Travel Nursing Career Overview
For those with a love for healthcare, helping people, and exploring new places, a career as a travel nurse could be the perfect mix of purpose and adventure.
“Travel nursing is a great opportunity for an experienced registered nurse to practice their specialty while simultaneously exploring a different city or state,” says Jessica Legaspi, a former travel nurse currently practicing in Portland, Oregon.
If you’ve successfully completed a program to become a registered nurse, and have at least 1 year of experience in your specialty, there’s a chance for you to jump on this unique opportunity. You can opt to put your training to work on short-term assignments that take you 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 are a valuable resource as they temporarily provide medical assistance on short-term assignments that typically last between 8 and 26 weeks, though most positions are offered for 13 weeks. Nurses have the chance to choose where they want to be located and in what specialty they’d like to work.
“In order to safely care for patients, there must be adequate staff and resources,” Jessica says. “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, etc. 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 setting and the preferences of the nurse. Due to nursing shortages, there are many locations that lack the number of nurses that they need.
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 exact duties, Jessica says that flexibility, critical thinking, and taking initiative are key to any travel nurse position. “I always [ask]: How confident are you with your critical thinking skills? 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 who 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, it’s recommended to work with multiple agencies so you can find the assignment that fits your needs.
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, ask questions such as:
- What locations do you serve?
- How is your pay package structured?
- What do you provide in terms of health insurance?
- Do you provide free housing or a housing stipend?
- Do you offer paid time off?
- Are there any signing incentives or end-of-assignment bonuses?
- How much time can I take off between assignments?
“There are hundreds and hundreds of travel nurse agencies plus thousands of recruiters looking to land a contract,” Jessica 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 have an effect on your taxes, so make sure to do adequate research to ensure you’re handling everything right. “There are IRS rules that must be followed strictly in order to benefit from these stipends, such as maintaining a tax home,” Jessica adds.
Another option is to simply be a travel nurse around 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.
How it’s different from 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 Nurse Do You Need to Be?
Generally speaking, there are 3 main types of travel nurses.
Registered nurses (RNs)
The most common type of traveling nurse is a registered nurse. These nurses must hold at least an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), but bachelor’s degrees may soon be required in many states. The Institute of Medicine recommends that 80% of the nursing workforce hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) by 2020.
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 an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), nurse practitioners have higher authority than RNs due to their advanced education. They must hold at least at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and gain additional certification in 1 or more of the nursing specialties of their choice.
Within the medical setting, 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 are not required to hold 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. Within the medical setting, 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.
Salary & Job Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs earn a median income of $70,000 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.
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. “A huge incentive with [most] travel nursing is the housing and food stipend that’s untaxed,” Jessica says. “I review the hourly taxed rate—travel RNs should not go below $20 an hour—plus the untaxed stipends, which provides a gross total.”
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.
According to the American Nurses Association, there are more than 3 million registered nurses in the U.S., and yet there’s still plenty of room for more. In fact, by 2026, the BLS expects RN opportunities to grow by 15%—a number more than 2 times higher than the average growth for all occupations.
How to Become a Travel Nurse
To become a travel nurse, you first need a high school diploma or GED. After that, take the following steps:
- Complete at least an LPN or ADN education program, though keep in mind that many hospitals are beginning to require at least a BSN.
- 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.
- Gain at least 1 year of permanent nursing experience in the specialty in which you want to work.
- Decide your preferences on setting, location, and length of time, and use these to help you find an agency that offers those types of assignments.
- 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.
- Tailor your resume for travel nursing. Include each and every license and certification, the number of beds in the units where you’ve worked, and any computer skills you might have.
Education and application requirements
As previously stated, you’ll need to earn at least an LPN education or 2-year associate’s degree from a registered nursing program, though earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or even doctoral degree could make you much more competitive in the 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’ve completed your program, taken the NCLEX exam, and gained at least 1 year of clinical or hospital experience, you’re ready to begin applying for travel nurse positions. The application process is nearly identical to that of those 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, Jessica 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.”
Multi-state nursing licensure
If you’re working in the U.S., you’ll need to get an RN license that covers each state in which you practice. The time frame for securing your licensure varies state by state. Many estimate between 2 and 4 weeks, while states such as California and Ohio can take as long as 6 months.
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. It’s also important to note that California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida are the busiest states for travel nursing. Holding a license in each of those states can help get you in the door quickly and keep you continuously employed.
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 nursing license within a few days. Depending on the state, these are valid for anywhere between 1 and 6 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 2018, there are roughly 30 states that have enacted NLC legislation, with several others pending implementation.
Once you’ve done the work to become a registered nurse, there are nearly 200 other 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 you up for 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.
Work experience requirements
Most hospitals and other medical facilities will require that you have at least 1 year of nursing experience in the specialty of your choice, though many hospitals may require 2 years or more.
Travel Nursing Specializations
There are 2 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.
There are travel nursing jobs available for a wide range of specialties, however, some specialties have more job options than others.
In recent years, there’s been a great need for nurses with experience in operating rooms, intensive care, labor and delivery, and pediatric and neonatal specialties.
“Seeing the trends in the past 4 years alone, I’d say that emergency departments should be a top priority,” Jessica says. “We see anything, any time, any volume, 24/7. We do not turn anyone away. We never know what will walk or roll through those doors.”
Other in-demand specialties include case management, cardiac catheterization, dialysis, obstetrics, oncology, orthopedics, perianesthesia, psychiatry, and stepdown units.
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 outbreak situations like an outbreak of Ebola or the flu.
Strike travel nursing
As fill-ins for nurses on strike, these positions are different from other travel nurse assignments in that 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 continue on for 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 record 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 for a duration of 4–13 weeks.
International travel nursing
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 1–2 years—and typically require you to get a visa before you can begin work. It’s also expected that you have a working knowledge of the local language before you would 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 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 being far from family and friends can sometimes lead to feeling homesick.
If this is something you’re worried about, there are ways to make the transition easier. 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. Another option is to buddy up with a friend who’s also a travel nurse. Work with the same agencies and try to secure assignments at the same facilities at the same time.
As for what to take with you on your assignments, keeping things as simple as possible is key. In housing set up through your agency, furniture and other household items are typically provided. 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.
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.
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.
It’s also 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.
Speaking of orientation, you may have a day or 2 to familiarize yourself with the procedures and protocols of the unit, but you’re likely to 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.
Ready to Get Started?
Whether you’re just starting a career as an RN or you’re an established nurse looking to shake things up, pursuing a career as a travel nurse may be just what you’ve been looking for.
If you want to explore the world of travel nursing but don’t yet have your RN license, learn more about the education you’ll need on our nursing degrees page or use our “Find Schools” button at the top to search for programs near you.
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