good job options, one at a time, and get licensed in advance. Have the license in hand, then start looking for jobs there.
  2. Look for jobs in quick license states, and then if you find a job, get the license there afterwards.
  3. Get a few different licenses up front to open up your options before starting to look for jobs.

Although this process can be cumbersome, it is still doable. Many therapists don’t have near the trouble Julia and I have had, especially those traveling by themselves. Jared and Whitney had a fairly easy time with licensing and job finding for the first 2+ years, and have only recently run into some hiccups. If you play your cards right, you’ll still have a great experience as a travel therapist, as long as you’re somewhat flexible and willing to go with the flow if setbacks do happen.

Let us know what strategies have worked or failed for you for licensing! We are always open to hearing ideas from fellow travelers. Have questions for us about licensing? Send us a message!

The Single Biggest Advantage of Travel Therapy

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT


In the past I’ve written several articles on the financial advantages of being a travel therapist and how those advantages have allowed Whitney and me to embark on an alternative lifestyle full of international travel. In fact, I’ve always made it known that the financial aspects of being a travel therapist are the biggest reasons I was so dead set on going down the path of travel therapy even two years prior to graduation. However, there is one even bigger advantage that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately that is even more important to me than making more money… and that is flexibility.

The Many Faces of Flexibility

Flexibility as a travel therapist comes in many forms. There’s the flexibility to take extended periods of time off.

  • I’m currently writing this after last working over 6 months ago.

There’s the flexibility to try out different settings for a three month stint to see if you have any interest in that area.

  • I’ve now worked in outpatient ortho, acute care, home health, skilled nursing, and wound care while traveling.

There’s the flexibility to choose to invest money instead of paying down student debt.

  • This is primarily due to travel therapists having lower taxable income meaning a lower monthly income based payment due each month. And this is the path I’ve chosen for my own finances.

There’s even the flexibility to decide if pay or travel location is more important to you for the next three months and to change your mind about that decision after each assignment.

  • Occasionally these two coincide, but generally higher paying contracts are in less desirable areas.

Flexible Time Off

Starting out traveling as a new grad, I was most concerned about making as much money as possible to offset my student loan debt (and in my case, start investing heavily early in my career). For that reason, pay was the primary consideration for me, but I’ve recently found that the flexibility to take time off is even more important. These things go hand in hand to some degree, because without making so much more money as a traveler, it would be difficult to take extended time off of work, but the flexibility goes beyond that.

If I had taken a permanent job out of school, there’s little doubt it my mind that I also would have saved a large percentage of my income despite the lower total pay at a permanent job. After a couple of years, I would have likely had enough saved to take an extended trip out of the country, but because of the nature of a permanent position this would have been impossible. After all, it’s difficult to find a permanent employer in healthcare that is willing to let an employee take two consecutive weeks off, much less 5 months! So to me, the flexibility in time off allowed by travel therapy is huge.

Flexibility to Try New Settings

The flexibility to try out different settings is something that I didn’t know at first would be a benefit of traveling. I was always most interested in outpatient ortho as a student and undoubtedly would have taken a permanent job in this area had I not decided to travel. Whitney with her Athletic Training background was 100% in agreement with me in this area. To my surprise, after taking a couple of contracts in other areas, I found that I actually really enjoy home health and even wound care!

As a student, wound care was something that I was terrified of, and I would have never willingly taken a job with that requirement if it wasn’t for knowing it was only for three months. Home health is an area that I started to become interested in, but I most likely wouldn’t have taken the leap into trying it out at a permanent job due to fear of the unknown. As a traveler, it is much easier to get over that fear when you have a predetermined end date that you know will be there pretty quickly if it turns out you really don’t like the job (this was skilled nursing for me).

Flexibility to Invest Instead of Paying Down Debt

I’m not sure if investing instead of paying off my debt is something that I would have done if I had taken a permanent job, but there’s no doubt that it’s more feasible as a travel therapist. The biggest reason is that with a lower taxable pay as a travel therapist comes a lower income based student loan payment. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but when using the REPAYE income based repayment plan, this becomes more important.

