The Road to Becoming a Travel Nurse

For those with a love for healthcare, people, and exploring new places, a career as a travel nurse could be the perfect mix of purpose and adventure.

smiling female nurse with child patient

If you’ve successfully completed a program to become a registered nurse and have at least one year of experience in your specialty, you have the option to take your nursing training on the road. As a travel nurse, you can opt to put your training to work on short-term assignments that take you to cities across the United States—or even overseas. On top of being a rewarding and challenging position, the job often offers a great deal of flexibility, above-average pay, and extra incentives and bonuses.

What Is Travel Nursing?

Traveling nurses temporarily provide medical assistance on short-term assignments that typically last between eight and 26 weeks, though most positions are offered for around 13 weeks. Nurses have the chance to choose where they want to be sent and in what specialty they’d like to work.

“In order to safely care for patients, there must be adequate staff and resources,” says Jessica Legaspi, a former travel nurse currently practicing in Portland, Oregon. “Not having enough bodies to handle the volume opens the door to potential harm. This is where travel nurses come in: to fill in the gaps, whether it be from prolonged, unfilled full-time positions, maternity leave, leave of absence, or other reasons. Travel nurses allow departments to function efficiently when core staff is short.”

How Does Travel Nursing Work?

A traveling nurse is placed in a hospital, clinic, or other medical facility depending on the need of the staff and the preferences of the nurse. Nurses are always needed, and that demand only increases in the midst of circumstances such as seasonal illnesses and global health crises.

Your job duties as a traveling nurse vary depending on your specialty, the type of facility you’re working in, and the individual needs of your patients. However, traveling nurses always contribute to the larger medical team’s mission by performing tasks such as helping doctors during exams and surgeries, providing and monitoring medications, dressing wounds and incisions, recording patient symptoms, and conducting basic lab work.

Regardless of your duties, flexibility, critical thinking, and taking initiative are key to any travel nurse position.

“I always ask (potential travel nurses): ‘How confident are you with your critical thinking skills?'” says Legaspi. “You need to be independent. You need to really know your stuff. You have to be prepared to function as though you have worked in that unit for weeks.”

Finding Travel Nursing Jobs

woman nurse shaking hands with other staff

Traveling nurses typically work with an agency that helps them find the right position based on their choice of specialty, location, and length of time. Because different agencies work with different medical facilities and specialties, you should work with multiple agencies so you can find assignments that fit your needs.

Most traveling nurses get their assignments through an agency that specializes in placing nurses.

Keep in mind that certain destinations are highly competitive. You might want to work in cities like San Francisco, New York, or Honolulu, but it’s best to stay open to other opportunities. It’s also important to note that the most competitive destinations often have the highest cost of living. Your salary could go much further if you take an assignment in a less coveted location.

While researching agencies and contracts, be sure to find out:

  • What locations the agency serves
  • How their pay package is structured
  • What the agency provides in terms of health insurance
  • Whether the agency provides free housing or a housing stipend
  • If paid time off is offered
  • If the agency offers any signing incentives or end-of-assignment bonuses
  • How much time you’ll be able to take off between assignments

“There are hundreds and hundreds of travel nurse agencies plus thousands of recruiters looking to land a contract,” Legaspi explains. “I choose a recruiter based on their availability to answer questions, their attitude, and if they’re treating me as an actual individual, not a contract. I also ask about the resources they provide once I start my contract: Who is my HR person? Who handles my payroll? Who is my emergency contact?”

Four Questions Travel Nurses Should Ask Their New Employer

Once your agency lands you a job at a hospital or clinic, it’s your turn to ask a few questions. Former travel nurse Jessica Legaspi suggests starting with these:

  • Why do you need traveling nurses?
    “This tells me if there’s been vacant positions or people on leave. It’s a small sneak peek into their staffing. I also ask about resources, staffing ratios, and average census (patients per 24-hour period) to tell me how busy the department is.”
  • What accreditation do you hold?
    “This tells me what types of certifications they’ll require.”
  • What is your patient population like?
    “My first assignment was in a community hospital in a very low-income area with a lot of (people) who live in poor conditions. This question gives me an idea of what kind of disease processes and chronic conditions I’ll be taking care of.”
  • Can I take time off?
    “I present days I need off during the interview process and while we’re negotiating the contract. They’re usually open to these as long as the requests are reasonable.”

