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Choosing Travel Nurse Agencies | Trusted Guides

Sep 3, 2019
The Trusted Team

So, You're Looking at Travel Nurse Agencies?

By the time you start thinking seriously about travel nurse agencies (or nurse staffing agencies), you’ve probably decided to give this “travel nursing” thing a shot. 

You may even have started looking around at a few nurse staffing agencies―many (if not all) of whom are now scrambling over one another to offer you travel nurse assignments to apply for. Score!

While it’s exciting to be the center of attention, it’s probably a bit daunting, too. What’s the best travel nurse agency to work for? Will your agency be able to secure the travel nurse jobs you want (pay package, private housing, etc)? What are the highest paying travel nurse agencies? How do you know you’re getting top pay? Wait... what is a good deal?! Figuring out the answers to all these questions (and more!) in your head might leave you feeling stuck.   

We get it. We’ve been there! We’re dishing out the deets on the thinking points that you can use to find the best travel nurse agencies for you!

Compensation: Finding the Highest Paying Travel Nurse Agencies

Show me the moneyyy! But really.

Compensation is one of the most commonly cited reasons for traveling as a registered nurse. In fact, a recent BluePipes survey of travel nurses found that 82% of them ditched their full-time staff positions to work with nurse staffing agencies because of pay. How much does travel nursing pay? A recent Staffing Industry Analysts study estimates that the average rate paid to travel nurses by travel nurse agencies nationwide is a little over $50 per hour, but that number varies widely depending on a whole host of factors. 

Higher pay was a major motivator in 82% of nurses who left their permanent staff positions to become travel nurses.

Usually, travel nurse agencies advertising open positions will have basic information, including location, unit type, and―you guessed it!―compensation up front to help you with your decision. Unfortunately, it's not that simple; the weekly dollar amount won’t give you the full story. A bunch of factors―from the travel nurse agency's profit margins to employee insurance costs to travel and licensing reimbursement amounts will all affect the compensation packages that are ultimately presented to you.

Even then, travel nurse compensation packages are usually broken down into taxable income and nontaxable income. It’s a lot, we know. That’s why we’re breaking down some of the most important parts of working as a traveling nurse for you.

Heads up: the following information is for travel nurses who have and maintain a tax home, meaning that they’d qualify for tax free reimbursements. If you’re not sure whether this applies to you, take a peek at our guide on taxes and have a chat with your friendly neighborhood IRS professional. (They don’t bite, we promise.)

Base Rate

When considering travel nursing salary, the first category of money to look at is the base rate. A base rate is the “normal” rate that you’re paid for each hour worked and typically reflects a variety of factors including the type of specialty required, the location of the assignment, and even the type of shift. This portion of your compensation package is taxable income. 

A base rate is usually front-and-center―especially for new travel nurses―but keep in mind that it’s far from the only factor that should go into consideration when you’re comparing compensation packages or trying to determine the highest paying travel nursing agencies.

Extra Hours Pay

If you’re planning on picking up extra shifts, you’ll want to understand how the policies at different nurse staffing agencies affect your pay as a travel nurse.

When it comes to overtime pay, some travel nurse agencies will make their compensation more competitive by offering a higher overtime rate than the law requires. Others will offer overtime rates closer to what the law requires and then include “extra hours pay”―essentially a bonus pay for working more hours than you contractually have to. 

Wait, what? Yes, you read right. 

If you work for a travel nurse agency that has extra hours pay and you end up working more hours than are required by your contract (say, picking up extra shifts), then in some cases, you don’t only get paid overtime, you also get paid an “extra hours” rate. 

Ultimately, regardless of what method is used to handle your overtime pay, you want to make sure that you’re paid fairly. Whenever travel nurses take on extra shifts, travel nurse agencies get to charge their nurses’ respective healthcare facilities for those hours, so it’s only fair that they have a way to pass on some of those profits. 

Reimbursements 

Another important consideration in travel nursing companies is the amount of reimbursement provided for lodging, meals, and incidentals while you’re on assignment. Beyond housing stipends, meals, and incidentals, different travel nurse agencies may include reimbursements or stipends for other circumstances, from scrubs to continuing education courses.

Reimbursements are important because they typically make up a large chunk―and sometimes even the majority―of your take-home pay as a travel nurse. Remember, when you’re comparing different travel nurse agency compensation packages, consider the reimbursement category in addition to taxable income. 

All this talk of money might have you curious about compensation for travel nurses nationwide. Tune back in for our travel nurse compensation report coming out in early September! 

Service: Guaranteeing You Have a Seamless Application Experience

Don’t fall into the trap of simply assuming that the highest paying travel nurse agencies are the best travel nurse agencies to work for. Money can’t buy happiness, especially if you’re trying to maintain that happiness during the onboarding process. 

