The Ultimate Guide
to Travel Nursing

How to become a travel nurse, where you can go, tips for working with staffing agencies, and everything else you need to take your nursing career to new places.

Last Updated: 03/11/2020
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MEET THE EXPERT

TraciaBarnett
Tracia Barnett

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Tracia Barnett (RN, Certified Diabetes Educator, Massage Therapist, CPR, First Aid and AED Instructor) is a seasoned nurse with over 14 years’ experience working in a wide variety of healthcare settings within hospitals, homes and in the field. She has worked for travel nursing companies and several large hospitals as well as ran medical crews for large music events. Tracia created her own business, Adventure Nurse, as a travel nurse that works directly with clients who are restricted from leaving their homes or facilities due to complex medical needs.

So, you’re thinking of becoming a travel nurse. Maybe you’ve been working as a nurse in the same area for years and are ready for a change of scenery. Or perhaps you’re in nursing school and are scoping out career paths after graduation. The lure of seeing the world (or just another part of the country) while still holding down a rewarding nursing job is certainly appealing. But there’s a lot you need to know before packing your bags. Keep reading to learn all of the travel nurse essentials, including what it takes to become one, whether you’re a good fit, how much you can make, where to find jobs, and even advice for handling the trickier aspects of travel nursing, like taxes and working with staffing agencies.

FAQs About How Travel Nursing Works

Who can be a travel nurse?

Any RN, LPN or APRN with a degree from an accredited nursing program can become a travel nurse. Travel nurses must pass the NCLEX and know both basic life support (BLS) and advanced cardiac life support (ACLS). Positions are generally available for generalists and certified specialists alike to meet different facilities’ needs. Travel nurses must be licensed in each state they work, but if they are residents of a Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) state, they can work as a nurse in all states under this compact. Because travel nurses must be able to adapt quickly, most staffing agencies require nurses to have at least one or two years of work experience in a permanent position before traveling.

Where do travel nurses go?

Travel nurses help with staffing issues, so they can be found in virtually any type of facility that needs extra nurses. Work is available around the country, but states in the South and West are projected to get hit the hardest by nursing shortages, so there may be more demand for travel nurses in those areas. Travel nurses may want to keep their eyes on Florida, Texas and California, as these states are expected to account for around 40% of the nation’s nursing shortages. International travel nursing positions may also be available to qualified nurses.

Many nurses have also opted to travel to work in rural areas. Small towns across the country need more registered nurses, practical nurses, and advanced practiced RNs with a wide range of skills.

How long do you stay in one place as a travel nurse?

The average travel nursing contract lasts 13 weeks, but contracts may range from eight to 26 weeks. In some situations, a nurse may stay at a location for as short as one month or be given the opportunity to extend their contract. Because they are contracted, travel nurses can choose which assignments they do and don’t take. This means they can take breaks between contracts if they’d like. Some travel nurses work with multiple staffing agencies to minimize the possibility of having significant gaps between contracts.

How much do travel nurses make?

Travel nursing pay varies on a range of factors, so accurate catchall information is hard to find. While some sources indicate that travel nurses make more money than permanent nurses, there are several variables to consider to get an accurate picture of travel nurse income. When looking at pay information, nurses should consider the following:

  • Travel nurses are paid hourly wages, not salaries.
  • Hourly base rates can be high.
  • Hourly wages vary by contract and location.
  • Cost of living varies by location.
  • Areas with great need may offer significant bonuses to travel nurses.
  • Staffing agencies may offer medical benefits, but travel nurses may also need to pay out of pocket for insurance.
  • Agencies may factor stipends and reimbursements in their hourly income snapshots, making earnings seem greater than they are.
  • Stipends and reimbursements can be non-taxable, which may yield extra money.
  • Moving and other costs may exceed stipends.
  • Travel nurses do not get paid between contracts.

Travel nursing can certainly be lucrative, but it’s important that nurses get a full picture of their potential financial situation so they can make informed decisions about their careers. For more information, read this comprehensive guide on travel nursing pay from BluePipes, a healthcare-focused professional networking platform.

Why become a travel nurse?

There are many reasons to become a travel nurse, not the least of which is getting paid to travel around the country. Many travel nurses are attracted to the idea of providing aid where it is needed most and having a direct impact on people who may otherwise not be able to receive the care they need. For others, the opportunity to work in different types of facilities has its appeal. The combination of schedule flexibility and good pay potential can be enticing, too.

How do travel nurses get hired?

