A career in travel nursing allows nurses to work in different locations all across the country.
The opportunities are truly endless. Hospitals are in dire need of more nursing staff and travel nurses help fill the gap.
Best of all, travel nurses can earn a higher salary than they would in a permanent, at-home positions.
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to get started with your travel nursing career!
Travel nurses are registered nurses who come from a variety of clinical backgrounds.
These nurses work closely with independent staffing agencies on temporary assignments to provide care throughout specialties. Travel nurses respond to staffing shortages in:
This closes the gap between the nursing field’s constant supply and demand changes. It also means nurses must adapt to each assignment’s unique demands.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities across the country hire travel nurses to quickly fill in the gaps during staffing shortages. This is usually for a specific time period.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there’s a significant shortage of around a million nurses for various reasons.
Hospitals have to fill their staff shortages quickly and for a number of reasons, including:
This is where travel nurses come in.
Travel nursing is a respectable, exciting, and lucrative career — and we’ll go into great depth on how to become a travel nurse in our guide below.
Generally, healthcare facilities and hospitals collaborate with travel nurse agencies. The agencies put them in touch with travel nurses so they can hire to fill staffing gaps.
If you want to get a travel nurse contract, you’ll have to sign up with an agency first. Today, there are over 300 travel nurse staffing agencies across the country. Around 110 of them have Joint Commission certification.
Staffing agencies don’t necessarily need to be certified. However, large teaching hospitals and Magnet hospitals generally only cooperate with Joint Commission-certified nurse travel agencies.
There are both long-term and short-term contracts for travel nursing. The average contract lasts about 13 weeks, though they range between eight and 26 weeks.
If the hospital or healthcare facility you’re currently working at needs your services for longer, they will probably offer an extension of the initial nursing contract. With the ongoing nursing shortage, this is becoming increasingly common.
Ultimately, travel nurses decide for themselves. They can look for short-term work that allows them to travel more around the country. Or, they can choose the stability that comes with a long-term contract.
Once you sign the contract, it comes into effect as a legally binding document. This means that ending your contract early will rarely be allowed.
Newbie travel nurses are often unsure of what contract length best suits them. In that case, most recruiters suggest starting with 10 or 13 weeks. Then you can adjust the length of the contract according to your needs when the time comes for your next assignment.
On the other hand, hospitals and healthcare facilities can end your contract early if they no longer need you. However, this rarely happens. Just bear in mind that if it does, you won’t receive the payment that you would have if the contract was fulfilled to the end.
Still, your staffing agency will likely find you the next open position quickly. However, you should keep this possibility in mind as you choose assignments.
For starters, you need to be a registered nurse. No additional education or training is technically required.
However, BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) nurses find better work than ADN (Associate’s Degree in Nursing) nurses. Most academic teaching hospitals and Magnet hospitals are looking for nurses with a BSN.
Education aside, you will also need some experience before landing your first travel nursing contract. Generally, most agencies will tell you that you need a minimum of two years of previous work in your specialty before getting your first contract.
Once they’re in a new unit, travel nurses generally have a short period of orientation over a couple of shifts. The orientation time helps them:
This time won’t be spent on nursing care 101. This is why travel nurses need previous experience.
Furthermore, travel nurses need a license in the state where their next contract is. This is a part of the process that most nurse staffing agencies help with. However, it can still take several weeks to get a new license.
Keep this in mind if you’re looking for short-term contracts and want to travel between a couple of different states.
While it’s not strictly necessary, you should think about getting a compact eNLC license (Enhanced Nursing Licensure). It’s is a single, multi-state license that’s valid in 26 states. This allows you to get assignments quicker. It also makes you more marketable to a larger number of hospitals.
It’s also essential to do enough research about your nurse staffing agency. Different agencies provide different benefits. These can include:
Some of the more experienced travel nurses keep a spreadsheet with all of the perks offered by different staffing agencies. They may also track other stats like:
In the long run, this helps keep tabs on which agency is offering the best deal.
