What is a Travel Nurse?

December 12, 2022

As the effects of COVID on our country’s hospital system continue to unravel, the term “travel nurse” has grown in popularity, becoming almost a household term. But what is a travel nurse really?

Travel nurses are simply nurses that fill gaps in staffing needs for hospitals and facilities across the country for specific (often short) periods of time. There are travel nurses for every specialty, and there are even managerial travel nurse positions. The staffing needs may be due to a lack of experienced nurses, an expected leave of absence like maternity leave, or seasonal population fluctuations. This is where travel nurses come in, to help bridge the staffing gap while the hospital fills the open full-time positions.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that more than 275,000 additional nurses will be needed from 2020 to 2030, which indicates the dramatic need for nurses to fill positions. Hospitals have to fill needs quickly, which is when they turn to travel nurses.

How Does Travel Nursing Work?

Hospitals and healthcare facilities work with travel nurse staffing agencies to hire travel nurses to fill their staffing needs. To obtain a travel nurse contract, you’ll need to work with an agency. There are 340 travel nurse staffing agencies in the U.S. — 110 of which are certified through the Joint Commission. While it’s not a requirement for staffing agencies to be certified, Magnet hospitals and large academic teaching hospitals generally only work with travel nursing agencies that are. It’s important to keep that in mind if you’re looking to work at those types of facilities.

There are short-term and long-term travel nursing contracts. Typically, contracts are between 8 and 26 weeks, though the most common contracts last 13 weeks. If there’s a continued need in the hospital for your current position, they may offer to extend your initial contract. Due to the ongoing nursing shortage, more and more facilities are increasingly flexible with contracts.

Ultimately, it’s up to the travel nurse to decide if they want the stability of a long-term contract or a short-term contract in order to travel around the country more. Once a contract is signed, it becomes a legal document, and ending a contract early is rarely allowed. If you’re unsure which contract length is best for you, recruiters often suggest choosing between 10- and 13-week contracts to start. You often have the option of adjusting the duration of your contract for the next assignment or extending your current one if the staffing need is still there.

Hospitals and facilities do have the option of ending a contract early if there is no longer a need for your position. This doesn’t happen often, but if it does, you unfortunately won’t be paid through the end of your contract. Your staffing agency will work to find you another position quickly, but it’s still something to keep in mind when choosing an assignment.

How Do You Become a Travel Nurse?

1. Have Your RN

First, you must be a registered nurse to become a travel nurse — there is no additional training or education required. That said, nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) are more marketable than nurses with only an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). Most Magnet hospitals and large academic teaching hospitals want travel nurses with a BSN.

2. Experience Needed

In general, travel nurses need at least one year of work experience, oftentimes two, in their specialty before accepting their first contract. Travel nurses have a short orientation time on a new unit — typically 1-3 shifts. This orientation time is to learn the unit, experience the patient population, get to know your new coworkers and review the charting system. Time is not spent on learning basic nursing care, and for this reason, nurses must have the required experience.

3. Licensure

Travel nurses must also be licensed in the state where they’re accepting a contract. Most staffing agencies assist with this process, but it could take several weeks in order to obtain a new license, so keep this in mind when choosing your assignments. This is important if you want to travel between multiple states and accept shorter-term contracts.

Pro tip: Consider obtaining an Enhanced Nursing Licensure (eNLC), commonly known to nurses as a Compact License. This is one license that works for 39 states and means you can start assignments immediately making you more desirable for contracts.

4. Choose an Agency

It’s also important to research different travel nurse staffing agencies. Every agency provides different benefits, including health, dental, tuition reimbursement, vacation and sick time, and retirement, in addition to compensation rates. Each agency also has different agreements with hospitals, so it is advantageous for the traveler to talk to multiple agencies to increase their options. Experienced travel nurses suggest keeping a spreadsheet that includes all the benefits offered for each staffing agency as well as assignment lengths, housing and location options, and a number of available travel nursing jobs. This will help you compare multiple travel nurse companies at once. Or you’ll already have some homework done when it comes time to choose your next assignment.

Consider reaching out to other travel nurses to ask about their experiences with various staffing agencies and facilities. An experienced travel nurse can provide you with information that you may not get from a recruiter and can help guide you in what questions to ask.

How Do You Find Travel Nursing Jobs?

With the rise of travel nursing positions, there has also been an increase in accessibility to travel nursing job postings. The easiest and by far most common way to sign a travel contract is through a travel nurse agency, and we partner with several of them here at travelnursing.org. With hundreds of options available, it is important to prioritize what you are seeking most out of a contract because each company can offer a slightly different package.

Finding contracts has never been easier. There are apps and websites that allow you to compare different active posts through different agencies. It’s always important to remember why some companies are offering higher packages than others, and what benefits they may or may not be including.

From personal experience, I would recommend doing your research on which companies seem to fit your desired need, and then reaching out to 3-4 of them to begin the conversations.

One great starting spot is to look at how the companies compare with others, and there is a great chart to get you started here. This way, you have options, but you are not overwhelmed with 40 recruiters trying to get your business. They can answer the most basic questions like “what is a travel nurse?” to “what is the breakdown of a given contract,” and “what travel expenses can be reimbursed?”

Advantages of Travel Nursing

1. Expand your nursing skill set and build your resume

Working as a travel nurse gives you access to hospitals all around the country that you may not have otherwise considered. Taking a contract at a top-rated hospital boosts your resume. This nursing experience may help with graduate school admission as well as earning a staff position at other prominent hospitals. Here are some resume-building facilities to consider:

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Mount Sinai Beth Israel
  • Cleveland Clinic
  • John Hopkins Hospital
  • New York Presbyterian Hospital

2. Earn a higher salary and other benefits

Between the non-taxable stipends, travel reimbursements, and other monetary incentives, travel nurses typically make more money than staff nurses. If they’re in a specialty that’s in high demand or are willing to travel to less popular places, especially at certain times of the year, the potential is even greater.

