What is Travel Therapy and How Does it Work?

What is Travel Therapy?

Travel therapy, contract therapy, contract therapist, traveling therapist, travel physical therapy (Travel PT), travel occupational therapy (Travel OT), travel speech therapy (Travel SLP) — these are some terms you may have heard floating around, and you’re wondering, what does that mean?

The answer is, it could mean a variety of things, but in most cases it means that a therapist (PT, OT, SLP, PTA, COTA) chooses to travel to different locations within the US for short term, contract work. This could be locally, within one state, or across state lines in any of the 50 US states.

In some cases, it could refer to working internationally, but this is not common and involves completely different steps than finding travel/contract work within the US. We are going to focus on travel therapy within the US only, as this is what is most feasible for US therapists, and it’s the focus of our Travel Therapy Mentor website.

How Does It Work?

In a nutshell, therapists (PT, OT, SLP, PTA, COTA) work with a recruiter at a travel therapy staffing agency, to search for short term jobs they’d like to apply to within the US. They have a phone interview to see if the job is a good fit, and if they’re chosen for the job, they move to the new location temporarily to work there for a short term contract.

A typical contract length is 13 weeks, or 3 months. But, it all depends on the facility’s needs and what you’re looking for. Some contracts could last just a few weeks, up to a year. In terms of finding short term housing, the staffing company can help you set up housing, or you can choose to set up housing on your own. Some travelers also choose to travel by RV.

The travel therapy staffing agency gets paid by the facility, they take a commission, and then you get paid weekly. You get paid an hourly rate, plus a stipend (also referred to as per diem) for housing and meals/incidentals (as long as you meet the appropriate guidelines for maintaining a Tax Home). You can also receive benefits from the staffing company, just like at a perm job, while you’re on contract with them. Remember, you’re an employee of the staffing company while on contract, not the facility itself.

When your contract is over, you can move on to another contract, or you could always return back home and work locally again.

Why Do Facilities Need Travel Therapists?

The facilities might need short term/travel workers for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Someone quit suddenly, and they need someone to fill in temporarily while they try to find a new permanent employee
  • Someone is away temporarily (for example on a maternity/paternity leave)
  • They have a temporary increase in caseload, for example some places that have higher needs during different seasons (think: Snow Birds in winter)
  • They’re having trouble finding a permanent employee or haven’t had a permanent employee for a while (for example rural areas or less desirable areas that don’t have a large pool of therapists in the area)

Why Do Therapists Choose Travel Therapy?

There are lots of benefits to travel therapy and reasons why therapists might choose this route, including:

  • You get paid higher as a travel therapist
  • You get to explore different areas of the country
  • You can try a variety of settings without committing to the job permanently

Do You Get to Choose Where You Go?

Yes, and no. There are 3 main factors to consider when searching for travel therapy jobs: location, setting, and pay. The more picky you are on one of these factors, the less picky you can be on the others.

You are at the mercy of the jobs available at a given time throughout the US. So you can say you really want to go to this state, but you can’t always choose exactly the city. Often, you won’t see any jobs in a particular city at a particular time, so you’ll have to look more at the whole state or a whole region. Plus, the more picky you’re being about the exact location, you won’t be able to be so picky on the setting and the pay.

On the other hand, if you’re only looking for a certain setting, for example outpatient or pediatrics, you will have to be more flexible on location and pay.

If you’re looking to make the absolute most money possible, you may have to be lenient on the setting and/or location available to find it!

Sometimes, you hit the “travel therapy jackpot” and get your absolute top pick on location, setting AND high pay! But it’s hard to come by all 3. So remember, flexibility is key!

What are Some of the Logistics with Getting Started?

First, you’ll want to find reliable recruiters at reliable staffing companies to work with. They help you find the jobs and can make or break your experience with travel therapy! We recommend working with at least 3 recruiters to open up more job options. To learn more about why this is, check out this article.

Next, you’ll want to consider in which states you’d like to work. You have to be licensed in every state in which you work, and it’s usually recommended that you get 2-3 state licenses up front so you’ll already have the license in hand before applying for jobs. In most cases, you have to apply individually to each state via their local state board website, but for PT’s and PTA’s you may be eligible for the PT Compact.

Once you’re set up with some recruiters and are working on getting your state licenses, the recruiters will help you search for jobs and submit your application for you.

Ready to Jump in & Learn More?

This is the first article in our Mini Series titled Travel Therapy 101: The Basics

Stay tuned for our upcoming articles and videos/podcasts in the series where we will cover:

  • Travel Therapy Pay 101
  • Travel Therapy Housing 101
  • Travel Therapy Licensing 101
  • Travel Therapy Recruiters 101
  • Understanding Tax Homes for Travelers

You can also find more detailed information on any of these topics via the links to other articles throughout this post, or by visiting our Educational Videos & Articles section!

Please send us a message if you have questions about travel therapy, or fill out this form to find out the recruiters and companies we recommend for you!

Is Travel Therapy a Good Option for New Grads During COVID-19?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had dozens of new grad and soon-to-be new grad therapists reach out to us asking if now is a good time to start traveling as a new grad. This happens every year during May when the bulk of therapists graduate, but with all the uncertainty currently and full time therapy work being difficult to come by in some locations, there’s been much more interest in travel therapy than normal this year. Unfortunately, when there is uncertainty in healthcare, it is rarely a good thing for the travel therapy market, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

While travel therapy has historically been a good career choice over the last decade for many therapists, including new grad therapists, things have really been shaken up recently. Let’s dive in to why travel therapy has been affected and whether or not it’s a good time for new grads to be trying travel therapy.

