Should I Try Travel Nursing?
Interested in travel nursing? You’re not alone!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are well over 40,000 travel nurses (a little under 2% of total active registered nurses in the United States!) practicing in medical facilities around the country.
Contracts for travel nursing are usually 13 weeks long, and interested nurses can apply to staffing agencies, which will match them to medical facilities with open assignments.
What is Travel Nursing?
Travel nursing is actually a pretty recent phenomenon. According to the Professional Association of Nurse Travelers, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hospitals recruited nurses short-term to help them deal with seasonal gaps in their workforce through travel nurse assignments.
Coincidentally, since the 1980s, there’d also been a massive nationwide nursing shortage—a gap between the amount of nurse staffing needed by medical facilities and nurses who were practicing. In order to alleviate the effects of the shortage, medical facilities began to offer flexible, short-term assignments to recruit nurses to underserved or busier areas.
And voila: the travel nursing industry was born!
What Are the Requirements to Become a Travel Nurse?
If you’re a nurse reading this, chances are you’re a lot closer to fulfilling the requirements than you think! So what are the requirements to become a travel nurse?
For travel nursing, the absolute minimum requirements are to have:
- An active nursing license in the state that you wish to practice in and any certifications relevant to your area of specialty
- One year of experience in the area that you want to focus on within the last three years (although more is better!)
- Up-to-date health records, including recent documentation for flu shots, TB shots, and other immunizations; recent physicals; titers; blood tests; fit mask tests; and PPDs
With these three qualifications, you’re already most of the way to becoming a travel nurse! (And just in case you're curious about license requirements and getting nursing licenses in other states, we've got a list of what different states require nurses to do prior to taking a travel assignment.)
One of the amazing things about travel nursing is that you quickly learn that nurses of all ages, specialties, and backgrounds travel to work in hospitals and clinics all over the country. Regardless of who they are, they’re all playing crucial roles in delivering patient care to medical facilities in need.
And speaking of amazing things, let’s dive into some of the benefits of travel nursing!
Travel Nursing Pros and Cons
Pro #1: Travel
Looking for a nursing career that also happens to satisfy your wanderlust? Become a travel nurse! There are hospitals and clinics throughout the United States. In fact, a BluePipes survey showed that 79% of respondents who were travel nurses ranked adventure in their top two reasons for deciding to travel. It’s super common for travel nurses to take assignments in and around parts of the country they’ve always wanted to see, from large cities to national parks. They can also choose to take assignments near friends and family or opt for locations with more temperate climates in the winter and summer.
79% of respondents who were travel nursing ranked adventure in their top two reasons for deciding to travel.
Pro #2: Pay
Compensation packages for travel nurses on average are higher than those offered to permanent nursing staff. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that registered nurses on average currently make $33.65 an hour (about $70,000 a year), a recent Staffing Industry Analysts study puts the average rate paid to registered nurses on travel assignments nationwide at a little over $50 per hour (over $100,00 a year)! Fun Fact: Nurses can retire wealthier than doctors. Want to know how?
Unlike the salary of a full-time registered nurse, travel nursing packages are often a combination of taxable income and non-taxable stipends and reimbursements, sometimes called per diems. But that’s not even the best part! Certain places (we see you, San Francisco and Seattle) have high average nursing salaries. That means that nurses originally based in certain locations can end up making a lot more money per hour than they’re used to. (Keep in mind that this increase isn’t universal; if you’re a nurse working full time in a state whose average pay for nurses is already on the higher end, chances are, you won’t be hauling in a ton of extra dough.)
If you're curious about what travel nurses across the country are making, check out our 2019 Travel Nurse Compensation Report!
Pro #3: Experience
Nurses who switch up the facilities that they work at can quickly become jacks (or jills!) of all trades. Travel nurses often become well versed in multiple sets of best practices for different procedures, equipment, naming conventions, and populations. Best of all, repeatedly absorbing new skills boosts their ability to quickly learn and adapt to new methods. This varied experience, in turn, makes travel nursing experience highly attractive to future employers and (for those interested in going back to school for an advanced degree) educational institutions. By the way, having the additional experience benefits more than just a resume or CV: higher levels of experience and education among nurses have been linked to better health outcomes for patients.