Getting hired typically starts with reaching out to a staffing agency. Staffing agencies play an important role in the travel nursing industry, but one of their primary services is to help match travel nurses with open positions that suit their skills and work preferences. Learn more about working with staffing agencies.

Nurses won’t automatically receive a contract just because they’re qualified for a position suggested by their recruiter, however. Travel nurses are expected to interview for each position they’re interested in to make sure they are a good match for the job. Once they’ve interviewed for open positions and have been deemed to be a good fit, they may receive a contract.

Are You a Good Fit for Travel Nursing?

Travel nursing can be a great experience with many benefits, but it’s not ideal for everyone. Before committing, you should carefully consider whether or not you’re a good fit for this lifestyle and type of work.

You’re eager to explore new places

A big perk of being a travel nurse is traveling. Those who are more comfortable with a set routine in a familiar place may not be well-suited to travel nurse work.

You’re adaptable and flexible

Travel nurses usually don’t have much time to get acclimated to new work and living environments, so they must be able to assess their situations and work with them, even if the facilities, procedures and customs are unfamiliar.

You’re self-assured

When environments and people are new and intimidating, a good travel nurse should be able to rely on confidence in their skills. It’s also important that travel nurses are confident enough in their skills to speak up if they feel a patient isn’t getting the care they need. Speaking up when you’re constantly “the new nurse” can be difficult, so self-assurance is crucial.

You like to meet new people

Travel nurses typically spend only 13 weeks in a given facility, which means they have to get to know new coworkers, staff and neighbors frequently. Those who warm up to others quickly and love to get to know new people may be great fits for travel nursing.

You can trust others

Travel nurses who can trust in their recruiters as well as new facilities, coworkers and higher-ups will generally have an easier time focusing on their work, solving problems and developing lasting relationships.

You’re good at living and traveling light

Travel nurses move a lot and experience a range of different living facilities. Those who aren’t too attached to their stuff will probably have an easier time transitioning into travel nursing.

Top 8 Benefits of Travel Nursing

Travel nurses face plenty of unique challenges, but there are a variety of personal, professional and financial reasons why travel nursing is a beneficial career and lifestyle choice for some nurses.

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Professional Benefits

Broaden skill sets

Working in different facilities provides opportunities to gain new skills, both in and out of the field. Travel nurses may learn techniques for working with different demographic groups than they’re used to, for instance. Moving to a new place and adapting to changes are also non-work skills that come with travel nursing.

Experience different work settings and roles

Travel nurses typically work in a variety of settings, so they can see how different facilities operate. Experiencing different operations and seeing the various roles and positions that make those operations work can help travel nurses discover specific nursing and non-nursing roles they may want to pursue full-time.

Build a national professional network

Effectively developing relationships with coworkers and managers at different facilities can be hugely beneficial to travel nurses. Those who find themselves wanting to phase out of travel nursing and get back into staffed positions can end up with an incredible set of contacts for leads on open positions around the country.

Personal Benefits

Personal Benefits

Explore new places

This perk is as straightforward as it is sweet. Travel nurses get paid to visit different parts of the country and provide aid to those who need it. After work is over, travel nurses have new towns, parks, restaurants, museums and activities to check out.

Control schedules

Because travel nurses are contracted workers, they can choose which contracts they take and when. They can return home for a few weeks before heading to another job location, for instance, or they can exclusively seek out shorter contracts.

Provide aid where it’s needed most

Whether a facility is experiencing an influx of patients because of seasonal or environmental factors, or they need shifts covered while a staff nurse is on parental leave, travel nurses help provide high-demand care and support. Travel nurses not only help patients directly, but their presence can take some stress off permanent nurses who would otherwise have too much work to handle.

Financial Benefits

Financial Benefits

Travel inexpensively

Between saving money and taking time away from work, traveling can be difficult. One perk of being a travel nurse is that you can travel while making money. Many staffing agencies reimburse their nurses for travel expenses incurred, or they offer stipends to offset the cost of moving around.

Take home a good paycheck

Travel nursing can start with good base wages, but once tax benefits and potential bonuses are factored in, the earnings can increase even more. Good pay is a common reason staff nurses switch to travel nursing.

How to Become a Travel Nurse: From Starting College to Getting Your First Contract

Once you’ve decided that you’re a good fit for travel nursing and find the lifestyle and benefits appealing, it’s time to work towards becoming a travel nurse. The following steps can help guide you through the process.

