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What is a travel nurse? What they do and how to get started

At a glance

  • Staffing shortages at hospitals across the country have led to an increased need for travel nurses.
  • A travel nurse accepts work on a temporary, contractual basis, traveling to a location with a shortage or need.
  • Travel nurse contracts generally run 13 weeks, but that varies depending on the details of the contract organization and need.
  • Travel nurse agencies often connect nurses with assignments and arrange travel and housing.

The healthcare industry has undergone many dramatic changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these has been a widely reported nurse shortage that has affected hospitals, clinics and other medical institutions around the world.

While the shortage poses challenges to healthcare providers and patients, it also presents opportunities. Specifically, nurses willing to go where their work is needed can explore travel nursing opportunities. Their effort and expertise have never been more valuable, especially to understaffed hospitals.

Though once a relatively uncommon nursing practice focus, travel nursing has quickly expanded in the healthcare industry. Accordingly, this article will cover what a travel nurse is, why nurses are increasingly considering travel nursing and how to get started as a travel nurse.

What is travel nursing?

In terms of the work, a travel nurse is not so different from other nurses. They often provide the same level of treatment, administer the same medicine, and devote the same effort that patients need to heal as their core staff counterparts. However, the responsibilities they are given may depend on experience, tenure, education, skills, the hospital where they work and need.

The main difference is in terms of employment: A travel nurse accepts work on a temporary, contractual basis, traveling to a destination based on need. Instead of devoting their time to one hospital where they may work for years, travel nurses move around. Their assignments generally last 13 weeks but can depend on a variety of factors, including organization, need and the details of their contract.

Travel nurses often work with travel nursing agencies to find new assignments, work out travel and housing reimbursement, and handle the logistics that make travel nursing possible. Through these agencies, nurses correspond with travel nurse recruiters, who act as liaisons between nurses and healthcare facilities.

How does the process work? Here’s a basic rundown:

1.    A healthcare facility reaches out to a number of travel nurse agencies to fill a nurse role, usually for a certain specialty.

2.    Acting on behalf of the travel nurse agency, the travel nurse recruiter reaches out to nurses who fulfill the requirements of the role.

3.    The nurses who are on file with the agency review the role, the pay, the time requirement, the location and related details.

4.    If a nurse accepts the role, they can sign a contract with the facility and work with the agency to arrange travel and other logistics.

Since several nurses may be contacted about a single opportunity, these positions generally fill up on a first-come, first-served basis. For those willing to jump on the opportunity, however, this can place them in a new position quickly. They will have to meet the certification and licensure requirements of the state in which they choose to work before starting the role. 

Why is travel nursing important?

To provide quality patient care, hospitals must maintain a certain number of staff in relation to the number of patients they treat. This ratio is essential for making sure hospitals are not understaffed. During normal circumstances, when healthcare facilities have a predictable number of patients they expect to serve, they can hire the required number of permanent staff to meet this ratio. A rural hospital usually serves fewer patients than a hospital in a major city, and therefore needs fewer nurses on the payroll.

Unfortunately, when there’s a massive influx of patients, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, and nurses are distributed unevenly across a geographical area, this ratio may not be met. That rural hospital will need to bring on more staff, which is where travel nurses come in.

This might make you think that travel nurses are needed to treat COVID-19 patients, but that’s actually not the case. The pandemic has put strain on several aspects of healthcare delivery. From the intensive care unit to pediatric, neonatal and geriatric departments, travel nurses are needed to fill the gap. 

How to become a travel nurse

To become a travel nurse, you must be a registered nurse (RN). If you need additional information on how to become an RN, read about the topic on our blog, but you must meet general requirements to work in the nursing profession. These requirements include obtaining at least a diploma from an approved nursing program, passing the NCLEX exam and receiving licensure in the state in which they work. Some employers may prefer registered nurses to have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). 

After you have become an RN, you will need to gain nursing experience on the job. Generally speaking, travel nurses need at least one and sometimes two years of experience working in a healthcare setting before taking on travel assignments. (More specialized roles, such as in the ICU or in labor delivery, may require more experience.) They will also need to meet the licensure and certification requirements of the location of their assignment. 