Travel Therapy During the Pandemic

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on our world, including US healthcare jobs. “Uncertainty” is the buzz word as we all wait and see what will happen as the situation continues to evolve worldwide.

A big reason why uncertainty impacts the travel therapy job market to such a large degree has to do with the cost of hiring travel therapists incurred by facilities. Travel therapists can be significantly more expensive than full time and PRN staff, so in a situation where caseloads could suddenly decrease, many facilities don’t want to risk spending money on a traveler that they may end up not needing. Instead, they’ll make do with current staff while supplementing with PRN or offering overtime to full time therapists if needed, and wait out the uncertainty.

In the past two months we’ve seen hundreds of travel contracts ended early or cancelled before they even started due to fluctuations in caseloads in all settings. There has been a significant decrease in the number of new travel job openings due to facilities not hiring. With that being said, settings have certainly not all been affected evenly. Outpatient and school contracts have been the hardest hit by contract cancellations and job cuts, with home health, acute care, and SNF jobs impacted to a lesser degree. Even in the lesser impacted settings, COVID has still caused problems. This is primarily due to the fact that elective surgeries have been limited or cancelled altogether for almost two months now. Fewer elective surgeries means fewer patients across the board.

Flooding the Market

Less patients means less demand for therapists and subsequent layoffs across the board, not only in the form of travel therapy job cancellations but also for permanent full time staff. Some of the laid off permanent therapists are unable to find work in their area right now and are turning to travel therapy for some respite during tremulous times. This is bad news for current and prospective new grad travel therapists.

The combination of previously permanent therapists, new grads, and current travelers whose contracts have come to an end or were ended prematurely all looking for travel contracts at the same time, has caused the travel therapy market to get flooded with therapists searching for jobs. This flood of job seekers, combined with a reduction in overall jobs, has led to significant over-saturation of the travel therapy job market.

The impact is evident in the number of open travel contracts available and the declining pay rates offered on those contracts. The recruiters and companies that we work closely with are all reporting about 10 times less travel therapy jobs currently for PTs and OTs when compared to earlier this year before the pandemic. When comparing to the travel market at this time last year, the numbers look even more grim.

The travel jobs that are available are getting many more applicants submitted than normal and are closing very quickly. In some cases jobs will get to the maximum number of applicant submissions in a matter of a couple hours. With facilities getting so many submissions for their available travel contracts, a natural consequence is reductions in the bill rates offered, meaning lower pay for travel therapists. In nominal terms, this manifests as a reduction of about $100-$200/week on average for many of the open jobs.

What Does This Mean for New Grads?

Due to a minimal number of travel therapy jobs open at any given time currently, higher competition for those few jobs, along with lower pay, we can definitely say that now certainly isn’t the best time for new grads to begin travel therapy careers.

If at all possible, our recommendation right now would be for new grads to consider finding a full time or PRN position for a few months to a year to save some money and get some experience until things improve.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to consider travel jobs as an option and be on the lookout for travel job opportunities, but we encourage you to keep your options open and consider all job opportunities available to you, including perm and PRN locally.

Actions to Take for Those Dedicated to Pursuing Travel Therapy as a New Grad Currently

If you’re set on starting out as a new grad travel therapist despite the current environment, there are a few things you can do to have the best chance of finding a contract.

  1. Be willing to accept lower pay now than during normal times.
    • We’re always advocates of being informed and understanding how travel therapy pay works prior to jumping in, in order to avoid inadvertently taking low ball offers from non-reputable companies and recruiters. However, in this situation, you should expect for pay to be lower due to the declining bill rates mentioned above. Unfortunately, even though we normally recommend avoiding any pay rates less than $1,500/wk after taxes, there are some contracts paying travel PTs in the $1,300/week range right now that are still getting tons of submissions.
  2. Work with at least a few different good companies and recruiters.
    • This is more vital than ever right now. Having a few recruiters from different companies helping you search for jobs leads to more options and a better chance of finding a travel contract that will work for you. If you need help finding reputable companies and recruiters, fill out our recruiter request form, and we’ll match you with some that should work well for you.
  3. Be more flexible on travel assignment setting and location.
    • In the past, Whitney and I have been able to find consistent contracts close to each other in the states and settings that we prefer. Currently that just isn’t possible. To have a chance of finding a travel contract in the coming weeks (possibly months) as a new grad, it is important to be lenient on location and setting as much as possible. In the future when the travel therapy market picks up again, you can go back to being more selective with regards to setting and location. And even better, by that time you will have experience under your belt and will be more competitive when applying to the setting and location of your choice.

The Future of Travel Therapy

With states beginning to open back up and elective surgeries beginning to commence again across the country, the need for therapists will undoubtedly pick back up, and with that, we anticipate the travel therapy job market will improve. In addition to patients undergoing elective surgeries, patients that have become deconditioned due to COVID will require skilled therapy to a larger degree than before in SNFs, home health, outpatient, and inpatient rehab facilities. It’s hard to say exactly how long it will be before the travel therapy job market gets back to normal completely, but in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen things starting to trend upward, which is a good sign. Once demand picks back up and travel jobs are more prevalent, increases in travel pay back to normal levels should follow.

We are optimistic that demand will increase in the coming months and travel therapy will once again be a great option for new grads, like it was for us back when we started traveling as PTs after graduation in 2015!

If you have any questions or need help getting started, feel free to contact us. We’ve helped well over 1,000 new and current travel therapists to be better informed over the past few years! Best of luck & stay safe!

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015 and travels with his girlfriend and fellow travel PT, Whitney. Together they mentor other current and aspiring travel therapists.