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What is a Travel Nurse?

A travel nurse is a registered nurse who works on a contract basis for hospitals and clinics nationwide. Travel nurses work for agencies that find temporary work opportunities in locations anywhere in the United States. Often, these registered nurses are young and desire travel and adventure before they settle down to a single hospital or town. However, any registered nurse can fill the positions, but they must be able to move and live in new cities for contracts that last anywhere from eight to 26 weeks.

Travel nurses can have any sort of specialty and are called to fill appropriate positions. If the hospital has an ongoing need for a nurse in that position, the travel nurse might be asked to apply for full-time work. However, if the nurse prefers to move along to another city or region, that is an option.

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Steps to Take to Become a Travel Nurse

To become a Travel Nurse, you must first become a registered nurse. That process involves years of hard work and dedication. At the end of that process, you will receive your RN licensure and you can get to work in a hospital.

The RN licensure is a nationally recognized credential, so that makes it easy for you to become a travel nurse. However, you will want to land a job and work for a year or more to gain some experience. After all, hospitals will take you on sight-unseen, so the travel nurse agency will need a solid resume to pitch to the hiring administration. Keep reading for a more detailed examination of the steps it takes to become a travel nurse.

  • Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

  • Step 2: Determine that travel nursing is for you

  • Step 3: Find a travel (nurse) agency

  • Step 4: Land a travel nurse contract


Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

The first step to becoming a travel nurse is attaining your credentials as a registered nurse. You must complete the appropriate education in a nursing program. You can pursue the profession with an associate's degree in nursing. Employers prefer that you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing or master's degree from a nationally recognized program and then pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN.)

As you move towards licensure, you might pick up a specialty such as gerontology, pediatrics, maternity, hospice care, or a surgical focus. Your specialty might require additional state credentials.

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Step 2: Determine that travel nursing is for you

The life of a travel nurse is not for everyone. You should take a close look at your personality, values, and goals before diving into this way of life. That's because travel nurses must have certain qualities in order to make this career and lifestyle choice viable.

One of the chief characteristics you need is a sense of adventure that appreciates picking up and moving from one corner of the nation to another once or more per year. You should also have the sort of personality that can find ease in new and unfamiliar situations. As a nurse, you need an easy rapport with your team and the faster you can establish this the more successful you will be. You should also be able to move on from working relationships that have become valuable and even meaningful. After all, travel nurses are rolling stones. This also applies to any social contacts you make along the way.

However, it is important to recognize that you don't need to be a travel nurse forever. You can complete one assignment in a far-flung corner of the nation and then return home afterwards. Some travel nurses maintain close proximity to their home. You might even find a new home and decide to stay, raise a family, and never leave. Travel nursing allows you to find the home and life that best suits you. As a traveling nurse, you can also decide when and where you want to establish roots.

Step 3: Find a travel nurse agency

There are many different sorts of travel agencies for you to choose from. When you decide that the life of a travel nurse is for you, review as many as you can. While you won't necessarily be required to stick with one forever, you can simplify your life by finding a company that you are happy with.

Ultimately, a travel company is your representative. They must have experience placing travel nurses with your specialty. If there are any interstate licensure issues, be sure to discuss this and be assured that they can handle any state reciprocity issues. For instance, even if you are a generalist with an RN license, your new state might need a more in-depth background check. Your travel company should cover these issues when you are signed on to work with them.

You should look for companies that work with hospitals in the areas you find most interesting. If you want to spend your off hours snow skiing, you probably won't want the company that has focused its business in the Southeast. If they say they are planning to branch into the areas you prefer, it is better to check back when that actually occurs.

Step 4: Land a travel nurse contract

Once you have signed up with a travel agency, they should soon start sending you job opportunities. Larger agencies might send mass emails that are more or less catered to your skill sets, while smaller operations might call you or send more personalized messages. You should discuss the better opportunities with your recruiter to ascertain whether they are good fit.

