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.
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
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:
“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?”
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)
Nurse Practitioners (NPs)
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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