Becoming a travel nurse can be an exciting and rewarding career choice for registered nurses (RNs) who enjoy exploring new places and working in different healthcare settings.
Travel nurses work on temporary assignments in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities across the country or even internationally. The demand for travel nurses has increased over the years, and it can be a great opportunity for RNs to advance their careers and gain valuable experience.
However, becoming a travel nurse requires careful planning and preparation. In this article, we will explore the steps to becoming a travel nurse, including the qualifications required, the benefits and challenges of the profession, and tips for success in this exciting field.
Travel nurses do need a few requirements before being considered, including being a registered nurse with a license in good standing, and typically 2 years of nursing experience. They don’t need any additional certifications or credentials other than the ones they need for their specific specialty.
Requirements during the COVID pandemic
However, right now hospitals and healthcare staffing agencies are going to great lengths to make it as easy as possible to recruit nurses to in-need areas during COVID-19, including waiving state nurse licensure requirements in states that have declared a state of emergency, asking retired RNs to come back to work, and more.
How Much Money Do Travel Nurses Make?
Under normal circumstances, many travel nurses have the potential to earn over $3,000 per week. Travel nurses can bring in over $50 per hour, plus company-paid housing accommodations. Making it entirely possible for travel nurses to make well over $100K per year.
Travel Nurse Salary by State
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How Does Travel Nurse Pay Differ From Staff Nurse Pay?
- Staff nurses in a hospital are usually paid a set salary based on education and experience. They typically receive incremental pay increases at various time frames.
- Travel nurse pay is totally different and can be a bit of a gray area. Typical pay packages are composed of various components including, hourly pay, non-taxed housing stipends, non-taxed per diems, travel reimbursements, and more.
What Factors Impact Your Pay as a Travel Nurse?
In addition to crisis situations like we’re facing right now, there are a number of other factors that can influence how much you can expect to make as a travel nurse. These include:
- Location – The specific location of the assignment most heavily influences travel nurse pay. Simply put, pay rates often reflect the cost of living in the area and also regional trends.
- Which states pay the most for travel nurses? Historically speaking, the highest paying states for travel nurses include California, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, and New York.
- Southern states tend to have lower living costs and, in turn, lower travel nurse pay.
- Areas that are considered “destination locations” (like, Hawaii and Florida) may pay lower. Though, with rapid-response assignments, this isn’t always the case.
- The COVID pandemic has increased travel nurse pay with high demand areas paying over $10,000 per week.
- Specialty – The travel nurse’s specialty also impacts pay. Non-specialty nurses such as the medical/surgical and psychiatric specialties are typically paid a lower rate than specialized nurses. Furthermore, specialized nurses with highly sought after skills and credentials have the ability to earn more lucrative pay with seemingly endless opportunities.
- Shift – If you haven’t noticed, night shift assignments are more prevalent in the world of travel nursing. The good news is that many hospitals offer higher rates for their night shift assignments. If you want to make the most money, flexibility is key. A word of caution, if the night shift is not your thing, no amount of money is worth your safety, happiness, or license. If you provide better patient care during the day shift, stick to that. Your patients will thank you.
How To Make The Most Money As A Travel Nurse
While the factors listed above do influence travel nurse pay, the following types of assignments almost always pay exceptionally well. Often times, these types of assignments are not influenced by location, specialty or shift.
Everything else aside, if you’re looking to make the most money as a travel nurse, seek out these specific assignments:
1. Rapid Response and “Crisis” Assignments
These assignments boast some of the highest rates in the travel nursing industry due to their urgent requirements. As the name suggests, these assignments require nurses to arrive at work fast — usually within 2 weeks. Nurses working in these assignments may have limited options in terms of location. They are also typically shorter than the general 13-week assignment – if you’re ready to go, you can get started right away in areas that need you the most.
