Snapshot: This article reviews what travel nursing is, what to consider before becoming a travel nurse, how to find agencies and assignments, and key concerns and resources for travel nurses.
What Is Travel Nursing?
- Travel nursing allows you to get paid as a nurse while you live or work somewhere new. Most travel nurses sign up with a travel agency or company to find job opportunities and secure contracts. While many nurses join with the express intent of traveling beyond their hometown, state, or even country, in some cases you may be able to work as a travel nurse where you already live.
- Travel nursing involves relatively short-term commitments. While travel assignments may range from 4 to 30 weeks, the typical travel assignment is 13 weeks in length. Some agencies and employers automatically include the option to extend the assignment by an additional 13 weeks.
- Travel nursing is geographically and institutionally diverse. Opportunities exist in a wide range of locations and facilities: from small rural hospitals and clinics to large academic medical centers in major metropolitan areas.
- Travel nursing has a long history, and is well established. Travel nursing is well understood by nurse recruiters and HR representatives. Travel nursing can help to boost your resume by demonstrating your drive and flexibility, and your ability and desire to succeed in new and challenging work environments.
- Most travel nursing assignments are available in acute care areas. This typically includes clinical areas such as Med-Surg, Cardiac, Oncology, ICU, OR, ER, and PACU. However, some home health care companies and hospices also use travelers.
- Most travelers earn a premium wage. Travel nurses are usually compensated above the average wage for nurses in their geographic area, in exchange for filling urgent staffing needs and due to the short-term nature of most travel nursing contracts. Pay typically ranges between $30 – $50 per hour, depending upon geographic location, clinical area, and the travel nurse’s level of experience.
- Most travel nurses earn tax-free benefits. Travelers who maintain a primary residence in one state and work in another may qualify for a “Permanent Tax Home,” as defined by the IRS, and receive housing stipends, and payments for meals and other incidentals, on a tax free basis.
Is Travel Nursing Right for You?
- Travel nursing is demanding and requires particular skills. Travel nursing isn’t for everyone – it requires that you be flexible, open to change, and a fast learner. It also requires excellent communication skills, and the ability to work well with diverse groups of individuals.
- To evaluate travel nursing, talk to others. One of the best ways to evaluate whether travel nursing is right for you is to talk to others who have done it. Ask them what they liked and disliked about it, what surprised them, what they learned, and perhaps most important, whether they’d do it again and why.
- Experience is required to work as a travel nurse. Most travel nursing agencies require a minimum of 18 months of work experience. Requirements to work in Med-Surg, Psychiatric, and Rehabilitation may be as high as two years. The work experience required for LVN’s may be as much as five or six years. Most agencies will also require that you be a U.S. citizen too.
- You must be well-grounded in your skills. Travel nurses are expected to walk on the job and be able to ‘figure it out.’ Consequently, you need to be clinically confident and highly competent to be a successful travel nurse. If you’re shaky in your skills, you may want to wait until you gain more experience before you try travel nursing.
- Travel nurses often get the most difficult patients. Travel nursing isn’t for the faint of heart. Let’s face it: travel nurses can get stuck with some of the most complex and most challenging patients on a unit, because they aren’t expected to be around long, and haven’t usually had the opportunity to develop rapport and relationships with their fellow nurses. This isn’t always the case, but it’s something you should be prepared for.
- Most travelers work full time. It’s relatively rare for travel nurses to work less than full time, or close to it. After all, the reason a traveler is required is usually due to staffing constraints. Most travel nurses work 36 – 40 hours per week; the length and type of shift, and number of days per week worked, varies depending upon the facility and location.
- Travel nursing can be exciting and fun, but also lonely. Travel nursing can be great – if it’s a fit for who you are and where you are in your life and your career. It’s easy to be seduced by the romance of the concept: see new places, make more money, meet new people, have an adventure or two. Consider, however, what you leave behind when you travel: the security and comforts of home, and friends and family. The point is to think it through first. If you have doubts, consider traveling with a friend. (Yes, some agencies allow you to request this and will do their best to honor that request).
