Can Doctors Take Vacations? (Yes, More than Med Students!)

Doctors can take vacations; anything between 3-6 weeks a year is seen as the standard.

It’s not the easiest of professions to get time off and travel in though.

Here we’ll learn:

  • What factors influence the vacation time of a doctor
  • How much vacation time certain specialists (ER, family, radiology etc) have
  • Opportunities doctors can explore to combine work and vacation time

Interested in learning more? Let’s go.

Do Doctors Have Time to Travel?

Being a doctor is a broad term for many specific types of jobs. Because of that, the time each doctor has to travel can vary widely. A specialist at the top of their profession? Maybe has less time given how difficult they are to replace.

Usually travel time (or lack thereof) comes down to the following factors:

  • Employed Doctors: doctors working for someone else usually have 4-6 weeks a year of vacation time. Depending on their contract, this could be unpaid. It comes down to the agreement they have with their employer.
  • Independent Doctors: business owners or partners working equally in a clinic, due to their autonomy, can usually take more vacation time (often as much as they want). However this time is limited by the ability to find suitable cover while not impacting the business (upsetting patients etc).
  • Established Practice Vs New Practice: the more established (long running) a practice is, the easier it is to get more vacation time. This is mainly because it’s well-staffed and has good systems in place designed to cover absences and holidays. New practices often don’t have this level of flexibility.
  • Rural Hospitals Vs Community Hospitals: doctors working in remote or rural areas will find it difficult to find cover and thus could experience less vacation time as a result. Busy community hospitals, on the other hand, are often better equipped to deal with staff shortages and find adequate cover.

Two other big factors that can come into play regarding a doctor’s vacation time are their personal finances and current level of experience. Doctors in debt are less likely to have time to travel at the expense of working to help solve their situation. Residents (3-7 years out of med school) usually get 3 weeks vacation time while they wait to specialise.

Don’t forget that most female doctors can take time out for maternity leave too – 12 weeks as the FMLA laws dictate. But this probably doesn’t count as vacation time!

Note: some of this is applicable to U.S. doctors only. Foreign doctors may get more or less vacation time depending on the laws and agreements of the healthcare system they work in.

Do Med Students Have Time to Travel?

I’ve written before about how med school is year round (at least in America). That makes taking vacations (except in the summer between M1 and M2) difficult!

If you’ve read my article; Can You Go to Medical School While Working Full Time? you’ll also know that med students aren’t in control of their schedule. They can’t negotiate for time off in the middle of a semester. And time between is usually spent shadowing, doing research or interning to help build a CV.

Related: Shadowing A Psychiatrist – A How-To Guide

Of course there are always exceptions. Especially with med students who are required to complete final year electives. Here’s the type of things they get up to…

But generally it’s after training (med school) when your time will become more flexible. You’ll also have a salary that can be put toward a good holiday!

How Do You Travel When Becoming A Doctor?

According to a 2009 survey from the U.S. Travel Association, most doctors enjoy foreign travel and beach vacations over anything else. It’s also the summer when doctors tend to travel the most.


In that sense, there’s not much difference between how doctors and the general public travel. Both favor similar types of vacation experiences!

How to Travel as a Doctor

The types of vacations above generally involve getting paid or unpaid leave from the job. As for how doctors can travel while still working in the capacity of a physician? Here are several ways:

Doctors Without Borders

Also known as Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Doctors Without Borders run humanitarian aid projects for populations in need. As of writing, MSF is operating in over 60 countries and has opportunities for doctors of most specialties for projects that can be anything from a couple of weeks to several years in length. Check out their website for more information.

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is similar to MSF. It also conducts humanitarian aid projects providing essential healthcare to places in crisis around the globe. The only distinction is that it’s an American program. 

Right now they’re doing lots of work in Malawi targeted at the HIV epidemic. Lots of opportunities to train, see the world and give back here.

Transition Time

Another way doctors can find time to travel while climbing the career ladder is taking transition time between positions. Leaving a couple of months between the start and end of a new contract, at a higher position (or level, following exam completion), can be a good time to do this. Especially if you can negotiate a permanent job position at the end of it.


Sometimes referred to as ‘traveling doctors’, locum doctors usually work self-employed and unattached to a particular practice or hospital. Working in this ‘freelance’ capacity, allows more flexibility than employed or business-owning doctors who are constrained by contracts or business responsibilities.

