What is a Travel Nurse?
Travel nurses fill gaps in staffing needs for hospitals and facilities across the country for specific periods of time. These staffing needs may be due to lack of experienced nurses, an expected leave of absence like maternity leave, or seasonal population fluctuations.
Also according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics there will be a shortage of approximately 1.1 million nurses by 2020. As a result, hospitals must fill needs quickly — this is where travel nurses come in!
How does travel nursing work?
Hospitals and 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 that are certified through the Joint Commission. While it’s not a requirement for a staffing agency to be certified, Magnet hospitals and large academic teaching hospitals generally only work with 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 with 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. You always have the option of adjusting the duration of your contract for the next assignment.
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 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?
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’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). Most Magnet hospitals and large academic teaching hospitals want travel nurses with a BSN.
In general, you’ll need at least two years of experience in your specialty before accepting your first contract. Travel nurses have a short orientation time on a new unit — typically 2-3 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. For this reason, nurses must have the required experience.
Travel nurses must also be licensed in the state where they’re accepting a contract. Most staffing agencies assist with this process, but it may take several weeks in order to obtain a new license. 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). This is one license that works for 28 states (4 additional states are pending legislation) and means you can start assignments immediately making you more desirable for contracts.
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. 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 number of available travel nursing jobs. This helps compare multiple travel nurse companies at once.
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.
Advantages of travel nursing
- 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 may help with graduate school admission as well as earning a staff position at other prominent hospitals. Resume-building facilities to consider: Mayo Clinic, Mount Sinai Beth Israel, Cleveland Clinic, John Hopkins Hospital, and New York Presbyterian Hospital.
- Earn a higher salary and other benefits. Between the non-taxable stipends and other monetary incentives offered, 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 certain times of the year, the potential is even more.
- 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 destination.
- 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 another assignment. It’s not a requirement to work back-to-back contracts. Also, some hospitals let travel nurses pick their own shift and schedule, but keep in mind that this isn’t always the case. Travel nurses are hired to fill a hospital’s specific need and flexibility isn’t always an option.
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 the highest amount possible to pay off student loans and increase your bank account? Understanding the why will help you determine a location and assignment that fits.
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. Great for adventure, but you’ll not likely leave the islands with a larger bank account.
Other states recognized as the least affordable in the country include California, New York, Alaska, and Massachusetts, which are also 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 2019 U.S. News & World Report recently looked at the top ten most affordable states in the country (listed in order):
- West Virginia
A note on travel nurse housing
Travel nurses have two housing options during an assignment. The first is agency-placed housing. Generally, staffing agencies rent one-bedroom apartments for their travel nurses in close proximity to the hospital.
The second option is a housing stipend, which is 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.
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 hospitals.