What is a Travel Nurse? Beginner's Guide to Travel Nursing

A travel nurse is an experienced licensed nursing professional who works short-term temporary nursing positions for hospitals and healthcare facilities in need of nursing staff. Specialties Travel Knowledge

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What is a Travel Nurse? Beginner's Guide to Travel Nursing

As an experienced RN, BSN with pre- and post-COVID travel nursing experience, I have worked with multiple travel nurse agencies and many hospitals in multiple states as a contracted intensive care unit (ICU) nurse. Through my first-hand travel nurse experience, I have gained valuable insights into what it means to be a travel RN and what you can expect when entering the field. In this article, I will provide an in-depth overview of what travel nursing is, who can be a travel nurse, a travel nurse's salary, some pros and cons of travel nursing, as well as personal insights.

What is a Travel Nurse?

A travel nurse is an experienced licensed nursing professional who works short-term temporary nursing positions for hospitals and healthcare facilities in need of nursing staff. 

Travel nurses can work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, urgent care, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and home health. 

Experienced registered nurses, licensed nurses, and nurse practitioners can work travel nursing contracts anywhere in the country that needs skilled nursing staff. Truly adventurous travel nurses can even go abroad if they choose but working as a travel R.N. internationally is an entirely different experience. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 3,130,600 registered nurses and 657,200 licensed practical nurses work throughout the United States. One recent study by a career site, suggested that just over 1.7M nurses are travel nurses. This suggests that a majority of the United States nursing workforce is currently a travel nurse or has been a travel nurse.

How Does Travel Nursing Work?

Most travel RNs work under contract through healthcare staffing agencies that have established relationships with hospitals and healthcare systems across the country. When working with a travel nurse staffing agency they establish contract length and pay package breakdown before you apply, although these can both be negotiated. 

Obtaining licensure in the specific state where you plan to work as a travel RN is necessary if your current nursing license is not issued by one of the 39 states offering compact licensing. You may need to obtain an out-of-state license by endorsement before applying to your prospective travel nurse job, this will be staffing agency dependent, as will reimbursement fees. You can check whether you have a multistate compact license by verifying it on Nursys

After you have accepted a position as a travel nurse you will sign a legally binding contract to work for the hospital through the staffing agency. Once you sign the contract it is highly frowned upon to cancel, but it is not impossible, especially when you have an extenuating circumstance. Take note that some travel nurse agencies have financial or do not rehire repercussions when canceling a contract. 

Contrary to popular belief, registered nurses can obtain independently contracted travel nurse work. However, this requires a significant amount of unpaid administrative work on the nurse's part. If you are new to the travel nurse industry, starting your journey with a travel nurse agency is highly recommended.

Travel Nurse Demand After COVID-19

There are whispers in the travel nurse community that the travel nurse market is saturated and that there will no longer be a need for travel nurses now that the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. When you start looking at the data you can see this is far from the truth. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it is projected that more than 200,000 nurses will be needed each year until 2031. Numerous reasons are accounted for the ongoing nursing shortage, and it is projected to get worse over time. A few reasons noted for the nursing shortage include– an aging population, an aging workforce, a lack of nurse educators, and nurse burnout -- to name a few. 

Don't fret, although there may be fluctuations in the travel nurse market there is and will continue to be an ongoing need to fill nursing positions, and travel nurses will continue to be utilized to fill that void. 

Key Responsibilities 

As temporary contracted workers, travel nurses are hired to fill the role of staff nurses until the hospital or healthcare facility can hire permanent staff. Thus, the responsibilities of a travel nurse are that of a highly skilled registered nurse, to provide quality patient care. You can expect your responsibilities to include:

  • Patient care
    • Patient assessments.
    • Vital sign monitoring. 
    • Medication administration. 
    • Evaluation of patients for changes in condition.
    • Patient education. 
  • Communicate effectively with patients, families, and the healthcare team. 
  • Documentation.
  • Team Collaboration.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Adherence to healthcare facility policy and procedures.

It is important to keep in mind that as a travel nurse, you will be expected to function as an experienced registered nurse, with minimal orientation to each new healthcare facility. Depending on your nursing specialty you will have specific duties to perform within that specialty.

Most Popular Travel Nurse Specialties 2023

  • Intensive Care Unit 
    • Adult ICU
    • Neonatal ICU
    • Pediatric ICU
  • Emergency Room
  • Progressive Care (PCU)
  • Telemetry
  • Medical Surgical 
  • Operating room
  • Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU)
  • Labor and delivery 
  • Cardiac Catheterization Lab
  • Home Health

In no way is this an exhaustive list of travel nurse need, simply the areas that are currently in the highest demand based on the job market. Travel nurse demand will ebb and flow, based on various factors, including seasonality, location, the healthcare facility's need and budget, natural disasters, pandemics, and more. 