In the UK, for example, a lot of junior doctors take an extra FY3 (foundation year 3) before specializing that allows them to work half a year and travel the rest.

Remote Work

Working remotely, thanks to online communications, provides a unique way for doctors to work while traveling. They might need access to hospital or clinic intranets to do a lot of the admin work, but sometimes care or consultations, especially in fields like family medicine and psychiatry, are just as effective done via video conferencing as they would be in-person.

Remote work is also what I advise a lot of med students get started with if they’re looking to make extra money.

Financial Independence

Obviously it’s not a method to both work and travel, but becoming a doctor, then spending years working as one, can be a great way to become financially independent and retire early. To learn more about this I recommend checking out blogs like Physician On Fire. Travel is one of the main motivators many doctors fit financial independence into their plans.

Can Doctors Take a Year Off?

Doctors can always take a year off if they plan in advance. Sometimes, given the nature of the job, it can even advance a physician’s career. Specifically if they take a year out to do something like research or a volunteer for a humanitarian project.

Physician Sabbatical

Taking a prolonged period of time out of work is actually a pretty common occurrence in med school faculties. Referred to as ‘sabbaticals’, many teaching professors use this time to explore interests like travel, research etc, after a long period of continued service.

The opportunity for a sabbatical is open to most career doctors too. Although practice owners will probably find it tough to shut down a business for a year and expect things to pick up where they left off.

Probably a much better option for a locum or salaried doctor.

Can Med Students Take a Year Off to Travel?

From my experience at least, I wouldn’t recommend med students take a year off to travel. The financial implications of delaying your studies (and an earlier chance to get salaried), don’t add up. It makes more sense to wait, get a job and try and take paid time off to travel.

And that’s coming from someone who spent pretty much their entire twenties globetrotting!

Of course you can take a year off in med school if life circumstances get in the way, but otherwise I’d try and get through it all as fast as possible.

Related: Can You Fail Medical School? Here’s Why It Might Happen

Medical Specialties With the Most Vacation Time

U.S. doctors, compared to the rest of the world, tend to take less vacation time than others. This is a general rule for the country as a whole though.

As for the specialities that take the most vacation time? Radiologists and anesthesiologists rank the highest (while plastic surgeons or those in critical care rank lowest).


Vacation time is a big factor that plays into the overall well-being of physicians too. 

Related: Medical Specialties With the Best Quality of Life (Who Are the Happiest Doctors?)

Anesthesiologist Vacation Time 

Anesthetists (at least in America) can get 10-12 weeks of vacation a year. This is largely down to their strong negotiating capabilities, with many even ‘selling’ their vacation time to other doctors keen for time off.

Emergency Medicine Vacation Time

ER doctors have an interesting time when it comes to vacations. Many full timers are able to work 12 shifts per month (of 12 hours in duration) and then take the rest of the time off. This story is similar for hospitalists too, who can sometimes work 7 days on then 7 days off. Reddit is full of reports of ER doctors with schedules like this.

Family Medicine Vacation Time

Family medics tend to get the standard 2-4 weeks. But obviously their working hours are a lot more favorable and they usually can enjoy free weekends too. Plenty of time for travel in this specialty.

How Does Physician Vacation Coverage Work?

Doctors who do go on vacation will obviously leave a space to fill. Patients still have to be seen and procedures still have to get done.

To get vacation time doctors (or their employers) have to find cover. 

Usually this is done via:

  • Finding locum tenens: either via an agency, personal contacts or other means. These are the ‘traveling doctors’ who work to fill the gap (oftentimes charging more).
  • Hiring physician assistants (PA): sometimes a good PA can do the job of a vacationing doctor. You just have to check local laws and requirements etc to see what things they can or can’t do.
  • Asking part time doctors to cover the shortfall: sometimes part time doctors in the same workplace might be receptive to increasing their hours for a while. It pays to have good relations with colleagues in this case!

To make things easier for you (or your employer) in terms of cover make sure you plan your vacations well in advance.

And if you can’t get cover for a certain period consider buying the vacation time of your colleagues too.


Doctors can definitely take vacations but it can be complicated! Given the nature of the job and the dependency of certain patients, it has to be thought about carefully. 

Even though it’s not the most flexible of career choices there are options for vacation and travel however. Hopefully this article highlighted a few of them.

Image Credit – @8moments at Unsplash