It’s also a good idea to reach out to more experienced travel nurses. You can ask them about their time with various facilities and staffing agencies.
They’ll be able to give you first-hand information that may not be available anywhere else. They can also provide more tips on how to get started successfully.
There are plenty of reasons travel nursing is such an attractive proposition.
Firstly, you get to travel to new places you probably wouldn’t visit otherwise.
Every day, brand new positions are opened up for travel nurses of various specialties across the country. If you choose the shorter contracts, like 13 weeks, you’ll have time to go through multiple exciting locations throughout a single year.
Plus, if you want to visit a specific place but there’s no assignment there at the moment, one is bound to open up in the future.
Besides the opportunity to visit new places, travel nurses also get ample chances to build their resumes and expand their professional skill set.
There are no other nurses that get access to as many country-wide hospitals as traveling nurses. Even a short contract with a top-rated medical facility will significantly boost your resume.
Such experience may be a boon for graduate school admissions or when looking for a staff position at prominent hospitals. Travel Nurses are frequently employed at places like:
As a travel nurse, you’ve got a lot more professional and personal flexibility than you would in other nursing jobs.
For instance, if you want to travel for pleasure or visit your family, you can take as much time between contracts as you wish. Many nurses take a couple of months between assignments, and you don’t necessarily have to work contracts back-to-back.
Plus, certain hospitals are more accommodating to travel nurses. Some let nurses choose their own schedule and shifts, though this is not always the way it works.
Flexibility isn’t always an option, because travel nurses are there to fill a specific position in the hospital. However, it’s well worth it.
Travel nurses get plenty of benefits besides their higher salaries. There are many monetary incentives like travel reimbursements and non-taxable stipends.
On average, travel nurses earn a higher salary than staff nurses.
Their earning potential is even higher if their specialty is in high demand. It can also be higher if they’re prepared to travel to locations that aren’t necessarily the most popular.
Where do travel nurses actually travel?
As we’ve mentioned above, there are travel nurse assignments in all kinds of locations across the country. You’ll find contracts in:
Assignments are available in both tiny rural towns and huge metropolitan centers.
If you’re not sure where you fit in best, that’s the beauty of travel nursing: you can try out all kinds of settings in just a year or two.
Of course, it always helps when you narrow down your options. As a prospective travel nurse, you should first think about why you decided to go into this line of work in the first place:
Are you yearning for new life experiences, traveling across the country, and meeting all sorts of new people? Or, are you in it to earn a higher salary and get rid of your student loans more quickly?
The goal behind your interest in travel nursing will largely decide what kind of assignment and location you’re looking for.
For instance, Hawaii is the most expensive travel nursing location. It also has the steepest costs of living and a lack of affordable housing. At the same time, it remains one of the most desirable states for travel nurses because of its gorgeous sun, endless outdoor activities, and picturesque beaches.
Of course, you won’t leave the place with a significantly fuller bank account. However, it’s great if you’re looking for an adventure.
Massachusetts, New York, California, and Alaska are also popular destinations for travel nurses. These are also the some of the least affordable destinations.
New York and California may pay some of the highest travel nurse hourly rates. However, they’re accompanied by high living expenses and housing costs. In the end, the pay you take home won’t be as significant as it would be in a more affordable place.
Conversely, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Oklahoma are some of the most affordable states where you can earn a lot more money through travel nursing.
It’s worth pointing out that travel nurses most often have two choices while on assignment.
First, you may opt for agency-placed housing. These are one-bedroom apartments near the hospital that staffing agencies rent out.
In this case, the agency will take care of your living situation, but not for free.
The cost of housing will come out of your overall bill rate. This means you’ll still be taking less money home in the end.
In return for that housing fee, the agency will find, coordinate, and set up your housing.
If you’re new to this job, this might be helpful. However, bear in mind that some items you may consider basic may not be included. This includes:
Still, you probably won’t have to buy these. Whichever company furnished your temporary housing likely rents them out. Just contact your recruiter with the details of what you need to rent.