Generally, the hospital is not experiencing a crisis situation such as a natural or man-made disaster. However, in some cases they are. For example, one agency was able to send nurses within 48 hours to provide support to hospitals treating patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
More often, though, facilities in need of rapid response solutions include those managing unexpected census spikes, unit openings, emergency responses, EMR upgrades, and more. However, some facilities may leverage flexible-length assignment options to manage patient care during short-term staff shortages.
This type of assignment may be appealing to hospitals because they do not require the 13-week commitment that many other travel companies require. This means that agencies offering these types of assignments have the ability to offer travelers a larger selection of shorter and higher-paying assignments. A great option especially if you’re looking for a position to better fit your lifestyle.
So, what is the catch? As mentioned, rapid response assignments require a quick turn around. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial for nurses to have their paperwork in order if they want to reap the benefits of top pay. Credentials, tests, licenses, and other documents should be submitted to the agency as quickly as possible.
We reached out to travel nursing agencies for more information about their rapid-response assignments. They said that most agencies will occasionally help nurses acquire licenses and certifications, including paying for new state licenses for nurses who complete an assignment with the company there.
Agencies also offer the option to cover housing costs if the nurse stays in one of their preferred hotels. Alternatively, many travel nursing agencies provide a housing stipend calculated to cover the cost of a nurse acquiring his or her own housing during the assignment. Lastly, they also cover the travel costs nurses incur at the start and end of an assignment.
Assignments range from 36 to 48 hours per week but are certainly more lucrative for the nurse working 48, particularly given overtime pay rates.
You’ll likely run into assignments advertising “bonuses,” it’s important to know the difference between these bonuses so you can use them to your advantage.
- Hospital vs Agency Bonuses
- Hospital bonuses are paid separately from the bill rate, are usually offered as completion bonuses. This means they are not paid until after you complete your assignment. These bonuses usually range from $250-$5000.
- Agency bonuses may be taken out of the bill rate and affect your overall pay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you enjoy getting a large amount of money as a lump sum.
How do you know the difference between hospital and agency bonuses? For starters, you can ask your recruiter where the bonus comes from — hospital or agency?
- Retention Bonus
Some agencies will pay nurses bonuses once they end up working with that agency for multiple assignments. This is commonly referred to as a retention bonus and each agency will have its own requirements. These bonuses usually range from $100-$2,000, or more.
- Referral Bonus
A referral bonus is a fee the agency pays to travel nurses who refer other nurses to work for their agency. The funds often come out of a separate budget allocated to referral fees and should not affect the travel nurse’s pay package.
Referral bonuses typically range from $500-$4,000 per nurse referral. Some of the best agencies in the industry pay nurses lucrative referrals bonuses once their referral completes an assignment.
Strikes occur when a labor contract or bargaining agreement between a hospital and a union is up for renewal. When the two sides aren’t able to come up with an acceptable compromise, the union may strike.
In such a case, patients still need care. Therefore, hospitals will usually hire travel nurses to fill the temporary need. Due to the urgency, travel nurses who work strikes make much more money than they do when working on typical travel nurse assignments.
How to Find the Highest-Paying Travel Nurse Assignments
First of all, you can always ask recruiters directly about their highest-paying assignments. Let them know that money is a motivator and that you are not interested in assignments that pay less than a certain amount. The best travel nurse recruiters will be honest with you about pay while giving you their best pay packages from the beginning.
We suggest working with agencies that are known to pay high rates and who specialize in rapid-response and strike nursing. Hospitals pay these agencies higher rates to urgently provide highly specialized staff on a short-term basis. Those high rates are passed along to their travel nurses.
Top 11 Tips For Travel Nurses (From a Travel Nurse Recruiter!)
1. Crisis Contacts and Pandemic Nursing
Travel nurses are in demand now, amid the pandemic, more than ever. If you’re looking to get paid your worth then considering a crisis contract in an area experiencing a COVID spike will definitely pay, a lot. However, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons – make sure your agency pays for sick time if you do get COVID.
