Guide to Becoming a Travel Nurse

Resources & Guidance for Nursing Students & Nurses Who Want to See the World

Travel nurses work temporary nursing assignments at medical facilities, usually hospitals, where there is a short-term need for additional nurses. Some might serve rural or underserved areas by traveling to meet patients are various locations, usually in their homes, while others might travel across the world to provide a very specific service for patients who don’t have access to regular healthcare.

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Travel Nursing Advantages

Though there are many advantages to becoming a travel nurse, for most it boils down to three key points: higher pay, gaining experience in a particular area or type of practice, and of course, a sense of adventure.

  • Earnings

    Travel nurses often receive higher compensation than an equivalent nurse working the same hours. However, there are many variables that determine how much a traveling nurse will make, such as the nurse’s credentials (including specialty areas), location of the assignment, benefits and perks offered by a placement agency and the nurse’s specific financial situation. Greater compensation can also come in the form of expense reimbursement, a living stipend, bonuses and more.

  • Greater Expertise

    Travel nurses have opportunities to work in specialties that otherwise might not be available to them. In a permanent nursing placement, the nurse will mostly stay in one specific area, even if they’re qualified to work in other areas as well. With travel nursing, all the nurse has to do is ensure she’s qualified to work in the desired specialty request a job in that specialty. Many travel nurses gain wide-ranging expertise over the span of several years.

  • Adventure

    Meeting new people, seeing new places, becoming familiar with new areas – these are all fantastic perks to being a travel nurse. Not only can a nurse travel to far-flung locales, because some assignments will last for several months, there is plenty of time to become immersed in the culture and live like a local. [Design: this part could be slide show or collapsible.]

    There are other perks to being a travel nurse.

    • Some have better flexibility in choosing their own schedules.
    • Some take time off between assignments to volunteer or take a vacation.
    • Some like the idea of “trying out” a new geographic location.
    • Many like the idea of testing out a variety of specialties before settling down with one in particular.

Inside Travel Nursing

There are various reasons nurses choose the travel nursing path. Here are a few reasons why, along with actions to take to ensure plans work out as hoped.

To See the Country and Meet New People
  • 1
    Decide where to go.

    To some, a quaint small town with an underserved population sounds perfect, while a big city with bright lights and cutting edge medical care is ideal for others. Either way, a list of desired locales should be made and researched.

  • 2
    Identify deal breakers.

    Decide what you absolutely can’t give up—pets, for example. They’re a package deal, so any living arrangements should allow you to bring them, if you can’t or won’t make other arrangements. Make a short list of requirements like this.

  • 3
    Apply to a travel nurse agency.

    Depending on your deal breakers and how unique of a location you’re interested in working, you might want to apply to multiple agencies. This could provide the best chance for preferred placement.

  • 4
    Start making plans.

    Consider logistics – how you will move those beloved dogs, how you’ll handle keeping up with the maintenance on your home you’re a thousand miles away, etc.

To Live and Work in a Specific Area: Philadelphia Example
  • 1
    Identify preferred areas.

    From the bustling downtown to the charm of the Main Line, the Philadelphia area offers a wide variety of living and working lifestyles. As a travel nurse, you can choose to live and work in any of these places; but if there is a preference, let the nurse agency know.

  • 2
    Find the right travel nurse agency.

    If you wish to live and work in a particular area, you may be best served by an agency specializing in the area that allows nurses to make their own living arrangements. If you want to eventually settle down in the area, you’ll need a good grasp of the cost of living.

  • 3
    Confirm licensing requirements.

    Nurses are generally licensed to practice in a particular state. Since Pennsylvania is not a member of the Nurse Licensure Compact, for example, a nurse interested in traveling to work there will need to become licensed to legally work as a nurse in Pennsylvania.

  • 4
    Make sure the job placement is a good fit.

    Building a solid reputation in the local area is a must for nurses, especially those who plan to eventually live and work there full-time. That’s why the first job placement is so important. It must be in a place that offers a supportive atmosphere, no animosity between staff and a well-run administration.

To Bump up That Paycheck
  • 1
    Choose desired benefits and pay.