The reason is that under REPAYE, half of the accumulated interest each month is subsidized, which ends up being a massive benefit for travel therapists who choose an income driven repayment plan. For me, this is the difference between having an effective interest rate of 6% on my loans versus an effective interest rate of 3.2%. Or, to put this in different terms, it’s the difference between my student debt growing at $500/month versus growing at $266/month.

If you take into account that the stock market returns on average 7-10%, then you can see why investing your money to get that return instead of paying off low interest debt at 3% would make sense. Having the interest accumulate much more slowly makes investing instead of paying down my student debt a no-brainer in my current situation.

Flexibility to Choose Between Pay and Location

Since the primary motivator of travel therapy for Whitney and me was pay, to this point we’ve always chosen to take higher paying travel contracts in rural areas. In addition to the higher pay, we like the slower pace, caring people, and lower cost of living that goes along with traveling to rural areas. Although rural areas are great for us, they lack the excitement of being closer to bigger cities and more desirable areas.

In the future, as money becomes less and less of a motivating factor for us as we approach financial independence, location is likely going to become more important. For example, we’ll likely sacrifice pay and low cost of living at some point to take travel assignments in Hawaii and southern California, which is something that we would never have done three years ago when starting out.

Take Home Points

It’s inevitable that priorities change throughout one’s life. The many different forms of flexibility offered by travel therapy have made pursuing these changes in desires and priorities much more feasible for Whitney and me. Starting out, we never would have guessed that some day we would value being able to take 5 months off to travel around the world, being able to experiment with different settings, or being able to try out the city life without committing to it long term. Travel therapy has given us the ability to do all of the above due to the flexibility, and that has been priceless!

 

jared doctor of physical therapy

Author: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT – Traveling Doctor of Physical Therapy – Aggressively seeking Financial Independence early in his career

Is Contributing to a Company 401k Worth it as a Travel Therapist?

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

What Makes Travel Therapy Different?

Travel therapists are in a unique position with respect to 401k accounts. When working with most travel healthcare companies, therapists will be eligible to contribute to the company sponsored 401k plan. The 401k benefit eligibility will vary company to company, but most companies provide it in some form. However, since many travelers switch between travel companies pretty frequently, it is a common concern whether contributing to the company 401k plan makes sense for them, or if it would just be additional hassle. Unsurprisingly, since most of my articles on FifthWheelPT are finance related, this is definitely one of the top five most common questions I get asked by current and prospective travelers. In addition to wanting to know if using the 401k plan is worth the hassle if switching between companies, I often hear that there is concern about what happens with account once the individual leaves the company or stops contributing to the account.

I hope to shed some light on my thoughts about 401k plans for travelers in this post, but I do not intend this to be specific advice for any of you. This is just what I’ve done and what works for me, but everyone’s situation is different, so be sure to do your own research on the topic as well.

What is a 401k?

First let’s cover the basics of what a traditional 401k plan is and why one would choose to contribute to it in the first place. Most travel companies don’t offer a Roth 401k option, so we can skip over that for now, but if you’re interested in my thoughts on Roth vs. Traditional accounts, you can check that out here.

A traditional 401k is a retirement account that is offered by an employer and allows the employee to contribute pre-tax money to the account from each pay check. The amount contributed is up to the employee, but it is usually based on a percentage of the employee’s taxable income. Since the money isn’t taxed when it’s contributed, it’s able to grow in the account tax free for however long it remains in the account. When withdrawals are made (usually in retirement), the money withdrawn each year is then taxed along with any other earnings (social security, investment income, rental income, etc.). The big benefit of this account is that it allows you to contribute money while working and earning a lot, therefore in a higher tax bracket, and instead paying taxes on the money in retirement while (hopefully) in a lower tax bracket. The money also grows more quickly in a 401k than in a regular investment (brokerage) account since the amount that would have been taxed is compounded. The maximum that an individual is able to contribute to a 401k in 2018 is $18,500, and for 2019 it will be $19,000. Taking advantage of the tax benefits of a traditional 401k (and additionally, a traditional IRA) is a huge part of what has allowed me to semi-retire and travel around this world this year after only three years of full time work as a travel therapist.