- Travel nursing contracts come one at a time. Nearly all travel nursing agencies do not obligate you to sign any kind of long term contract or commitment. You’re obligated to complete each travel assignment, but not to accept subsequent assignments. You may forfeit bonuses and incentives by not accepting more work with the agency, but you should never associate yourself with a travel agency that obligates you or financially penalizes you for not choosing to continue accepting assignments through the agency. That’s one of the benefits of travel nursing: you can try it out, but if it doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to continue with it.
How to Become a Travel Nurse
- Do your research and select a qualified agency. The first step in becoming a travel nurse is to select an agency. There are many well-respected agencies to choose from, but not all are equally desirable. When you’re selecting a company, look for how long they’ve been around, and which agencies respected hospitals and facilities in your area are using to fill their travel positions. You should also look for a travel nursing company that is certified by the Joint Commission (this will usually be listed on the agency’s website). Certification ensures the agency meets all necessary regulatory requirements, and can provide you assurance that the company is legitimate and on sound footing.
- When comparing travel nursing agencies, look at the big picture. Most agencies will offer a variety of available assignments and locations, competitive pay and benefits, health insurance, 401(k) plans, and a housing stipend. It’s important to look at more than just hourly pay and take all of these factors into consideration. Some often-overlooked items to investigate include whether travel expenses to and from your work assignments are covered, and whether the agency will reimburse you for the cost of getting your license endorsed in other states. When you’re evaluating benefits, especially healthcare benefits, examine not only what’s covered, but also co-pays and when those benefits kick in. Your best bet is to prioritize the items most important to you, and make a spreadsheet to compare as many agencies as possible. Then, when you’ve narrowed it down to a few top choices, get on the phone and ask to speak to a recruiter at each agency. See if he or she answers your questions in a professional, clear, and straightforward way. You want to know you can trust and communicate well with whichever agency you select.
- Get the background stuff out of the way. Travel agencies (like most employers these days) will require at a minimum proof of your active nursing license, and may also likely require a physical exam, proof of current immunizations, a criminal background check, and proof of valid and current CPR training. Some will also require a drug screen. Be sure you have all this paperwork handy, or schedule time to get these verifications completed sooner rather than later. You don’t want your first assignment on hold because of some bureaucratic hang-up.
- Select your preferred travel locations, and submit your application. Most travel nursing agencies will begin searching for positions as soon as you submit your application. So, you’ll probably need to think about the geographic areas and types of nursing you’re most interested to work in at the beginning of the process. When selecting a geographic location, take into account not only pay, but also opportunities for fun and leisure and distance to your hometown or city, where you’ll probably return between assignments. And don’t forget weather: for nurses from warmer climates, in particular, adjusting to a cold climate can come as an unwelcome shock. When selecting a clinical area, you’ll probably be somewhat limited by the area or areas in which you already have experience, as most travel agencies can’t offer to train you in a new area of nursing. If you have expertise and experience in several fields, think about which field is not only most desirable to you today, but could open up new challenges and opportunities for you in your career down the road.
- Notify agencies you’ve chosen not to work with. As with any job search, you should notify potential employers you’ve chosen not to work with if you still have an open application. Not only is this a professional courtesy, you never know if you may want to work with a different travel nursing agency in the future. Your respectful communication will be remembered, and could make it easier to get your foot in the door at another agency if and when the time comes. This also helps out other travel nursing applicants, who may receive a prompter response once an agency knows you’ve found a position elsewhere.
- Develop a relationship with your recruiter. The recruiter you work with will be important not only at the beginning of your travel nursing contract, but throughout your travel assignment or assignments. In the beginning, your recruiter should be able to give you information about available assignments and start dates, requirements, pluses and minuses of different locations and assignments, information about clinical support, and the like. A good recruiter is someone who communicates well with you, respects and understands your priorities, and helps to match you with travel nursing opportunities that meet your needs. There is usually some ‘wiggle room’ in contracts on any number of items (start date, benefits, etc); developing a solid relationship will encourage your recruiter to look out for your best interests. Do your part by being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, your skills, and your preferences, and by being the kind of skilled, hard-working nurse that your recruiter and his or her agency will want to keep coming back for more assignments.
