How To Make The Most Money As A Travel Nurse: 10 Tips For Higher Pay
By Angelina Gibson
“Travel nursing isn’t worth it anymore.” You’ve probably heard this sentiment echoed throughout the nursing community.
So, what exactly isn’t “worth” it about travel nursing? Is it the endless adventure? All the unique people you meet along the way? Or, the freedom to stay clear of hospital politics?
No, all those moments create the epic memories of a travel nurse’s 'wanderlust' experience.
To be real, people who grumble about travel nursing are usually talking about the pay. Maybe they entered the industry with unrealistic expectations about a “get rich quick” type of gig. Or, they could have started travel nursing in the 90’s when the industry was mostly unregulated and, unfortunately, more unethical. The industry has evolved over the past 20 years. For example, hospital bill rates have been lowered and vendor management systems (VMS) have added additional fees for agencies.
Let’s address the “elephant in the room.” There seems to be a misconception that travel nurses are all driving brand new Teslas and flaunting Louboutins. The reality is, some travel nurses simply don’t make much more than they did as a staff nurse. Pay rates fluctuate, last-minute contract cancellations happen and unplanned expenses come up. Bottom line, do your research and plan accordingly.
The good news? Travel nurses still make good money!
The even better news? Travel nurses can make much more money, in a short amount of time, by following the guidelines highlighted in this article.
How Much Money Do Travel Nurses Make?
On the high end, many travel nurses can earn over $3000 per week. Depending on other factors, travel nurses potentially bring in over $50 per hour plus company paid housing accommodations. Either way, it is definitely possible for travel nurses to make well over $100K per year.
If you’re looking to make the most money possible, the best way to do so is to work rapid-response assignments or strikes.
Travel Nurse Pay 101
Ask any travel nurse why they chose to leave their staff job to travel. I can guarantee you that one of their top 3 reasons was for the money. If money is a driving motive, there are surefire strategies you can use to maximize your overall compensation.
How does travel nurse pay differ from staff nurse pay?
Staff nurses in a hospital are usually paid a set salary based on education and experience. They typically receive incremental pay increases at various time frames.
Travel nurse pay is totally different and can be a bit of a gray area. Typical pay packages are composed of various components including, hourly pay, non-taxed housing stipends, non-taxed per diems, travel reimbursements and more.
Travel nurse pay is typically not influenced by experience level or education. In fact, a traveling registered nurse with 2 years experience has the potential to earn the same amount as a traveling registered nurse with 15 years experience.
We are assuming a general knowledge of travel nurse pay. However, if you are not aware, travel nurses receive both taxable hourly rates and non-taxed stipends. Non-taxed stipends are used for expenses such as housing, meals and other incidentals. In addition to non-taxed stipends travel nurses also receive hourly pay.
Let’s take a look at the top factors influencing travel nurse pay:
The specific location of the assignment most heavily influences travel nurse pay. Simply put, pay rates often reflect the cost of living in the area and also regional trends.
Which states pay the most for travel nurses? Historically speaking, the highest paying states for travel nurses include California, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington and New York.
Southern states tend to have lower living costs and, in turn, lower travel nurse pay.
Lastly, areas that are considered “destination locations” (like, Hawaii and Florida) may pay lower. Though, with rapid-response assignments, this isn’t always the case.
The travel nurse’s specialty also impacts pay. Non-specialty nurses such as the medical/surgical and psychiatric specialties are typically paid a lower rate than specialized nurses.
Furthermore, specialized nurses with highly sought after skills and credentials have the ability to earn more lucrative pay with seemingly endless opportunities.
If you haven’t noticed, night shift assignments are more prevalent in the world of travel nursing. The good news is that many hospitals offer higher rates for their night shift assignments.
If you want to make the most money, flexibility is key.
Word of caution - if night shift is not your thing, no amount of money is worth your safety, happiness or license. If you provide better patient care on day shift - stick to day shift. Your patients will thank you.
How To Make The Most Money As A Travel Nurse
While the factors listed above do influence travel nurse pay, the following types of assignments almost always pay exceptionally well. Often times, these types of assignments are not influenced by location, specialty or shift.
Everything else aside, if you’re looking to make the most money as a travel nurse - seek out these specific assignments:
1. Rapid response and “crisis” assignments: These assignments boast some of the highest rates in the travel nursing industry due to their urgent requirements. As the name suggests, these assignments require nurses to arrive at work fast - usually within 2 weeks. Nurses working in these assignments may have limited options in terms of location. They are also typically shorter than the general 13-week assignment.