401k Employer Match

A 401k sometimes has the added benefit of employer matching. The amount that is matched, if any at all, is determined by the employer and will usually be somewhere between 3%-6% of the employee’s taxable income. The employer can also include a contingency that it is only matched if the employee contributes a certain amount as well. This is the employer’s way of helping the employee have a more secure retirement by contributing to their retirement account. In many companies, the employer match took the place of a pension that used to be standard but has now disappeared in most public sector jobs. An employer match is in no way equal to a pension since the benefit is comparatively small, but any extra money toward retirement is a great thing!

The employer match is great if the company offers one, but for the majority of travelers this will be a moot point. Most travel companies offer a 401k with some sort of employer match, BUT they have a vesting schedule. The vesting schedule determines how much of the employer match you get to keep if you leave the company early, which makes this an incentive for the employee to stay with that employer. Many of the companies require that you have to work between 3-5 years with the company to keep all of the employer match. Some plans will have a tiered vesting schedule: something along the lines of at one year you keep 20% of the matched amount, at two years you keep 40%, etc. However others have a “cliff” vesting schedule: something like if you work three years or more you keep all of the matched amount, but if you leave before three years you don’t keep any of the amount that has been matched. Basically, the 401k employer match is great, but unfortunately it won’t apply to travelers that switch between companies often or that don’t plan to work three years or more as a traveler. In that case, an individual retirement account could make more sense and involve less hassle for the traveler.

Traditional Individual Retirement Account

A traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account) is another option which has the same benefits as a traditional 401k, and doesn’t require an employer to utilize, and one other big difference, the contribution maximum. A traditional IRA allows a maximum contribution of only $5,500 for 2018 and $6,000 for 2019. If you’re a big saver like me and plan to reach financial independence as quickly as possible and maybe even retire early, then that’s a relatively small maximum each year.

If you plan to switch companies often, and therefore won’t benefit from the employer match, and don’t plan on putting $6,000 or more toward your retirement account each year, then foregoing the 401k and choosing an IRA instead could be the best choice. An IRA does have the added benefit of more flexibility between investment choices. With a 401k, the investment choices are usually limited to 10-20 options chosen by the company, whereas with an IRA the investment options are essentially limitless.

Utilizing a 401k and an IRA

For those, like me, that plan to put more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then contributing to a 401k account in addition to an IRA will likely be necessary even if the individual won’t benefit from the employer match.

Luckily, having a 401k and an IRA is pretty easy, even if you switch travel companies often. (Keep reading below to learn more about that process if switching companies.) I’ve switched between companies on a few different occasions and have always taken advantage of a 401k account if offered, while also contributing the maximum amount to both the 401k and an IRA.

There are income limits where the benefit of an IRA (the tax savings) starts to diminish if the individual is also contributing to a 401k, but the limit is higher than most traveler therapists will make at $63,000 of adjusted gross income (tax free stipends are not factored into this number).

In my opinion, if you plan to save more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then it makes the most sense to me to contribute the maximum to an IRA, and then any additional money you wish to save would be invested in the 401k. This is assuming that you wouldn’t benefit from the employer match, but if you would, then it would be foolish to pass up that match.

Here is the general order of operations that I have used and that I think makes the most sense:

  1. 401k contributions up to the amount to get the full employer match (if applicable)
  2. IRA contributions up to the maximum ($6,000 for 2019)
  3. 401k contributions up to the maximum ($19,000 for 2019)
  4. After tax investments (brokerage account, real estate, etc.)

If your company doesn’t offer an employer match on the 401k or if you won’t be able to benefit from it due to the vesting schedule of the company, then skip #1.

What Happens to the Money and 401k Account When Switching Companies?

Let’s say that you follow the order of operations above and stay with the same company for your first year as a travel therapist, but then get a better offer from a different company and decide to switch. You knew that you would probably be changing companies eventually, either for a better paying job or a job that your company may not have, so you assumed you wouldn’t benefit from the employer match. You maxed out your traditional IRA and contributed an extra $10,000 to your 401k. Great job!

Now, since the IRA isn’t associated with the employer, it isn’t affected at all by switching companies. That account belongs to you only. But the 401k is affected by switching companies, so you’ve got a decision to make.

