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Is Travel Nursing Right For You?

Travel nurses are in big demand (and were even before the pandemic). Are you thinking about it? We break down what you need to know to decide if it’s right for you.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, healthcare providers were thrust into the public’s eye. The American people learned about the plight of frontline care providers, who struggled to care for infected patients while hospital beds filled and supplies ran short. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic shed light on an often overlooked healthcare job: travel nursing. A range of news venues put out their articles to highlight the real-world stories of travel nurses working in a life-threatening pandemic, from the New York Times to the Washington Post to Forbes to CNN.

Travel nursing isn’t for everyone, though. Like anything else, it has pros and cons. But if you have the travel bug in you, enjoy new experiences, and don’t have commitments that could keep you in one place, travel nursing might be for you. Here’s how it all works. 

What Is Travel Nursing?

Travel nurses don’t hold staff positions at hospitals or other healthcare facilities. Instead, they take on short-term contract positions in any type of healthcare setting, including hospitals, residential care settings, and private practices that typically last 13 weeks. However, these placements can be shorter or longer depending on the need. 

Independent nursing staffing agencies employ travel nurses—there are 340 travel nurse staffing agencies in the US, 110 of which are certificated through the Joint Commission—that recruit nurses around the country and world to work in healthcare facilities undergoing nursing shortages. The facility may choose to end the contract early (which will stop contract payment), but it may also choose to extend the contract. Staffing agencies find placements for travel nurses based on location, salary preferences, and expertise while also figuring out the contract details, including job length and potential stipends for housing and meals. 

And make no mistake: travel nurses are in significant demand, even before the pandemic ravaged the country and worsened the nursing shortage. At least 25,000 nurses work in travel nursing, and there was a $10 billion market for travel nurses before 2020. In addition, a poll by Avant Healthcare Professionals found that 90% of over 100 hospital executives reported using travel nurses to help with the influx of Covid-19 patients—in 2019, that figure was less than 60%. (And yes, travel nurses provide the same quality of care as full-time staff.)

Pros of Being a Travel Nurse

Among the most significant benefits of being a “traveler” are the lucrative pay and benefits. Some estimates suggest that travel nurses make about 15 to 20% more than full-time staff RNs. You can expect to make between $1,300 to $2,700 weekly as a travel nurse, sometimes even more than $3,000 weekly. During the height of the pandemic, some crisis contracts on the front lines offered $10,000 a week. 

In addition to the hourly rate, travelers sometimes receive the following:

  • Non-taxed stipends for housing and living expenses
  • Free CE courses
  • License reimbursement
  • Sign-on, completion, and referral bonuses

Some travelers double their income by becoming local travel nurses—they keep their job as staff nurses and take on short-term contracts as float nurses in nearby facilities, such as a hospital in a neighboring city.  

Of course, money isn’t everything. Other purported benefits of travel nursing include:

  • Traveling and being able to experience other parts of the country or world
  • Exploring other cities that could potentially become a new permanent home
  • Making many new friends
  • Being exposed to different cultures and patient populations
  • Helping understaffed facilities care for patients
  • Expanding nursing skill set and improving a resume

Travel nurses also have the freedom to take weeks-long vacations between placements.

Cons of Being a Travel Nurse

Despite these benefits to travel nursing, not everyone can, or want to, spend their lives drifting from one place to the next. Time away from spouses and children can be difficult for travel nurses. Some travelers work around this issue by taking only local placements. They, in turn, give up some of the benefits to travel nursing, such as being able to work in different settings with different demographics.

A traveler’s experience from one placement to the next can also differ drastically. For example, at one hospital, a traveler may feel like a part of the team and have a manageable schedule. But the experience can be the complete opposite in another facility. Some facilities may even only provide certain benefits (like lockers) or high-quality equipment (like air-purifying respirators) to staff nurses, creating an “us versus them” atmosphere. 

Other cons to travel nursing may include:

  • Having to live out of hotels, AirBnbs, or short-term rentals 
  • Being unable to hang out with friends from your home city
  • Losing out on having regular patients you care for year after year
  • Having to quickly learn how to navigate new cities, healthcare systems, and hospital policies and procedures
  • Working with unfamiliar demographics, which may involve language barriers
  • Having to obtain different licenses depending on the state

How to Become a Travel Nurse

Travel nursing requires many of the same prerequisites as other nursing jobs, such as obtaining a BSN degree, passing the NCLEX exam, obtaining an RN licensure, and maintaining nursing experience. To make sure this career change is the right move for you, read up on travel nursing blogs to learn more about what travel nurses experience day in and day out. 

Travel nurse staffing agencies are the key to finding and getting available positions. Research multiple agencies, as they each have their own benefits, including health and dental insurance, vacation and sick time, retirement, and stipends. Work with transparent agencies—most trustworthy agencies will publicly disclose compensation packages and tell you what your take-home pay will be. 

When speaking with recruiters, beware of those who:

  • Pressure you into being submitted for assignments (especially those you don’t want) or submit you to assignments without your permission
  • Does not show you the complete pay package before submitting you to a job
  • Does not back up verbal promises 
  • Becomes defensive if you decide to work with other agencies

Note that your available jobs will depend on your experiences and certifications. Specialty certifications will make you a more attractive candidate. As with any move, it’s essential to research the city where you intend to work, including its housing situation, cost of living, and crime rate. Make sure also to examine the license and CEU requirements for the state. 

Finally, other travel nurses can be a vital resource. They can tell you about their experiences with different agencies and hospitals and give you tips about living in certain cities or states. Remember to pay it forward and help other travel nurses as they’ve helped you.

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