For peak happiness (and minimal stress!), you’ll want to work with nurse staffing agencies that conduct business in a way that empowers their nurses to make the best decisions for themselves―both personally and professionally. That takes trustworthiness, integrity, and recruiters (or Nurse Advocates!) who genuinely advocate for their nurses in the job search process. 

Here’s how to make sure that you’re getting all three. 

Word-of-Mouth

Websites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor have yet to really catch on in the healthcare space. What can you do to research travel nurse agencies in the meantime? Believe it or not, word-of-mouth remains incredibly powerful―and not simply in healthcare. As many as 50% of people use word-of-mouth as a major channel for finding new job opportunities. 

If you’re unsure of the reputation of a travel nurse agency, don’t be afraid to ask them for references from former nurses. Additionally, if you have any friends or past coworkers in the travel nursing sphere, reach out to them for their opinion on trustworthy travel nurse agencies. After all, if an agency is making its travel nurses happy, at least some of those nurses will be more than willing to vouch for them! 

If you aren’t able to receive references from travel nurses vouching for the agency, then hop online! Travel nurses from around the country have formed communities around their shared experiences (and challenges!) as travel nurses. There are travel nursing communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Instagram! 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to the individuals in these groups and ask for their advice on an agency’s reputation. Not only are they a source of knowledge on everything from traveler-friendly medical facilities to networking in a new city, but they’re free. ;) 

Finally, like all pieces of information you receive from individuals online, be sure to do your own additional research to confirm.

50% of people use word-of-mouth as a major channel for finding new job opportunities.

Travel Nurse Recruiters

Describing a travel nurse as “working with an agency” is a bit misleading. Most of the time, if someone’s using a travel nurse agency to help find a travel assignment, the vast majority of that time is actually spent working with a travel nurse recruiter. 

Travel nurse recruiters are the ones who’ll answer the brunt of your questions, let you know what assignments are available, and guide you through the application process. Because a lot of your experience with the travel agency will be through them, it’s important that you’re happy―no, elated―with the travel nurse recruiter you choose. 

Signs of an A+ Recruiter

A lot goes into making an awesome travel nurse recruiter―from experience and passion to a wealth of resources and contacts with account managers at different facilities. Here are some signs that you’ve landed a keeper. 

They listen (and act accordingly). 

Look out for travel nurse recruiters who remember details about you as an individual and incorporate that into helping you find your next assignment. For example, maybe after hearing you share your interest in learning how to surf, they send you some Hawaii travel options! Even remembering details as simple as what your significant other does for a living or asking how your kids are doing (if you have them, of course!) are good signs. 

A travel nurse recruiter who listens to your requirements, concerns, and all the details in between is a promising advocate for you (not just in the short term, but the long term as well).

They’re responsive. 

As a nurse, your time off shifts is valuable. Don’t waste it trying to chase down an unresponsive travel nurse recruiter for answers or next steps―there are way too many other recruiters (and travel nurse agencies) out there who’ll happily be more attentive! Applying for assignments is a time-sensitive process: a slow response could cause you to lose a spot to another travel nurse whose recruiter was more on-the-ball.

They’re knowledgeable (and open about what they don’t know). 

Your travel nurse recruiter should answer your questions thoroughly and confidently. This often comes with a strong relationship between their travel nurse agency and the medical facility or prior experience helping travel nurses who’ve worked at that facility.

Most importantly, observe what your recruiter does if they don’t immediately have the answer. (If that never happens, be suspicious.) A good recruiter isn’t afraid to admit when they’re unsure of something and consult with qualified parties to clarify. 

They’ve got your best interests in mind. 

Do you feel like your recruiter is invested in finding the best possible assignment for you? If your answer to that question is “no” or even a hesitant “yes,” then it’s time to look for a new one. It shouldn’t be a shock that recruiters are working in their agencies’ best interests, but that’s no reason not to work in yours, too! 

In fact, your best interest is in the best interest of the travel nurse agency. 

Think about it: you work with a recruiter who quickly finds an assignment you love, helps you apply and onboard, and checks in with you throughout the duration of your assignment to make sure that you’re doing well. 

As a result, you’re a lot less stressed and more prepared, which makes it easy to do an awesome job. It’s a win-win(-win?) situation: you’ve had a great experience and are likely to return, the hospital is pleased with the quality of work provided, and the recruiter earns a great reputation with both you and the hospital, which may translate into more revenue later on. 

Recruiter Red Flags

It’s just as important to spot red flags as it is to know when you’ve found an awesome recruiter. If you notice your recruiter doing any of these, then don’t be afraid to walk away. As Laura, head of Nomadicare, puts it: “Many times [recruiters] learn because we leave. You are a great teacher for them when you can set boundaries, practice great communication, and walk away with grace and kindness while you do it.” 

So what red flags should you be looking out for? Why, we’re glad you asked!

