By Brittany Hamstra BSN, RN
The opportunity to be a travel nurse is one of the single best aspects of our profession. I cannot think of any other job which allows you to basically have a trial period of living in a new place of your choice, honing valuable career skills, and earning maximum wages for it. Travel nursing is an incredibly enriching experience both personally and professionally.
The decision to try travel nursing is not easy. It’s very common to find ourselves comfortable — comfortable in our current role, comfortable in our environment, comfortable with predictable shifts, comfortable with coworkers who feel like a small family. However, to truly grow as a nurse and as a human, it’s important to challenge ourselves. To experience the unknown is uncomfortable, but it makes all the difference. That is exactly what travel nursing is — exposure to new environments, new coworkers, new clinical skills — and it will enable you to reach the next level of your potential.
My own journey as a travel nurse has been a rollercoaster. I’ve experienced the fast-paced city life of Chicago, enjoying runs along Lake Michigan during the beautiful summer months and walking to work through harsh winter winds wondering why I chose to live in such a place. I’ve experienced the lush green California forests with coastlines of mountain cliffs meeting the Pacific Ocean during vibrant sunsets.
I’ve experienced working for the nation’s top hospitals with some of the most brilliant minds in the country, learning how to utilize breakthrough research and treatments to help my patients. I’ve worked with an entire spectrum of diverse patient populations. I’ve been thrown into countless situations where I felt lost — unable to locate supplies, unable to manage challenging patient ratios, unable to remember hospital-specific policies — but those were always learning moments.
I’ve also worked with amazing travel nurse companies and companies who didn’t treat me with the respect I deserve. It’s a lifestyle that you can’t imagine until you try it — and I dare you to try it!
There’s another HUGE benefit to travel nursing that we cannot ignore — salary. Travel nursing pay can vary greatly based on a number of variables, so I will try to break down the basics of getting a lucrative contract.
Staffing Company. Choosing a travel nursing company can be difficult because there are so many out there — some are sister companies, some claim to have exclusive contracts with hospitals, etc. The best advice I can give is to shop around and do some research. Pay packages are higher than staff nurses are used to, so first-time travel nurses often settle for mediocre contracts.
When a position opens at a hospital or facility, that organization offers a set bill rate for the position. Travel nursing companies recruit and manage travel nursing contracts, so they earn money by taking a percentage of what the organization is willing to pay. (The average is 15-30%, but sometimes higher.) This is why transparency is best when negotiating a contract. It’s also completely professional and acceptable to tell recruiters that you’re comparing pay and benefits between companies.
Pro tip: Everything is negotiable in your contract — hourly pay, overtime wages, non-taxable housing stipend amount, travel and licensing reimbursement, and even extension bonuses.
Specialty. Pay packages tend to be higher for in-demand specialties like Labor & Delivery, OR, Oncology, and ICU. If you are a nurse with specialized experience, be sure to note that on your resume. Also, earn any certifications that quantify your experience like CCRN or ONS.
Location. Where you take a travel contract heavily determines what kind of pay package to expect. In general, big cities offer higher wages, and states like New York and California. Alternatively, rural hospitals in need of staff may also offer very competitive salaries.
Timing. The best times to earn money as a travel nurse are during the holiday months, during cold seasons in northern areas, and during acute staffing shortages like strikes. Most contracts are 13 weeks in length, but there are contracts much shorter or longer depending on the needs of the facility. If you connect with multiple travel companies, you’ll be contacted frequently during times of need, which guarantees higher earnings.
So, you’re somewhat convinced. Earning some great money seems nice, trying a new experience sounds like fun, now how do you choose where to go?
To work a nursing contract in any location, you need an active licensure from that corresponding state. A large majority of states in the US are covered under the Compact RN license. If you want to work in a state outside of your license network, you’ll have to apply for a new license. Many travel nurse companies can help you with the process, and many will even pay for your new license.
The process is fairly straightforward. Most require a background check, proof of an active RN license, and a fee made payable to the state nursing board. There are even states that allow faster processing for “temporary” licenses, so you can take an assignment on short notice. Before you have your heart set on a location, know that processing times vary. California, for example, is notoriously long for processing, about 4 months. Once you have narrowed your choices to a few states and your licenses are in process, look for travel assignments often — new travel nurse assignments pop up every day. Alternatively, recruiters ask for your top picks for location and contract and match you as jobs arise.
If you’re not sure where you want to travel, make a list of places in the country you’ve always wanted to explore, are near family and friends, or have top hospitals that you’d love to work at. Travel nursing can take you anywhere you like. Travel nurse companies usually reimburse for travel expenses (like flights and gas) to get to your new location too. If it seems like too much to uproot or the thought of embarking on your own overwhelming, know that many travel nurses adventure with their friends, their partners, their pets, and even children!
Phenomenal pay, check. Once in a lifetime experiences, check. But, what about the job itself?
No matter how many years of experience you have as a nurse, there’s always a chance to grow and learn while traveling. Being in a new environment requires you to adapt and be flexible. You’ll need to know your resources because with each new contract there are new policies, new people, and new technology.
You’ll learn new evidence-based practices and how to marry that with your wealth of knowledge. You’ll become incredibly well-versed at performing clinical skills with ever-changing technologies and products. You’ll master all EMR charting systems, which makes you incredibly desirable for future jobs. You’ll see new diagnoses, treat diverse patient populations, and manage challenging workflows. You’ll learn to communicate and cooperate with a plethora of new coworkers. The experience of working as a travel nurse is humbling, exhilarating, and invaluable.
There’s so much to gain and so little risk involved. If you’re still unsure about going it alone, ask a nurse friend to join you — companies can pair your contracts together! If you’re doubtful of moving to a new place, think of it as an extended vacation and plan tons of adventure for your days off. If you’re overwhelmed by the process and don’t know where to start, let the travel companies do all the work for you. That’s what they do best.
Believe in yourself and say yes to an adventure. Happy travels!
Brittany Hamstra is a Pediatric Oncology Nurse who has let her profession take her on a journey across the country. Aside from her experiences as a travel nurse, she keeps busy as a freelance writer and her work has been published on many nursing websites. Brittany is currently enjoying the west coast lifestyle and beautiful California nature while living in San Francisco with her husband.