STEP 1

Earn your nursing degree

Travel nurses must earn a nursing degree from an accredited nursing program. Prospective travel nurses can choose from a handful of higher education options, including online LPN programs and online RN programs, depending on their long-term career goals and personal timelines. The minimum degree requirement for travel nursing careers is an associate degree in nursing, but some travel nursing contracts specifically request nurses with more advanced degrees such as a master of science in nursing online or other nurse practitioner programs. Advanced degrees can provide prospective nurses with deeper knowledge and more practice in nursing, but bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing can also open opportunities for specialization. Travel nurses with specialized training may have more job opportunities and higher wages.

STEP 2

Get licensed and certified as a nurse

Nursing programs do not grant students their nursing licenses; rather, they prepare students to sit for licensure exams. Nursing degree program graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN exam for registered nurses or the NCLEX-PN exam for nurse practitioners and fulfill any other state-specific licensing requirements. The Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) enables nurses who are residents of member states to use a single license to work in all NLC states. While this doesn’t grant licensure everywhere, 32 states are currently part of the compact, and two more are in the process of implementing NLC regulation. Nurses who live in a non-compact state can investigate changing their residency to an NLC state and getting licensed there. Staffing agencies often require their nurses to be certified CPR, BLS and ACLS, so prospective travel nurses should check into these requirements as well.

STEP 3

Gain work experience as a nurse

Most travel nurse staffing agencies require applicants to have at least one or two years of work experience, which is usually gained right after graduation from nursing school. This is necessary because travel nurses typically have a very short time to acclimate to new work environments, it’s important that they are comfortable in their skills and have a solid understanding of medical facility operations.

STEP 4

Determine your travel nursing goals and aspirations

Gaining work experience can also help prospective travel nurses determine what exactly they hope to get out of travel nursing that they may not be getting from their staff nurse positions. Networking with other travel nurses, reading travel nursing blogs and reflecting on their current role as a nurse can help nurses figure out what they hope to gain from travel nursing. Having short- and long-term goals in mind can help travel nurses choose their contracts and work locations, too.

STEP 5

Connect with travel nurse staffing agencies

Most travel nurses get contracts with different job locations around the country by working with staffing agencies. Agencies act as liaisons between nurses and the facilities that need them, often handling paperwork, placement logistics and other details. Reaching out to staffing agencies typically connects prospective travel nurses with a recruiter who can help them determine if they and the agency are a good fit.

STEP 6

Interview for travel nursing jobs

Most travel nursing job interviews are set up by a travel nurse’s staffing recruiter. Interviews are typically conducted over the phone or via web conferencing. Video interviews may require advance preparation such as testing your webcam, tidying up your viewing area and dressing professionally, so it’s good to know in advance how the interview will be conducted. Travel nurses should research the facility they’re interviewing with and note how their skills and ideals align with those of the facility. Recruiters can be a great help in this research. Finally, interviewees should take time to prepare for interview questions and compile some questions of their own. Check out the section below for some ideas about what to ask during the interview.

STEP 7

Figure out your new living arrangements

Travel nurses who work with staffing agencies typically have a couple of housing options: live in housing arranged by the agency or find housing on their own. Travel nurses should note whether their housing is furnished or unfurnished, what the average utility costs are in the area and how far their potential housing is from work. Accounting for these factors and getting to know their new location in advance can help travel nurses figure out which arrangement works best and what they need to bring with them.

STEP 8

Prepare for travel

Figuring out what to bring and how to pack it all depends on your specific living situation and geographic location. It’s also important to consider the length of the contract and whether you plan to go straight into your next contract or take a small break between assignments. If using housing arranged by a staffing agency, ask exactly what is included with the housing, like furniture, kitchen items and cleaning supplies, and take some time beforehand to catalog the things you use most on a daily basis. Check with your tax advisor to see if any items you purchase for your travel nursing career may be tax-deductible. Travel nurses with families, pets and other commitments have specific preparations to consider, such as a long-term pet sitter or getting all hands on deck to help with family responsibilities. Deciding on a legal, permanent residence is also important, especially when it comes to taxes and getting a license to work in more than just your home state.

STEP 9

Get situated in your new job

Travel nurses often receive a short orientation and may also be able to shadow someone for a shift or two, but they typically don’t have a lot of time to settle into their new positions. Making the most of these training periods can help travel nurses feel comfortable with their work environments faster. Make note of differences in procedures and workplace culture while getting the tour. New travel nurses may find that going out of their way to get to know their coworkers can help them not only build relationships quickly but also familiarize them with workplace expectations and norms. Taking time after work and on weekends to explore their new neighborhood can also help travel nurses feel more at ease.

