Approximately 1.7 million travel nurses currently work in the United States, according to job website Zippia. Given that travel nurses in the 10th percentile of the salary range typically earn at least $120,000 per year, a nurse who wants to see the world may well consider pivoting to travel nursing.
Many registered nurses (RNs) are leaving the health care field altogether — to recover from burnout, to pursue an entirely different career, or to opt for early retirement. It’s a tough situation for health care providers because it takes years to educate and train nurses to replace those who leave the profession.
The RN shortage has challenged hospitals and health care facilities scrambling to do more with less. The ongoing pandemic has played a large part in creating this predicament. Additionally, an aging population, increased demand for health care services, and the nationwide nursing shortage have all placed even more strain on front-line medical workers.
Now more than ever, many understaffed facilities hire travel nurses to help with day-to-day health care demands until they can hire permanent nursing staff. This trend raises the question, "How does travel nursing work?"
Travel nurses deliver high-quality health care services to patients across the country by taking on short-term assignments at understaffed health care facilities. Travel nurse ranks among the better-paid nursing roles in the health care industry. Individuals interested in becoming a travel nurse can gain essential skills through an advanced education, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing program.
How Does Travel Nursing Work?
Travel nurses perform the same duties and play the same role in a health care facility as a local RN, but the difference is that they’re transitory, meaning they don’t live permanently in the locality in which they’re working. This is possible because geographical location has little impact on the training and skill set that’s needed from the nurse.
So, how does travel nursing work from the perspective of an understaffed health care facility that needs an immediate solution? Providers usually seek the services of a travel nurse because the hospital or health care facility has a gap in staffing. Finding a full-time local RN to fill that gap can pose a challenge for a facility. Either the pool of candidates is too small, or the facility has yet to find a candidate that’s a good fit with its current nursing staff.
Whatever the case may be, hiring a travel nurse is a temporary solution that can help the health care facility buy time while it looks for a permanent RN. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a hospital to make an offer to extend the travel nurse’s assignment given staffing demands.
A travel nurse’s employment is always on a contractual basis. The contract will usually last for three or more months, depending on the facility’s needs. During their employment, a travel nurse typically receives the following as part of their compensation package:
- Weekly stipend for expenses
- Lodging accommodations
- Signing bonus
However, these contract offers vary in terms of perks and compensation. For instance, a travel nurse may be offered a generous salary, lodging accommodations, and a weekly stipend but no signing bonus.
Additionally, stipends and lodging accommodations can vary dramatically depending upon the region. For example, a New York hospital may offer a much higher stipend, along with lodging accommodations, compared with a Salt Lake City hospital because the cost of living is so much higher in New York. When selecting locations, travel nurses need to be aware of how far their money will go in the city they’re considering.
Finally, location and seasonality play a big factor in the decision-making process as well. For instance, a travel nurse may be considering a high-paying contract role in Cleveland versus a lower-paying one in San Diego. If the two contracts happen to span December through February, the travel nurse might decide to go with San Diego simply because California winters are so much more temperate than Ohio’s.
Job Role and Main Duties of a Travel Nurse
The primary difference between travel nurses and RNs is the traveling element. Beyond that, the day-to-day responsibilities are nearly identical. The typical job duties of a travel nurse include:
- Assessing patients and logging their exact symptoms or conditions
- Administering medications and treatments
- Monitoring the status and vitals of patients
- Collaborating with physicians and other health care staff
- Explaining care plans to patients and their families
- Teaching patients how to better care for themselves
- Keeping detailed patient records
- Communicating with family members about a patient’s status
Similar to RNs, travel nurses work in hospitals, health care facilities, residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, and government facilities.
What Are the Travel Nursing Requirements?
Travel nursing requirements are similar to requirements traditional RNs need to meet but with a few key distinctions. The main educational steps an aspiring travel nurse needs to complete remain consistent:
- Complete an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program — though the latter is highly recommended for travel nurses who want to stand out to potential employers
- Pass the NCLEX-RN exam
- Obtain licensure in their state of practice
Once these three steps are completed, an ASN or BSN graduate is able to practice as a licensed registered nurse. However, travel nurses require two additional certifications: Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS).
Travel nurses who plan to work in a specialized unit should also get the relevant certifications. For instance, a travel nurse who aims to work in an intensive care unit would benefit from getting the CCRN certification, which focuses on acute and critical care.
Another important step that travel nurses need to take is setting up what’s known as a "tax home" for the purposes of taxes and decreasing their overall tax liability. A tax home is the full-time residence where a travel nurse stays when they’re not working. Since travel nurses are away for months at a time, they generally try to secure tax homes with low rent and maintenance costs to help reduce their overall expenses.
For instance, a travel nurse would likely not set up a tax home in a luxury downtown apartment that rents for more than $2,500 per month. It makes more sense to find an affordable tax home to keep their overhead costs down. Travel nurses without a tax home can still work, but they must file under the status of an itinerant worker. This means they must pay taxes on all of their income, stipends, and reimbursements.
Finally, getting and maintaining licensure is of the utmost importance when considering travel nursing requirements. Through the enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC), nurses can earn a multistate license to provide care to patients in eNLC member states. Furthermore, renewing the eNLC license is a simple process that can be done anywhere.
