Salary Guide: Travel Nurse
For nursing professionals who value freedom and wish to serve where they’re needed most, travel nursing can be a rewarding and exciting career track. Rather than establishing themselves in one hospital, these nurses take assignments in locations that are experiencing shortages of qualified personnel.
And because of the nature of the job—which requires flexibility, independent thinking, and the willingness to jump into a role with very little prior notice—travel nursing salaries often exceed those of traditional nurses.
How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?
Travel nurses who are registered nurses (RNs) can make as much or more than the average RN salary of $77,600 per year, while advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) salaries often exceed the annual average of $123,780. (While travel nurse positions are also available for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs), they are less common.) Crisis assignments often pay more than the average nursing salary, and things like housing stipends can boost your pay as well.
Median Salary: $77,600
Projected job growth: 6.2%
10th Percentile: $59,450
25th Percentile: $61,790
75th Percentile: $97,580
90th Percentile: $120,250
Projected job growth: 6.2%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$95,220||$62,700||$129,670|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Travel Nurse Wages Often Exceed the Average
Though there’s no official data on travel nurse salaries, most postings advertise earnings that meet or exceed pay for permanent nurses with the same qualifications and certifications.
A travel nurse’s overall earning potential depends on several factors, said Parth Bhakta, CEO and founder of the travel nursing agency Nursefly. Generally, rapid-response postings pay the most. These are often positions serving an unanticipated need, such as medical help after a natural disaster.
“Crisis assignments (pay) quite a large premium over the average,” said Bhakta. “Many hospitals offer travel nurses higher compensation for specialties that require more knowledge and expertise, and many locations will offer higher salaries where there is a greater demand for nurses.”
Most travel nurse salaries meet or exceed those for permanent nurses with the same qualifications and certifications.
If you’re flexible about location and turnaround, you may enjoy higher base wages on top of other benefits. This is especially true for positions that are harder to fill, either because of their location or the required certifications and experience.
“On top of higher salaries, travel nurses usually also receive additional compensation like housing stipends, travel reimbursement, and per diem meal costs,” says Rachel Norton, RN, a critical care traveling nurse.
What Other Financial Benefits Are There?
As mentioned above, travel nurse compensation packages often include bonuses and living expenses. Travel nurse wages are often quoted as a blended rate, which bundles together base salary with medical benefits and stipends or allowances for living expenses. A sample package might list a blended rate of $50 an hour, with a significant portion in the form of tax-free stipends for housing, travel, meals, and utilities.
Accommodations or Housing Stipend
Nearly all travel nursing compensation packages include housing, whether provided via a stipend for rent or complimentary housing within dorms or off-campus apartments. There might also be a daily allowance for meals, utilities, and other basic necessities. This is often called a Meals, Incidentals, and Expenditures (MI&E) stipend.
When it comes to housing, however, it can be more affordable to find your own accommodations.
“Once I find a position, I work directly with the staffing agency to figure out what housing arrangements and travel reimbursements are available to me,” says Norton. “Housing and travel reimbursements are sometimes handled by the staffing agency, it just depends on the contract; although nurses will almost always make more money by finding their own housing. Some of the short-term COVID contracts are a bit different, but traditional contracts will have a significant pay cut if the nurses take housing provided by the agency.”
Placement agencies will usually cover travel expenses such as airfare, either by arranging travel on the nurse’s behalf or providing a stipend. They may also reimburse mileage for car travel.
While most travel nurse agencies offer assistance with housing, it can often be more lucrative for nurses to find their own accommodations.
To sweeten a travel nurse’s compensation package, many agencies offer lucrative bonuses for signing on with them, completing a posting, or agreeing to an extension of an assignment. These incentives tend to accompany jobs in areas with the biggest staffing needs and a lack of qualified candidates in the region. They may also reward nurses for referring other qualified candidates to the agency or for reaching certain milestones in their tenure.
What Is Tax-Free Compensation?
A significant portion of a travel nurse compensation package comes in the form of tax-free benefits. For example, you won’t be taxed at the end of the year for travel and housing stipends or any health benefits you receive.