Here are your options:

  1. You can have the money paid out to you.
    • This is almost never a good idea since you will not only pay taxes on the money, but also penalties!
  2. You can keep the money in the 401k account of the employer
    • This will occasionally involve additional fees since you no longer work for them.
  3. You can roll the 401k over from your previous employer’s 401k account to your new employer’s 401k account.
    • This could also be a hassle if you don’t plan to stay with the next company very long.
  4. You can roll over the 401k into your already existing traditional IRA account.
    • In most cases, and what I’ve always chosen to do. It makes sense to roll the 401k balance over into your traditional IRA. This gives you the increased flexibility with investment options mentioned above, which usually means lower fees on the investments as well which is a wonderful thing. The account is also yours and not associated with any employer, so you don’t have to worry about moving it around again at a later time. And the accounts work the same way with taxes, and you won’t have to pay penalties.

401k Rollover to Traditional IRA

By rolling the money over into your traditional IRA account, you have essentially contributed the full $16,000 (investment in the IRA to the maximum plus the investment in the prior 401k plan that is now rolled over) to your traditional IRA. This is an easy way to effectively contribute more than the maximum amount to an IRA when switching companies. This simplifies your finances (less accounts to keep track of) and gives you more investment options which are both great things. The rollover process is very simple and can be repeated every time you leave an employer and have a 401k balance with them. I have rolled my 401k balance into a traditional IRA several times and it has never taken more than 30 minutes.

For those travel therapists that are saving a significant amount toward retirement each year, I think that this is the best option with all things considered. I max out my IRA, contribute as much as possible to my 401k, and then roll the 401k into the IRA each time I leave a travel company to give myself the most investment options and to keep my financial life as simple as possible, while still contributing over $20,000/year to the accounts that wouldn’t be possible with a traditional IRA alone.

If you do this as well then you’ll want to make sure that it is a direct rollover. More information on the different types of rollover can be found here.

Conclusion

I know that for those of you that aren’t very familiar with saving and investing, this can all sound intimidating, but it really isn’t very difficult and takes minimal time to figure out and implement.

For those travel therapists that don’t plan to save more than $6,000 toward retirement each year, then just foregoing the 401k and choosing an IRA instead is the most simple option. For those that want to save more than $6,000 per year and also switch companies often, it’s worth the extra effort to contribute to the company’s 401k plan once you’ve maxed out your IRA for the year and roll that 401k over each time you leave a company. Once you’ve done it once it’s a piece of cake and will take you no time.

Above all else, make sure that you’re saving for retirement in some capacity no matter what account(s) you choose to utilize!

Remember to do your own due diligence before implementing anything that I talk about, since this is not intended to be specific advice for you. Thanks for reading and I hope that this post helped to clarify things for you.

If you have any questions about this post or anything else travel therapy related then contact us and we’ll do our best to help you out. If you need assistance finding a good travel therapy company or recruiter then reach out to us and we can help you there as well.

How do you currently handle your retirement accounts as a travel therapist? Let us know in the comments!

 

Understanding a Travel Therapy Contract Bill Rate

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

All travel therapists want to get the most money possible out of their contracts. In fact, the increased pay associated with travel therapy is the #1 reason that most people that we talk to choose to travel in the first place, so not getting as much money as possible would be no good. While there can often be room to negotiate when presented with an initial offer from a recruiter, there is, of course, a limit to how much they can actually pay a traveler for each contract. The big limiting factor in the equation of pay for any travel contract is the “bill rate.”

What is a Bill Rate?

A “bill rate” is the amount of money that the facility (hospital, clinic, nursing home, etc.) pays the travel company for each hour that a traveling therapist works. As travelers, this is a number that we rarely ever find out about, since it is negotiated between the travel company and the facility usually before they ever even list the job or present it to travelers. Most recruiters do not wish to share this number with travelers either, but you really can’t blame them for that. The bill rate is much higher than the hourly rate that the traveler receives, but that is because it has to account for all overhead costs and company profits as well, so sharing the bill rate could make the traveler feel like they’re being taken advantage of, even when that’s not the case. BluePipes wrote a great article on other reasons why travel companies don’t divulge bill rates as well, which you can find here.