2. Find Your Own Housing
We suggest taking a housing stipend and securing your own housing. This will give you the freedom to choose your price point. Agencies will often house nurses in pricier accommodations (they have a reputation to uphold.) Additionally, agencies sign corporate leases — leases that come with a “corporate” price tag. Some agencies are able to offer free housing if you stay in one of their preferred hotels. Most other agencies do not cover this cost outright, though, they’ll help you set it up.
3. Be Flexible
If money is your motivation, flexibility is key. Sometimes the highest paying assignments pay higher because they are not the most ideal. They may be in a less than desirable location or on a hard to fill time shift, such as nights or variables. Though it’s not always the case, nights, variables and weekends may come with higher pay or shift differentials.
4. Work With the Agencies Who are Known for Their High Pay and Transparency
Every agency is different and will structure their pay packages differently as well. Transparency is key. The most trustworthy agencies will publish their compensation packages publicly and will disclose take-home pay. This focus on transparency allows nurses to skip the negotiating or fact-finding step and rapidly decide if the position is right for them.
Furthermore, industry jargon and terms like “blended rates” get confusing. Negotiations can increase confusion and lead to mistrust between nurses and recruiters. That’s why working with agencies that do not allow for negotiations may prove to be the best agencies to work for. They likely give the nurse their best rate from the “get-go” and therefore actually have no room left for negotiations. If you’re able to negotiate with a recruiter, why weren’t they offering you their best rate from the beginning? Something to consider.
5. Make Sure Your Profile is Up-to-Date
Top paying travel nursing assignments come with a timestamp — they are in high demand and competition is fierce. Truth is, agencies can’t simply submit you for a job just because you want to be considered. They literally have to “sell” your skills to the hospital.
How do they do this? Through your paperwork, commonly referred to as your “profile” — resume, references, skills checklists, license, etc. Having organized paperwork that can quickly (and easily) be submitted to a new agency will increase your chances of landing high-paying assignments. The quicker you get your paperwork to your recruiter, the faster they can submit you to a top-paying job.
Side note, many nurse managers hire travel nurses on a “first come, first serve” basis. Why? Because your agency has already vetted you, the hospital doesn’t need to do more research to determine if you’re qualified. The hospital needs your skills to fill a temporary staffing need. If you treat every high-paying job with extreme urgency your chances of landing the job will increase. We recommend keeping your paperwork up to date and storing it online on the cloud using something like Dropbox or Google Drive. This will make it easy to simply share your paperwork folder with your recruiter.
Another tip, if you don’t have a scanner, download a scanning app — works like a charm and you don’t have to lug around a bulky machine. Many agencies are getting tech-savvy and developing mobile apps that allow nurses to directly upload documents to their profile with the company, where they can be stored and updated when the app notifies nurses of their expirations, etc.
6. Work With Multiple Agencies
The truth is, no agency will have assignments available in every location in the US. More truth, some hospitals pay each agency at a different rate and local agencies may have better relationships with the hospitals in their area. Bottom line, it’s a good idea to work with multiple agencies, this will increase your opportunities.
Word of advice — if you work with multiple recruiters, don’t be shady. Be honest with them about each other. Don’t “pit” them against each other. And, by all means, keep in touch with them even if you don’t choose their assignment (this time). Chances are they’ll want to work with you again in the future. Who knows, you might even make a new friend!
7. Maintain Multiple State Licenses
Did you know that many hospitals will not even look at your professional profile if you are not licensed in their state? It’s true. You’ll increase your chances of continuously landing high-paying jobs by maintaining active licenses in multiple states.
For example, rates in northern states usually increase during the winter months — so, a license in Massachusetts is a must! If you want to work in a certain state, you need to have a license. Period.
If you don’t have a license in that state, and you want to travel there soon, apply now! Some states have quick licensure turn around of just 48 hours. Other states, like California, can take up to 6 months to process licensure paperwork. Some agencies do assist or reimburse, for licensing fees.