Being trigger-happy when it comes to job submissions.

Unfortunately, submitting your application without your permission is far too common a practice among recruiters in the healthcare staffing industry. Recruiters may claim that waiting until you review all the details before submitting wastes precious time that could cause you to lose out on the position. 

That thinking is dangerous. 

Not only does this kind of submission undermine your authority in deciding which applications are best for you, it also increases the chance that you interview for a job that you aren’t truly interested in―a waste of everyone’s time. And while double submissions (when multiple recruiters submit you for the same position) aren’t the end of the world, they can create problems for you down the line. 


alarm clock time is of the essence for travel nurses
Time may be of the essence of a travel nurse, but don’t settle for a recruiter that submits applications without your permission.

Not having promises and agreements down in writing.

From charting to contracts, you’ve probably heard it before, and you’ll certainly hear it again: if it isn’t in writing, it doesn’t count. It’s easy to forget verbal agreements―especially if weeks have passed after the fact. 

Avoid a conversation that debilitates into a pointless he-said-she-said standoff by ensuring that all agreements are clearly outlined in both your contract with your travel nurse agency and your agency’s contract with your medical facility. If your recruiter isn’t on top of getting your asks in writing (or worse yet, is discouraging you from getting them in writing), watch out.

Guilt-tripping you for looking at multiple recruiters.

Working with multiple recruiters from different travel nurse agencies isn’t only normal, it’s recommended! Consulting with multiple recruiters broadens your application field, helps you identify unusually good (and bad) packages, and gives you a leg up in negotiations. Not doing so only puts you at a disadvantage. 

Thus, a recruiter should never try to corner you into working exclusively with them. Ultimately, as a travel nurse, you need to find the offer that works best for you―if an agency wants to guarantee your business, they should be taking a look at their compensation packages, not your “loyalty."

Here’s the bottom line: if you feel pressured, hurried, or otherwise unsupported by your recruiter, it's time to move on. Travel assignments may be temporary, but even 13 weeks can feel like an eternity if your travel nurse recruiter (or even the travel nurse agency) doesn’t have your back.      

Onboarding Experience

Is the process streamlined and efficient? Do you feel informed and empowered? 

Your application timeline will feature a dizzying array of different requirements and deadlines, which can make applying to your next travel assignment feel scary and overwhelming. What’s the best way to combat this sense of drowning in checklists, emails, and applications? 

A streamlined, simple-ish application and onboarding experience.

Why simple-ish? Believe it or not, there’s never a guarantee that a travel nurse’s application and onboarding experience will go smoothly, and this isn’t always the fault of the travel nurse agency. Many individuals are involved in a travel nurse’s application process behind the scenes, and the relative lack of tech savviness in the industry doesn’t help the situation.

Nonetheless, the best travel nurse agencies (and most experienced travel nurse recruiters) out there try their best to provide a relatively seamless and cohesive application experience that supports, informs, and guides their nurses each step of the way―and those efforts are often clearly felt (and appreciated!) by the travel nurses they work with.  

So be sure to do research into each travel nurse agency’s application and onboarding process by asking questions such as:

How does the agency keep track of tasks that you must complete, and how often do they communicate with their nurses on next steps? Will your travel nurse recruiter check in regularly throughout the application process, or must you be proactive in getting that information from them and completing the steps on your own? Will you receive the information you need to know in a flurry of emails sent to your inbox from different parties or neatly displayed on a checklist in your personal account?

The application and onboarding experience is often the best chance to get an early sense of how much support you’ll receive from the team at your travel nurse agency. And you’ll need this support if hiccups come up during your application or even while you’re on assignment. 

So, are you comfortable with the support that the travel nurse agency that you’re considering will provide? If your answer is anything less than an enthusiastic “absolutely!"... reconsider working with them. 

After You Sign   

So, you've used the advice above to find the best travel nurse agency for your needs, scouted out a great recruiter, and breezed through a seamless onboarding experience. Are you done? Of course not! There’s still an entire travel nurse assignment to do!

One of the most overlooked and under-appreciated responsibilities that a travel nurse agency should embrace is taking care of their nurses through the duration of their assignment. It’s not uncommon to see travel nursing applications approached from a transactional lens―that is, once each of you are able to get what you want from the other, the relationship ends. But let’s be real: your travel nurse experience (and work with agencies) doesn’t end with you signing your first (or tenth!) contract.

What should you do if there are hiccups during orientation? What happens if you’re facing a hostile work environment? What if you love the hospital and want to extend your time there? 

Make sure that the travel nurse recruiter love doesn’t end once your shifts start. Check for signs that the travel nurse agency and your recruiter continue to make you feel appreciated and empowered throughout your assignment. Some agencies host events for their nurses or send gifts on big work milestones, but the possibilities on this are almost endless! Also, if your travel nurse agency hosts networking events or meet-and-greets for its nurses, take advantage of the opportunity to meet some new friends!

