Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC
October 8, 2020 - 7 min read

Travel Nursing Tips from Kylee Nelson of Passports and Preemies

Kylee Nelson is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) travel nurse, avid explorer, who “aims to prevent nurse burnout by traveling.” She has traveled the world in search of adventure but also to recharge before the next nursing assignment. As COVID-19 has halted all international travel, Kylee has begun exploring parts of the United States and documenting her journeys on her Instagram, @passportsandpreemies.

Kylee’s website Passports and Preemies documents her adventures while navigating the complex world of travel nursing.

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Kathleen Gaines (KG): Can you give us some background on your Nursing Education? Where did you receive your degree? How long have you been a nurse?

Kylee Nelson (KN): I attended college at Clemson University where I studied biology. At the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a nurse and thought that I would go to PA (physician assistant) school. Once I became a senior, I still wasn’t sold on PA school so I started applying to nursing programs. After graduating from Clemson with a degree in Biological Sciences, I ended up attending Emory University in Atlanta where I joined the accelerated nursing program earning my BSN.

KG: Why Travel Nursing? What aspects of travel nursing appealed to you?

KN: When I first started out as a nurse, I would immediately look up to the other nurses on my floor who had been there 30+ years and know that in my heart that wouldn’t be me. As a new grad on the unit, I was already experiencing burn out from lack of leadership and understaffed shifts. I realized that by being a travel nurse I could create the life I wanted to live by having large gaps in employment, allowing me to travel, see the world, and come back to the bedside refreshed and ready to work again.

The other thing that appealed to me was the unknown. As a thorough, type A nurse, I wanted to be more challenged in this area. The thought of showing up to a new unit, not knowing anyone thrilled me. To this day the ability to take as much time off work as I want and the thrill of the unknown is still what draws me to travel nursing!

KG: Have you ever had trouble finding a position in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)?

KN: As a new grad, I had a lot of trouble finding work in the NICU. I knew that that was the only unit I wanted to work on and was open to living anywhere. I applied to hundreds of jobs all across the United States but it seemed that nobody was hiring new grads at the time. Luckily I happened to meet a faculty member at Emory who used to work in a NICU in Overland Park, Kansas. She passed my information along; I was interviewed, and landed the job! As a new grad who wants to work in the NICU, I would say never give up on applying and be open to working anywhere!

Now that I am a travel nurse working in the NICU I haven’t had much trouble until COVID. While I wasn’t always getting the exact assignment I wanted, I never had trouble finding work. Currently, I’ve been unemployed for 10-weeks, and just recently landed my next job in San Francisco.

KG: Did you work during the COVID-19 pandemic?

KN: I did work during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was working in the NICU in Seattle, however, my contract (along with all other travelers) got cut short; we were all terminated at the same time. I originally had planned to take 6-weeks off of work for the summer but have now been unemployed for 10-weeks due to the lack of NICU jobs.

KG: Have the opportunities for travel nursing changed since COVID-19?

KN: Travel nurses saw a drastic decline in jobs once COVID hit. Aside from “critical contracts” in hot states, it seemed that all other units across the states saw a decline in the need. Now that it’s been a few months since COVID has hit, jobs are slowly beginning to open again, however not at the pay rate that they once were. I would attribute this to hospitals blowing their budgets on COVID contracts and on OR closures during COVID.

As a travel nurse, it’s imperative to understand how your pay package works and to work with a company that you trust. I also believe that transparency in this industry is so important. When I first became a travel nurse I was making $200/week less than every other travel nurse on the floor. And that was without taking out any benefits. I learned that by talking with one another about what our pay packages are, we hold the power to change the industry.