On the other hand, there’s the option of a housing stipend. This is a non-taxable sum you receive monthly, determined by average living costs.
If you decide on taking the stipend, it’ll be up to you to find the most cost-effective housing. If this sounds like a hassle, remember that the majority of experienced travel nurses go with this option.
The flexibility of the stipend allows you to save money in all sorts of ways. This could involve:
The housing you’d find on your own may better fill some of your specific needs, like a larger place or a pet-friendly apartment.
You can do whatever you want with that money. If housing costs are above the stipend amount, the travel nurse has to cover the difference.
However, if you spend less on housing than what you got as your housing stipend, you can keep the money.
The most basic prerequisite for working as a travel nurse is an active RN license.
You can become a travel nurse if you:
Most often, nurses are generally RNs and not LPNs. However, that’s not set in stone. It largely depends on the staffing requirements of the assignment and its location.
While a BSN degree is not technically required for travel nurses, some medical facilities and hospitals prefer going with BSN-prepared travel nursing staff. If you want to fill a position at a specific facility, make sure to check their official requirements first.
Domestic travel nurses (those that work within the United States) sometimes require additional licenses. This depends on the state where they’re working on their current assignment.
We’ve already mentioned the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). If you’ve obtained your nursing license in an NLC state, like Arizona or Texas. you can work in another NLC state. You’ll have a compact license there as well.
This license is valid in every NLC state, and you won’t need to register for any additional ones.
On the other hand, if your original state’s license does not fall within the NLC umbrella or you want to work in a non-NLC state, you’ll have to get the applicable state license as well. However, most staffing agencies are there to assist you in getting any additional licenses.
If you’re a nurse with an NLC license, the only thing you have to worry about when it comes to maintaining your licenses is meeting the requirements set by the place where you received the original nursing license. When you renew that compact license, it will be valid in all other NLC locations too.
On the other hand, you may have to get an additional state license. That means renewing multiple licenses when the time comes: one from your home state and the one issued in the state of your assignment.
Also, some states (like Washington and Florida) have additional requirements for nurses. For example, you may need CEUs (Continued Education Units) in specific areas such as HIV awareness and pain management for specific patients.
Make sure you’ve checked all the boxes when it comes to CEUs for your work state and home state.
Apart from the licenses we’ve mentioned above, you’ll also need Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and Basic Life Support (BLS) to work with a travel nursing agency.
If you plan on working in a specific unit, you’ll need to have the appropriate credentials for its specialty. For example, a critical care unit will require CCRN certification, while labor and delivery will require NRP.
Make sure you do research on the required certifications ahead of time. Most travel nurse staffing agencies won’t reimburse you for the cost of maintaining and obtaining your professional certifications.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this information on licenses, don’t worry. While it’s a great idea to be as prepared as possible, becoming a travel nurse is more straightforward than it seems.
If you’re a nurse with an active license and a couple of years of previous bedside experience, you’ll do just fine and have an awesome adventure!
While searching for travel nurses, most recruiters will focus on the myriad perks and benefits. This includes things like sign-on bonuses and housing stipends.
However, just like any other line of work, it’s important to keep the tax implications in mind as well.
If you want to work as a travel nurse, you’ll need what the IRS refers to as a “tax home.” In other words, you’ll have to provide proof confirming the location of your full-time residence. This is where you stay when you’re not working.
Some travel nurses work so much that they don’t maintain a full-time residence. This changes your tax status to an itinerant worker. This means you’ll have to pay taxes on the entirety of your income. This includes all reimbursements or stipends.
Conversely, non-itinerant nurses that maintain a tax home only have to account for their base wage as taxable income. All extra travel reimbursements, housing stipends, or meals are non-taxable.
This means you’ll save a pretty penny on taxes. Your adjusted income will also be lower when examined by loan officers or from the perspective of Social Security checks.
If you’re approaching retirement or you think you’ll be getting a loan in the near future, you may want your taxable income to be higher.