Real Talk with the Expert: What It’s Actually Like to Be A Travel Nurse

TraciaBarnett

Tracia Barnett (RN, Certified Diabetes Educator, Massage Therapist, CPR, First Aid and AED Instructor) is a seasoned nurse with over 14 years’ experience working in a wide variety of healthcare settings within hospitals, homes and in the field. She has worked for travel nursing companies and several large hospitals as well as ran medical crews for large music events. Tracia created her own business, Adventure Nurse, as a travel nurse that works directly with clients who are restricted from leaving their homes or facilities due to complex medical needs.

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What were the most significant differences you experienced between travel nursing and your benefitted hospital positions?

There were many differences as a travel nurse and working directly for a hospital as a benefitted nurse. When you are employed directly by a hospital, you are given a new employee orientation to your floor and the policies and procedures directly related to that particular population. As a travel nurse, you may be given a brief walkthrough of the floor you are on for the day, or you may be expected to show up and begin caring for patients. There is not as much support to transition you to the floor. Hospitals contract agency nurses because they are in a dire situation and short on nurses to care for the patients. It’s an ideal arrangement for a nurse who has experience working within various hospital settings, is fairly independent and confident in their skills and can be assertive if they really need support for patient safety.

Also, something to consider is the benefits of working directly for a hospital. As an agency nurse, I was the first to be called off of my shift and did not have health insurance or vacation time. Your need for reliable income opportunities and health care for yourself and family are significant considerations in choosing to work directly for a hospital or a travel nursing agency. For the adventurous, independent person that does not need a lot of support, traveling to new locations, working within various healthcare systems and meeting many new people can offer an enriching experience and even a bit of excitement to nurses that have worked in the same hospital for years.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced as a travel nurse?

The most challenging aspects of travel nursing were showing up to work in a new environment and not having the opportunity to be oriented to the floor. There were times that I would travel to a new location expecting to work, and my shifts would be called off for weeks or I would be sent home after only working a few hours.

What about surprise perks or positives?

I really enjoyed the freedom of visiting a new place I’ve never been. It was exciting to explore new locations, immerse myself in the local community and learn from new people. Showing up in new work cultures and locations really challenged me to acquire a skill set and the ability to stay hyper-vigilant in a situation, while confidently speaking up in stressful situations.

With hindsight on your side, what would you have done differently at the beginning of your travel nursing career?

In interviewing various travel nursing agencies, I would have asked them specific questions, such as how much orientation time I would get. Then that could be negotiated prior to my accepting an assignment at a hospital. I would also ask them if there was an ambassador or contact person that would be my resource while in a new location and hospital system—ideally someone that worked for and was familiar with the particular hospital I was working at. If I was going to step into this particular type of travel nursing again, I would search for groups or meetups of other travel nurses that were in the areas to connect with for peer support.

What You Need to Know About Travel Nurse Staffing Agencies

Staffing agencies play a key role in travel nursing logistics and can have a significant impact on how easy or difficult it is for travel nurses to thrive in their careers. It’s just as important to know how these organizations work as it is to know how to work with them.

What are travel nurse staffing agencies?

Travel nurse staffing agencies are organizations that connect travel nurses to facilities that need supplemental nursing staff. They provide administrative support and help travel nurses handle a lot of the paperwork and logistics associated with travel nursing. Staffing agencies often provide a level of assurance to both nurses and the facilities hiring them, since they act as trusted liaisons between parties.

Why should you work with a travel staffing agency?

While some travel nurses do work independently, the vast majority work with staffing agencies to find jobs. Staffing agencies do a lot of the legwork in finding open positions for travel nurses, and they often have established relationships with medical facilities. Staffing agencies help travel nurses apply for licensure in multiple states and often reimburse them for the associated costs. They may also provide benefits, housing assistance, travel stipends, and other perks. Staffing agency recruiters are also available to provide general support to travel nurses who have questions or need assistance while they’re on the job.

What should you look for in a travel nurse staffing agency?

Since travel nurses typically communicate with a single recruiter within an agency, a good recruiter is one of the most important things to look for in a staffing agency. A good recruiter should be invested in you and your needs, and they should be helpful, responsive and knowledgeable. Aside from looking for a compatible recruiter, travel nurses can compare staffing agencies by looking at their wages, benefits packages, service areas, reputation, housing options, and onboarding procedures.

What is Joint Commission certification for staffing agencies?

