Healthcare facilties all across the country experience critical staffing shortages.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem: travel nurses. Better yet, the industry is currently booming. There are dozens of top-rated travel nursing agencies to choose from, and each one helps provide essential healthcare support.
But how does travel nursing work? How and why should you become a travel nurse?
If you’re not sure, don’t worry! We’ll cover all this and more to help you decide if travel nursing might be a good career choice for you!
Table of Contents
- What Is A Travel Nurse?
- What Do Travel Nurses Do?
- Why Is Travel Nursing Important?
- Why Should You Become A Travel Nurse?
- Who Can Become A Travel Nurse?
- How Does Travel Nursing Work?
- How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?
- Do Travel Nurses Get Benefits?
- Where Can Travel Nurses Work?
- Where Do Travel Nurses Stay?
- Who Can Nurses Travel With?
- How To Become A Travel Nurse
- How Long Does It Take To Become A Travel Nurse?
- Is Travel Nursing Worth It?
What Is A Travel Nurse?
Travel nurses are RNs who work in temporary nursing roles. Rather than being hired by a single healthcare facility directly, these nurses typically work with staffing agencies to fill in-demand positions.
Since travel nurses work on a non-permanent basis, they often move from one facility to another at the end of their contract. This gives nurses the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and locations over a relatively short period of time.
Travel nursing is a great option for those looking to:
- Earn more money
- Explore different areas in the country
- Gain experience in multiple healthcare settings
- Work on their own schedule
We’ll discuss all of these benefits in more detail below.
What Do Travel Nurses Do?
Travel nurses can perform all the same duties as a permanent RN. The only difference between them is that travel nurses are brought in to fill staffing gaps on a temporary basis.
So, like other registered nurses, travel nurses do everything from administering medication to monitoring conditions to educating patients.
It’s also worth noting that speciality travel nurses are even more in demand, allowing healthcare facilities to fill advanced roles. For example, travel nurses can fill speciality roles in areas like:
- Medical Surgery
Why Is Travel Nursing Important?
Travel nursing is important because it helps healthcare facilities fill critical staffing shortages. There are a several reasons for these shortages, including but not limited to:
- Unexpected leaves of absence
- Seasonal patient population fluctuations
- Maternity leave
So, while travel nurses do receive higher pay than permanent RNs, this is because the demand to fill these roles is crucial. This is especially true for specialty nursing roles.
Finally, travel nurses can sometimes reduce costs for hospitals. For example, travel nursing lessens the need for overtime pay and reduces turnover costs.
Why Should You Become A Travel Nurse?
As we mentioned earlier, there’s quite a few benefits travel nurses can take advantage of.
Let’s take a closer look at the top four reasons to choose travel nursing.
1. Higher Pay and Great Benefits
As with any career, earnings and benefits are always a key factor in which path you take. If salary is your main priority, you should definitely consider travel nursing.
We’ll discuss the hard numbers further on in this article, but for now you should know that travel nurses make a lot more money than their staff nurse counterparts.
Additionally, travel nurses typically have access to a wide array of benefits, including:
- Housing stipends and agency-placed housing
- Medical insurance
- Travel and meal reimbursement
2. Travel To New Places
While salary is often a key reason why RNs choose travel nursing, it’s certainly not the only reason.
Another great aspect of travel nursing is that you get to live in and explore new places. Travel nursing opportunities are available in just about every location you can imagine in the United States.
For example, you could complete one contract in a rural location in the Midwest for a few months, and then spend your next couple of months working in a big city in the Northeast.
The travel opportunities are truly endless, and the freedom to choose where you live is one of the greatest things about becoming a travel nurse.
3. Build Your Resume
Just as you’ll have the opportunity to live in different areas, you’ll also have the option to explore different healthcare settings and learn from all kinds of medical professionals.
It’s likely that you’ll eventually want to settle down with a full-time, permanent RN position. To become the strongest candidate possible, travel nursing allows you to gain a multitude of hands-on experiences.
The ability to work these contract positions displays to employers that you can thrive under any conditions.
Finally, if you want to work in a specific specialty at a hospital close to your permanent residence but there are no openings available, travel nursing allows you to keep working in your specialty while you wait for a new position to open up at home.
4. Have A More Flexible Schedule
One more of the most important reasons to consider becoming a travel nurse is that you’ll have more control over your schedule.
You’ll probably have to work a 40-hour work week regardless of whether you’re in a permanent or temporary position, but travel nursing allows you the freedom to work for a few months and then take some off.
While you may have the opportunity to extend your contract depending on the needs of the facility you work at, most contracts end after a designated period of time (usually anywhere from 8 to 26 weeks).
