What Do Travel Nurses Do?
November 25, 2022
Travel nurses do what other registered nurses do, but on temporary assignments that move them from location to location. They earn substantially more for the trouble.
You may not know it, but there's a good chance a travel nurse has attended to your patient care at some point. It could very well have happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospitals and clinics experienced extreme nursing shortages. Or maybe you needed healthcare outside a major metropolitan area, in an area where nursing shortages are more severe.
Working with staffing agencies, travel nurses step in at domestic and international healthcare facilities alike when understaffing strikes. During the pandemic, a major health system even created its own staffing agency to attract travel nurses to its multiple locations. That's just one indication of the travel nurse industry's growth.
The data tell the story more completely. Travel nursing grew by 35 percent in 2019; experts project an additional 40 percent expansion in the coming years.
So, what do travel nurses do? This article explores that question. It also addresses:
- How does travel nursing work?
- Travel nurse education requirements
- How much do travel nurses make?
- Should you become a travel nurse?
What do travel nurses do?
Travel nurses fill vital roles in myriad healthcare settings, ensuring facilities have enough nurses to care for patients. Whether due to nursing shortages, temporary patient swells (e.g., flu season), or even covering maternity/paternity leave, travel nurses possess the qualifications and competencies needed to step in and fill the gap.
Once oriented, travel nurses on assignment perform the same duties as when employed in a full-time role. In addition to working with doctors and other members of the care team to examine patients and create care plans, travel nurses carry out these plans by administering medications, taking vital signs, and updating charts. They also educate patients and their families on their current condition and provide resources on illness management.
Effective travel nurses embrace flexibility and adaptability, quickly adjusting to new settings and getting to work. They work well as part of a team but can also function independently. They also know how to communicate effectively with many different types of people, even when they haven't known them long.
How does travel nursing work?
In most cases, your employer is the nurse staffing agency. These agencies maintain contracts with healthcare facilities across the U.S. and abroad and use their portfolio of RNs to fill short-term travel nurse assignments. You will work directly with a recruiter who takes into account your qualifications, experience, location preferences, and desired time frames to match you with a suitable facility.
When looking for an agency, reach out to other travel nurses to learn about their experiences and ask for recommendations. Popular agencies include Travel Nurse Across America, Nomad, Triage Staffing, and Aya Healthcare.
In addition to placements, travel nurse agencies typically provide benefits such as health insurance, 401(k), and paid time off. They may often provide food and housing stipends and/or travel reimbursements for placements outside reasonable driving distance from your primary home. Others may provide free housing.
Your recruiter will apprise you of available travel nursing jobs. You can ask questions about the facility, time commitment, and any other components before accepting the role. While you can work full-time as a travel nurse traveling to different facilities, travel assignments only infrequently turn into full-time roles.
Travel nurse education requirements
Travel nurses are trained and licensed registered nurses who possess either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or a Master of Science in Nursing. Given that some healthcare facilities and teaching hospitals look for BSN candidates, you have a better chance of filling one of these roles with a four-year degree. Candidates must also pass the NCLEX-RN exam and seek licensure. No additional certifications are required to become a travel nurse.
Some employers may also look for candidates with a minimum amount of experience rather than recent graduates. If working in a specialty area (e.g. intensive care unit [ICU], labor and delivery, geriatrics, etc.), the employer may require experience in that area.
Travel nurses must achieve licensure in any state they work. Staffing agencies typically help with this process, but it can take a few weeks before you're allowed to start if you haven't worked in the state previously. If you plan to continue travel nursing long-term, remember to keep all of your licenses renewed.
In some cases, earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) makes sense. While travel roles for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) are less common, many travel nurses know they do not want to be on the road forever. With so many online MSN nursing programs available, you can earn advanced credentials while on assignment. When it comes time for clinicals, you can typically fit these in between contracts. After graduating, MSN holders can earn salaries similar to travel nurses but stay put in full-time roles as nurse practitioners, nurse educators, or nurse administrators.
How much do travel nurses make?
Travel nurses earned an annual average pay of $122,000, according to Indeed . In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports RNs took home median incomes of $77,600 in 2021. Clearly, travel nurses have the potential to earn significantly more. That said, several factors can impact wages.
ZipRecruiter reports that travel nurses working in Atkinson, Nebraska currently earn the highest salary at $147,620–nearly $30,000 more than the national average. San Francisco ranks second at $141,025 followed by Bolinas, CA ($140,093), Marysville, WA ($137,146), and Ramblewood, PA ($135,454). Cost of living should factor into your decision-making, as some places cost significantly more than others and can eat up your earnings.
Specialty area also matters significantly: operating room travel nurses currently take home an average of $181,571 each year. Other top-paying specialties include pediatrics ($179,159), telemetry ($176,316), medical surgical ($171,075), and oncology ($169,449).
Should you become a travel nurse?
Travel nursing offers many benefits, not least the elevated salary and location flexibility. That said, it can also be difficult moving from place to place and never feeling settled. Considering the pros and cons of travel nursing can help you make an informed, confident decision about whether this is the job for you.
- Higher than average salaries, with potential for bonuses
- Opportunity to visit many different parts of the U.S. or even the world
- Housing and food stipends are tax-free, meaning you get to keep more of the money you earn
- Experiencing new environments frequently allows for learning plenty of new skills and competencies
- Plenty of opportunities for networking with other healthcare professionals, which can benefit you when looking for a full-time role
- Because you're not in one place long, you can avoid workplace politics
- Given the immense need for travel nurses, you will always be in demand
- If unsure what specialty area you want to pursue, travel nursing allows you to try many different options
- It can feel difficult to settle in, especially when living out of hotels or short-term rentals
- Waiting for licenses in new states to come through can be frustrating
- Sometimes there can be gaps between assignments, leaving you to wait for the next job
- As evidenced above, pay rates can vary based on location and specialty area
- You have less control over your schedule, meaning there could be lots of long days or unappealing hours
- Figuring out how to pay your taxes after living in multiple states can be confusing – and expensive
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