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What is a travel nurse, and who can become one?

Let’s talk about the basics here for a moment. A travel nurse is a nurse who will work in his/her specialty while taking travel contracts at different facilities across the U.S. For Travel Nurse 101 purposes, we’ll focus on healthcare professionals with a U.S. Active Registered Nurse License (although some companies hire LPNS). 

So, here’s the tea. It’s highly recommended that you have at least 1-2 years of RN experience in your specialty before travel nursing, although this can vary depending on your travel nurse company. Certain specialties, such as Labor and Delivery, can have even more specific requirements. Why is this experience encouraged? For a successful start as a new travel nurse, you need to be confident and comfortable with your nursing skills in your specialty because you will likely get minimal orientation at these facilities and will need to hit the ground running. You will be in a new town, hospital, and unit with new people you have never worked with before, so you won’t want any added stress. Trust me on this one – take your time, get a strong core foundation as a nurse, and excel in your time management skills before deciding to leap into travel nursing.

What certifications do you need to become a travel nurse? You will need your Basic Life Support and any other certifications required for your specialty and the facility you will be working for, such as ACLS, TNCC, NRP, PALS, etc. 

Why should I become a travel nurse?

I am here to provide you with the tools you need to get started in your journey, but this is a very personal question that only you can answer. What is your why? Having a solid reason why you want to become a travel nurse will help keep you focused on the prize.  Do you need more flexibility in your work and personal life? Are you ready for a change in your work environment? Do you want to challenge yourself, expand your nursing skills, and step out of your day-to-day routine?  Do you want to meet new people and have the opportunity to gain new friendships and networks? Do you have financial goals you are trying to obtain? Are you at a time and place in your life that doesn’t obligate you to stay in one location? If you answered yes to any of these questions, travel nursing might be a great fit for you. Brainstorm your current wants, needs, and your deal-breakers. Understanding why travel nursing is a great career choice for you will help you communicate what’s important to your company and recruiter and be transparent about your intentions. 

Why do hospitals use travel nurses?

Travel nurses are often called in when a unit or hospital needs additional support and is experiencing a shortage in nursing staff. You will likely be filling a hospital’s temporary need while they are in the process of hiring permanent staff. Hospitals also use travel nurses strategically to augment the workforce during peak times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic or during flu and RSV season. Travel nurses make efficient plug-ins for areas that are hard to fill, and travelers are needed more than ever during the pandemic.

How long is a typical travel nurse assignment?

Many healthcare facilities use travel nurses, from prestigious teaching facilities to small community hospitals, outpatient surgery centers, clinics, and more. A typical travel nurse assignment is 13 weeks. About four to six weeks into your contract, discussions will begin about whether or not you want to extend your stay at that facility by signing another contract. It’s your decision whether you wish to stay or find another assignment. Sometimes, extending an assignment can be nice because you already know the area and the unit. You can stay at one facility for up to a year minus one day as a traveler. The one-year restriction only applies if you wish to remain tax compliant and receive subsidies. If not, then you will be fully taxed at a year and beyond. Your company typically initiates the conversation around contract extension, but you can also start the discussion with your nurse manager on the unit if you’d like to stay. Keep in mind that the facility might not offer extensions if it no longer has a need to fill, and pay rates may change as you sign a new contract.

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How do I choose a travel nurse company and recruiter?

Your travel nurse company and recruiter can make or break your experience, so this question should not be taken lightly. The short answer is you need to pick a travel nurse company that is knowledgeable, transparent, trustworthy, and personable. This company needs to pay you fairly and have good resources and benefits for you.  

So, how do you find a company and recruiter with those attributes? Do your due diligence and research, research, research. Knowledge is power! First, you’ll want to work for an agency that the Joint Commission credentials. Agencies that obtain this certification must complete a strict qualification process, and it helps ensure that the company is upheld to the highest standards in the industry.

From there, the absolute best way is to get referrals from other travel nurses (you can even do this in social media groups) and search for travel nurse agency reviews. When researching travel nurse companies, it is imperative to use a longstanding and reputable site for reviews. One of my personal favorites is The Gypsy Nurse, which lists the Top Agencies based on their national ranking, user reviews, and features.

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How do I obtain licensing for my travel nurse assignments?

Travel nurse companies will provide you with the information you need to obtain the required license for your assigned state. Each state has its own rules and regulations, so I recommend that you contact the state board of nursing directly. Some companies pay for any licenses or certifications required by the facility and may also have a “valet program” to help you. Be sure to talk with your recruiter about this for specifics. Some facilities will also extend their permanent employee benefits to travelers, including continued education and specific certifications such as NIH, ACLS, and more.

Will my travel nurse company help me find housing?

Make sure your travel nurse agency has resources to help you with housing – one of the main pain points for many travelers. Luckily, some travel nurse agencies have a whole department dedicated to helping you find the right place to stay, and they can tell you how it will come out of your paycheck. If your agency does have a housing department, you’ll want to use them as a resource whether you choose to find your living arrangements or take company-provided housing. Housing can be limited in certain locations and peak times of the year, so the more flexible you are, the better off you will be!

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How much do travel nurses earn? What are other benefits that may be available to me from a travel nurse company?

There are a lot of factors that go into how much travel nurses earn, so let’s break this down into three parts.

Traveler Pay Rate

The pay rate for an assignment will depend on the facility, location, and specialty, but the rates are generally higher than for equally experienced permanent staff. Additionally, it’s important to note that travelers do not typically receive any shift differentials. Overtime rate and holiday rate should be written into your contract. 

Traveler Stipends

Housing stipends are another component of travel nurse pay, but sometimes, they can seem confusing. Simply put, housing stipends are a sum of money your agency will give you to cover housing expenses if you choose to not take company housing. In order to qualify for the non-taxable housing stipend, you must have a legitimate tax home that you are traveling away from for work and incurring an expense for that housing. 

Traveler Benefits

Other things to take into account are the benefits your company offers. This will affect each traveler differently and you can choose what’s the most important to you. Some added benefits many companies offer beyond your pay and stipends may include day-one health insurance, 401(k), low census protection, travel reimbursement, license and certification reimbursement, tuition reimbursement, and 24/7 access to your clinical support team. 

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Where are travel nursing jobs available?

Travel assignments are available in every state. Job availability is dependent on several factors, like your specialty, flexibility, and hospital need. Knowing where and when you are willing to travel is key to finding a compatible travel nurse contract. I highly recommend making a list of destinations you would like to visit. Then, take that a step further and list specific facilities where you would like to work. This list may be something that comes with time and after doing more research as you interact and meet other travelers who recommend places they’ve really enjoyed. My most important piece of advice for travel nursing jobs: try to be flexible and have an open mind. Some of my best assignments were in destinations that I would have never expected to love so much. 

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What does it take to be a successful travel nurse?

I’ll say it again – knowledge is power! Knowing what to expect before you start travel nursing can help set you up for success and save you from heartbreak later.  So, do your due diligence and research all that you can. In the meantime, here are some quick tips.

  • Stay organized.
  • Have a decent savings account for unexpected expenses. You don’t want one hiccup to make or break your travel career. 
  • Be flexible in your pursuits, try to stay open-minded, and remember your reason why you want to be a travel nurse. 
  • Get everything you want out of an assignment in writing in your contract, and actually read and understand your contract.  
  • Know your resources and how to use them. Lock arms with a travel nurse mentor to help walk you through every step of your journey. 
  • Don’t forget to take time for yourself, explore your new area, and have fun!!