Housing During Your Assignment

One of the perks of travel nursing is that agencies typically arrange for furnished housing and cover your utilities, or they offer you a stipend to take care of it yourself. Some nurses find they can pocket extra money by finding housing on their own that’s cheaper than their stipend.

Untaxed stipends may also be available for meals and travel. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these added benefits can affect your taxes, so make sure to do adequate research to ensure you’re handling everything right.

A number of online resources and social media groups are available to connect travel nurses with housing. Travel nurses can also connect with other travel nurses in these forums and on social media.

“It can feel intimidating to find accommodations in a new city,” says Rachel Norton, RN, a critical care travel nurse, “but there is a huge online community of travel nurses you can go to for advice on neighborhoods in different cities, to find roommates or connect with fellow travelers.”

Another option is to simply be a travel nurse in the area where you live. This can mean staying in your own home or finding an apartment not too far away. This is often an ideal situation for travel nurses who have family who can’t relocate due to school or work.

What’s the Difference Between Travel Nursing and Per Diem Nursing?

Per diem, or per day, nurses do not have set schedules or work hours. As their name suggests, they work on a day-by-day basis, filling in when necessary at a medical facility in their area.

Per diem nurses often have a lot of flexibility; however, work isn’t guaranteed. On top of that, they’re expected to adapt extremely quickly to various facilities’ policies and procedures. They typically don’t receive benefits, but, because of that, can make high hourly wages and enjoy potential tax breaks.

What Kind of Degree Do I Need to Be a Travel Nurse?

You don’t need a specific “travel nurse” degree to become a travel nurse. Travel nurses need the same level of education as traditional nurses who work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings.

Registered Nurses (RNs)

The most common type of traveling nurse is a registered nurse. These nurses must hold at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN), but many employers require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). An effort initiated by the Institute of Medicine in 2010 pushed for 80% of practicing RNs to hold a BSN by 2020, but that goal has been scaled back and discussions continue.

Within the medical setting they choose, RNs take on a number of duties that may include running diagnostics tests, analyzing results, determining treatment plans, and providing emotional support to patients and families.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

As advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), nurse practitioners have more authority than RNs due to their advanced education. They must hold at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and gain additional certification in one or more of the nursing specialties of their choice.

NPs provide care beyond an RN that might include conducting exams, prescribing medication, and diagnosing illnesses. Though they have more physician-level responsibilities, they still might be required to be supervised by a doctor in certain states.

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

Though not as common, it’s possible to become a traveling nurse as a licensed practical nurse. These roles don’t require a college degree, but an LPN education must be completed in a state-approved program. To work as an LPN, you still need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) that’s required of all RNs and higher.

LPNs have less responsibility than RNs and NPs. They perform entry-level duties such as taking vital signs, dressing wounds, administering medication, filling out medical records, and helping patients with daily tasks like eating and getting dressed.

Travel Nurse Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs earn a mean (average) income of $77,460 a year. Thanks to their ability to travel whenever needed, traveling RNs often make a higher salary than permanent staff, but the terms of their contracts can vary widely between assignments. Though there’s no official data on travel nurse salaries, most postings advertise earnings that meet or exceed those for permanent nurses with the same qualifications and certifications.

Some agencies may offer a higher base pay but fewer allowances, while others offer a smaller wage but sizable stipends for things such as meals, travel, and housing.

Along with providing living arrangements or a housing stipend as part of the compensation package, many agencies offer medical, dental, and vision insurance as well. Some offer paid time off (though this isn’t common), reimbursement for licensing, and end-of-assignment bonuses. All said and done, the average salary and benefits can make traveling RNs among the highest-earning nurses in healthcare.