These kinds of benefits shouldn’t replace taxed income, though. This practice is what the IRS calls “wage recharacterization,” and the tax code prohibits it. Sometimes, disreputable agencies might offer base pay as low as the state minimum wage, then make up for it with tax-free compensations to bring the hourly blended rate in line with standard nursing salaries. However, the IRS sees this as a red flag, since the taxable income portion falls well below the average wage for a registered nurse, and tax-free compensation is meant to offset the burdens of temporary work outside of your tax home.
To avoid a painful and expensive audit, agencies should offer reasonable base pay—that is, the taxable income that you receive in the form of a paycheck or direct deposit—for the position in question. Nurses should avoid postings with exceedingly low base wages, even if the tax-free compensation is attractive, because they may be subject to a tax audit themselves if the IRS finds the agency they work for guilty of wage recharacterization. Always ask for an itemized breakdown when agencies quote a blended rate to ensure the base wage is reasonable for the position and location.
“There are also several ways you can optimize taxes to receive various stipends and benefits, depending on your pay structure,” says Norton. “Travel nurses get paid either a blended rate of tax-free stipends and a taxable hourly wage, or an hourly wage that is taxed based on your rate of pay. It’s important to understand the two.”
Your agency can help you sort out how you’re being paid, so always ask if you’re not sure.
Highest-Paying Cities & States for Travel Nurses
The following are the top 10 U.S. locations (all in California) with the highest median salaries for RNs:
Source: 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The highest-paying city for nurses is San Jose, California, likely due to its high cost of living. For nurses interested in more rural settings, there are a few non-metropolitan locations that are promising. Due to the demand for qualified personnel in the rural areas of Alaska, for example, postings throughout the Last Frontier can be quite attractive.
Another way to identify high-paying posts is to review the locations where nursing shortages are projected to be the most severe in the coming years. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the states projected to have the biggest nursing shortages in 2030 are California, Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina.
What Kind of Job Growth Is Expected?
Nursing jobs are in high demand throughout the country and will continue to be for the next several years. According to the BLS’ Occupational Employment Statistics for RNs, demand is projected to grow 6 percent through 2031 due to the rise in chronic diseases like diabetes, longer life expectancies, and a significant portion of the workforce aging into retirement.
How Travel Nurse Salaries Compare to Per Diem Nursing
Per diem nursing assignments are typically much shorter than travel nurse postings, which usually are for at least four weeks. These assignments allow for even greater flexibility, offering nurses complete control over their preferred hours and shifts.
While there’s no conclusive data on pay for per diem nurses, the hourly rates tend to exceed those of travel nurses and nurses in permanent roles. However, the freedom and higher pay can come with more instability. While travel nurses can count on their assignments lasting the full duration listed in their contract, per diem nurses’ terms may be cut short or canceled without notice if staffing needs change.
Salaries and Benefits for International Travel Nurses
International travel nursing provides the opportunity to explore locations all over the world. These assignments are typically at least a year long, and may have some prerequisites, such as knowledge of the local language and obtaining a visa in the host country.
However, if you’re looking to earn a lot of money, international travel nursing is likely not for you. Most countries pay significantly less than what you’ll find for travel nursing jobs across the United States, though you may find higher rates for roles in some small European countries such as Luxembourg. Additionally, some locations, such as the Middle East, have lower costs for everyday expenses like taxes and housing. So even though your salary might be smaller, it will go a lot further.
How to Boost Your Travel Nurse Salary
Travel nurses who are open to jobs in a wide range of locations tend to earn the most. Many agencies incentivize less desirable postings with generous bonuses, either upon signing on or upon completion. Rapid-response postings also tend to have higher wages, since they require the nurse to report within a matter of days to their new location and hit the ground running.
Nurses who hold certifications to work in specialty fields also enjoy more competitive wages because these positions are harder to fill. Fields with high demand include cardio catheterization, oncology, anesthesia, and neonatal and pediatric intensive care. Added certifications and experience will not only help you boost your salary, but also serve as a good way to ensure you’re prepared for the demands of travel nursing.
“Specialty certifications always help you stand out on an application, and the more years of experience a nurse has, the better chance they will be successful on contracts,” says Norton. “Travel nurses must be very comfortable in their practice because we receive such a short orientation upon arriving to a facility.”