Pro #4: Personal Growth
Travel nurses are regularly pushed outside of their comfort zones. They build patience dealing with the stress of moving between locations. They build self-confidence learning to advocate for themselves and make new friends in unfamiliar spaces. They build humility each time they must learn how to use new equipment or complete an unfamiliar procedure. (Trust us, that happens a lot!) Becoming a travel nurse requires you to develop many of these qualities in yourself, qualities which can help you provide better care to your patients.
Pro #5: Flexibility
Want to take a month off in the summer to visit friends and family? Prefer a 7-on-7-off schedule? Want to rack up money working over the holidays? Do it! Don’t get us wrong, travel nursing has points of give-and-take when it comes to scheduling (more on that in the section below). However, as long as you make your scheduling needs clear to your agency and future facilities well in advance and keep your options open, you can arrange your assignments (and the gaps in between them) in a way that caters to most of—if not all of—those needs.
Pro #6: Short-Term Contracts
The short-term nature of travel nursing benefits nurses for many reasons. They’re unlikely to get swept into office politics in the limited time frame of an assignment. And this factor is especially important to nurses considering travel healthcare: a survey from BluePipes showed that 47% of respondents listed avoiding office politics as their third most important factor in deciding to travel.
With a short-term contract, travel nurses are usually less than a couple of months away from a new position at any given time, making even the hardest or least pleasant assignments a bit more bearable. On the flip side, those who love their assignments (and are able to leave good impressions) can look into extending their contracts there and/or returning to work there in the future. There are very few jobs that allow employees to re-evaluate them every 13 weeks; by taking advantage of this aspect, travel nurses can craft a working situation that they’re most happy with.
Pro #7: People
Interacting with patients of different cultures, languages, and socioeconomic backgrounds can be inspirational, humbling, and eye-opening; and luckily, this is a pretty frequent experience in travel nursing! Broadening your understanding of and ability to care for different populations is a plus to any nurse: cultural competency can make the difference between wonderful patient experiences and adverse health outcomes and complications.
Pro #8: Food
If you’re planning on becoming a travel nurse but haven’t yet created your bucket list of foods to try from around the U.S., we suggest you make one. Living (and working) in one area restricts the types of food that you’re able to enjoy, especially if you’re not in a larger city. As a travel nurse, you can use your days off to sample clam chowder from New England, cheesesteaks from Philadelphia, and Cajun food from New Orleans―all in one year.
Pro #9: Management and Leadership Training
Whether your ultimate goal is to be a charge nurse or a CNO, understanding differences in management and leadership styles across medical facilities (a side effect of taking assignments across all of those facilities as a travel nurse) will help you tremendously in career development. Not only are travel nurses able to gain insight on how to best interact with these styles, they also have a better understanding of the style that works for them, and can apply this knowledge to their own management style should they ever assume leadership positions within a medical facility.
Pro #10: Networking
Opportunities to network can be hard to come by as a nurse, especially those out of school. But building your network is a crucial step in any professional’s career: a 2016 survey from LinkedIn revealed that as many as 85% of all jobs are filled via networking. For nurses, this can be especially challenging, as professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and Doximity aren’t yet adopted as “the norm.”
By moving from facility to facility (and bringing their A-game to each new assignment), travel nurses create a multi-state coalition of people who can vouch for their knowledge, professionalism, and work ethic, rather than relying solely on contacts in one area. This strength becomes especially applicable if they want to return to a facility that they’ve previously worked at. And in travel nursing, this happens more often than you’d assume: around 60%-70% of travel nurses will either actively seek an extension at a facility they’ve been assigned to or accept an extension offered to them by the facility they’re currently working at!
A 2016 survey from LinkedIn revealed that as many as 85% of all jobs are filled via networking.
And now the not-so-great side of travel nursing.
Con #1: Taxes
While non-taxable pay sounds awesome in theory, the combination of non-taxable pay and the dynamic, highly flexible conditions of travel nursing in practice can be tricky to manage for new travelers. Steps like understanding their tax home and filing taxes with the correct deductions and withholdings applied are more involved, largely because travel nurses aren’t tied to a traditional employer in a single location receiving a steady stream of income. The good news, is that resources on travel nurse taxes (and experienced travel nurses happy to impart wisdom) exist―for starters, check out our guide to travel nurse taxes!