Of course, you don’t have to take time off between assignments if you don’t want to. However, if you’re feeling burnt out and need a break, travel nursing allows you to take the time you need to recharge.
Who Can Become A Travel Nurse?
As long as you have your registered nurse license, you can work as a travel nurse. However, it is worth noting that most staffing agencies require that you already have one year of experience working as an RN.
Also, while you can work as a travel nurse with only your Associate’s degree, you’ll have access to more opportunities if you have your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree or an advanced nursing degree.
We’ll walk you through all the steps to becoming a travel nurse further down in the post.
How Does Travel Nursing Work?
Travel nursing works by staffing agencies connecting nurses with positions at healthcare facilities. This means you don’t work directly for hospitals.
Instead, you fulfill contracts with the travel nursing agency.
What Are Travel Nursing Contracts?
Travel nursing contracts lay out the details of your work assignments and specify things like:
- Length of assignment
- Hours of work per week
- Schedule (for example, day shift vs. night shift)
Once you sign a contract, it becomes a legally-binding document. This means you shouldn’t sign a contract until you fully understand it.
Remember, ending your contract early is rarely allowed and could have negative consequences. So, before committing to an assignment, make sure you’re ready to see it through until at least the specified end date.
Once the contract expires, you’ll be free to leave your temporary position and take on a role at a different healthcare facility.
How Long Do Travel Nursing Contracts Last?
The average travel nursing contract lasts about 13 weeks. However, some agencies offer both short-term and long-term contracts.
Typically, the shortest contract you can take on lasts about eight weeks. Meanwhile, the longest assignment you can complete will usually last no longer than 26 weeks.
Additionally, if your contract ends but a healthcare facility still needs your services, you may have the option to extend your contract longer than the original time period.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which contracts to take on based on what you want to do. After all, one of the best things about travel nursing is this flexibility.
How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?
As we mentioned earlier, travel nurses make more money than permanent registered nurses for a number of factors, most notably the critical demand to fill staff shortages.
According to a report by Sumner College, travel nurses made on average $1,673 per week before the pandemic. Now that number has risen to as high as $4,000 per week in some cases.
Additionally, travel nurses now make an average hourly rate of $120 according to the 2021 NSI National Health Care Retention & RN Staffing Report.
Staff nurses, on the other hand, make an average of $37.31 per hour according to BLS. If salary is your main priority, travel nursing is clearly the way to go.
Why Is Travel Nursing Paying So Much?
Travel nursing is paying so much because the demand for filling staffing shortages in healthcare facilities is so high.
These shortages are caused by several factors, but one of them is high RN turnover rate. Hospitals in the Southeast had the highest turnover rate at 24.9%, up 7.2% since 2019.
It’s also worth noting that, according to the 2021 NSI National Health Care Retention & RN Staffing Report, the RN vacancy rate in 2021 was 9.9%, a full percentage point higher than it was the year before.
According to Vivian Health, the demand for travel nurses was 68% higher in September of 2021 than it was September of 2021. Additionally, they found that the average pay for these travel nurses rose 39.4% over the same time period.
What Taxes Do Travel Nurses Pay?
As with any job, you will have to pay taxes on the base rate of your pay package.
However, assuming you have a tax home, you won’t be taxed for additional stipends covering meals, housing, and work-related expenses. This is because these stipends are considered expense reimbursements, not income.
Keep in mind, however, that you will be taxed on those additional stipends if you don’t have a tax home.
Taxes can be confusing regardless of the career you choose. So, be sure to talk with representatives from your travel nursing agency to ensure you understand how your money will be taxed.
Do Travel Nurses Get Benefits?
Travel nurses get access to a multitude of benefits that staff nurses don’t.
For example, most travel nursing agencies will provide you housing or give you a housing stipend for the duration of your assignment. We’ll discuss housing in more detail later on.
Additionally, you’ll likely be eligible for reimbursements for your traveling costs, as well as meals.
You’ll receive a host of insurance options from the travel nursing agency you work with, including:
While some agencies provide “Day One” benefits, other agencies’ benefits only kick in once you’ve been working for a specified period of time. If having insurance as soon as possible is a priority for you, you’ll definitely want to look for an agency that provides Day One benefits.
Finally, you may be eligible for even more benefits, like:
- Referral bonuses
- Licensure reimbursements
- Free online CEUs
- 24/7 support
Where Can Travel Nurses Work?
Travel nurses can work at healthcare facilities just about anywhere in the United States. This includes workplaces like:
- Physicians’ offices
- Home healthcare
- Correctional facilities
- Ambulatory care centers
- Skilled nursing homes and residential care facilities
The one thing you’ll need to keep in mind is that the healthcare facility you are contracted to work at must be far enough away from your permanent residence that you cannot reasonably commute there.