However, non-eNLC states require a travel nurse to obtain an additional state license. This means the travel nurse must meet all the requirements of the new state. Additionally, some states require nurses to obtain continued education units (CEUs) to be allowed to work. When it comes to selecting contracts, travel nurses need to be aware of what — if any — new licenses or CEUs they’ll need to get before they decide to sign on.
Travel Nurse Practitioner vs. Travel RN
Just as RNs can travel to different parts of the country to fill in the nursing gap, the same is true for travel nurse practitioners. Compared with RNs, nurse practitioners (NPs) have more education (an MSN degree, at minimum) and more on-the-job experience, and they usually focus on one specific area of medicine, such as family care, adult-gerontology, or neonatal care. Additionally, NPs generally earn much higher salaries than their RN counterparts.
Scope of Practice
One of the biggest differences when comparing travel nurse practitioners and travel RNs is scope of practice. RNs take their marching orders from NPs, physicians, and physician assistants; this is consistent across all states. NPs, on the other hand, have full practice authority in certain states, meaning they can practice with full autonomy.
In some states, however, NPs operate under restricted or reduced practice, meaning they aren’t allowed to do certain things, such as prescribing medications. Additionally, NPs in reduced or restricted practice states are held accountable and sometimes work under the direct supervision of a physician or team of physicians.
For a travel NP, this means taking on a new contract may significantly expand or reduce their role in the health care facility. Serving in a greatly reduced or expanded role may not appeal to them, which will play a factor in their decision-making process. Travel RNs don’t have to worry about this because their scope of practice is consistent throughout the country.
Licensing for travel NPs is also different compared with travel RNs. While the licensing process is fairly simple for travel RNs working in eNLC member states, NPs usually carry two or three licenses per state.
They include the RN license, the APRN license, and a prescribing license to order medications for patients. A travel nurse practitioner also needs to update their Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) certificate to the state they’re practicing in so they may prescribe medications.
As a result of these various requirements, travel NPs have more to keep track of to maintain licensure.
Travel RNs typically work in acute care in a hospital or health care facility. Travel NPs, on the other hand, have more options, including:
- Health care facilities
- Doctors’ offices
- Community health centers
- Schools and universities
- Military bases
- Outpatient clinics
- Veterans clinics
- Women’s health care clinics
A travel nurse practitioner’s specialty usually dictates the types of contracts they’re eligible for. For instance, a women’s health nurse practitioner seeking travel assignments would likely find a placement in a women’s health care clinic.
Salary and Assignment Length
Similar to travel RNs, travel nurse practitioners see varying salaries, depending on job demand, the facility hiring, the length of the contract, and other factors. Travel RNs earned an average annual salary of approximately $80,900 as of January 2022, according to PayScale. Those in the ninetieth percentile made approximately $107,000 per year.
Salary information for travel NPs isn’t as readily available. However, travel nurses in the top five highest-paying states earned $120,000 or more in 2019, according to TravelNursing.org. California was the highest-paying state, with a salary of $133,800. The takeaway is travel NPs generally earn higher salaries than travel nurses.
One other area that bears comparison is assignment duration. Typical travel RN work assignments are approximately three months long. Travel NPs have the three-month contract option too; however, their assignments can also be much shorter or much longer. Travel NP assignments can range from a single day to well over a year, which is ideal for health care workers who prefer flexibility in their schedules.
What Is Per Diem Travel Nursing?
Per diem travel nursing is one of the most flexible positions in health care. Per diem travel nurses have the same role and responsibilities as a travel nurse, but they pick up their shifts on an ad hoc basis.
They can choose how much or how little they work, even if it’s just a short shift lasting only a few hours. Per diem nursing is the ideal fit for a nurse who needs the maximum amount of flexibility in their schedule and prefers not to work on weekends and holidays. Additionally, per diem travel nurses often get paid more than the standard rate.
One major drawback of per diem nursing is the lack of job security. When a hospital or health care facility is fully staffed, that usually means it no longer requires the services of per diem nurses. Another drawback is that because per diem nurses work only on a fill-in basis and usually part time, they might not develop a rapport with the full-time staff.
Is Travel Nursing Worth It?
Being a travel nurse means working in a new city with a new group of health care professionals every few months. It’s the opportunity to take in a completely new culture and sights. A travel nurse could be in the heart of New York City one month, only to relocate to sunny San Diego the next.
It’s a position that’s rich with possibilities. Plus, travel nurses rack up a vast amount of experience since they work in so many different environments and with different teams. Lastly, travel nurses command higher salaries and receive stipends, signing bonuses, and other perks that their non-traveling RN counterparts don’t.
Is travel nursing worth it? For RNs and NPs who like a change in scenery and want to sample several different work environments across the country, the travel nurse role might well be a great fit.
Begin Your Journey to Becoming a Travel Nurse
Travel nursing is an exciting opportunity for a health care worker to see the world while offering high-quality care to patients in need. With the ongoing nursing shortage still in full swing, travel nurses will likely stay in high demand and continue to command competitive salaries.
To pursue a career as a travel RN or travel NP, investing in education is a great way to begin. Take the first step toward your career goals by discovering how Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program further develops the skills and knowledge of current RNs, allowing them to specialize in family care, psychiatric mental health, or adult-gerontology.
An MSN degree opens the door for a travel RN to become a travel NP, which can mean higher salaries, plus the advantages of a wide variety of work environments and flexible work assignments. Start your adventure as a travel RN or NP and help providers save lives.