You’ve probably heard that travel nursing comes with plenty of perks, such as a high travel nurse salary, incentives like sign-on bonuses, and the opportunity to work in glamorous places like Hawaii (it’s always Hawaii). But, do travel nurses really make more money? The answer is yes — usually. Though, the exact amount of money you can make as a travel nurse really depends on a variety of different factors.
Below is a breakdown of how much travel nurses make and why travel nurses tend to get paid more.
In general, travel nurses have the opportunity to make more money than a staff nurse for two main reasons:
1) High need = higher pay. Travel nurse staffing agencies work specifically with hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities that have a high demand for nurses, which means they are willing to pay more to reach adequate staffing levels or to cover known leave of absences.
2) Additional monetary incentives. Unlike regular staff nurses, travel nurses are paid a “total pay package” that includes an hourly base wage pay plus additional monetary incentives that include things like sign-on or referral bonuses and stipends for housing, food, mileage, or job-related expenses. Because these extra stipends are classified as reimbursements and not income, they’re non-taxable, so a travel nurse can bring home a higher total pay when compared to a staff nurse, who pays taxes on all of the income they bring home.
Registered nurses in the United States make an average mean salary of $71,730 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while travel nurses tend to make at least $10,000 (sometimes more) per year on average, according to travel nurse surveys. For example, BLS lists the average hourly wage of an RN in New York at $41.16 per hour, while a travel nurse survey by ZipRecruiter lists the average hourly wage for a travel nurse in New York at $48.87.
The exact salary you can expect to make as a travel nurse will vary widely based on where you choose to work, what type of nursing position it is, and the length of the contract. For example, you may make more in a month as a travel nurse compared to a staff nurse, but if you only work one or two month-long assignments, your annual pay will be lower. But, if you take several assignments in a 12-month period, then you could make significantly more in one year than you could as a travel nurse.
Your total pay package as a travel nurse will look different than a staff nurse because it’s made up of your “base wage” pay — the hourly rate you earn for your nursing duties — and additional stipends, which are classified as non-taxable reimbursements and not considered income.
As an example, a standard total pay package could look something like this:
|Taxable hourly base wage*||$3,200|
|Monthly housing stipend||$1,200|
|Monthly meals stipend||$800|
|Monthly mileage stipend||$500|
|Monthly continuing education stipend||$500|
|Total monthly pay||$8,200|
*Assumes $20 per hour at 40 hours per week, minus taxes
Some travel nurse staffing agencies also offer travel nurses additional benefits, such as retirement options and health, dental, vision, and life insurance. Keep in mind, retirement options that include a 401(k) may not be the most effective option if your taxable income is already low. It may make more sense to invest in a Roth IRA or other retirement account.
Why? One of the main benefits of a 401(k) is that it allows you to contribute your income before it’s taxed, but a large portion of most travel nurses total pay package is non-taxable. Contributing to a 401(k) can decrease a travel nurse’s overall taxable income considerably and may lead to issues down the road — if they need to qualify for a loan, for example.
You should consult your own certified financial planner if you have concerns before you start travel nursing. It may help you evaluate if a travel nurse pay package is right for you based on your overall financial goals.
Where you choose to work as a travel nurse also plays a large role in how much you will make. Certain cities and states offer higher pay because they have such a high demand for nurses, while other areas pay more based on the time of year. For example, if you’re willing to travel to Alaska in the winter, you have the opportunity to make more money than trying to work in Hawaii in the winter months. Travel nurses who are willing to relocate to “less popular” areas throughout the year stand to increase the amount of overall pay they can make over the course of the entire year.
You could also seek out assignments in the highest-paying states and cities for travel nurses. For example, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top 10 highest paying states for RNs currently are:
|State||Annual Salary||Hourly Wage|
|District of Columbia||$92,350||$44.40|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019
Keep in mind that the Bureau of Labor Statistics data lists average salaries for RNs, so the potential for travel nurses specifically in those areas is even higher. However, you also have to consider the cost of living in those areas and if the stipends you’ll receive for housing, food, and other expenses will adequately cover those costs.
Read more: Best Cities for Travel Nurses
Working a travel nursing assignment in a high-paying state or city is one way to increase your take-home salary, but you can also increase your pay as a travel nurse by working in an in-demand specialty. For example, travel nurses who work in the following in-demand specialties have the opportunity to make more pay (or negotiate for a higher pay). Some of those specialties include:
If you have experience in an in-demand area, you should highlight that on your travel nursing application, as well as bring it to the attention of the travel nurse recruiter to maximize your pay. Additionally, you may be able to make even more money if you seek out specialty certification in your area on your own prior to signing with a travel nursing agency. Having a nurse who is “ready to go” in a specialty area may be more lucrative to a staffing agency than a nurse who is simply willing to be trained, but not yet certified.
Travel nursing can be a profitable way to boost your savings and overall take-home pay. But, the benefits extend beyond just your paycheck. Travel nursing is also a great way to expand your resume, gain valuable hands-on nursing experience, learn skills such as flexibility on the job, increase your confidence, and ultimately advance your career.
You have the opportunity to work in fields you may not have close to home or receive additional training to further your nursing skills as well. Also, because travel nursing is flexible and can accommodate both short and long-term positions, many nurses can try temporary nursing assignments whether they’re single, partnered, married, child-free, or have a family.
And, of course, travel nursing is a great way to experience other parts of the country to both in live and explore.
Chaunie Brusie is a Registered Nurse, journalist, and busy mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Real Simple, and more.
She’s also a published author and the founder of the Stay Strong Mom Project, which donates money to mothers struggling to pay their medical bills following a loss or miscarriage. Find her at chauniebrusie.com.