8. Work Agency Per Diem and Pick Up Extra Shifts
Travel nurses who want to make even more money will often work local agency per diem shifts. They’ll also volunteer to work extra shifts during their assignments
9. Communicate With Your Recruiter
Recruiters are the connection between you and the highest paying travel nursing assignments. It’s important to communicate with them about your compensation needs. Looking for a high-paying assignment? Ask. Need a sign-on or completion bonus? Ask. Can’t live happily with an income below a certain amount? Tell them. Remember, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.
10. Ask for Sign-On, Completion, and Retention Bonuses
Some travel companies may offer bonuses. Bonuses are paid either on day #1 of your assignment, upon completion of the assignment, or when you work multiple assignments with your agency. Inquire about bonuses.
11. Refer Your Friends to Agencies
In the travel nursing industry, referrals are golden. Nurses are much more likely to trust their friend’s opinion of an agency they’ve actually worked for than they are an advertisement or recruiter. This is why agencies pay nurses referral bonuses to refer their friends. Referral fees differ but some agencies pay as high as $4,000 per nurse referral!
Travel Nurse Frequently Asked Question
What is a travel nurse?
A travel nurse is a licensed registered nurse (RN) who works in temporary assignments across various healthcare facilities, often in different cities, states or countries. They provide care to patients in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities. Travel nurses work through staffing agencies that assign them to hospitals or other healthcare facilities that need additional staff on a temporary basis.
What qualifications are required to become a travel nurse?
To become a travel nurse, you must have an active nursing license in the state or country where you plan to work. You should also have at least one year of experience working as a registered nurse in your specialty. In some cases, travel nursing agencies may require additional certifications or training.
What are the benefits of being a travel nurse?
Travel nursing provides several benefits, including competitive pay, flexible scheduling, and the opportunity to work in different healthcare environments. Travel nurses also have the ability to explore new cities and regions while advancing their careers.
What is the typical length of a travel nursing assignment?
Most travel nursing assignments are between 8-26 weeks in length. However, some assignments can be shorter or longer depending on the facility’s needs and the nurse’s availability.
How is the pay for travel nursing assignments determined?
Travel nurses are typically paid a higher rate than permanent staff nurses. The pay rate for each assignment is determined by the travel nursing agency and is based on several factors, including the nurse’s specialty, the location of the facility, and the length of the assignment.
Do travel nurses receive benefits?
Yes, travel nurses may receive benefits such as healthcare insurance, housing stipends, travel reimbursement, and retirement plans. These benefits may vary depending on the travel nursing agency.
What is the housing situation like for travel nurses?
Travel nursing agencies typically provide housing for their nurses or offer a housing stipend to help cover the cost of housing. Nurses can also choose to find their own housing, although this can be challenging in some areas.
How do travel nurses obtain a license in a new state?
Travel nurses must obtain a nursing license in each state where they plan to work. The process for obtaining a license can vary by state, but generally, travel nurses can apply for a temporary license or a license by endorsement. The travel nursing agency can assist with the licensure process.
What specialties are in high demand for travel nurses?
Specialties in high demand for travel nurses include critical care, emergency room, labor and delivery, telemetry, and medical-surgical nursing.
Can travel nurses bring their families with them on assignments?
Yes, travel nurses can bring their families with them on assignments. However, travel nursing agencies typically do not provide housing for family members, and the nurse may need to find their own accommodations.
In conclusion, becoming a travel nurse can be a rewarding and exciting career path for healthcare professionals who are passionate about exploring new places, meeting new people, and making a positive impact on patients’ lives.
With the right qualifications, skills, and mindset, you can embark on a journey that allows you to combine your love for healthcare with your love for adventure.
By following the steps outlined in this guide and doing your research on different travel nursing agencies and opportunities, you can set yourself up for a fulfilling and successful career as a travel nurse.
Remember to stay open-minded, adaptable, and resilient as you navigate the challenges and opportunities that come your way, and always prioritize your patients’ health and well-being.