- Prepare for interviews, if they’re required. Some employers will require you to interview for available travel positions, and some won’t, depending upon how quickly they need to fill staffing needs. If you do need to interview, you should be able to ask your recruiter for guidelines and information about the interview process; a good recruiter can even help you anticipate interview questions and prepare for them. Also, take a look at the “Preparing for Interviews” article on this website for more information and advice about the interview process.
- Set up your banking and mail. You have a couple of options for keeping up with your mail while you’re away from home. You can forward your mail each time you move, or you can maintain a permanent address at a friend or family member’s house. Another option is to rent a P.O. Box and have your mail forwarded on a scheduled basis from this address. Banking is usually made easier by the fact that most travel companies allow direct deposit. It’s wise to always keep a cash reserve when you do travel nursing; paychecks from out of state banks may take a few extra days to clear.
Key Concerns for Travel Nurses
- Don’t underestimate the time needed to get your first assignment. Like many jobs, it’s hardest to get started in travel nursing at the beginning. Plan ahead, and consider not quitting your current nursing job until you’ve landed your first travel nursing assignment. It could take several weeks to several months to get that first travel nursing post, both because of the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles, and because employers tend to prefer seasoned travel nurses. Once you’ve gotten your first assignment, subsequent ones are usually easier to come by.
- Allow time to get your nursing license endorsed in other states. Another potential barrier to getting started in your travel nursing career is the time needed for other states to endorse your license, since you’ll need an active and valid license wherever you accept a travel assignment. Some states may only take a few days, while others (like California) may take 8 to 10 weeks, or more. One shortcut is to get your license from, or get your license endorsed in, one of the 23 states that have joined the Nurse License Compact (NLCA); of course, this means that whatever travel assignment you accept must also be in one of those states. You may want to start by accepting an assignment in a state where your license is endorsed relatively quickly while you wait for your license to be endorsed in other states.
- Choose your qualified tax home. To be a travel nurse, you’ll need to establish what the IRS calls a ‘Permanent Tax Home,’ which is where you maintain your primary residence (in between travel nursing assignments); typically this is where you have your driver’s license, where your car is registered, where you vote, and so on. Keep in mind that maintain a permanent tax home, your travel nursing assignments must be temporary. It’s therefore advisable to return to your permanent tax home between travel nursing assignments. Generally speaking, if you reside or work in another state for more than one year you can lose your permanent tax home status. Of course, you should seek the advice of a qualified tax professional to verify this information, which is presented for general information purposes only, and may not be accurate for your individual tax or financial situation.
- Understand the tax implications of travel nursing. Travel nursing has some important tax consequences and considerations. Your travel nursing agency will grant you a daily tax free reimbursement every day you’re away from your permanent tax home; this per day reimbursement varies depending upon location and is determined by the IRS. This should be calculated in terms of per day that you are on assignment residing in another area, not per day that you are working in that area. Keep in mind that this tax free reimbursement is separate from your pay rate, which is taxed as ordinary income. Keep in mind also that any bonuses you receive (i.e. for contract initiation or completion) will be taxed as ordinary income too. When you begin working as a travel nurse, W-4’s will be issued with your contract; a state tax for the state you’re working in will be deducted in additional to your federal W-4 deductions. One helpful tip is to set up a ‘travel folder’ early on to keep track of receipts and expenses, some of which may be tax deductible; this includes items such as licensing fees, CEU’s, uniform costs, certain travel expenses, etc). That said, while travel nursing can be advantageous from a tax point of view, it shouldn’t be the main reason you pursue it. Moreover, you should keep in mind some of the ‘hidden’ costs involved in travel nursing, such as travel to and from your primary residence. (Even if some of those expenses are tax deductible they can still add up). And of course, always seek the counsel of a qualified tax professional before making any personal financial decisions. This information is only presented as general advice; your individual financial situation may be unique.