So, while you can’t work as a travel nurse too close to your home, you can technically take on contracts at facilities in your home state.
Where Do Travel Nurses Stay?
When it comes to travel nurse housing, you can opt to stay in agency-placed housing or find your own accomodation and receive a stipend. Which works best for you will depend on your own needs and preferences.
Learn more about each option below.
The first option you have for housing is to let the travel nursing agency you’re working with coordinate your accommodation.
This option is best for first-time travel nurses, because it’s the simpler of the two. By letting the agency take care of housing, you can focus on the other challenges you’ll face as a new travel nurse.
However, it’s worth noting that agencies will typically place you in a housing situation that’s most convenient for them. This means they’ll want to put you somewhere that’s readily available and for the lowest cost.
So, once you have a little experience under your belt and know what to expect, you may want to consider the second housing option.
You also have the option to coordinate your own housing situation and receive a stipend from your travel nursing agency. The dollar amount of the stipend will depend on several factors, like the location you’re traveling to.
Your contract will spell out the details of how much you’ll receive. In most cases, you’ll be quoted a monthly rate, and the stipend will be included in your weekly paycheck.
The main drawback of the stipend is that it can be difficult to find a place within the allotted budget. Since travel nursing assignments typically last no longer than 26 weeks, it’s often a challenge to find an affordable, short-term lease.
If having control over your housing options is a priority for you but you can’t find a place within the stipend budget, you can always take the full stipend and use some of your own money to pay for the total cost.
Again, the option that works best for you depends on your own preferences.
Who Can Nurses Travel With?
Just because you’re a travel nurse doesn’t mean you have to go by yourself. Having others there to support you can help you maintain your mental health as you complete your assignments.
In fact, you may be able to travel with family members, pets, and other travel nurses.
Can You Travel With Family?
You can absolutely bring family members with you to stay at your accommodation during your assignments.
While family members may not be eligible for travel reimbursements, there’s no reason they can’t keep you company on your journeys.
Can You Travel With Pets?
You should be able to bring pets with you as well. The only catch here is that some housing situations may not permit pets.
If you opt for agency-placed housing, be sure to confirm with your travel nursing agency that pets are allowed.
Of course, if bringing your pet with you is a must and your agency housing doesn’t permit pets, you may want to find your own accommodation and receive the housing stipend. This way, you can be sure you’re able to find an apartment that permits animals to live with you.
Can You Go With Other Travel Nurses?
Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty common for travel nurses to plan and complete assignments with one another. Depending on the needs of healthcare facilities in the location you plan to travel to, you may even be able to work at the same place.
If you’re looking to save money on housing, you can also share an apartment with fellow travel nurse friends.
Finally, going with another travel nurse can provide you with a support system during your assignments, as you’ll have someone there who understands the stresses that come along with the job.
How To Become A Travel Nurse
Becoming a travel nurse may seem like a long and arduous process, but it’s really not as daunting as it may seem.
Below, we’ll walk you through the entire process of going from a non-nurse to a travel nurse.
1. Get Your Nursing Degree
The first step to becoming a travel nurse, or any type of registered nurse for that matter, is to get your nursing education.
Now, you have several options when it comes to getting your degree.
The first pathway is to get your Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This is the quickest way to become a nurse, but it’s likely not the best. Many healthcare facilities are only hiring nurses who have at least an undergraduate-level nursing degree.
So, we recommend you go straight for your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. This not only provides you with additional knowledge and skills required to be a great nurse, but it also opens up more opportunities for employment.
Of course, there are plenty of different ways to get your BSN:
- Pre-licensure BSN: For non-nurses with no prior degree
- RN-to-BSN: For licensed RNs who already hold an ADN or Nursing Diploma
- Accelerated BSN: For those with a non-nursing undergraduate degree
- Concurrent Enrollment BSN: For those enrolled in an ADN program who want to work toward their BSN simultaneously
While getting your degree can be costly and time-consuming, there are plenty of quick and affordable options. In fact, you can even complete your degree online and on your schedule.
To find one suited to your needs, check out our top-rated online BSN programs.
2. Pass The NCLEX
Once you get either your ADN or BSN, you’ll be prepared to sit for the NCLEX. This is the exam that all registered nurses must pass before they become licensed.
While it may feel frustrating to have to pass one more exam after completing all your educational requirements, the NCLEX plays an important role: it determines whether or not you’re ready to begin working as an entry-level nurse.
The average first-time pass rate for the NCLEX in 2021 for test-takers educated in the United States was 82.48%. It’s also worth noting that the average pass rate jumped to 86.06% for BSN-educated students, while ADN-educated students had a pass rate of 78.78%.
