There’s no doubt that travel therapy can seem daunting when first starting out. One of the more confusing things for many new travelers is how travel therapy pay packages work and what’s a reasonable amount to make on a contract. Between taxable pay, stipends, tax homes, reimbursements, and various bonuses offered by companies for travel jobs, it’s certainly reasonable to feel confused by it all. Combine this with understanding how the pay packages relate to the bill rate and how much the travel company keeps of the bill rate, and it’s easy to understand how many new travelers can feel confused and be taken advantage of.
If you’re completely new to understanding travel therapy pay, then start with this comprehensive guide to travel therapy pay that breaks it all down.
In this article, I’ll be focusing specifically on the various bonuses that you might see offered in a travel contract, and if they really are just extra “free money” like some recruiters will claim.
Travel Therapy Bonuses as a Marketing Tactic
An important thing to understand is that there are hundreds of travel companies out there vying for your business as a therapist. There’s also not often all that much to make one stand out from another on the surface. Largely, the benefits of each travel therapy company are very similar. Of course, some have more jobs in certain areas, more direct clients, or specialize in certain settings or disciplines, but those are things that take a thorough interview to really discover. On a superficial marketing level, most things are pretty similar.
Some common things you’ll hear from almost every travel company if you contact them online or walk around and talk to them at a conference include: “We have travel jobs in all 50 states,” “We offer mentorship to new travel therapists,” “We offer day one health insurance,” and/or “We offer a 401k with matching.”
While nice to hear, none of that really makes a company stand out, especially when most are offering the same things. Travel healthcare companies know this and are always looking for ways to entice new travelers to work for them instead of the competition. Some of the intangible benefits of working with certain companies can definitely be enticing. One way they do this is offering a travel therapy bonus in a contract.
Let’s say you’re walking around a large conference and are at the booth of the fifth travel company of the day. All of the ones you’ve talked to have said the things above, and they have also reassured you that they have the best recruiters and will get you the highest possible pay. You feel like you’re still at square one and still have no idea which company you should work with. Then suddenly one of the booths you stop at, a recruiter tells you that they offer all of the above, but also $5,000 worth of student loan reimbursement after you work with them for four contracts!
To a naive prospective traveler, this is probably enough to sway them to work with that company. After all, they have everything the other companies have, but will also put $5,000 toward your student loans?
But not so fast, things aren’t always what they appear.
Where Do Travel Therapy Bonuses Come From?
You can see how offering a big bonus like that could be a persuasive marketing tactic for a traveler with very little else to differentiate one company from another. Unfortunately, that bonus isn’t just “free money,” and it’s often counterproductive for you to take it. Why you ask?
It all comes down to where the money for a travel contract comes from. The bill rate (an hourly amount for the time you’re on the clock at a travel assignment) in most cases is all that’s paid to the travel company from the facility. This means that everything about your pay, along with any taxes and fees, as well as the travel company’s expenses and profit have to be accounted for from the bill rate. There’s no extra “free money” to give you in a travel contract, but the money can be moved around in creative ways to create the illusion of free money.
What’s happening in the $5,000 student loan reimbursement example above is that the travel company is moving money from the bill rate around, and making a suboptimal situation sound more exciting. If they’re agreeing to give you $5,000 toward your student loans after working four contracts with them, what they’re doing behind the scenes is reducing your total weekly pay for each of those four contracts by $1,250, adding it all together in a separate basket, and then giving it back to you at the end of the four contracts in a $5,000 lump sum.
So essentially, for getting that $5,000 bonus after four contracts, you’re making $100 less each week on your pay. Remember, there’s no free money in a travel contract. It all comes from the same bill rate.
Suddenly, that bonus doesn’t seem so appealing.
Why Travel Therapy Bonuses Usually Aren’t Optimal
Okay, so the travel company is just keeping some money from you each week to then give that money to you all at once at the end of a specified timeframe, and calling it a bonus. That’s a little different than what you were thinking, but still not so bad, right? Sometimes it’s nice to get a big lump sum that feels like a windfall. But, it is actually bad for a couple of reasons.
First, you have to consider the time value of money. Money that you receive now is worth more than money you receive in the future. That should make sense, because you know that if you put that $100 that you could have been receiving each week toward your debt or into smart investments along the way, then it will be worth more than $100 a year from now. It will have earned you a return, or reduced the amount of interest you had to pay on your debt. This is the same reason that getting a big income tax return is suboptimal. It’s better to have that extra money throughout the year, instead of allowing the IRS (or travel company in this case) to collect interest on it instead.
