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The Pros and Cons of Being a Traveling Physical Therapist

The Pros and Cons of Being a Traveling Physical Therapist

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.

The Pros and Cons of Being a Traveling Physical TherapistOne of the most common questions I get from new therapists is “how did you like being a Traveling Physical Therapist?” I truly loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat. Being a travel Physical Therapist is often synonymous with more money and grand adventure but it isn’t all money and play. There are a lot of reasons to love being a travel PT and those are easy to get excited about. More money, seeing new exciting places, and freedom to go wherever you want. However, some negative aspects should be taken into consideration before jumping in with both feet. Hopefully, our helpful guide will help you determine if travel physical therapy is right for you. 

Pros of Travel Therapy Cons of Travel Therapy
Increased Earnings Complex Taxes with the Different States
Tax and Student loan breaks Always Having to Pack Up and Move
Great to Explore New Places No Paid Vacation
Minimal drama and low stress Health Insurance Lapses
Opportunities for Learning New EMRs and Systems
Experience Different Clinics You’re Always the New Guy
Create New Friends

The Pros of Being a Traveling Physical Therapist

Increased Earnings

Hands down the most common reason to start traveling Physical Therapy is to make more money. Traveling PT’s make on average 20-40% more than regular salaried employees which can help those trying to save for a house or pay down student loans. The average pay for physical therapists across the country is $89,000 while the average take-home pay for Traveling Physical Therapists is $88,000 plus a stipend for food and lodging on top of that.

The earnings also depend on multiple factors. Traveling PT’s get a salary, a food stipend, and a living stipend.

So you can already see how those that are frugal with food and housing get to pocket more money. To maximize earnings we recommend buying an RV of your choice and living in that while you cook all your meals at home. Also, see if you can negotiate a lower salary and higher stipends for tax reasons. 

Tax and Student Loan Breaks

Since the pay for travelers is through a salary, food stipend, and living stipend you’re year-end taxes might look different compared to a regular job. The food stipend and living stipend aren’t considered taxable income, so the IRS can only tax your salary income.

This legally makes it look like you made less money than you did, which can lower what you owe Uncle Sam.

Additionally, if you are on an income-based repayment plan for your student loans this excellent. Student loans are calculated on taxable earnings and then your monthly payment is a certain percentage of those earnings. The lower those earnings look, the less you’ll owe monthly. Our student loans nearly doubled per month when we took a full-time position. One quick note is that traveling contracts do not qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For those that are looking to go that route, traveling may not make sense for you.

Get to Explore the Country

We’d be lying if we didn’t admit that our main draw to traveling was to explore the country and see new places. I’ve had an obsession with the pacific northwest since I was a kid and wanted to explore Oregon and Washington. We got to test out towns that we thought we might want to settle down in and raise a family, something that we would never have been able to do on a short term basis normally. We found out we loved Bend Oregon and that Corvallis Oregon would kill us with all the rain. We also were able to get to Alaska and the east coast, experiencing all the great parts of the U.S.

No Workplace Drama

Since you are a temporary employee you don’t have to get involved and can avoid any workplace drama. Any place that needs a traveler has issues that prevent it from hiring full-time staff. A rough director, bad location no one wants to live in, sudden staffing losses, etc. These places tend to have some baggage and more drama but you don’t have to get involved in any of it. As a traveler, you are there to see patients and go home.

The stress is much lower than in a full-time position. 

In addition, physical therapy is already a relatively low stress job for the medical field but it is even lower as a traveler. Other than the first two weeks when you’re pressuring yourself to learn the systems quickly, there is almost no stress. You aren’t going to be on call, no one other than the director has your contact information. It’s off to fun as soon as the door closes each night.

Learn New Techniques and Ideas

Being a traveler is a great way for newer clinicians to see new ideas and try new things. Each location has a new batch of experienced therapists that you can learn from. Use these opportunities to learn and better yourself. One location might have someone who has a lot of experience in manual therapy, or Mackenzie method, or even dry needling.

Also, because you are only there for a short period don’t be afraid to try new techniques yourself. None of the patients will know you are just learning it and you’ll never see them again, a perfect scenario to try new techniques. Take advantage of this time to ask questions!

Experience Different Clinic Setups

Each new location has a new setup and flows that you get to experience. Some places you’ll love their structure and how they flow patients through and some you’ll dislike. Do you like places that use techs and aides? Do you get bored with one-on-one patient care? Do you want to wear a lab coat or a suit at the clinic? You get to experience it all. This opportunity to experience each in the short term allows you to realize what you like and you can look for that in a full-time position.

