How Does Travel Nursing Work? | Salary and FAQ
Travel nursing is a great way to advance your career and earn great pay while traveling the country. Plus, travel nursing can provide advantages to nurses who value flexibility in their careers and don’t want to be locked into one facility or specialty. Travel nursing can also help nurses who are looking for variety in the nursing profession to learn new skills and gain valuable experience.
And while providing excellent patient care is one part of the job that won’t change, there are some differences between being a travel nurse versus a staff nurse that you should be aware of before you make the switch.
Below you’ll learn the travel nurse basics as we answer 15 of the most frequently asked questions about travel nursing.
Table of Contents
- How Does Travel Nursing Work?
- Who Can Become a Travel Nurse?
- What is The Salary Like as a Travel Nurse?
- How Long are Travel Nursing Assignments?
- Where Can Travel Nurses Go?
- Can I Take a Travel Assignment Close to My Home?
- Am I Eligible for Benefits Like Health Insurance and Vacation?
- Does the Staffing Agency Pay For My Living Expenses?
- Can I Travel With My Family and/or Pets?
- Can I Travel With Another Travel Nurse?
- Will I Get the Worst Assignments?
- If An Assignment is Cut Short Due to Low Census, Do I Get Full Pay?
- Is Travel Nursing Good for Career Advancement?
- How Long Will There Be Demand for Travel Nurses?
- How Do I Become a Travel Nurse?
1. How Does Travel Nursing Work?
Travel nurses are hired to bridge staffing shortages, which may be caused by a variety of factors:
- A lack of qualified nurses in the area
- Seasonal patient population increases
- Natural disasters or pandemics
- Staff nurses taking expected leaves of absence like maternity leave or vacations
To find skilled nurses to fill these often short-term assignments, these facilities work with recruitment agencies.
Most travel nursing assignments are around 13-14 weeks long, so as the travel nurse, you sign a contract with a travel nursing agency to work that length of time at a designated facility. While 13-14 weeks is an average length of time, there may be other assignments that are shorter or longer.
Every facility will have different policies, but most will also have clearly explained policies about what will happen if you feel unsafe, are unable to complete your assignment, or if the hospital decides to cancel your contract before the length of time is up.
Your travel nurse recruitment agency will work with you to place you at a facility and help you arrange things like housing, meals, and other practical things you might need during your stay, like internet or utilities.
You also have the option to receive retirement benefits and insurance for the duration of your assignment, although those benefits usually end when your assignment does, so some travel nurses opt to pay out-of-pocket for the benefits they need so they last between assignments.
There are travel nurse assignments available in nearly every specialty, from ICU to labor and delivery to advanced nurse practitioner positions like CRNAs and NPs. In general, the more specialty experience you have, the higher pay you may earn as a travel nurse. If you have specialty training or would like to gain it, be sure to talk to your nurse recruiter.
2. Who Can Become a Travel Nurse?
Travel nurses are Registered Nurses with typically 12-18 months of hospital-based RN experience in their field. Depending on the specialty or the specific requirements of the facility, the required work experience may be longer. Travel nursing assignments are available for multiple specialties, but some specialties like ICU and oncology are more in demand. Nurses with advanced certification, such as NPs, CNMs, and CRNAs can also take travel positions.
3. What is The Salary Like as a Travel Nurse?
However, you may want to keep in mind that the 2021 average for travel nurses may be a bit higher than you should expect to make in 2022-2023, because that rate takes into account some higher-than-normal travel nurse wages that occurred during the pandemic. While high-rate travel nursing positions are still available, they are not as high as they were reaching at the peak of the pandemic.
Total travel nurse compensation depends on multiple factors such as your specialty, the contract details, and the location of the hospital. In general, travel nurses are often paid well, because they’re filling a high demand for nurses.
In addition to your hourly rate, you’ll often be eligible for these perks:
- Medical and dental benefits
- Stipends for housing
- Travel expenses
Keep in mind, that when working as a travel nurse, you’re employed by the travel nursing agency and not the facility. It’s also important to remember that travel nurses are paid (and taxed) differently than staff nurses. Travel nurses are paid through agencies, not the hospital, you have to look at your total pay, which includes your hourly base pay + your non-taxable stipends, which is what things like housing and meals are considered.