Con #2: Paperwork
Long story short, there’s a lot of it. Skills checklists, references, certifications, medical records, receipts for reimbursement... unfortunately, bureaucracy is a pretty unavoidable aspect of the travel nursing experience, and you can rest assured that you’ll be going through it for each new assignment you take. However, it’s always important to remember that all of these hoops, frustrating as they may be, serve a bigger purpose―both agencies and facilities want to ensure that they’re hiring qualified, competent professionals to care for their patients.
Cons #3: (Occasional) Cancellations
While this certainly isn’t the norm, travel nurses should always be prepared for the possibility that an assignment doesn’t pan out. Medical facilities may decide to cancel a contract for a multitude of reasons, and even though these cancellations aren’t very common, they’re also not all that rare. A recent Staffing Industry Analysts survey of travel nursing agencies found that on average, a little under a fifth of the assignments that travel nurses were matched to were cancelled prematurely. If you’ve gone through the trouble of preparing to move, securing housing, and filling out paperwork, it can be a frustrating position to be in―even more so if you’ve already moved to the locale of your would-be new facility. So do your best to protect yourself against cancelled shifts and contracts: the better prepared you are with backup solutions, the less stressful the experience will be.
Cons #4: Housing
A 13-week stint makes you no friends in the renters’ market, especially on short notice. Setting up housing for anything less than six months (frankly, one year) at a time is really tricky. Understandably, over the years, travel nurses have come to rely on a variety of housing options, from corporate housing to motels/hotels to Airbnbs to RVs. Luckily, like taxes, there are great guides on travel nursing housing out there to help you navigate.
Cons #5: Medical Benefits
Travel nurses employed by an agency can be provided with benefits such as medical insurance. However, what happens when a nurse finds a new assignment through another company? Switching employers isn’t uncommon in this industry, but it can lead to gaps in medical insurance, disruptions in coverage for certain prescription drugs, and breaks in continuity of care if the doctors and facilities that you’re used to utilizing are out-of-network on your newest insurance plan. There are a few steps you can take to minimize the chances of any of these outcomes, including carefully vetting insurance options with each new carrier and opting to buy your own insurance plan.
Cons #6: (Lack of) PTO
While time off between assignments is usually a breeze (as long as you plan ahead), having time off during assignments is a lot harder to come by. Very rarely will a contract offer paid time off (even for sick days). Think about it: facilities hiring temporary roles are likely understaffed as it is. If anything, the facility would likely be thrilled if you offered to pick up more shifts!
Very rarely will a contract offer paid time off (even for sick days).
Cons #7: Homesickness
It may not be obvious at first, but moving around multiple times a year affects your social circle. You’re almost never in a place long enough to build deep in-person friendships, and while meaningful relationships can flourish with long-distance effort, those relationships are a lot harder to maintain. Because of this, while you’ll have plenty of chances to make new friends, travel nursing (especially the first few weeks of a new assignment) can be lonely if you don’t know anyone in the area. Don’t let that dissuade you if you want to travel! Instead, consider traveling with fellow nurses or with family, choosing assignments in locations near friends/family, and prioritizing social and networking events in your area as often as possible.
So, Should You Try Travel Nursing?
Maybe. Only you can answer that question. As you can see from the above lists, just because you can become a travel nurse doesn’t mean you should. Travel nursing can be an incredibly rewarding experience for some and a terrible experience for others.
It’s like Epstein LaRue states in her book Highway Hypodermics, “I have found one definite about travel nursing—either you love it or you hate it. I have not found very many people who are stuck in between.”
While there is no one type of person that makes an amazing travel nurse, we’ve found that having a certain mindset will undoubtedly help you survive (and thrive!) in the role. If you’re still on the fence, ask yourself this: are you drawn to new (and sometimes challenging) adventures? Can you bend without breaking? Are you confident in your abilities, and can you readily admit and acknowledge the things you don’t know? Most importantly, regardless of your working conditions, are you committed to putting your patients first?