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Why work as a travel nurse?

Here are a few reasons why many nurses decide to hit the travel circuit:

Flexibility

Travel nurses have a broad view of the opportunities available to them. In turn, they can decide where and how they want to work. If the hours demanded by an assignment are too much, they can pass on that assignment. For those who want to try living in a new place, they can find work that takes them there.

Plus, with the contracts being relatively short, nurses who are unhappy with an assignment can rest assured that they’ll be done sooner rather than later. 

Demand

Nurses have always been crucial to patient health, and that is doubly true during a health emergency. The demand for nurses means the risks of accepting a travel assignment can seem minimal. When they complete a travel nursing gig and are ready for a full-time position, nurses can feel confident one will be waiting for them. 

Value

The increased demand for travel nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic was reflected in an increase in pay. Of course, this trend was impacted by demand and may not be reflected case by case, but generally speaking, travel nurses may have leverage when it comes to negotiating their pay and benefits.

In addition, travel assignments put nurses into a variety of situations. This gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and bolster their resumé and their value over time. 

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How much do travel nurses make?

Travel nurse pay varies significantly and depends on a number of factors, including the state in which nurses work, demand, skills, education, certifications, and experience.

Pay was also highly inflated by demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Vivian Health, a healthcare hiring marketplace, the average weekly salary in December 2019, before the pandemic, was about $1,800. Pay peaked during the pandemic, and currently, in May 2022, is about $3,100 per week. It remains to be seen how the nursing shortage and ripple effects of the pandemic will continue to impact weekly earnings. 

How do travel nurses get paid?

Permanent, on-staff nurses in medical facilities can expect a set salary and benefits that are usually based on their education and work experience. They can usually expect that pay to increase by a predictable metric over time.

Due to the sudden explosion in travel nursing, however, travel nurse payment is a bit more complicated.

Travel nurses typically agree to a pay package that includes their hourly pay, housing stipends, per diems and travel reimbursement, along with their benefits.

The main chunk of a travel nurse’s payment is their hourly pay, which is taxed according to the location where they work. This pay will fluctuate depending on location, how specialized their work is and the timing of their shift. A travel nurse working in a high-demand location and performing specialized nursing on night shifts can generally expect more in pay than nurses in other situations.

In addition to their hourly pay, travel nurses typically receive stipends to cover their expenses, such as housing, travel and meals. Travel nurses may also receive benefits like tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness and paid association memberships. 

How does travel nurse housing work?

When a nurse decides to hit the road, they have two main options when it comes to housing: They can use a travel nursing agency, or they can find housing themselves.

With the first option, nurses don’t have to worry about arranging their lodgings and all the headaches that come with it. Agencies will take the travel stipend provided in the payment package and house nurses in properties leased specifically for their client travel nurses. Though it can be logistically easier, this is usually the more expensive option.

For this reason, many travel nurses decide to take their housing stipend and secure their own housing. This gives them more flexibility than the agency option but will require legwork on the part of the nurse. If they find housing below their stipend allocation, or if they decide to stay with friends or family for free, they can often keep what’s left over.

Depending on the requirements and restrictions of the housing, travel nurses may bring their family and pets with them. That can help make the transition to a new locale a bit easier and difficult work more enriching. 

Travel nursing FAQs

How are travel nurses paid?

Whether travel nurses are paid as employees or independent contractors depends on the entity for whom they work. Those who work through an agency are usually paid as W-2 employees of the agency, which will be the entity that withholds their taxes. Some travel nurses may work as independent contractors and receive a 1099 form instead of a W-2. In that case, the nurse is responsible for paying all appropriate taxes.

Can travel nurses work internationally?

In general, so long as the nurse has the required education, training, and licensure and/or certification by the country/locality where they seek to work, nurses may be able to practice in other countries. 

Do travel nurses get health benefits?

Many travel nurses are eligible for health benefits through their travel nurse agency. Others receive benefits from their assigned healthcare facility, or they may receive a stipend to purchase coverage.