Travel Nursing: Let’s Get Started

You’ll need to earn at least an LPN education or two-year associate’s degree from an accredited nursing program before moving forward with your state exams and year of clinical or hospital experience, though earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or even doctoral degree could make you much more competitive in the travel nursing field. As there aren’t schools specifically designed for travel nurses, this can be done through the same accredited programs attended by RNs who plan to get permanent positions.

Once you’re ready to apply for a position, you’ll find that the application process is nearly identical to applying to be full-time staff.

“Resumes, interviews, certifications required in each unit, vaccinations, and passing a long series of computer tests” are all part of the process, Legaspi says. “The difference is for every contract, you have to complete a new set of requirements, since every hospital will have their own unique combination.”

Six Steps to Becoming a Travel Nurse

To become a travel nurse, you first need a high school diploma or GED. After that, take the following steps:

  1. Complete at least a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) education program, though keep in mind that some hospitals require a least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  2. Pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and apply to get your RN or LPN license in the state where you plan to work.
  3. Gain at least one year of permanent nursing experience in the specialty in which you want to work.
  4. Decide your preferences on setting, location, and length of assignment, and use these to help you find an agency that offers those types of assignments.
  5. Get all of your paperwork for licenses, certifications, and clinical records in order. Most medical facilities will only consider candidates who meet their requirements upfront.
  6. Tailor your resume for travel nursing. Include every license and certification, the number of beds in the units where you’ve worked, and any computer skills you might have.

Getting Licensed

If you’re working in the U.S. as an LPN, RN, or APRN, you’ll need to get a license that covers each state in which you practice. The time frame for securing your licensure can vary widely from state to state, from a few days in some states to several weeks in others.

Knowing ahead of time where you’d like to work can be incredibly helpful for securing your licenses in a timely manner. Often, you’re only given a few weeks’ notice before you start an assignment, so already holding the necessary license can be key. 

There are also a handful of states referred to as “walk-through” states. In these locations, while waiting for your permanent license, you can be issued a temporary one within a few days. Depending on the state, these are valid for anywhere between one and six months.

Another option to consider is the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). This initiative allows nurses to get a multi-state license and practice in any state that’s a member of the alliance. As of 2020, there are 34 states that have enacted NLC legislation, with several others pending implementation.

Most staffing agencies make it easy for their travel nurse clients to apply for positions and submit the necessary documentation. In the not-so-distant past, nurses had to submit licensing and certificate documentation by fax when applying for rolls, says Norton, who has been working as a travel nurse off and on since 2010.

“Recruiters and agencies often took days to collect the appropriate documents and source jobs I was a match for,” she says. Now, agencies allow applicants to digitally upload all required eligibility documents, including credentials, certifications, and experience into an online profile. “Staffing agencies are able to view candidate profiles and can more efficiently match travel nurses to open positions.”

Further Certification

There is no specific “travel nurse” certification, but as an LPN, RN, or APRN who is working as a travel nurse, there are dozens of certifications you can choose to pursue. Depending on your specialty, additional certification—such as for critical care nurses—may be necessary. Even if your specialty doesn’t require further credentials, additional certification can make you more competitive in the market and open up more opportunities.

Some common certifications include ambulatory care, ICU, emergency room, medical-surgical, and pediatric nursing. You can gain these types of certifications, and more, through organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

Travel Nursing Specializations

There are two main types of travel nursing: those that require a particular medical or administrative specialty, and those that are situational. Within those broader categories, we can break them out even further.

Medical Specialties

When it comes to travel nursing, there are a few specialties that are particularly popular due to factors like employer need and employee interest. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common specialties.