Perks: Evaluating Your Travel Nurse Agency’s Benefits

No travel nurse agency’s package is complete without benefits. The most common benefits you’re likely to receive are insurance and lodging, but each company uses its own unique blend of ingredients to make its secret sauce.

Housing

We know... moving’s a hassle. Finding which neighborhoods are safe, researching the cost of living, figuring out what type of short-term housing will best suit your needs―all of these take time and energy. When it comes to travel nurse housing, there are usually two options:

(1) You have company-sponsored housing. This means that your travel nurse agency will have a place ready for you. While the convenience is definitely a plus, you should check ahead of time that the place where you’ll be housed is up to your standards, as not all company housing is made the same. When deciding on whether to make use of company-sponsored housing, remember to consider the distance to the facility and the amenities available. 

(2) You’ll have a stipend to purchase housing with. While this may be the less convenient option, it also allows you to personally ensure that you get a place you approve of. It also gives you a lot more flexibility in your living setup. Some nurses choose to travel around all 50 states in RVs instead of arranging hotels, motels, or AirBnBs. Some nurses are able to pool their money with other travelers to rent shared apartments. Regardless of your living preferences, receiving a housing stipend directly will allow you the most flexibility in making them a reality.

Not all travel nurse agencies offer both options, and not all company-sponsored housing and/or stipends will be the same, so make sure that you choose an agency that will allow you to live the way you want!

Insurance

If moving wasn’t stressful enough! Like housing, you’re bound to run into variations in how travel nurse agencies handle insurance. And like housing, you shouldn’t be afraid to find a travel nurse agency with an arrangement that works for you!

We’re diving into the two most common insurance arrangements below, but keep in mind that not all agencies offer both options. If one is especially important for you, make sure this option is available with the travel nurse agency you want to work with.

Joining the Company’s Insurance

Your travel nurse agency may offer a company-sponsored health insurance plan that you can join. Medical plans typically cost roughly $30-60 dollars per week. With this arrangement, organizing your insurance is a relatively hands-off process.

That being said, there are rules that you’ll want to be clear on beforehand. Some plans come into effect the day you begin your assignment, while others require a specific waiting period. Also, different plans vary around what happens to your insurance between assignments―you’ll want to clarify these aspects up front to avoid gaps in coverage. 

Buying Your Own Insurance

If your travel nurse agency’s insurance plans do not offer the coverage you need, or you’re wary of having to switch health insurance plans and providers each time you sign up for an assignment with a new agency, you can consider purchasing your own insurance. While the burden for securing health insurance is now on your shoulders, you also have more freedom to shop around for a plan that best works for you and your family.  

401(k) Options

Pensions are rare for nurses as is, and we’ve never seen one available for travelers. Retirement accounts are the next best thing, so getting access to one through your travel nurse agency is definitely a plus. For a simple crash course on retirement accounts (and how they can help you retire rich), check out this article about the ways in which nurses can actually retire wealthier than doctors

Long story short, if your travel nurse agency offers a 401(k) program, take advantage of it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a 401(k) and an employer willing to match your contributions, you definitely have no excuse.

If your travel nurse agency doesn’t offer 401(k) options, ask your recruiter whether it has any other programs available to help you save and plan for retirement. It only takes a few extra minutes to figure out, and your future self will thank you. 

Continuing Education Courses (and Credits!)

Ah, continuing education credits. Those contact hours that you find yourself scrambling to complete every couple of years (depending on your state). 

Did you know that some travel nurse agencies can help you get them? That’s right―some agencies secure partnerships with CE providers to secure classes or workshops that grant continuing education credits at little to no cost. And as a travel nurse, this can be a huge relief: frequently moving from facility to facility makes it difficult to take advantage of classroom courses as is. 

Inquire into whether your travel nurse agency sponsors or provides continuing education courses for its travel nurses. If you don’t, you may be missing out on an opportunity to save yourself some money on your education! 

Speaking of continuing education credits... in the near future, you'll be able to receive some credit for reading this article (stay tuned to find out how)! 

Bonus!: Remain "Non-Exclusive"

You should treat choosing a travel nurse agency like going on first dates―keep your options open! 

Having multiple travel nurse agencies searching for jobs on your behalf at any given time is good for many reasons. You widen your reach when it comes to finding assignments. You get a more comprehensive sense of the opportunities currently on the market. You give yourself more room for negotiation between yourself and the agency. You can even use this to protect yourself in the case that your contract gets canceled at the last minute!

Picking the best travel nurse agency for you can make or break an assignment, so make sure that you select carefully! And of course, while we don't consider ourselves a traditional travel nurse agency, we can help you get from point A to B in your travel journey just as quickly as the best of them- more often than not with a big smile on your face ;)