    Some travel nurse agencies tout how they offer great pay, often topping six figures. That looks good on a brochure but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, you might make more money as a travel nurse than a permanent nurse, but you must conduct due diligence to make sure a particular travel nursing agency does deliver on the high-pay promise. Do your own salary research at sites such as BLS.gov.

  • 2
    Evaluate the potential jobs.

    In addition to seeking out a specific salary, you’ll also want to look at several other variables that give the true “big picture” perspective. These include work scheduling, travel reimbursements, living stipends or other arrangements, commute time, cost of living, whether you’ll keep your permanent home while working elsewhere, tax implications, and additional benefits such as vacation days and retirement benefits. Since each agency might have different requirements and serve various areas, evaluate each very carefully before applying.

Travel Nursing's Positive Impact

Many nurses jump into travel nursing for the pay and the adventure – but they wind up finding rewards that go far beyond what they expected. Travel nurses might work in some of the most underserved areas of the country, bringing care to those who don’t have a doctor anywhere nearby to help them. They might also take their skills overseas, where they help those who have never had healthcare before. Here’s more about why travel nursing matters so much to patients and to the nurses themselves.

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Becoming a Traveling Nurse

A permanent nurse needs to be licensed in the state the nurse practices in. Travel nursing is no different. If a nurse is licensed in one state but wants to work in another as a travel nurse, the nurse must be licensed in that state. However, there are two exceptions to this rule:

  • If the nurse works for a federal government agency, such as a Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, he/she can work in any state for the federal government agency as long as the nurse has at least one state license.

  • If the nurse is licensed in a Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) state and wants to work in another state that’s also a member of the NLC, the nurse does not have to become licensed in the new state. Currently, there are 25 states in the NLC. More details are discussed in the Nurse Licensure Compact section, below.

If a traveling nurse is not working for a government agency or not licensed in an NCL state, he or she will have to obtain a new license in the destination state. This process usually just requires filling out paperwork, paying a fee and waiting. Most travel nurse agencies will assist their nurses will this process (some will even pay for the fee) and can usually get things done in several weeks to a few months. Depending on the state, fingerprinting for background checks may also be required.

Each state is different in how it will license out-of-state nurses. Generally speaking, as long as a nurse has been working in his/her home state for a few years and is a licensed registered nurse in good standing, the nurse will be able to become licensed in another state through a process called endorsement. The new state will grant the nursing license as long as it can confirm the nurse is currently licensed in the home state and meets any additional new state licensing requirements, which are usually administrative. Becoming licensed in another state does not require retaking the NCLEX-RN exam.

Many states will issue temporary licenses so travel nurses can start working while their permanent licensed is being processed. In a few states, the licensure process can go very quickly, allowing a nurse to go to that state’s board of nursing office, apply in person and walk out with a temporary license that day.

Nurse Licensure Compact

The Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) is an agreement among 25 member states. It ensures the nursing license of one state is valid for practice in another member state. There are two caveats to how the NLC process works.

  • If a nurse chooses to permanently move from the nurse’s home state (which is an NLC member) to another NLC member state, the nurse will usually need to get a new license in the new state. This shouldn’t be an issue for most travel nurses since they rarely intend to move to the new state permanently.

  • A nurse can only take advantage of the NLC if the nurse’s home state is an NLC member, even if the nurse has a license from an NLC member state. For example, if a nurse is licensed and resides in Pennsylvania (a non-member state), but is also licensed in Rhode Island (an NLC member state), that nurse cannot take work in Wisconsin (an NLC member state) unless the nurse gets a new license in Wisconsin. This is because even though the nurse has a license in an NLC member state (Rhode Island), the state in which the nurse permanently resides, Pennsylvania, is not an NLC member state.

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  • A nursing student who is strongly interested becoming a travel nurse should try to look for a job and place to live in an NLC member state. If that person becomes a travel nurse, they will automatically have 24 other states to readily begin practicing, with no worry about additional licensure fees or application delays.

Job Search Tips for Traveling Nurses

Traveling nurses are in demand, but you’ll still want to stand out from the crowd as you look for career opportunities in the field. Consider the following advice when embarking on a traveling nurse job search.

1. What do you need – or want?

Figure out what your “needs” and “wants” are with respect to desired job placements. View “needs” as deal breakers – you must have them. “Wants” are those things that would be nice, but you could do without. Knowing what you must have versus what would be nice to have can make choosing a job or location much easier.