Generally, the hospital is not experiencing a crisis situation such as a natural or man-made disaster. However, in some cases they are. For example, one agency was able to send nurses within 48 hours to provide support to hospitals treating patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
More often, though, facilities in need of rapid response solutions include those managing unexpected census spikes, unit openings, emergency responses, EMR upgrades, and more. However, some facilities may leverage flexible-length assignment options to manage patient care during short-term staff shortages.
This type of assignment may be appealing to hospitals because they do not require the 13-week commitment that many other travel companies require. This means that agencies offering these type of assignments have the ability to offer travelers a larger selection of shorter and higher paying assignments. A great option especially if you’re looking for a position to better fit your lifestyle.
So, what is the catch? As mentioned, rapid response assignments require a quick turn around. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial for nurses to have their paperwork in order if they want to reap the benefits of top pay. Credentials, tests, licenses and other documents should be submitted to the agency as quickly as possible.
We reached out to travel nursing agencies for more information about their rapid-response assignments. They said that most agencies will occasionally help nurses acquire licenses and certifications, including paying for new state licenses for nurses who complete an assignment with the company there.
Agencies also offer the option to cover housing costs if the nurse stays in one of their preferred hotels. Alternatively, many travel nursing agencies provide a housing stipend calculated to cover the cost of a nurse acquiring his or her own housing during the assignment. Lastly, they also cover the travel costs nurses incur at the start and end of an assignment.
Assignments range from 36 to 48 hours per week but are certainly more lucrative for the nurse working 48, particularly given overtime pay rates.
You’ll likely run into assignments advertising “bonuses”, they may be listed as sign-on, completion, retention or referral bonuses.
- Sign on and completion bonuses:
It’s important to know the difference between these bonuses and use it to your advantage.
Hospital bonuses are paid separately from the bill rate. Agency bonuses may be taken out of the bill rate and affect your overall pay. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you enjoy getting a large amount of money as a lump sum.
How do you know the difference between hospital and agency bonuses? For starters, you can ask your recruiter where the bonus comes from - hospital or, agency? Secondly, hospital bonuses are usually offered as completion bonuses. This means they are not paid until after you complete your assignment. These bonuses usually range from $250-$5000.
- Retention bonus:
Some agencies will pay nurse bonuses once they end up working with that agency for multiple assignments. This is commonly referred to as a retention bonus and each agency will have their own requirements. These bonuses usually range from $100-$2000, or more.
- Referral bonus:
A referral bonus is a fee the agency pays to travel nurses who refer other nurses to work for their agency. The funds often come out of a separate budget allocated to referral fees and should not affect the travel nurse’s pay package.
Referral bonuses typical range from $500-$4000 per nurse referral. Some of the best agencies in the industry pay nurses lucrative referrals bonuses once their referral completes an assignment.
Strikes occur when a labor contract or bargaining agreement between a hospital and union is up for renewal. When the two sides aren’t able to come up with an acceptable compromise, the union may strike.
In such a case, patients still need care. Therefore, hospitals will usually hire travel nurses to fill the temporary need. Due to the urgency, travel nurses who work strikes make much more money than they do when working on typical travel nurse assignments.
How to find the highest paying assignments:
First of all, you can always ask recruiters directly about their highest paying assignments. That’s right, let them know that money is a motivator and that you are not interested in assignments that pay less than a certain amount. The best travel nurse recruiters will be honest with you about pay while giving you their best pay packages from the beginning.
We suggest working with agencies that are known to pay high rates and who specialize in rapid-response and strike nursing. Hospitals pay these agencies higher rates to urgently provide highly specialized staff on a short-term basis. Those high rates are passed along to their travel nurses.
Top 10 Tips To Make The Most Money As A Travel Nurse
1. Find your own housing.
We suggest taking a housing stipend and securing your own housing. This will give you the freedom to choose your price point. Agencies will often house nurses in pricier accommodations (they have a reputation to uphold.) Additionally, agencies sign corporate leases - leases that come with a “corporate” price tag.
Some agencies, are able to offer free housing if you stay in one of their preferred hotels. Most other agencies do not cover this cost outright, though, they’ll help you set it up.
2. Be flexible.
If money is your motivation, flexibility is key. Sometimes the highest paying assignments pay higher because they are not the most ideal. They may be in a less than desirable location or on a hard to fill time shift, such as nights or variables. Though it’s not always the case - nights, variables and weekends may come with higher pay or shift differentials.