Most recently I’ve been upset by the pay offered by hospitals since COVID-19 struck. In places such as San Francisco, nurses can make upwards of $2,500. I recently saw a contract come through where a hospital was offering such a low bill rate that the take-home pay would have only been $1,700. That saddened me because I know better, but a new travel nurse probably wouldn’t. That is why it’s so important to know the industry standard! I recommend keeping all pay packages sent your way (even if they aren’t relevant) so that you can reference them at any time. I currently have 30+ pay packages sitting in a folder in my email that recruiters have sent me over the past 3 years. It’s also important to know your worth. If you choose to take that contract for $1,700 you’re telling that hospital that it is okay to reduce travel nurse pay and we all suffer. If they can’t fill the position, they will be forced to offer more money.

Talk to a recruiter today about available travel nursing assignments.

KG: Why is it important for travel nurses to fight for better pay that was available pre-COVID?

KN: If we don’t start standing up for ourselves and demanding better pay (pre-COVID pay), this industry may never recover. One of the main reasons a lot of nurses become travel nurses is because it is lucrative. By accepting low paying contracts, we’re telling the hospital, “Okay, I am worth less now than I was last year even though my skills and experience has only improved.”

KG: Are you worried that the money for travel nurses isn’t ever going to be as good due to the money spent during COVID or the money that was lost due to lack of patients?

KN: I think that with everything in life things ebb and flow. For that reason, I’m not too worried about it. For the next year or so I do expect contracts to be lower than usual. But eventually, I believe this industry will pick up again and the money will come back with it.

KG: Do you think that crisis contracts have hurt the future of the travel nursing industry?

KN: I do think that in light of what has been happening this year, crisis contracts given out have hurt the industry. But I also think it was necessary. In this instance, I don’t know how many nurses would’ve run straight into the fire without proper compensation. I think that there are scenarios (such as strikes and emergencies) where it is absolutely necessary to pay more than usual. So while it does hurt the future of this industry overall, I don’t think that it is permanently damaged.

KG: How many countries have you traveled to? And which is your favorite?

KN: I’ve been to 34 different countries! My favorite European destination is definitely Slovenia. You hardly ever hear anyone say, “I’m planning to visit Slovenia”, and truthfully I don’t know why not! The country is incredibly beautiful, not over-crowded, and affordable! If you haven’t heard of Slovenia, Google, “Lake Bled” to see what I mean.

In Asia, my favorite destination was Myanmar. It was a country that I hadn’t heard much about and didn’t know what to expect. It really got me out of my comfort zone and showed me what felt like an entirely different world.

KG: How can travel nurses recharge after physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging contracts?

KN: My favorite way to recharge after a challenging contract is by traveling. By getting away from the bedside and experiencing new things and meeting new people I feel the best. That way when I come back to the bedside I’m relaxed and am in the mental space to give it my all.

However, I realize that what works for me doesn’t work for everyone. I always recommend exploring what makes you happiest. Is it reading? Cooking? Time with friends? Figure out what you love and do that thing.

KG: What advice do you have for future travel nurses?

KN: My biggest advice for future travel nurses would be to go into travel nursing with an open mind. In this industry, contracts can fall through and things can go wrong, but if you have a positive attitude about it, you can learn to roll with the punches. Oh, and don’t burn any bridges! You’ll learn that this industry is actually quite small.

KG: How can nursing students prepare to become a travel nurse before even passing the NCLEX?

KN: If you’re in nursing school with the aspiration to become a travel nurse I would recommend figuring out what you like to do as soon as possible so that you don’t waste time figuring it out once you’re a new grad. I say this because you typically need 2-years of experience before becoming a travel nurse. If you start working in the NICU and don’t like it, and then you switch to L&D, that doesn’t count as two years of experience. You have to work for two years on one unit in order to begin travel nursing. I would also start reading as many articles as you can get your hands on to best prepare yourself for when it’s time to become a travel nurse!,/p>

KG: What’s next for you?

KN: Next, I am headed to San Francisco for my 11th contract! It’s a destination I’ve been trying to get to since I became a travel nurse three years ago. Once my contract ends in November I hope to take the holidays off and then (hopefully) do some traveling through Southeast Asia to avoid winter.

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