2. Gain at least two years of experience in your specialty.

While only one year may be required, having more experience will make you more marketable. The more experience you have, the better your job performance will probably be. Remember, since you are a traveling nurse, your temporary employer will not be motivated to invest the time and effort to train you for your new job.

3. Polish your resume.

Make sure your resume accurately and effectively conveys your skills and level of experience. The more marketable you are, the more leverage you’ll have when negotiating with your travel nurse agency’s recruiter.

4. Learn how to negotiate.

Some of the benefits and perks offered by travel nurse agencies are negotiable. By saying the right thing, you may be able to get slightly higher pay, a bigger housing allowance or reimbursement for your travel costs to your new location. Depending on a hospital’s needs and your credentials, you may have some leverage. Remember, travel nurse agencies rely on nurses like you to make them money. If you’re a prized candidate, they will try to do what it takes to keep you happy.

5. Get at least three good references.

Even though only two may be required, it helps to have an extra. Sometimes a reference might be unavailable for a while, or in some cases, one reference may be more suitable than another. The more recent the references, the better.

6. Fully communicate with your agency.

Tell them exactly what you want and need. If you don’t effectively convey these important points to the recruiter, you might wind up with a job that doesn’t make you happy – and that means travel nursing, for you, could be a miserable experience.

Travel Nurse Support & Resources

A career as a traveling nurse can be exciting and rewarding. However, it’s not the most well-known of medical professions. The following list of resources can help individuals learn more about this profession, as well as support those already in it.

  • American Traveler – The Official Travel Nursing Blog

    A regularly updated blog with interesting personal experiences and stories, in addition to the usual how-to, advice and tips. Since American Traveler is a travel nursing agency, some of the articles tout the benefits of that particular company, but the information provided is no less useful.

  • BluePipes – Travel Nursing

    This is one of the most informative travel nursing blogs out there, providing detailed, in-depth articles that get into the nitty-gritty details about travel nursing. This blog gets into not just the “what,” but the “why,” so readers can make the most informed decisions possible.

  • The Gypsy Nurse

    One of the more well-known blogs for traveling nurses. New articles are posted almost every day. Readers of this blog can also take advantage of a job board, news updates and a comprehensive how-to on becoming a travel nurse.

  • Travel Nursing Blogs.com

    This blog has a ton of resources for prospective and current travel nurses. Tools and resources offered include in-depth articles on specific topics, a cost of living calculator, checklists and travel nurse agency reviews.

  • Travel Nursing Central Blog

    With new blog posts every month or so, this travel nursing blog offers advice for issues and questions many travel nurses face, such as getting enough sleep, finding a good travel nursing agency and tips for staying in shape while on the move.

  • Travel Nursing Classroom Blog

    This blog provides a wide range of articles that tackle questions many nurses new to travel nursing are likely to have. This blog is especially useful for those who are thinking about becoming a travel nurse. It has a nice podcast available as well.

  • TravelNursing.org

    A great travel nursing blog that offers new posts every week or so. Articles cover a wide range of topics from common myths to personal experiences in travel nursing.

  • Medical Solutions Scholarship
    • Name of Scholarship: Nurses of Tomorrow Scholarship

    • Scholarship Amount: $2,000

    • Basic Requirements: Applicants must have at least a 2.75 GPA and be currently enrolled as a full-time student from an accredited school, or continuing their education at an accredited school.

    • Application Deadline: Middle of May

  • TravelNursing.org Scholarship
    • Name of Scholarship: Nursing Education Scholarship

    • Scholarship Amount: $1,000

    • Basic Requirements: Applicants must have at least a 3.00 GPA and be accepted or currently attending a full-time nursing or medical program at an accredited school.

    • Application Deadline: Late January

  • Travel Nurse Across America Scholarship
    • Name of Scholarship: $2,500 Annual BSN Student Scholarship

    • Scholarship Amount: $2,500

    • Basic Requirements: Student must be working toward a Bachelor of Science in nursing degree from an accredited school.

