How to Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse
As a travel nurse, you can expect to make more money than a typical staff nurse in general. This is thanks to the fact that you’ll be filling in-need positions and working with an agency who negotiates a compensation package on your behalf. If you’re new to the field, it’s important that you know some of the behind-the-scenes factors that can influence your pay — here’s how to maximize your income to make the most money as a travel nurse.
The difference between travel nurse and staff nurse pay
Travel nurse pay is different than staff nurse pay because travel nurses are paid with an overall compensation package that includes a base wage and non-taxable stipends, for things like housing, bonuses, and living expenses. Because this money isn’t taxed, travel nurses can earn more overall. A staff nurse’s salary by comparison earns a base salary that is taxed.
Travel nurses are contracted through agencies to work at healthcare facilities that have a specific need. The higher the need or demand, the more pay travel nurses can expect to earn. Travel nurses also can earn extra compensation like referrals and sign-on bonuses. Some even pocket some of the stipends (like they find cheaper housing than the housing stipend amount). All of these can make travel nurses overall compensation higher than staff nurses.
While there are some major differences in the pay for travel and staff nurses, there are some parts of their pay packages that stay the same. Travel nurses, for instance can still receive benefits like health, vision, dental, and vision as well as 401(k) or other retirement options, and even life insurance.
Top factors that influence travel nurse pay
Although you can expect to make more money as a travel nurse, not all travel nursing positions are paid the same. Pay among travel nursing positions can vary widely, depending on things like what shift you work, or even where you work. Some of the main factors that will influence how much you can make as a travel nurse include:
Working in a location that is in greater need of nurses to staff facilities could equal a higher pay for you as a travel nurse. For example, if you’re willing to work in a cold climate during the winter (like Alaska in December) or an area that has a significant nursing shortage (like California and Texas).
Read more: Highest Paying States for RNs in 2019
Cost of living
Choosing a travel nurse location where the need is high, but the cost of living is low could mean more dollars in your pocket. In particular, if you take the housing stipend, but are able to find cheaper housing, especially in a lower cost area, you keep the extra funds non-taxed. You could also save on other cost of living expenses like food and utilities.
Anytime you are able to specialize as a nurse, you have the ability to command a higher pay or negotiate more, since you have a unique skill that hospitals need. You can acquire additional certification in a high-demand area, such as women’s health, emergency room, critical care, and OR. Or, speak with your agency for their current list of in-demand specialties. Some agencies may even be willing to offer tuition assistance or reimbursement for you to advance your skills in a clinical speciality.
Read more: Most In-demand Travel Nursing Specialties
There’s no way around this one — if you’re willing to work the night shifts, holiday shifts, swing shifts, on-call shifts, and any other shift that isn’t straight daytime hours, you can make more money.
Other factors that influence travel nurse pay
You can maximize the amount of money you make as a travel nurse by also taking advantage of unique circumstances and opportunities, such as:
Rapid response assignments
Are you willing to come in and work on a moment’s notice? Able to set aside time to be on call and work on a flexible basis? If yes, then, you’re extremely valuable as a travel nurse, as agency needs may fluctuate and change on a sometimes daily basis. Nurses who can work rapid response assignments usually can earn more money, so if that’s up your alley, snatch those assignments up — and be sure to let your recruiter know that you’re open for more.
Strikes probably aren’t an ideal situation, but for a travel nurse looking to boost their income, a facility on strike = a facility in need = higher wages. If you feel guilty for working in the middle of the strike, consider that patients still need quality care during a strike. Most nurses who are striking will likely be grateful someone is taking over for their patients while they focus on getting a better contract.
Read more: Crossing the Picket Line as a Travel Nurse
Don’t overlook the power of bonuses, because they can really add up quickly. Before you accept any work, check with the agency if any sign-on bonuses are available. And, if you’ve been with one agency for a while, or take on a long-term position, you may be eligible for a retention bonus.
You could also work with multiple agencies to collect new sign-on bonuses for short-term contract positions. Oh, and don’t forget to refer your friends and family or Facebook friends to earn those referral bonuses as well. If every person you went to high school with can ask you to buy their new skincare or lip gloss, you can definitely post a referral link too.
10 Tips to Make the Most as a Travel Nurse
You can follow all of the “rules” for your income, but if you’d like to make the most money you can as a travel nurse, here are some additional tips:
- Volunteer for new experiences. Especially in the beginning of your career, it can be helpful to be open to new situations and experiences. Does your agency need someone willing to learn to rotate in OR? Need a nurse to jump into a float position? Make yourself your agency’s go-to nurse and before you know it, they might be calling on you for the higher-paying jobs, because you’ve proven that you’re willing to jump in.
- Look for transition jobs. Many times, if a facility is instituting a new electronic medical record system, or similar software hospital-wide, they’ll need travel nurses to staff the floor while the regular staff gets trained. Look for these positions to gain the experience so you can have a proven track record of succeeding in transition roles.
- Shop around. Look, in the end, a nurse staffing agency works for you, not the other way around, so don’t be afraid to shop around. Ask established travel nurses for recommendations and get “quotes” from several agencies — then use the offers you get to negotiate the position you want.
- Always take the housing stipend. Your travel agency may try to talk you into reimbursing for your housing, but if you can, push to take the housing stipend instead. Your stipend will be non-taxable and leaves you open to getting housing that costs less than the stipend, so you can pocket the rest.
- Maintain your tax home. You aren’t eligible for those non-taxable stipends that make travel nursing so lucrative unless you keep your tax home, so make sure you’re following all the rules — and if you’re in doubt, consult a tax expert.
- Get licensed in multiple states. The more areas you are licensed to work in, the more opportunity you have to take higher-paying positions. Check what states your license covers — many states accept the nurse compact license and if they don’t, you can apply for licensure to make sure you are covered.
- Just ask. Want more shifts? Have some free time in your schedule around the holidays? Realize you’re a night owl who could could easily work night shift forever? Think you deserve a bonus for taking that shift no one else would? Let your recruiter know! Staying in touch with your recruiter and be willing to be a team player can go a long way — as can simply asking for what you want.
- Set a specific goal. Just making “more” money as a travel nurse might sound ideal, but studies have shown that the more specific your goal is, the more likely you are to take real steps to achieve it. So set a very specific goal, such as paying down $10K in debt, or saving enough to take a month off to travel.
- Be strict about your budget. With travel nursing especially, it can be easy to fall out of a routine — it’s like when you’re on vacation and you eat food you wouldn’t normally or buy things you wouldn’t either because you’re out of normal routine. But don’t use an unfamiliar location or short-term assignment as an excuse to spend money needlessly; set a strict budget and stick to it, even when you’re out of your comfort zone so you aren’t spending your hard-earned money on things like overpriced snacks and meals out.
- Work with a financial professional. The easiest way to make more money as a nurse? Manage the money you’re already making well. As soon as possible, set up a meeting with an accountant who specializes in travel nursing so you can follow all the right financial steps, from filing taxes to knowing your exemptions, to maximize your income.