  • Labor and delivery travel nurse: Monitor the vital signs of mother and child during the birthing process and assist with birthing procedures.
  • Pediatric travel nurse: Assist in the treatment of children and adolescents up to the age of 18.
  • Oncology travel nurse: Oversee the care of patients who are undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Intensive care unit (ICU) travel nurse: Help care for acutely ill patients who require treatment for life-threatening conditions.
  • Emergency room (ER) travel nurse: Provide emergency care for patients with trauma or illness

Situational Specialties

  • Rapid response travel nurse: Rapid response nurses are called in to provide care in the aftermath of a disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane, or in response to critical situations like an outbreak of Ebola or the flu.
  • Strike travel nurse: As fill-ins for nurses on strike, these positions are different from other travel nurse assignments. You’re likely to find yourself in an understaffed and unfamiliar environment that doesn’t necessarily align with your specialty. With the tenuous nature of strikes, assignments can end abruptly or last weeks. You need to be prepared to take on a position with very little notice or find a new assignment quickly once your current one comes to an end.
  • Electronic medical records conversion: The healthcare field has been slow to fully convert to digital records from paper-based systems; however, the industry is beginning to catch up. The downside of converting to electronic medical records is the time it takes for the staff to learn the new technology. Traveling nurses can be brought in to train a team on the software, as well as provide additional nursing help to ensure the quality of patient care isn’t affected during the transition. These positions typically last four to 13 weeks.
  • International travel nurse: Along with travel nursing jobs across America, there are also opportunities for international nursing in destinations such as Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. These assignments are usually longer—often one to two years—and typically require you to get a visa before you can begin work. You’d need a working knowledge of the local language to be considered for a role in a foreign country. No matter where you go, you’ll likely need a visa and may need to obtain sponsorship from your agency or the hospital where you’ll be working.

Transitioning from Staff Positions to Travel Nursing

Your first assignment as a travel nurse can be exciting—but also overwhelming. It can be tough to know exactly what to expect, and making the adjustment from a consistent, predictable schedule to one that changes frequently can be difficult.

Six Things That Can Help Make Your Transition to Travel Nursing a Smooth One

  1. Stay close at first. If being far from home is concerning, consider a travel assignment in your own state, where you can be near friends and relatives. You may also be able to bring along a pet or significant other, but this will vary depending on your contract and particular housing situation.
    
  2. Use the buddy system. Consider partnering up with a friend who’s also a travel nurse to make the change less daunting. Work with the same agencies and try to secure assignments at the same facilities at the same time.
    
  3. Keep it simple. It’s best to travel light. If housing is set up through your agency, you won’t need to worry about furniture or household items. Talk to your recruiter to know what will be included and ask if they offer a list of guidelines for packing. Often, all you’ll need to bring is clothing and personal care items.
    
  4. Review your taxes. Before you leave for your assignment, make sure you understand how to handle your taxes. Since you’re likely to be working in a different state and your pay package will include non-taxable allowances, things can quickly get confusing. Your agency may offer tax assistance, or you might need to hire an accountant to help. Plan to save all of your receipts while traveling for potential use on your taxes.
    
  5. Plan ahead. When it’s time to start your assignment, don’t wait until the last minute to arrive. Give yourself time to settle into your apartment, get a rental car if needed, and get familiar with the city. Allow plenty of time to shop for any necessary items and figure out your daily commute.
    
  6. Plan a pre-visit. It’s a good idea to arrange a visit to the hospital before your start date. Talk to your manager, get a tour of the unit, and ask any questions related to orientation or the day-to-day duties you’ll be tackling.

You may have a day or two to familiarize yourself with the procedures and protocols of the unit, but it’s likely you’ll be expected to jump right in. Take initiative and ask questions whenever needed.

Also, don’t be surprised if you’re assigned tasks or patients that the other nurses don’t want. It’s common for full-time nurses to put traveling nurses on a bit of a probation period to prove they have the necessary skills. This is where experience and certification come in. If you can walk in confident that you can work with any patient you’re assigned and do so under pressure, you’ll quickly fit right in.


Written and reported by:

Sheila Cain

AllStar Writer and Editor

With professional insight from:

Jessica Legaspi

Former Travel Nurse

rachel norton

Rachel Norton, RN

Critical Care Travel Nurse


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