Second, there’s a stipulation on the bonus. Imagine that you work three travel contracts with that company, and then decide to stay and take a permanent job at the third assignment location. You didn’t meet the requirement of working with the company for four contracts, so you don’t get the bonus! Even though they set some of the money you would have been making aside for three contracts to give you the bonus, they now get to keep it since you didn’t fulfill the terms.
There’s also an opportunity cost with this. If you have to commit to that company for four contracts to get the bonus, what if after your second contract, you talk to a different travel company that has the perfect job for you with high pay that your current company doesn’t have. Now you have to choose whether you want to take the good job with the other company and leave that bonus on the table, or stay with the current company and take a less than perfect job just to get that bonus after another couple of contracts. Staying with this company just to get the bonus at the end really has you locked in.
Types of Travel Therapy Bonuses
After interviewing more than a hundred recruiters and managers from over twenty travel companies, and talking to many more on a less formal basis, we’ve heard all sorts of different benefits, intangible benefits, and bonuses offered to try to attract the attention of potential travel therapists.
“Student loan reimbursement” and “contract completion” travel therapy bonuses are definitely the most common. There are also companies that offer vacations or trips as incentives for their travelers. While this is really creative and exciting, you always have to remember that what I talked about above still applies. A “free trip” doesn’t come from free money on top of your normal pay, it comes from a small percentage of all travelers’ pay each week being allocated to a fund to later pay for the trip.
As long as you understand where all of these incentives come from, then taking them isn’t always a bad thing. For example, say you find a company and recruiter you really like. They have lots of jobs all over the country with exactly what you’re looking for, and they also seem to pay higher on a weekly basis than other companies you’ve talked to. If they happen to offer a bonus or an incentive trip, then by all means, take it. The problem is really when travelers choose a subpar company and accept low pay packages with poor job options, just because they were enticed by a bonus that is nothing more than fancy marketing and moving money around in the pay package.
An Exception to the Rule
One exception to everything above is that in rare cases, a facility might offer a completion bonus directly.
There are two different types of completion bonuses. One is the travel company moving money around to give you a lump sum at the end of a contract instead of spreading it out through the contract in your weekly pay, suboptimal for the reasons above. (Time value of money, contract cancellations, etc.)
The other is a completion bonus offered directly by the facility. In this case, the facility will pay the normal bill rate to the travel company, and then at the end of a contract agree to pay an additional amount as a completion bonus that goes to the travel therapist. This is to attract travelers to that position and also deter travelers from cancelling their contract in the middle. In this case, the completion bonus essentially is free money, because nothing is being moved around in the pay package. While these types of completion bonuses are rare for therapists, your recruiter will be able to tell you if a job that you’re interested in is offering one.
Finding Good Travel Companies and Recruiters
Finding travel companies and recruiters that fit your individual wants and needs is difficult. So difficult that many prospective travelers just give up on it and pick one nearly at random or based on some marketing strategy that catches their eye. That is why various bonuses and incentives are so common. They can make one company stand out above the others in the mind of a new traveler who thinks they are getting something for free, when it’s really just often a suboptimal gimmick.
The things you really need to know about a recruiter and travel company to find the best ones for you are things you won’t learn without a more thorough interview, which is extremely time consuming with so many options out there. The traveler-recruiter relationship can make or break your experience with travel therapy. So can choosing a travel company that does or doesn’t have what you’re looking for in terms of job options or that pays very low or high for what you need.
If you’d like assistance with finding travel therapy companies and recruiters that should work well for your situation, fill out our recruiter recommendation form. After interviewing more than a hundred recruiters from over twenty companies since 2015, we’ve found ones that shine in all different types of situations. Finding a recruiter and company is certainly no one size fits all situation, so we do our best to take a look at your individual preferences and provide our best recommendations for you personally.
Other Great Travel Therapy Resources
If you’d like to see a sample of some of the best jobs currently available from the companies and recruiters we work with, check out our hot jobs page. If you have questions about travel therapy, join our Community Facebook group where we, along with thousands of other travel therapists, are eager to help. Maybe you’re new to travel and just want to get an overview of the basics: our free 101 series is best place to start. If you want more in-depth, step-by-step information on how to be a financially successful travel therapist, then check out our comprehensive travel therapy course.
Best of luck in your travel therapy adventures! Feel free to reach out to us with any questions!
- Why and How to Work with Multiple Travel Therapy Companies and Recruiters
- Negotiating Pay on a Travel Therapy Contract
- Focusing on Savings Rate instead of Only the Highest Pay as a Travel Therapist
Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT – Jared has been a traveling physical therapist since 2015. He has become an expert in the field of travel healthcare through his experience, research, and networking over nearly a decade.