3. Work with the agencies who are known for their high pay and transparency.
Every agency is different and will structure their pay packages differently as well. Transparency is key. The most trustworthy agencies will publish their compensation packages publicly and will disclose take-home pay. This focus on transparency allows nurses to skip the negotiating or fact-finding step and rapidly decide if the position is right for them.
Furthermore, industry jargon and terms like “blended rates” get confusing. Negotiations can increase confusion and lead to mistrust between nurse and recruiter. That’s why working with agencies that do not allow for negotiations may prove to be the best agencies to work for. They likely give the nurse their best rate from the “get-go” and therefore actually have no room left for negotiations.
If you’re able to negotiate with a recruiter, why weren’t they offering you their best rate from the beginning? Something to consider.
4. Stay organized.
Top paying travel nursing assignments come with a timestamp - they are in high demand and competition is fierce. Truth is, agencies can’t simply submit you for a job just because you want to be considered. They literally have to “sell” your skills to the hospital.
How do they do this? Through your paperwork, commonly referred to as your “profile” - resume, references, skills checklists, license, etc. Having organized paperwork that can quickly (and easily) be submitted to a new agency will increase your chances of landing high paying assignments. The quicker you get your paperwork to your recruiter, the faster they can submit you to a top paying job.
Side note, many nurse managers hire travel nurses on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Why? Because your agency has already vetted you, the hospital doesn’t need to do more research to determine if you’re qualified. The hospital needs your skills to fill a temporary staffing need.
If you treat every high paying job with extreme urgency your chances of landing the job will increase.
We recommend keeping your paperwork up to date and storing it online on a cloud, drop-box or even on the google drive. This will make it easy to simply share your paperwork folder with your recruiter. Another tip, if you don’t have a scanner, download a scanning app - works like a charm and you don’t have to lug around a bulky machine.
Many agencies are getting tech-savvy and developing mobile apps that allow nurses to directly upload documents to the nurse’s profile with the company, where they can be stored and updated when the app notifies nurses of their expirations, etc.
5. Work with multiple agencies.
Truth is, no agency will have assignments available in every location in the US. More truth, some hospitals pay each agency at a different rate. Lastly, local agencies may have better relationships with the hospitals in their area.
Bottom line, it’s a good idea to work with multiple agencies - this will increase your opportunities.
Word of advice - if you work with multiple recruiters, don’t be shady. Be honest with them about each other. Don’t ‘pit’ them against each other. And, by all means, keep in touch with them even if you don’t choose their assignment (this time). Chances are they’ll want to work with you again in the future. Who knows, you might even make a new friend!
6. Maintain multiple state licenses
Did you know that many hospitals will not even look at your professional profile if you are not licensed in their state? It’s true. You’ll increase your chances of continuously landing high paying jobs by maintaining active licenses in multiple states. For example, rates in northern states usually increase during the winter months - so, a license in Massachusetts is a must!
If you want to work in a certain state, you need to have a license. Period. If you don’t have a license in that state, and you want to travel there soon - apply now! Some states have a quick licensure turn around of 48 hours. Other states, like California, can take up to 6 months to process licensure paperwork.
Some agencies do assist or reimburse, for licensing fees.
7. Work agency per diem and pick up extra shifts
Travel nurses who want to make even more money will often work local agency per diem shifts. They’ll also volunteer to work extra shifts during their assignments.
Recruiters are the connection between you and the highest paying travel nursing assignments. It’s important to communicate with them about your compensation needs. Looking for a high paying assignment? Ask. Need a sign-on or completion bonus? Ask. Can’t live happily with an income below a certain amount? Tell them. Remember, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.
9. Ask for sign on, completion and retention bonuses.
Some travel companies may offer bonuses. Bonuses are paid either on day #1 of your assignment, upon completion of the assignment or when you work multiple assignments with your agency. Inquire about bonuses.
10. Refer your friends to agencies
In the travel nursing industry, referrals are golden. Nurses are much more likely to trust their friend’s opinion of an agency they’ve actually worked for than they are an advertisement or recruiter. This is why agencies pay nurses referral bonuses to refer their friends. Referral fees differ but some agencies pay as high as $4000 per nurse referral!
Angelina Gibson is a former Nurse Recruitment Manager with 9 total years experience in recruiting. She has hired both staff and agency nurses throughout her career. In addition to her professional experience, Angelina also works as a consultant to travel nursing companies. Instagram @TravelNursingInsider