Create New Friends

The new friends and lasting relationships we were able to create as travelers are amazing. Each location has great people that take you into their clinic and treat you like family. We got to go rafting, mountain biking, sailing, and hiking with many of the staff and seeing places we would never have known about. I still keep in touch with many of them and see their families growing online. There are some amazing PT’s out there. Plus, if you liked the area you always have a place to stay to visit.

You’ll get to make relationships that will last your lifetime.

The Cons of Being a Traveling Physical Therapist

Complex Taxes with the Different States

This mostly depends on which states you work in and where your tax “home” is. Where it gets challenging is when you work in multiple states with different income tax rates. I’m nowhere near a tax expert so take this week a grain of salt. If you work in a state like California with a high tax bracket and then a state like Colorado with a lower tax bracket, California may tax the remaining amount if your tax home is in Colorado.

As a poor example (these are not accurate tax rates, only used for demonstration purposes):

Colorado income tax rate of 6%

California Tax rate of 9%

Then California may tax you an additional 3% if you are a temporary worker in their state on top of what is Colorado taking out for their normal 6%.

You might think of hiring a tax professional if you work as a travel therapist in 4 different states to help navigate some of the confusing situations.

Always Having to Pack Up and Move

This isn’t an issue if you rent out furnished rooms but every 3-4 months you have to pack up your things and go. This means packing the car, cleaning the apartment, closing out any utilities, etc. Setting up new utilities can get annoying each time but something to think about, especially the internet. We recommend finding furnished rooms or apartments for or living in an RV that you just pack up the bikes and go. 

No Paid Vacation

For the most part, say goodbye to any paid vacations. If you want to go home for a week or take any time off you have to get approved before your contract starts and it’s unpaid. If you take a weeks vacation to Mexico between travel contracts, it is also unpaid.

Plan and save up to take those vacations between assignments, plan your weddings, trips home before the assignments.

As a helpful tip: We would extend a contract by 3-5 weeks near the end to go back home for planned weddings or birthdays so they weren’t in the middle of contracts.

Some of the travel companies do offer paid vacation if you have worked for them straight for an extended period of around 2 years. That’s a long time with one company and we recommend working with multiple travel companies for the best rates and locations. 

Health Insurance Lapses

One of the nice benefits that come with being a traveling physical therapist is good overall health insurance… as long as you are currently under contract. The health insurance is normal health insurance from a large provider and you can put dependents and spouses on the insurance. The one issue is that as soon as the last day of the contract is over, that health insurance is no longer valid. 

If you are planning an epic skiing trip during the week between contracts, don’t crash because it might not be covered. There are a few exceptions to that, with one company we worked for if you worked 3 consecutive assignments with them then you could have health insurance for the full year. Also, if you finished one travel assignment and were already committed to another contract with the SAME company then the health insurance would be available the time between the contracts.

New EMRs and Systems

The final con is that every time you go to a new location you have to learn a new EMR system. As a traveler, you are costing the hiring clinic a lot of money so they want you up and running as quickly as possible. Most EMR’s aren’t too terrible but there is a learning curve over the first couple of weeks. Even if you have to use the same EMR between locations, each clinic might customize it differently that even then it’s like learning a new system.

On the flip side, there were a few travel contracts that were more eager to hire us because we had used the EMR system that then ran and would save them money with less training and mistakes. 

You’re the New Person Each Time

First of all, let me open this part up by saying there are some bad travelers. There are PT’s that go into travel therapy because they can’t keep a full-time position and have difficulty with staying up to date on treatments and getting along with co-workers. So each time you start a new rotation, the staff is going to be trying to feel you out. Is this person crazy? Are they a jerk? Do they practice weird? Trust me, the first week you are going to get more awkward interrogation questions than a first dinner at the in-laws. To some people, this isn’t a big deal, but to some, having to prove yourself 3-4x a year gets old too.

In Review

Being a travel physical therapist was one of the best times of my career. You get to see new places and get compensated at a rate that is more in line with what I believe our value is. You get to meet new people and if you can travel with a friend or partner then it’s that much more enjoyable. There are a few cons that you have to deal with but if you are prepared for them mentally, they aren’t too bad. All-in-all if I had the opportunity I would go back to traveling in a heartbeat.   

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