What I Wish I’d Known About Travel Nursing

  • Stephanie Johannsen
  • |

Big money, adventure, excitement! Even with 20 years of clinical experience, I was still quite naïve about what it meant to be a “traveler.” Here’s what I wish I’d known about being a travel nurse before I ever signed that first contract so YOU can avoid learning the hard way as I did…

Prepare to be humbled

You may be a clinical expert in your field, but you walk in the door for each new assignment having to prove yourself all over again. The doctors and staff don’t trust you, and they don’t care how things got done at your last facility.  You are in their world now, and they want you to do it their way. Accept the fact that there is more than one way to do almost everything and they all can be equally correct. Your approach is not the best way, the right way, or the only way!

All travel nurses receive the same pay

You do not get extra compensation for your decades of experience in comparison to the travel nurse sitting next to you who has just two years of experience as required to get work as a traveler. This pay structure makes travel nursing very lucrative for nurses with minimal experience.  However, the highly experienced nurse is often much more marketable in competing for assignments because of the depth and breadth of their skill set.

Agency contracts are not your friend

Every agency has a deal you will be expected to sign with no modifications allowed. Some are more legalistic than others, and it is essential to understand just what the commitment means. The most important thing to know is that agencies are very creative in how agreements are structured, so the travel nurse does not fully realize what the financial aspects of the assignment entail. As a result, a highly experienced nurse is not going to be making more money as a traveler, but you will be keeping more of the money you make.  

The reason for that is the considerable tax advantages you are entitled to as a travel nurse, although some of that is changing under President Trump. Some housing costs, transportation costs, and meals while on the road for work are still deductible.

Many contracts provide housing if you wish, but it is often more financially advantageous and comfortable for the traveler to take the housing allowance money instead and make your living arrangements independently.

So, make sure you fully understand the consequences of each contract.  It is especially crucial in terms of financial penalties if you fail to meet the terms of the contract or the hospital ends the contract early.

Demanding daily workloads become the norm

The regular staff is happy to have you there as a “warm body” to help lighten their load, give them breaks, and handle the assignments they don’t want to do. It is common for regular staff to be angry or jealous of travelers because they think that travel nurses are making more money than they do for performing the same job.  

Managers often see travel nurses as an excellent opportunity to give the regular staff a much-needed respite from the most stressful patients and physicians. Therefore, you can expect most of your shifts to be structured such that you are routinely carrying the most challenging patient load.

Training not included

If you are lucky, you will get one or two days of exposure with a mentor to their computer system, the physical layout of the department, medication distribution process, and paperwork. It is not at all uncommon to be just thrown in on your first day, taking care of patients independently and asking for help from whomever you can latch onto when you don’t know where to find something or what to do.

Travel nurses are often expected to orient new regular employees to the department instead of using permanent staff as preceptors. Another frequent occurrence is using travelers already on board to orient incoming travel nurses, so their permanent staff does not have to do it.

Expect to see shocking deviations from standards of care

One of the most challenging adjustments is seeing incidents of blatantly unacceptable patient care while working as a travel nurse. It can happen more often than you think, whether it be at a nationally respected academic institution or a small rural hospital.  

You should know the key written hospital policies for your specialty area at each institution and make sure you are in full compliance.  Regardless of your opinion or prior experience at other facilities, the manager assumes that you will do what you are told and go along with the culture in your current department.

There are times when it can feel like an ethical dilemma, and the travel nurse needs to be very clear about where the lines are for unacceptable practice and what the chain of command is to address any serious concerns or liabilities.

Confidence while outside your comfort zone

A vital trait for a travel nurse is rock-solid confidence in your clinical skills with a belief in your ability to provide quality patient care in any environment. A willingness to be a bit off-balance and outside of your comfort zone while taking full responsibility for your performance as a nurse can be unsettling to many of us.  

Striving to function at your typically high level while in an unfamiliar environment working with people you don’t know takes a lot of energy and effective coping skills.

Attitude of gratitude

Travel nursing is an exceptional opportunity to challenge yourself and your beliefs, open up your mind to new ways of doing things, grow in ways you never expected, contribute to an environment that can benefit from your skills, and relish the rewards of this unique lifestyle. It is not for everyone. These days, there is even a professional organization to help you sort through your feelings about giving it a try, but, in the end, you will come out of the experience as a far better nurse than you ever imagined.

Stephanie Johannsen

Meet The Author

Stephanie Johannsenis a Registered Nurse (RN) with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and a Master of Science in Health Administration (MSHA). Her unique background includes extensive clinical and administrative roles in hospitals, insurance companies, Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), drug companies, start-up joint ventures, ambulatory centers, hospice, long term care, home health, travel nursing and overseas education. She also worked as a Certified Legal Nurse Consultant (CLNC) assisting with class action lawsuits, medical malpractice cases and catastrophic injury cases. Stephanie has had an exciting career fully exploring nearly every aspect of health care and thrives on sharing those experiences with others who wish to enter the field.

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