The specific compensation a travel nurse receives depends on a lot of details. This includes:
Still, travel nurses are generally paid well. This makes sense considering they’re urgently filling high-demand spots on a regular basis.
When it comes to benefits besides your hourly rate, travel nurses are often eligible for:
Bear in mind that this doesn’t depend on the medical facility where you’re currently assigned. Your employer is the travel nursing agency, and they’re the ones paying you.
If you’re going to maintain health insurance, know that you won’t be able to have more than 30 days off between assignments. If you plan on frequently taking extended time off, it’s probably better to take care of your own health insurance.
Furthermore, most travel nursing agencies don’t provide short-term disability or PTO (paid time off). So, if you’re concerned about potential injuries that would prevent you from working, think about getting your own insurance policy.
The bottom line is that travel nurses get paid well, but you won’t get paid when you don’t work.
You’ll find that both 8-week and 26-week assignments are common. However, you can find pretty much anything in between.
The standard length of a regular contract is 13 weeks.
Extension assignments frequently happen when hospitals offer to extend your contract. They’ll do this if they have a need for your services past the date of the initial contract.
These extensions tend to happen in the final 3 to 5 weeks of your current assignment. If you don’t want to stay at that location any longer after the expiration of the first contract, you’re free to ask your recruiter for a new assignment.
When it comes to shifts and hours, such details are generally laid out in your contract.
Standard hours are three 12’s, four 10’s, or five 8’s. However, all of that will vary depending on the hospital.
There’s a common misconception that travel nurses can’t take assignments close to home. The so-called “50-mile rule” supposedly states you have to be at least 50 miles removed from your primary residence.
However, in reality, you can find contract assignments at a hospital that’s nearby if there’s an open position for travel nurses.
Still, that somewhat defeats the purpose of travel nursing. You also won’t get your non-taxable housing stipend.
There’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to take your family with you. While housing could be trickier when it comes to pets, at least if you’re moving into the housing provided by your agency.
Most travel nurse staffing agencies rent:
Unfortunately, many of these are not pet-friendly. They may also be too small for your family.
If you intend on taking other people (or pets) with you, it’s definitely a better idea to find your own housing and take the appropriate stipend.
Still, if you’re relying on agency housing and you’re taking your pet, make sure to tell your recruiter so that they can find an appropriate apartment.
It’s actually quite common for RNs to plan and take assignments together.
If there’s enough demand, you can even look for assignments in the same hospital, or at least in the same city.
That would allow you to share an apartment with a fellow travel nurse and significantly save on housing costs. There are even travel nurse couples with incredible life stories and adventures.
Plenty of hospitals and facilities leave the “easier” patients in the care of travel nurses. This is especially true when it comes to acute patients.
This is common practice because a charge nurse wants to learn what kind of work you can handle.
Also, you’ll probably be the first to get floated. While most nurses dislike that, it’s a part of the job.
In case of low census, your assignment could be cut short. After all, the hospital won’t want to pay you if there’s no need for you to fill a position when the patient count is low.
However, there’s no need to worry. Recruiters will quickly scramble to land you a replacement assignment.
Most contracts specify the maximum number of shifts that can be canceled.
Is travel nursing a good idea for your career? This is a complex question, and the answer depends on your:
Travel nursing will help build your skills and make you more eligible when applying for future jobs.
This kind of work exposes you to wildly varying patient populations and nursing procedures. That allows you to work in the widest possible variety of specialties.
As a travel nurse, you will also learn to adapt to a new clinical environment more easily and quickly. This is something all future employers will appreciate.
If you’re concerned about the demand for travel nurses in the future, all current indicators show that there’s no cause for alarm.
Acute nurse shortages across the country are large enough and not expected to go away any time soon. This means there is a constant demand for travel nurses.
Right now, more than a million nurses are required to fill the current demand. This means employment opportunities for travel nurses will become even more abundant in the future.
If you’re ready to experience new places, meet new people, and try new things, this kind of dynamic lifestyle is definitely the right choice for you.
Ready to begin your travel nursing adventures? Then start traveling today!