How Much is an Average Bill Rate?

Bill rates vary drastically depending on setting and area of the country (just like traveler pay), but I’ve heard of ones as low as $60/hour and as high as $80/hour, which shows why there can be such variation in traveler pay across the board, since it’s all based on the bill rate. In some situations, the bill rate can even be higher if the facility is in urgent need of a traveler and is willing to pay more to get someone there quickly. In general, the facility is going to pay the travel company as little as possible, while ensuring that their opening will be filled, so how desperate they are can have a big impact on the bill rate.

So if a company is receiving around $70/hour ($70 x 40 = $2,800/week) from the facility, while the traveler is only getting a take home pay of about $1,600/week, where is that extra money going?!

Costs that have to be Subtracted from the Bill Rate

Overhead costs of running a travel company can be pretty high. The company has to pay staff (recruiters, managers, payroll department, benefits department, etc.), for rent and utilities on their offices, for marketing, for taxes, and they also have to make a profit in order to stay in business. This all usually adds up to about 20-25% of the total bill rate, depending on how big the company is and how much their overhead costs in total. That means that after overhead costs are subtracted out, that $2,800/week turns into about $2,100/week.

From there, we have to consider that the company pays for part of the traveler’s health insurance (assuming the traveler chooses one of the company sponsored plans); maintenance fees on 401k plan; CEUs (if offered by the company); FICA taxes on the traveler’s hourly pay (7.65%); and credentialing costs for the traveler for each assignment such as: license reimbursement, travel reimbursement, drug tests, TB tests, and backgrounds checks.

They also usually have to keep a small percentage to account for contract cancellations, since when a traveler’s contract is cancelled early, not only does the traveler lose out on money, but so does the travel company. I think of this as like an “emergency fund” for the travel company for when unexpected events occur.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the “take home pay” amounts that we usually use to discuss travel contracts is after the traveler’s taxes are subtracted out, which means that the travel company actually pays you more than that amount, but that’s the amount you see on your paycheck after federal, state and FICA taxes are subtracted. So “take home pay” refers to after-tax, or net pay, not gross pay.

For example, a $1,600/week “take home pay” usually means that the travel company actually pays out $1,800/week in gross pay to the traveler. It’s easy to see how the $2,100/week devoted to the traveler’s pay can quickly be reduced to much closer to that $1,800/week figure paid out to the traveler each week, once all of the above costs are factored in.

Getting the Highest Pay Possible

In most cases, honest recruiters are doing their best to offer the highest pay possible to the traveler, within the bounds of the bill rate that they have to work with. Many travelers hear about how high some bill rates can be and quickly assume that recruiters are trying to take advantage of them, without first considering all of the costs incurred by the company, taxes they have to pay, and also also the benefits offered to the traveler that aren’t seen in the weekly take home pay number. Don’t forget to consider these factors before jumping to conclusions! But, it doesn’t hurt to push for more money when you feel it’s warranted, have considered all the “extras” already included in your pay package, and have considered the type of job, location, and cost of living!

The bill rate is also the reason that it is important for travelers to push for higher pay for overtime hours worked. Overhead costs don’t need to be factored into overtime hours worked, due to them already being accounts for in the initial 40 hours. With overtime, the company will get the same bill rate (sometimes 1.5x the bill rate even), while the traveler only receives 1.5x their taxable pay rate in most cases. This is a great situation for the travel company, but a terrible situation for the traveler. So understanding how the bill rate works and how your pay is broken down is a key factor here in advocating for yourself with a higher overtime rate!

Conclusion

It’s very important to have an understanding of the bill rate and all the costs that must come out of that hourly pay amount the travel company receives from the facility, in order to understand how your weekly take home pay is determined as a travel therapist. The more you understand, the better you can advocate for yourself and get the highest pay possible.

I hope you have a little better insight into how the weekly take home pay amount is calculated now with a basic understanding of bill rates!

Thanks for reading and feel free to ask any questions you may have on bill rates or anything else travel therapy related in the comments below or contact us directly. If you need some recruiter/travel company recommendations that we trust to not take advantage of you as a traveler, then send us a message here and we’ll help you out!