April 16, 2020

What Is Travel Nursing? Travel Nurse Salary and Requirements

Stethoscope on top of pile of money
Angelina Walker By: Angelina Walker

With everything going on right now, more and more nurses are considering going into travel nursing to help in the areas that need it most, like New York. Even though nurses can expect to see much higher than average pay packages right now, there are still a number of factors you need to consider when it comes to your salary. Here's what you need to know to navigate pay as a travel nurse.

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What Is a Travel Nurse?

Travel nurses are registered nurses who work in short-term roles at hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities around the world. Travel nurses help fill gaps in areas where there are nursing shortages.

They are employed by an independent nursing staffing agency instead of a single hospital. This means they can travel as far as a different country, or they can work at local hospitals that are in need of temporary nurses. 

Many nurses opt to go into travel nursing for the many perks, like the chance to explore new places, experience diverse practice environments, and make new friends. Competitive pay, great benefits, and free housing are also major benefits of the job.

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 of experience. Which makes it an EXCELLENT opportunity for newer nurses who want to make more money and help pay off some of the cost of their nursing education. 

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Travel Nurse Requirements

Travel nurses do need a few requirements before being considered, including being a registered nurse with a license in good standing, and typically 2 years of nursing experience. They don't need any additional certifications or credentials other than the ones they need for their specific specialty. 

However, right now hospitals and healthcare staffing agencies are going to great lengths to make it as easy as possible to recruit nurses to in-need areas during COVID-19, including waiving state nurse licensure requirements in states that have declared a state of emergency, asking retired RNs to come back to work, and more

What Do Travel Nurses Do?

Because travel nurses work in their primary specialty, duties will vary a great deal between specialties. General nurse responsibilities include:

  • Examining patients and speaking with them about their symptoms and health histories in order to make critical decisions about their care
  • Deliver essential information and counsel with the goal of improving health
  • Play a key role in medication and treatment delivery
  • Perform essential research
  • Collaborate with other health care professionals to ensure a high quality of patient care through the creation of quality assurance standards

Travel Nurse Pay 101

How Much Money Do Travel Nurses Make? 

Under normal circumstances, many travel nurses have the potential to earn over $3,000 per week. Travel nurses can bring in over $50 per hour, plus company-paid housing accommodations. Making it entirely possible for travel nurses to make well over $100K per year.

But right now with COVID-19, in-demand places like New York City are offering nurses major incentives to come help. There are pay packages of over $10,000 per week or $100,000 for a 13-week assignment. But, nurses need to be prepared to enter a war zone. 

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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. 

What are Non-Taxed Stipends for Travel Nurses?

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. 

What Factors Impact How Much Your Pay as a Travel Nurse?

In addition to crisis situations like we're facing right now, there are a number of other factors that can influence how much you can expect to make as a travel nurse. These include:

1. Location

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. 

2. Specialty

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. 

3. Shift

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.

Caution - If the night shift is not your thing, no amount of money is worth your safety, happiness, or license. If you provide better patient care during the day shift, stick to that. Your patients will thank you. 

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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 types 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. 

2. Bonuses

You’ll likely run into assignments advertising “bonuses,” it’s important to know the difference between these bonuses so you can use them to your advantage. 

  • Hospital vs Agency Bonuses
    • Hospital bonuses are paid separately from the bill rate, 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.
    • Agency bonuses may be taken out of the bill rate and affect your overall pay. This 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? 

  • Retention Bonus

Some agencies will pay nurses 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 its own requirements. These bonuses usually range from $100-$2,000, 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 typically range from $500-$4,000 per nurse referral. Some of the best agencies in the industry pay nurses lucrative referrals bonuses once their referral completes an assignment.

3. Strikes

Strikes occur when a labor contract or bargaining agreement between a hospital and a 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 Travel Nurse Assignments

First of all, you can always ask recruiters directly about their highest paying assignments. 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. 

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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 nurses and recruiters. 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 the cloud using something like Dropbox or 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 their 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 quick licensure turn around of just 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. 

8. Communicate 

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 $4,000 per nurse referral! 

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