Travel Nursing Salaries, Benefits & Job Outlook
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 registered nurses take assignments in locations experiencing shortages of qualified personnel. Most postings have durations of 13 weeks, with the average term ranging from 8–26 weeks.
How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for registered nurses in 2017 was $70,000, or $33.65 per hour. Advanced practice registered nurses—those with at least a master’s degree qualifying them as an APRN with at least one specialty—earned a median salary of $110,930 per
A travel nurses’ wages often exceed the average.
A travel nurse’s overall earning potential depends on several factors. Generally, rapid-response postings pay the most. These are often positions serving an unanticipated need, such as addressing the fallout of a natural disaster.
If you’re flexible about location and turnaround, you may enjoy higher base wages on top of other benefits. A typical compensation package includes a housing stipend or complementary housing, reimbursements for travel and incidentals, and health benefits. Some agencies also offer bonuses for completing or extending assignments (more on this below). These benefits vary by assignment type, location, and agency.
Highest-Paying Cities & States for Travel Nurses
The following are the 5 U.S. locations with the highest average salaries for RNs according to BLS data:
|State||Average Annual Salary|
|District of Columbia||$90,110|
The highest-paying city for nurses is San Francisco, 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 from 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.
Do Travel Nurses Make More Than Regular Nurses?
This is a complicated question, because many more variables factor into a travel nurse’s compensation than for a nurse in a permanent role. The short answer is that travel nurses often enjoy higher net compensation, because the typical pay package includes tax-free allowances for lodging and living expenses, including meals and utilities. This is especially true for positions that are harder to fill, either because of their location or the required certifications and experience.
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 distributed 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.
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.
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 compensations are 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.
What Kind of Salary & Job Growth Are Expected?
Nursing jobs are in high demand throughout the country and will continue to be for the next several years. According to BLS, demand is projected to grow 15% over the next 10 years 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 term than travel nurse postings, which have a duration of at least 4 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 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 for any reason their staffing needs change.
Salaries & 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 the Middle East.
How to Boost Your Travel Nurse Salary
Travel nurses who are open to jobs in a wide range of locations tend to generate the most income. 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. Such fields with high demand include cardio catheterization, oncology, anesthesia, and neonatal and pediatric intensive care.
Ready to Get Started?
While there are some travel nursing positions available for licensed practical nurses, the majority of opportunities are available to RNs. As is the case in permanent roles, opportunities for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), such as nurse practitioners (NPs) and nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) are also in demand and well compensated.
Many schools offer RN-to-BSN programs that help those who have their RN certificate obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing within 2 years. This not only opens RNs up to opportunities that require a 4-year degree, but also fulfills a necessary step on the road to obtaining a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). If you’re ready to get started, use the Find Schools button to explore education options that fit your needs.
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