While many jobs won't be a good fit based on their duties or location, eventually the right one will come along. It's important to remember that travel nursing is an adventure, and that no travel nursing job is permanent. Therefore, take a risk or two. If a great job appears in a desert town, but you prefer greenery and mountains, consider taking it anyway. You might learn something about yourself. The opportunity to get out of your comfort zone is one great thing about travel nursing.

What Does a Travel Nurse Do?

As a travel nurse, you will perform the typical duties of a Registered Nurse with your specialty focus. The chief difference is that you will work on a contract basis. Thus, you could work for up to 26 months in a particular hospital and then move along to another hospital in another town or state.

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You will have the opportunity to meet new coworkers and explore new geography as often as you like. Keep in mind that you won't necessarily have to move after a contract concludes. The same contract might renew, that hospital might hire you for a full-time job, or your company might have another contract for you across town.

Skills to Acquire

In addition to your normal nursing skills, travel nurses must acquire and develop even more skills. Here is a short selection of the skills you'll need to develop:

  • Communication:
    When you move to a new region of the country, you might find that there is a whole new slang that natives use. This can offer opportunities for confusion, but also learning. Learning a new culture, even within our nation, can be enlightening and enriching.
  • Adaptability:
    Travel nurses are required to adapt rather quickly to new people, places, and things. You must be able to get to work with new people right away. You should also be able to adapt to the nuances of your new environment. If you move from the Sunbelt to the Pacific Northwest, for instance, you'll need to adapt to long stretches where the sun is hidden behind a thick blanket of gray sky.
  • Self-Reliance:
    When you first arrive in a new town, you will probably be very much alone. You'll need to be able to take care of your living situation without another person to help. You should also be confident in seeking out new friends and social connections without the benefit of a long history in a town.

Alternative Paths

If you want to take your nursing career on the road, you are free to do so. The typical route for travel nurses is to sign up with a travel nursing agency and then move to cities where you have jobs waiting. However, you don't have to take this route.

One option is to move to a new city and then seek out temporary nursing jobs. Most any good-sized town will have temporary agencies that specialize in nursing or other healthcare fields. These jobs may or may not offer the longer-term security of a travel nurse job, but you might also find more variety in your assignments.

Another way to see the world and work as a nurse is by enlisting in the military. This is certainly a more fraught path, as you could find yourself working in combat zones. Yet the United States has bases all over the world. You could work in relative peace on a base in Germany, Japan, Alaska, or Hawaii.

Doctors Without Borders also offers opportunities for adventuresome travel nurses. Your skills will be in high demand in areas afflicted by famine and poverty. You must be able to commit to be abroad for at least nine months and you should also have relevant humanitarian experience on top of other relevant qualifications.

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Where Might You Work?


Travel nurses are employed by agencies that find and place them in nursing jobs nationwide. If you are a travel nurse, you will most likely work in a hospital in your given specialty area. Since you will most likely be filling in for an absent employee or covering less-desirable shifts, your hours might be late at night or over holidays. In return, you have the freedom to move to another working situation when your contract expires. Travel nurses are also paid a premium for their flexibility and adaptability.

If you choose to embark on self-made travel nursing careers, you will likely work for a number of different staffing agencies in a number of different towns each year. This might offer you the sort of autonomy you desire, but it will come at a cost. That is, you will have to keep track of each agency and make sure they are able to send your relevant employment and taxation documents to a reliable address.

Potential Career Paths

Not every clinical healthcare profession is able to travel in the way that travel nurses do, but these professions are equally vital in the care and well-being of patients. If you are considering becoming a registered nurse, you might also consider some of the following occupations. Each is a vital part of any treatment team, and each offers their own special skills.

Occupational Therapist:
OTs work primarily in hospitals to help patients regain the skills and abilities that once made their lives more livable. Stroke victims may need help learning to dress themselves, for instance. On the other hand, you could work in the community helping people who suffer a wide range of disease.

Physical Therapist:
This profession is concerned with getting people moving again. You need a doctoral degree to work as a licensed PT, but it is worth it. Your patients may need help learning to walk with prosthetic limbs, regaining mobility after a long period of disease, or simply overcoming a nasty case of tendinitis.