The Joint Commission’s Heath Care Staffing Services (HCSS) certification indicates that a staffing agency has been independently evaluated as having high standards of service. Medical facilities are often more likely to hire nurses from agencies with this credential because it serves as a form of quality assurance.

How many staffing agencies should you work with?

Travel nurses often work with multiple staffing agencies to receive different benefits and have access to more job opportunities and locations. Different agencies also may have exclusive contracts with certain hospitals, so working with multiple agencies helps give travel nurses access to more of these exclusive contracts. However, some travel nurses may find that working with a single agency is easier and more manageable.

Questions to Ask Before Committing to a Travel Nursing Contract

Interviews for travel nursing contracts are for the nurse’s benefit as much as the hiring facility’s. Contract terms can be different for each assignment, so it’s important that travel nurses confirm the details before making a commitment. Once you sign the contract, you’re committed to the job, so make sure it’s a good fit first.

  • What is the base rate pay? 
    Be sure to ask what your base hourly wage will be. This information can serve as a good reference when assessing the value of other financial perks that may be on the table.
  • What is the overtime or extra hours pay terms? 
    Sometimes travel nurses end up working more hours than are specified in their contract terms. Ask about compensation under these circumstances and be sure it is also spelled out in the contract.
  • What benefits are available?
    Ask this of both the staffing agency and the hiring facility. Knowing what benefits are offered can help you determine whether or not the contract has enough financial value for you.
  • What is the shift coverage policy?
    Sometimes even travel nurses need to call in sick. Be sure to ask what happens if you must miss a shift and if any penalties are in place.
  • What kinds of housing assistance will I receive?
    This is also a good question for the staffing agency, depending on who makes the arrangements. Figure out if housing is arranged or if a stipend is provided. Make sure to get specific details about housing packages.
  • Will I be reimbursed for my travel expenses?
    Ask about expenses to and from work as well as relocating to the new contract area. Travel nurses should make sure that any reimbursements or stipends cover enough travel costs to make the contract worthwhile.

Understanding Travel Nursing Taxes

Filing federal and state income taxes as a travel nurse can be particularly complicated, but taking the time to do it right can make a noticeable difference in how much money travel nurses ultimately earn. While good staffing agencies strive to help travel nurses navigate their careers, they often don’t break down tax details, so it’s good to know in advance and plan accordingly. These are general guidelines, but it’s important to discuss your specific situation with your tax advisor.

Key tax deductions to be aware of for travel nursing

Travel nurses used to be able to take advantage of more deductions, but legislative changes in 2017 no longer allow nurses to write off certain expenses. This is important to keep in mind when doing research, as many articles have not been updated to reflect these changes. In the past, travel nurses were able to deduct expenses incurred at work that exceeded their stipends, but that is no longer the case. Nurses can still receive stipends and reimbursements, but as of January 2018, tax deductions for them are not an option. Even if an agency does not offer the GSA maximum allowable amount for per diems, travel nurses cannot deduct the remaining balance from their taxes. This means it’s important for travel nurses to carefully consider other financial benefits that can make up for the loss of deductions.

Taxable vs. non-taxable income

When looking at taxable income alone — that is, base hourly wages — travel nursing may not seem financially viable. However, its real benefit comes in the form of nontaxable income. Stipends, per diems and certain reimbursements are all forms of nontaxable income, and they can greatly offset the costs and increase a travel nurse’s net earnings. Staffing agencies often roll these benefits into something called a “tax advantage plan,” and your recruiter can walk you through package specifics. In general, these packages give travel nurses set stipends or reimbursement amounts for travel, food, housing and incidentals. Because this money technically isn’t income, it is untaxed. Travel nurses should keep in mind that they may be able to negotiate these benefits, so researching their potential cost of living and related expenses ahead of time can be useful. It’s also essential that travel nurses keep their receipts and carefully document all expenses so they can get adequately reimbursed.

How to qualify for non-taxable income

The one major caveat with non-taxable income is that not everyone is eligible to receive it. Travel nurses must prove that they maintain a tax home and that their work creates duplicate expenses, like living costs, in order to receive stipends, per diems and reimbursements. Travel nurses should note that the tax home must be official and legitimate to receive non-taxable income. This means satisfying two of three requirements:

  • You conduct some of your business in the same area as your main residence and use that residence for lodging while you work.
  • You have living expenses at your main residence that are duplicated when you travel.
  • You haven’t abandoned your tax home.

What is your tax home?

Which states do you need to file in?

Tips for keeping income and expense information organized