    • Application Deadline: Early July

Interview with a Travel Nurse

Steve Jones is a travel nurse who has taken on numerous jobs over the course of his career, including a few volunteer stints with Mercy Ships – the ultimate in international travel nursing. The Africa Mercy ship is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship providing state-of-the-art care to those in need, free of charge. Here’s a glimpse into his life as a travel nurse.

Philippa

(L to R) Philippa Jones, Melissa Lauf, Steve Jones.
Photo credit Jennifer Daggett

Ships

The Africa Mercy © Mercy Ships

Why did you choose to pursue work as a travel nurse?

Two reasons: I was working in a rural hospital at a time when the case load in the operating room (OR) was slowing significantly. I had accomplished most personal and professional goals as a RN. When I started traveling, I had 31 years in the OR. I thought I needed another challenge.

My only brother had been diagnosed with end stage renal disease (ESRD) and I thought it would be nice to work closer to where he lived, so I could spend more time with him.

What are a few of your favorite experiences?

I was working at my second hospital as a traveler and within a few weeks I was asked by the OR manager if I would be willing to precept a nurse they had recently hired who did not have any OR experience. I was with her for about 10 weeks and it was a very beneficial pairing for us both. She had a great outlook on life. She was originally from Detroit and had moved to an Atlanta suburb not long before we met. I not only passed on my OR wisdom, but I was able to educate her a little about how things are done in the south!

At a small hospital in WV (my home state), I worked in an OR that was in transition. There was only one remaining full time OR nurse when I arrived. There were three travel nurses including me. In the first month I was there, they hired three nurses with absolutely no OR experience. The manager asked if I would give in-services as time allowed on various topics that would teach the new nurses how to prep and position patients appropriately. It is good to know I can help these ORs in multiple ways.

You just came back from a volunteer mission on Mercy Ships. What were some of your favorite moments?

My bunk mate was from India. He had been on the ship for three months and we only shared a living space for a week, but had some good conversations. He took me on a walking tour of the port city at night. When I asked him why he wanted to go at night he said it was too hot during the day. I thought that was hilarious considering he is from southern India. The day time temperatures were mid-90s and 80 at night. We exchanged contact info, but in my experience this doesn’t always mean communication will continue. I was pleasantly surprised when I received multiple emails from him. My hope is we can stay connected.

While onboard I had an unexpected opportunity to help out during surgery. The ship requires people to speak English while they are working. I worked in the OR with people from various countries, who spoke very good English. I am not bilingual, so anyone that can speak more than one language always impresses me.

One day I was a second assistant on an abdominal procedure. The first assistant was a surgeon from the host country that was there to learn about these procedures from a Mercy Ships surgeon. The teaching surgeon spoke English and the surgeon he was training only spoke French, so a translator was required.

At the end of the procedure, the surgeons were closing (suturing) and the translator was having a bit of trouble translating the instructions on suturing. So I drew a picture of how the suturing should look, gave it to the translator, who showed it to the local surgeon, who then nodded his head as if to say he understood. Based on how he sutured after that, it was obvious he did understand. I smiled because the drawing I made worked. Pictures are worth a thousand words!

I really like the fact that there is an emphasis on peoples’ (crew and patients) spiritual well-being. Prayer is part of the day to day routine. And the OR manager led a short weekly devotion. Being very holistic in caring for the patients and crew made me wish I could spend more time there.

Is there anything you don’t like about travel nursing?

One aspect of the travel world I don’t care for is how much of my time I spend doing things for the company and the hospital that I don’t get compensated for. If you are hired into a non-travel position by a hospital, you typically get paid for all the time you spend doing HR stuff and orientation. That is not the case with contract work. I can spend anywhere from two to eight hours completing items for the travel company and the hospital with no compensation. My hope is that this might change in the future. I have worked for multiple companies and this is common among them all.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to get into travel nursing?

It can be very rewarding for the most part. I have had three facilities ask me back, which is a great ego booster. It allows me to manage my own schedule. p>

The first two or three weeks at a facility is a time of testing. It is understandable, because coworkers need to know how you work and what your priorities are. Once you have proven you are there for the patients and you know how to do your job, people seem to relax a little.

There are numerous companies out there to choose from. They all do things very much alike. I have found out some companies have contracts in certain geographical locations, so you may choose a company that gets you where you want to be. Some hospital systems have contracts with more than one company.

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