3. Travel to new and exciting places

New travel nursing assignments are available across the country every day for various specialties. And contracts are short (typically only 13 weeks), so there’s time to explore multiple locations throughout the year. If you have your heart set on a specific location and it isn’t available currently, don’t fret – chances are it will be in the future. A good recruiter can also help you find assignments in your desired destinations.

4. Personal and professional flexibility

Travel nurses have the option of taking time off between contracts to see family or travel. Some experienced travel nurses take 2-3 months before starting their next assignment due to vacation, holidays, or family schedules. It’s not a requirement to work back-to-back contracts. Also, some hospitals let travel nurses pick their own shifts and schedule, but keep in mind that this isn’t always the case. Travel nurses are hired to fill a hospital’s specific needs, and flexibility isn’t always an option.

Cons of Travel Nursing

1. Live far away from close family/friends

One of the hardest parts about traveling is the distance from family. Although it is possible to take contracts that are relatively close to home or travel to locations where family or friends might live, some travel nursing jobs take you far away from any familiar people in your life. If family or close friends are a priority in your life, this would be something to consider.

2. Harder time building roots

Although many travelers find a small community of people everywhere they live, when one is on the road and moving every few months, it is a lot harder to build deeper relationships. You could end multiple contracts with 50 new friends, but very few of them might have the depth of friendship to continue past that particular contract.

3. Loneliness

Many travel nurses take contracts by themselves in brand-new cities and locations. This can be extremely isolating and lonely at times. Those first few weeks of a contract can be full of quality alone time, and time to take some solo adventures. If this sounds daunting, find some other fellow nurses to travel with or rent a room with other nurses to ensure you have more time with others.

4. Minimal control over work schedule

Since travel nurses are essentially filling in the gaps in the schedule, many times there are no options for what shifts you will be working – rather, management simply assigns you shifts and dates. Although you have the option to request days off in your initial contract negotiations, the rest of your schedule is in the hands of your department’s management.

5. Different treatment in the hospital

Just like “nurses eat their young” is slowly becoming an outdated mantra, so is the fact that travelers are given bad assignments on a unit. However, it does still happen from time to time. Even if they aren’t intentionally giving you the harder assignments, oftentimes your abilities or qualities might be overlooked due to the label of being a traveler.

Where Can Travel Nurses Go?

Travel nurse assignments are available across the country. There are assignments in large hospitals, smaller community hospitals, and outpatient centers as well as assignments in large metropolitan cities and smaller rural towns. If you’re unsure of the type of setting or where you want to work, travel nursing gives you the flexibility to try them all.

To help narrow down the options, prospective travel nurses should determine why they want to become a travel nurse. Do you want to meet new people, travel the country, and experience life? Or do you want to earn higher pay to pay off student loans, buy a house, or just increase your bank account? Understanding the why will help you determine a location and assignment that fits your needs.

For example, Hawaii currently ranks as the lowest in affordability with the highest cost of living and the least affordable housing in the country. It’s also one of the most desirable states for travel nurses, because of the beaches, outdoor activities, and endless sun. It’s great for adventure, but you likely won’t leave the islands with a larger bank account.

California, New York, Alaska and Massachusetts are also among the least affordable in the country but are popular travel nurse destinations. California and New York generally pay the highest hourly rate for travel nurses, but when the cost of living for housing, food, and other living expenses are factored in, the take-home pay may not stretch as far as it would in a more affordable location.

A 2022 U.S. News & World Report recently looked at the top ten most affordable states in the country (listed in order):

  1. Mississippi
  2. Oklahoma
  3. Kansas
  4. Alabama
  5. Georgia
  6. West Virginia
  7. Missouri
  8. Indiana
  9. Iowa
  10. Tennessee

A Note on Travel Nurse Housing

Travel nurses have two housing options during an assignment:

  1. Agency-placed housing – Generally, staffing agencies will rent one-bedroom apartments for their travel nurses in close proximity to the hospital.
  2. Housing stipend – A non-taxable monthly payment based on the average cost of living. With this option, it’s up to the travel nurse to find appropriate housing. Most experienced travel nurses choose this option for a number of reasons. It allows travel nurses to live with a roommate and save money, find an apartment in a different area of the city, find pet-friendly housing, or rent a larger place. If the cost of housing is over the stipend amount, then it’s the travel nurse’s responsibility to cover the rest. But if the cost of housing is less than the stipend the nurse banks the extra money.

So, what is a travel nurse to do for housing? For a more in-depth look at the breakdown of housing for travel nurses, check out our travel nurse housing guide.

Is Travel Nursing Worth It?

Travel nursing is an amazing opportunity for nurses looking to experience the country, advance their careers, and earn a competitive salary. There are positions available every day throughout the country in many different specialties. Travel nursing may be overwhelming at first, but with the support of a great recruiter and staffing agency, you’ll find a contract that fits both your needs and the hospital’s.

If you aren’t committed to a given city or region, you have the flexibility for a season to be away from family, and there are no large health limitations, I cannot recommend traveling enough.

  • It gives you a broader perspective on medicine.
  • You get to work alongside different cultures.
  • It strengthens and pushes your boundaries in different challenging situations.
  • It can bring some of the most incredible humans into your life.

Travel nursing can definitely come with challenges, but the rewards are far greater. Hopefully, the next time you sit down at Thanksgiving dinner and Uncle Bob asks you “what is a travel nurse?” you can add some personal insight and a few stories.

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