This was made abundantly clear throughout the pandemic as COVID-19 shifted, initially there was a clear demand for adult critical care travel nurses, then the market shifted to have a clear demand for pediatric ICU travel nurses. These market shifts were based on the drastic change in the number of patients needing care.

How Long are Travel Nurse Assignments?

Typically, a travel nurse job assignment lasts for 13 weeks, which is considered the industry standard. However, the length of temporary staffing positions for travel nurses can range from 2 to 26 weeks in length. 

While short-term travel nurse contracts ranging from 2 to 8 weeks are available, they are much less common than the 13-week standard. Many travel nurses choose to start with a 13-week contract and will choose to extend the contract another 13 weeks if they feel it is a good fit and the healthcare facility agrees. 

Contract length will become a personal preference. 

Do you want to travel all the time? You will likely find you want short-term contracts. 

Do you prefer job stability? You will probably want to seek long-term contracts. 

Don't forget if you love working at a healthcare facility you can only work in that location for 12 months out of 24 months to continue receiving the tax-free stipends! 

How Much does Travel Nursing Pay? 

It is impossible to put an exact rate on how much travel nurses make because these rates will be dependent upon your nursing specialty, location, as well as industry supply and demand. 

For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, intensive care nurses were being paid as high as $6,000.00 a week for a 36-hour work week. Since then, the intensive care travel nurse contract rates have come down, ranging from as high as $4,000.00 down to pre-covid rates at $1700.00 per week. 

Staff nurses make a set hourly rate whereas travel nurses' pay is a breakdown of multiple components highlighted in a pay package for each assignment.  When evaluating the national average, staff nurse salary is $77,976 per year, whereas travel nursing salary is currently reported at $106,030 per year

I must disclose that in my opinion, these numbers are disproportionate due to the pandemic, and I believe that we will see these numbers level off over the next few years. The basis for my opinion is that:

  • Hospitals stopped receiving funding for COVID in the Spring of 2022, resulting in a noticeable decrease in travel nursing pay package rates.
  • Travel nurses may appear to earn more on paper due to housing and meal stipend pay, but this tax-free income goes towards duplicating your costs of living at a second location.  
  • Watching travel nurse contract rates decrease to pre-covid rates over time. 

But of course, I cannot predict unforeseeable shifts, like COVID-19, that can influence travel nursing pay.  

Maximizing Earnings as a Travel Nurse 

Many tricks of the trade can help you maximize your earnings as a travel nurse. A few tricks that new travel nurses can implement right away include:

  • Negotiate rates. By setting yourself up with multiple travel nurse staffing agencies you can evaluate pay package differences, then choose which company pays the highest or negotiate a higher pay rate with the company you would prefer to work with.
  • Location. Compare the contract rate with the cost of living in the area you plan to travel to. Of course, it sounds great when you see NYC, California, or Hawaii pay rates, but when you start looking at the cost of living you quickly realize that your take-home pay is not higher at all. 
  • Utilize Agency and Nursing Perks. Many companies offer nurses various perks including discounts on rental cars, hotels, cell phone bills, and more. When you work for a travel nurse staffing agency, there is a chance you can receive additional perks – this is a great thing to ask about when you are getting started or choosing a healthcare staffing agency. 
  • Maximize your stipend. Some agencies offer to house travel nurses, so you don't need to find temporary housing yourself, but when you choose that option, you lose your housing stipend. You can keep some of that tax-free, housing stipend, money in your pocket by finding temporary housing that is less than your stipend. 

Pros and Cons of Travel Nursing

When talking with different nurses about travel nursing you can hear love or hate stories, but your view on travel nursing ultimately comes down to personal preferences and lifestyle. 

PROS

  • Power to choose your time off.          
  • Traveling and seeing the country.          
  • Making new friends.                  
  • Ability to make more money.
  • Experience in various healthcare facilities. 

CONS

  • No paid time off (PTO). 
  • Being away from home. 
  • Missing family and friends back home. 
  • Onboarding is required for every contract. 
  • Learning policies and procedures for each facility. 
  • Little to no orientation. 

Want to hear more about travel nursing pros and cons? Check out Travel Nursing is Always an Adventure!