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Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN):
This profession works beneath Registered Nurses and performs basic nursing needs for patients. You will probably need to become an RN to work as a travel nurse, but LPNs can also find short-term contract work through staffing agencies.

Nurse Practitioner:
This profession is a step beyond RN in that NPs are able to provide primary care to patients. You'll need additional training beyond that of an RN, but you'll be able to prescribe some medications, diagnose a range of illnesses, and function in many the same ways that a MD functions. You might even run your own clinic, though under the license of an MD who takes ultimate responsibility for your work.

Dental Hygienist:
If you love working with teeth and helping people attain, and maintain, optimal dental health, this is the field for you. Dental hygienists clean teeth, assist a dentist, and examine patients for evidence of oral disease. You'll need at least an associate’s degree to become a dental hygienist.

To work as a paramedic you don't need a specialized degree. You will need a certificate or other award that proves your competency, however. Your duties will entail administering triage care to accident victims of all sorts, from multi-vehicle automobile accidents to homeowners who've fallen off their roof.

Imaging is becoming a large part of medical diagnostics and sonographers are at the forefront of this trend. Your specialty might be in obstetrics where you might show an expecting couple the first images of their baby. You could also work in internal medicine and help doctors diagnose problems with internal organs, or even the nervous system.

Travel Nurse Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Certified Nurses Assistant $19,000 $29,000 $45,000
Licensed Practical Nurse $31,000 $45,000 $61,000
Licensed Vocational Nurse $35,000 $50,000 $67,000
Registered Nurse $45,000 $66,000 $92,000
Nurse Anesthetist $112,000 $158,000 $203,000
Family Practice Nurse $89,700 $95,400 $98,000
Mental Health Nurse $39,300 $42,700 $46,900
General Nurse Practitioner $91,000 $101,000 $104,000
Midwife $91,000 $101,000 $110,000
Nursing Educator $57,000 $77,000 $104,000
Nurse Administrator $64,000 $88,000 $136,000
Travel Nurse $47,000 $79,000 $108,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The outlook for nursing is quite good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the profession will grow by 15% through 2026. This growth is characterized as being much faster than average. That means that demand for RNs is likely outstripping the labor supply. This is good news if you wish to be a travel nurse. Your function will often be to fill those gaps in labor supply. You can thus follow labor trends around the country, providing your services to the cities that need you the most.

Travel nurses earned a national median salary of $70,000 in 2017. Travel nurses, meanwhile, earn a bit more than the average RN. If you keep your costs low while traveling you can capitalize on the increased pay. You can also choose which markets pay the best and profit from that. Since the population is continuing to age at a rapid pace, the demand and salary for travel nurses is bound to continue trending upwards.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Travel nurses can go everywhere from wherever they are. That's the beauty of nursing careers. However, if you want to advance your responsibilities and paycheck, you can continue to accrue experience. As a travel nurse it may be difficult to attain a leadership position, but you can always return to school for more training in new and different specialty areas.

On the other hand, you might finally decide to stop traveling and settle down. When you settle into a full-time hospital position you can then advance into a leadership role. You might also decide that you are intrigued by administration. You'll likely need an additional degree in healthcare administration, but your experience on the clinical side will be invaluable.

What qualities make good travel nurses?

Travel nurses need to be professional, reliable, trustworthy, and flexible. Travel nurses need to be comfortable with change and have the ability to learn and adapt quickly.

How long are travel nursing assignments?

The standard contract for travel nursing assignments are 13 weeks. Travel nursing assignments may range from 8 to 26 weeks.

Are there distance restrictions on traveling nursing jobs?

Most hospitals have a radius rule for traveling nursing jobs that defines the minimum number of miles a nurse must live from the medical facility to qualify as travel nurses. The specific distance of the radius rule is set by each individual medical facility but can range anywhere from 40 to 200 miles. The most common minimum distance is of traveling nursing jobs is 50 miles.

Do travel nurses make more than regular nurses?

Most travel nurses make a higher take home pay due to the extra stipends and reimbursements that are not taxed.

What is a traveling critical care nurse?

Traveling critical care nurses generally work on people who are ventilated, intubated, and on life-sustaining medication drips.

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