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Part 1: How to Transition From Staff Nurse to Travel Nurse - Basics

Feb 2, 2021
Kailin Haugh, BSN, RN, CPN

Three-Part Series: How to Transition From Staff Nurse to Travel Nurse

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Ever thought about becoming a travel nurse but had no idea where to start? Have you been eager to take the leap and start the adventure, but you didn’t know what to even BEGIN researching? Well, dear friend, look no further. This article is here to serve you and fill you with a plethora of knowledge to best help you navigate any travel nursing woes.

As I'm writing this, I feel like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. A fab chic who is going to give you all the answers and guide you through the travel nursing world. 

Not a Sex in the City fan? No worries. All you need to know is that Carrie is the go-to, darling, advice guru that all of New York City just HAD to hear from. That's me- your own personal Carrie. Complete with dramatic sighs and wonderful insights into this life we call nursing. 

This will be a three-part article series, this being the first of three, so we can make sure to give you bite-sized and absorbable info. So sit back, relax, and whip out that notepad, because you're about to be DRENCHED in travel nursing know-how.

plane on runway at sunset travel nursing flight staff nurse to travel nurse

Travel Nursing Basics

I will say this loud and proud: travel nursing is AWESOME! I am happy you’ve decided to join the club. That being said, as with anything in life, it is always best to come prepared.

The 411 (what you need to know first)

Travel nursing is cool, fun, and you get to see as much of the country as you want to! You get out as much as you put in, always remember that. I like to have a goal of what I want to see OUTSIDE of work for each place I visit, so I can have a bunch of wonderful memories.

A standard contract is anywhere from one to three months in length. Usually, you have the opportunity to extend an assignment if the unit still needs help AND if you were a good sport throughout your time there. 

Extensions can vary in length as well, as it depends on what the unit needs. You can extend another week, month, or three months; three months being the max extension at a time (you are able to extend more than once, making your assignment length six, nine, or twelve months total).

However, once you hit 12 months in a travel position at the same hospital, your travel company will likely reach out to you asking if you want to be permanent staff there. If not, you need to move your little booty on to the next assignment!

Whatever price your recruiter or Nurse Advocate quotes you, or whatever price you see listed, is called your gross pay. Meaning you will get paid that amount weekly, with the exception of a few things. 

First, a portion of your paycheck will be taxed. Not ALL of your paycheck is taxed, which is great (aka you get to keep more moolah), but you will need to account for that number you're seeing listed to be just a little less. 

Second, if you are getting insurance through your travel agency, you will have to account for that deduction as well. Again these are pretty small adjustments but they are there!

You get a housing stipend and daily meal allowance. This varies by company and by location/hospital, but usually, the housing stipend matches the cost of living in the area you'll be in. These are paid out through each paycheck (typically weekly).

What to Know Before Starting Your First Travel Assignment

Here is a general overview of helpful tidbits that will give you a leg up before setting out on your new adventure:

  • Save up money, you will front the costs
  • Save up time, applying for licenses takes a minute (or 3,000)
  • Apply with two-three agencies right up front — it's tedious but better to get all of your references out of the way in the beginning!
  • Join communities (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to stay in the loop on new opportunities

Allow me to elaborate.

man looking at wallet and money sitting over desk with computer passport and globe staff nurse to travel nurse

Making the Big Bucks as a Travel Nurse

Travel nurses can make some very big bucks, as you've probably heard. However, what they don't make very clear is that you will be paying all the costs upfront, and THEN your travel nurse company will gradually reimburse you throughout your assignment. 

You will be paying the first month's rent, utilities (if they are not included in the lease you sign), license fees, fingerprinting fees, other fees associated with onboarding (if your company does not pay for them), and travel costs to get to your next location. 

It is also helpful to know you typically do not get paid the first week you start working. You get paid starting week two, and then you will get paid either weekly or every two weeks, depending on the company and hospital you’re working with. 

That first week's pay gets tagged on at the end; i.e. one week after the contract ends. That pay gap is helpful to know about when planning your budget, especially if your assignments don't line up back to back. 

Applying for Local Licenses: Early Bird Gets the Worm!

Give yourself at LEAST five to six weeks to apply for your nursing license in whatever state you are going to. Accepting an assignment in a state you're already licensed in? You can skip this part (lucky you)! 

Otherwise, note that it can take a LONG time for these states to process your license request. Follow the directions to a T, pay the fee, take a small exam if needed, and get everything mailed in with ample time before you're set to embark on your next contract. 

You don't want your start date to be around the corner, and you're sitting there stressing because your license hasn't come in yet. Been there, don't want to do that again. The hospital will also not let you start without a license, so unless you want your contract to be delayed or even canceled, be timely! 

Also, keep in mind that different states take different times to process licenses. For example, California is notorious for taking around eight weeks to send you your license. (It must be that laid back flair they have going on, hehe.)

Note that during this pandemic, rules have changed a bit. Some states are doing an expedited process that gets you your license within one to two weeks, some are accepting a valid RN license in general, while others are granting temporary licenses to get you there faster. 

Just ask your recruiter or Nurse Advocate what this hospital/state is currently expecting, and they will tell you!

Travel Nursing Companies and the Application Process

Woof. I'm sorry to tell you this is a BIG pill to swallow because the application process is hefty. But rest assured once you are fully applied with a company, any and all other paperwork you will have to do is easy peasy, lemon squeezy! 

The knowledge curve, the application processes, and the general "How do I know what I'm doing" questions when transitioning from staff nurse to travel nurse is a lot to absorb, but that is why I am here writing this! You are a nurse, you are tough, and you can do this. I said to take notes, didn't I?

To get right to it, the application process consists of picking a travel nurse company, having a phone call with a recruiter, and submitting your resume and two-three references (from Managers and Charge Nurses). Once accepted by that company, you’ll fill out a checklist for each unit you have experience in, sort out your preferences for states and hospitals so your recruiter knows where to look, and submit any information needed for payroll, taxes, and any other miscellaneous items they ask for.

*Exhale*

Word to the wise, compile ALL OF YOUR DOCUMENTS into one folder/easy-to-find place on your computer, and submit it all in one fell swoop for each company. (Trusted does this for you with a free account.)

These documents include your resume, last physical, any certifications, reference contact info, banking information, fit testing (for N95s), and proof of that year's flu shot. Keep an eye out for any other documents your first company asks for and add that to the list because chances are if one company asks for it the others will too. 

If you are using the same references for each company you apply with, do them a favor and let them know in the beginning. It is way easier to ask, "Hey, would you mind being my reference?", and if they say yes adding, "I am applying to multiple travel companies, would you mind if I put you as a reference for all three?", than to awkwardly slide in a few weeks later and ask for a reference again. 

Once all that is done, you are officially an employee of that agency and on to the fun part, job hunting! Do this process with three companies right away, and get it done so you don't have to do it later.

five people running in desert travel nurses exploring after work staff nurse to travel nurse

Join the Travel Nursing Community

The last one is self-explanatory. Travel nursing is a very paved path, so any questions you have you can likely post on a travel nursing social media page and get them answered! 

Groups I recommend are:

  • Trusted Health (Instagram, Virtual Events, Podcasts… and check out their extensive Travel Nursing Guide!)
  • The Gypsy Nurse (Facebook and Instagram)
  • Travel Nurses: Travel Nurse Job Board (Facebook)
  • And don’t forget to follow other travel nursing companies and travel nursing influencers on Instagram!

Ready to Find Your First Travel Nursing Assignment?

Create a free Trusted profile for access to your very own Nurse Advocate, and receive job matches based on your preference immediately!

Part Two