- Analyze the value of bonuses. Some but not all travel nursing companies, and some but not all travel nurse employers, offer sign-on bonuses, referral bonuses, and/or tenure bonuses. Sign-up and contract completion bonuses tend to be the most common. Bonuses are great – but it’s always important to view them in the larger context of the ‘whole package’ of benefits and obligations when you’re considering signing on with a travel agency. And don’t forget – whatever bonuses you realize will be taxed as ordinary income.
- Get the nitty-gritty on your assignments. Before you sign on with a travel nursing agency, and with a particular employer, it’s important to find out some crucial details regarding what’s included and not included in your contract. Some of the more important questions you should consider include the following. First, are the hours per week or month you work guaranteed, or if the census is low and you get called off, do you still get paid? Will you be required to float to other units? (If you don’t want to float, make sure that’s in the contract). What is the staffing ratio on the unit or at the location where you’ll work, and along similar lines, what kind of support staff are available? Are lunch breaks required, and how long are they? You should also know the details on the days and hours you’ll work, and should ask if you’ll be required to work a certain number of weekends and/or holidays. Another area of concern is your job responsibilities; you should ask: will I need to be a charge RN, and if so, what training or support is available for that role? To answer some of these more specific questions about your particular assignment it’s often helpful to ask to speak with the manager on the unit where you’ll be working.
- Understand the housing benefit. One of the more important considerations in your travel nursing assignment is where you’ll live, and what sort of financial and practical assistance you’ll have with your housing. Most travel companies will offer you a choice between accepting pre-arranged housing, and accepting a housing allowance or stipend instead. If you’re thinking of finding your own place, it’s obviously important to find out what that housing stipend is; the value of the stipend will be determined not only by the dollar amount, but also by the local cost of housing, which in many locations (particular in northeastern and west coast metropolitan locales) can be pricy. If you’re thinking of going with agency-arranged housing, you want to be sure to ask whether housing is shared or non-shared (i.e. whether you’ll have a roommate). Most travel agencies supply furnished housing and set up and pay for utilities, but you should verify this. You might also ask what, specifically, the furniture package includes, and whether a security deposit will be required or not. Some agencies will allow you to travel with your spouse and/or family, and some will also allow you to request assignments together with a friend. Finally, if you have a pet, be sure to ask in advance whether that is allowed. If not, you may need to take the stipend and find a pet-friendly place of your own.
- Look into the support on offer. Although travel nurses are expected to be seasoned and relatively self-sufficient, it’s nonetheless a good idea to ask how a potential employer orients and/or trains travelers. Some employers will offer formal orientation programs, but others won’t. You may want to think twice about accepting an assignment, however lucrative, with an employer who offers little to no support or training.
- Consider your transition from travel nursing to staff nursing. Travel nursing can be great – but it’s probably not something you’ll do indefinitely. In fact, travel nursing can allow you to explore places to live and work on a more permanent basis once your assignment ends. Before you sign a contract, examine clauses that permit or do not permit you to work as a staff nurse (i.e. a permanent employee) if you’re hired into that role after your contract ends. As an intermediate step, it can also be helpful to discover whether extensions are allowed to your assignment, and if so, how many and under what terms.
Links & Resources
- http://www.pantravelers.org. The Professional Association of Nurse Travelers is the non-profit national organization that represents travel nurses in the U.S. The site providers visitors a useful ‘current news’ section, a variety of useful resource (including a ‘traveler’s calculator’ to calculate the value of salary and benefits offered by different travel agencies), and a variety of legal and tax resources, in addition to articles, editorials, and links.
- http://travelnursingblogs.com. This website offers current and future travel nurses a variety of useful articles, checklists and resources. The site includes information on career, family, finances, housing, cost of living and salary calculators, and ratings on different travel nursing companies.
- http://www.nursezone.com/Explore-Travel-Nursing/default.aspx. This is a sub-section of the larger nursezone.com site, which offers information on steps to become a travel nurse, featured jobs, and state and city guides. The FAQ’s (frequently asked questions) section about travel nursing, located on the left-hand menu bar of the site, is especially helpful.