Travel Nursing Tips from an Experienced Traveler

  1. Experience. Do not start travel nursing until you are confident and competent as a registered nurse. At a minimum, two years of experience as a registered nurse is required to start your travel nurse journey. 
  2. Resourcefulness is imperative because you will be required to adapt to new environments regularly. With minimal orientation, it is your responsibility to learn hospital policies and procedures, sometimes on the fly.  
  3. Flexibility. The hard truth is that travel nurses typically get less than favorable patient assignments and are chosen to float before staff. Combine that with the many things that can go awry when traveling and finding housing – I promise it is better to remain flexible and roll with the punches. If you stress over every minor detail, travel nursing may become less than fun for you. 
  4. Confidence and Humility. Travel nurses must maintain a balance of these two qualities. You must be confident in yourself and your abilities as a registered nurse. Still, you must also maintain humility because the potential that you will not know something while traveling is definitive. 
  5. Pay attention to contract details. Make sure to know what you are signing, take 24 to 48 hours to read and re-read the contract, and have someone you trust to read over it as well. There are specific details you should pay attention to -- you can read about them here.  
  6. Budget. With the fluctuating market since the pandemic I have heard of more nurses having contract rate decreases and cancellations than ever before. There is the potential to be canceled before ever starting, it's wise to have a backup plan and budget.  

How do you become a travel nurse?

Before even considering travel nursing you must graduate nursing school, pass the NCLEX-RN, and obtain two years of working experience. 

Once you get nursing experience, you are ready to start seeking your first travel nurse job. Your next steps to land a travel nurse job assignment will be:

  1. Choose your top 3 favorite travel nurse agencies.
  2. Update professional portfolio/resume with top 3 candidates.
  3. Job shop. Find your ideal location & pay rate.
  4. Apply for a travel nurse job.
  5. You're Hired! 
  6. Review every component of the contract. 
  7. Understand the pay breakdown.
  8. Sign a travel nurse contract. You are now officially committed. 
  9. Budget for travel & emergencies. 
  10. Make the trip to your temporary home. 
  11. Find Housing. 
  12. Hire an accountant. 
  13. Plan for Insurance & Retirement.
  14. Evaluate your ability & needs before making the transition. 

Want more details on how to get going? Here's our full guide on how to become a travel nurse. 

Resources 

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2022, September 8). Registered Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook
  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2022, September 8).  Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses: Occupational Outlook Handbook
  3. Zippia (2022, September 9). Traveling Nurse Demographics and Statistics In The US
  4. Nurse Licensure Compact (2023, January 1).  NLC States
  5. National Library of Medicine (2022, February 22).  Nursing Shortage - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf
  6. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2022, October). AACN Fact Sheet - Nursing Shortage
  7. Zip Recruiter (2023, March 8).  What's The Average Registered Nurse Salary in the US?
  8. Zip Recruiter (2023, March 8). What Is the Average Travel Nurse Salary by State in 2023?
(Editorial Team / Admin)

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Specializes in Home Health,Peds.

I had a nurse manager in a magnet hospital in NYC  tell me she won't hire anyone that worked travel nursing within the past three years. Her explanation was that she won't have any information about their work and experiences while being a travel nurse. 
 

My question is, if you wanted to get hired in a facility, who would the HR rep speak with? 

Specializes in Critical Care, Procedural, Care Coordination, LNC.
Googlenurse said:

I had a nurse manager in a magnet hospital in NYC  tell me she won't hire anyone that worked travel nursing within the past three years. Her explanation was that she won't have any information about their work and experiences while being a travel nurse. 
 

My question is, if you wanted to get hired in a facility, who would the HR rep speak with? 

Hi @Googlenurse,

While I have never worked in HR I can't say who exactly the HR representative speaks with. I can say that this has never been an issue for me or any other travel nurse I know.

Like hospitals travel nursing staffing agencies have Human Resource Services — that is who will manage your payroll processing, taxes, disciplinary actions,  benefits management, and more while you work as a travel nurse. When you transition back to staff nursing from a travel nurse position the HR rep at the hospital you are applying will likely speak with an HR representative from your staffing agency or the hospitals you were contracted to work with. Both the HR department at the hospitals you were contracted to work with as well as your staffing agency will have information about your work experience. 

Additionally, you can get references from charge nurses and managers at each travel nurse job you work. Some travel nurse companies even obtain references from each job you work. For example, when I worked with Medical Solutions they had the unit manager fill out a review on me for each facility, I was then able to use these reviews as references for my future jobs.

To summarize, HR representatives at hospitals will have no issues obtaining your work history from healthcare staffing agencies and hospitals you have worked at.