Your hourly base pay may look lower than you expect, but when you factor the stipends in, you can get a more accurate picture of what your total pay looks like. You’ll also need to be sure you have a “tax home” to avoid paying taxes on the stipends as well.
4. How Long are Travel Nursing Assignments?
The standard travel nursing assignment lasts 13 weeks, but anything between 8 and 26 weeks is common. Hospitals will often offer to renew your contract, too, if you agree — called extension assignments.
Extension offers usually occur during the last 3 to 5 weeks of your assignment, but if you’re interested in staying on longer, you should talk to your recruiter. You don’t have to wait to be approached by the facility.
Standard travel nurse hours are five 8s, four 10s, or three 12s, though this will vary by facility. Your shift and hours should be written in your contract.
The beauty of being a travel nurse is that you can work as long or as little as you would like — you can choose to extend an assignment, take on a new one as soon as one contract ends, or take an extended break between assignments.
5. Where Can Travel Nurses Go?
Travel nursing jobs are available across the country, but available assignment locations will depend on current staffing needs. While vacation destinations like Hawaii or California might be the dream for many travel nurses starting out, they’re also high in demand and as such, may not come with as high of pay.
On the flip side, choosing less in-demand areas may garner you higher pay and help you build your resume and experience. You can also sign up to be on a list for crisis travel nursing positions so that when something pops up last minute, like a hurricane in Puerto Rico, you can take a crisis pay travel nurse position.
Ultimately, you decide where you want to go — chances are if your dream location isn’t available now, it will be in the future.
Read more: Best Cities for Travel Nurses
It’s also very important to remember that in order to legally work as a travel nurse, you’ll need an RN license for that state. Some states are part of the Compact State licensure, which means that if you have a compact state license and want to work in any of the states under that license, you’re covered. Otherwise, you’ll have to apply for each individual state you want to work in. Ask your recruiter about Compact State licenses, which allow you to work in many states with one license.
6. Can I Take a Travel Assignment Close to My Home?
A common myth is your assignment must be at least 50 miles away from your permanent residence — often called the “50-mile rule.”
The truth is, you can work a contract assignment at a hospital close to your home if you choose. In fact, some nurses even choose to quit their staff positions and take on travel nursing roles at the hospitals they work at. (Keep in mind that your hospital may frown upon that or even ban nurses from doing that, so be sure to tread carefully if that’s your plan). Additionally, if you do choose a location close to home, you can’t collect the non-taxed housing stipend, which can reduce your overall pay.
To collect the housing stipend, you must be duplicating expenses — rent or own a home in your home area AND rent a place in the area you’re working. Basically, you can’t work a contract and go home to your main residence at the end of your shift and receive a non-taxed stipend.
7. Am I Eligible for Benefits Like Health Insurance and Vacation?
Most travel agencies offer medical and dental benefits as well as other benefits like a 401K that you can collect directly through the agency— some even offer matching 401K plans!
To maintain health insurance, though, you cannot take off more than 30 days. If your plan is to take extended time off between assignments, it would be better to get your own health insurance. You can purchase your own benefits through Marketplace.gov or go through an insurance agency that offers health insurance. You can also open your retirement accounts and contribute directly to them as you please.
Also, most travel nurse companies do not offer paid time off (PTO) or short-term disability. You’ll need to get your own insurance policy if you’re concerned with the possibility of getting hurt and not being able to work.
Bottom line: In the world of travel nursing, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. But some nurses still find that thanks to the high wages travel nursing offers, that they can actually earn more money by working fewer hours and still reap all the benefits of a staff position.
8. Does the Staffing Agency Pay For My Living Expenses?
There are two housing options available to travel nurses:
- Agency-placed housing
- Taking a housing stipend
If you choose agency-placed housing, the agency arranges your living situation, but it isn’t free. The housing fees come out of the bill rate and ultimately reduces your take-home pay. Housing is deducted from the travel nurse’s “cut” of the bill rate. Agencies will coordinate and set up housing, which is helpful if you’re new to travel nursing.