If you fail the test, don’t worry! You’re allowed to take it again 45 days after your initial test date.
Just be sure to review your results from your failed test. This allows you to see your problem areas so you can work on them. That way, you’ll be prepared to pass the next time you take the exam.
3. Gain RN Experience
Once you pass the NCLEX, you’ll officially be a licensed registered nurse! This means you can begin working in entry-level nursing positions.
Unfortunately, most travel nursing agencies will require you to have at least one year of RN experience before you can begin your journey as a travel nurse. However, this is for a good reason.
Travel nursing comes with the additional stress of entering a new, fast-paced environment, so having some staff nursing experience will be key to your success as a travel nurse.
Gaining experience as a staff nurse also allows you to see how nurses operate in healthcare facilities, which will prepare you to jump into short-term contracts further down the road.
4. Pursue An Advanced Degree and Certifications (Optional)
As you gain experience as an RN, you may learn that you prefer certain nursing roles and specialities to others. If you find that you really want to practice in a specific area, you may consider pursuing an advanced degree or certifications.
For example, you may want to go for your Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) in areas like:
- Nursing education
- Public health
You may also choose to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP). To do this, you’ll need to enroll in a Master’s-level, NP-focused degree program. You can choose to specialize in several areas, including but not limited to:
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable and flexible ways to get your graduate nursing degree. To find a program suited to your needs, check out our top-rated MSN programs.
Additionally, depending on your interests, you may choose to go for a nursing certification like:
- Cardiac-vascular nursing
- Critical care nursing
- Emergency nursing
There are tons of certifications you can decide to pursue, but keep in mind that most of them require quite a bit of RN experience in addition to passing a certification exam.
However, one thing is certain: getting an advanced degree or certification can open up new employment opportunities for potential travel nurses. Additionally, because these roles require advanced skills and knowledge, you should also be able to earn a better salary.
4. Obtain Additional Licenses
As we mentioned, you’ll need to already have your RN license and gain working experience before you can become a travel nurse. However, since you’ll likely be working in a state outside of the one in which you received your RN license, you’ll need an additional license as well.
In fact, you’ll need one of the following three types of licenses depending on the state you hope work in:
- eNLC License
- Walkthrough License
- State-specific License
The Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC) allows travel nurses to practice in other states that accept the license.
While most states in the United States either accept the eNLC or are awaiting its implementation, others require a different license.
For example, you may need to obtain a Walkthrough License, which allows you to start working quickly as you begin the process of gaining permanent licensure within a given state.
Finally, some locations don’t accommodate either of the preceding options, meaning you’ll need to wait to obtain a state-specific license. For example, California is a non-eNLC state and doesn’t provide Walkthrough Licenses. This means it could take months before you’re licensed and able to work in the state.
If all the talk of licenses seems intimidating, don’t worry! Skip ahead to the next step, as most travel nursing agencies you work with should be able to guide you through the licensing process. However, it’s important that you’re aware of these requirements.
5. Connect With A Travel Nursing Agency
Once you’ve got your degree, licenses, and at least one year of experience, you’re finally ready to start working as a travel nurse! To do so, you’ll need to find a travel nursing agency to work with.
While this may seem like an overwhelming process (there are dozens of different agencies), it doesn’t have to be! You can check out our top-rated travel nursing agencies to get you started.
Every agency has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to do a little research to figure out which agency can best help you achieve your goals.
To make things even simpler, just click here and we’ll help you find a travel nursing placement.
How Long Does It Take To Become A Travel Nurse?
How long it takes to become a travel nurse is entirely dependent on where you’re at in the process we discussed above.
For example, if you’re a registered nurse with at least one year of experience, you could start applying for travel nurse positions right now!
Alternatively, if you just started your first RN job last week, you could begin travel nursing in about a year.
Finally, if you’re a non-nurse, you’ll need to complete your degree program and gain RN experience, which could take anywhere from three years (two years for your ADN in addition to one year of RN experience) to five years (four years for your BSN in addition to one year of RN experience).
Is Travel Nursing Worth It?
Overall, it’s safe to say that travel nursing is definitely worth it. From higher earnings to the opportunity to explore new places, there’s lots to love about this career pathway.
Additionally, you’ll provide support to healthcare facilities that really need your services, which can be rewarding in and of itself.
If you’re ready to start your journey as a travel nurse, then click here to start traveling today!
Amanda Marten MSN, APRN, FNP-C is a freelance nurse writer and a certified family nurse practitioner. With ten years of nursing experience, she has worked in a variety of specialties including urgent care, travel nursing, post-surgical, and intensive care. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, outdoor activities, and spending time with her friends and family.