However, if you want to bring home the most money, we recommend taking the stipend and finding your own housing. In that scenario, you can still collect the housing stipend, but you have the freedom to choose your own living quarters, so if you find a place that’s lower than the stipend allows, you get to keep the difference. Many travel nurses choose to do this to keep their housing costs low and take home more pay.
When you get housing through an agency, it’s also important to know that things like a television, washer and dryer, or a vacuum are often not included, but you have the option of renting these items from the company that furnished the apartment. Let your recruiter know what you’ll need, so they can help arrange the rentals.
If you opt for the housing stipend, you’ll be responsible for finding your own housing as well as all of the living expenses.
9. Can I Travel With My Family and/or Pets?
Yes! You can travel on assignment with your family and/or pets — though finding housing may become a bit trickier. Most travel nurse companies provide a one-bedroom apartment (some just a studio or an extended-stay hotel), which probably isn’t doable if you’re bringing your children. To get housing with additional bedrooms and space, you may be required to pay for part of your housing (if using agency-placed housing). Or, you’ll have to find your own housing (using the housing stipend).
Let your recruiter know if you’d like to travel with your pet, so they can find pet-friendly housing. Keep in mind, that some housing has breed or weight restrictions, which can limit your options. You’ll also likely have to pay an additional security deposit.
10. Can I Travel With Another Travel Nurse?
Yes! It’s not uncommon for RNs to select travel nursing assignments together. You can even request to work in the same hospital or city and to share an apartment or apartment complex. Traveling with another nurse gives you someone to explore with and often saves on housing costs. It’s also possible to do travel nursing as a couple — learn how one couple does it and their advice for other nurse couples.
11. Will I Get the Worst Assignments?
Some travel nurses have reported that many facilities tend to give travel nurses the “easier” patients and leave the sickest to the staff nurses, especially for acute patients. Why? It takes time for a charge nurse to get to know you and learn what you can handle.
However, this may not be the case for you, especially if you are taking on a specialty assignment, like working in a COVID or ICU unit. Additionally, in critical staffing positions, there may not be an option to delegate “easier” patients, as every patient may be critically ill.
As a travel nurse, however, you’ll usually be the first to float. If you dislike that, then you may not enjoy being a travel nurse.
Read more: Are Travel Nurses Treated Unfairly?
12. If An Assignment is Cut Short Due to Low Census, Do I Get Full Pay?
No — typically you will not be paid if your assignment is cut short due to low patient counts. However, your recruiter will attempt to find you a replacement assignment quickly. Also, the number of shifts allowed to be canceled is written in your contract. Some contracts may also have policies about what will happen if the entire assignment is canceled. As a side note, you may also want to confirm that you can get out of your housing contract should your contract be canceled.
13. Is Travel Nursing Good for Career Advancement?
Traveling as a nurse increases your skill level and makes you a more eligible candidate for future nursing jobs. Why?
- It exposes you to different regional nursing procedures and patient populations
- You may have the opportunity to work in a wider variety of specialties
- You have experience learning a new clinical environment quickly
- Some agencies may also help you get more specialty training or certifications—if you’re interested in this, be sure to talk to your recruiter about what your agency might offer for continuing education!
14. How Long Will There Be Demand for Travel Nurses?
While the pressing need for travel nurses through the pandemic may have slowed, there will always be a demand for travel nurses. Not only do nursing shortages nationwide continue to be a problem, but the rate of new nurses replacing nurses leaving and retiring from the workforce is not an adequate number. Additionally, there will always be things like natural disasters and emergencies that crop up, which will require an influx of travel nurses who can work on short notice.
Nurses comprise the largest section of the healthcare profession, and continuing shortages are still a real problem. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that over 1.2 million nurses are required to meet the current need and that employment opportunities for nurses are growing at a 15% rate through 2026 when compared to all other occupations (an average of 6% growth).
15. How Do I Become a Travel Nurse?
We’ve compiled a complete step-by-step guide on how to become a travel nurse. You can also fill out this short form to get connected with up to four travel nursing agencies. We work with the top staffing companies whose recruiters work hard to connect you with the best opportunities available.