How to Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse

16 Min Read Published April 9, 2023
How to Maximize Your Travel Nurse Income | Nurse.org

What is a Travel Nurse?

travel nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who works in short-term roles at hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities worldwide. Daily travel nurse duties are often similar to traditional RN roles, but their flexibility allows them to fill gaps in areas with nursing shortages. As a result, the average travel nurse's salary can be quite high!

>> Click here to see available high-paying travel nurse opportunities!

During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel nurses were seeing some of the highest pay packages ever because of the overwhelming need for nurses, especially in hot spots like New York, Florida, and California. While pay packages might not be as high as they were a few years ago, there is still significant money to be made for those interested in pursuing travel nursing.

But, there are still a number of factors you need to consider when it comes to your travel nurse salary. Here's what you need to know to navigate pay as a travel nurse.

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How to Become a Travel Nurse 

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. 

While a BSN is not required to become a travel nurse, it will open more opportunities to nurses such as Magnet hospitals and Level 1 trauma centers. Without a BSN, your options might be more limited. 

>> Click here to see available high-paying travel nurse opportunities!

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.

Travel Nurse Salary by State

State

Annual Salary

Hourly Wage

New York

$125,863

$60.51

New Hampshire

$117,182

$56.34

Arizona

$109,776

$52.78

Wyoming

$109,765

$52.77

Tennessee

$107,708

$51.78

Hawaii

$107,514

$51.69

Massachusetts

$107,000

$51.44

New Jersey

$106,901

$51.40

Nevada

$106,660

$51.28

West Virginia

$106,044

$50.98

Indiana

$105,994

$50.96

Montana

$104,836

$50.40

Washington

$104,010

$50.00

Connecticut

$103,709

$49.86

Pennsylvania

$103,522

$49.77

Minnesota

$103,166

$49.60

Rhode Island

$101,580

$48.96

Oregon

$101,660

$48.88

Alaska

$101,580

$48.84

North Dakota

$99,343

$47.76

Wisconsin

$98,548

$47.38

Maryland

$98,027

$47.13

Ohio

$97,538

$46.89

Idaho

$95,926

$46.12

Alabama

$95,621

$45.97

Iowa

$95,537

$45.93

Utah

$95,493

$45.91

Virginia

$95,492

$45.91

South Dakota

$95,266

$45.80

Vermont

$94,506

$45.44

California

$94,422

$45.40

New Mexico

$93,394

$44.90

Colorado

$93,120

$44.77

Kentucky

$92,813

$44.62

Delaware

$92,416

$44.43

Nebraska

$92,181

$44.32

South Carolina

$91,081

$43.79

Kansas

$90,345

$43.44

Florida

$90,063

$43.30

Maine

$89,768

$43.16

Mississippi

$88,643

$42.62

Arkansas

$88,220

$42.41

Oklahoma

$88,082

$42.35

Georgia

$87,971

$42.29

Illinois

$86,988

$41.82

Michigan

$86,825

$41.74

Missouri

$85,878

$41.29

Texas

$85,027

$40.88

Louisiana

$82,597

$39.71

North Carolina

$76,319

$36.69

Source: Ziprecruiter

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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. Staff nurses can also see pay increases with overall cost of living increases.

  • 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 travel nurse housing stipends, non-taxed per diems, travel reimbursements, and more. It’s important to speak to your recruiter about specific pay package breakdowns. 

>> Related: Top 10 Six-Figure Nursing Jobs

What Factors Impact Your Pay as a Travel Nurse?

There are a number of 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.

    • 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. A word of 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. 

  4. Practice level/Education - Travel RNs make more money than stationary RNs. But those who also pursue advanced practice nursing credentials stand to earn even more. For example, the average travel nurse practitioner's salary is around $131,543 per year but can go up to $218,000.

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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. Oftentimes, 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 - if you're ready to go, you can get started right away in areas that need you the most. 

Assignments range from 36 to 48 hours per week but are certainly more lucrative for the nurse working 48, particularly given overtime pay rates. 

Crisis Examples

  • A crisis assignment is not always because of 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.
  • Crisis assignments might also occur if a large number of nurses on the unit are on maternity leave at the same time, or can occur if there is an outbreak on the unit (GI illness) and the hospital needs staff immediately.

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's the catch? 

As mentioned, rapid response assignments require a quick turnaround. 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. Frequently, there are a limited number of positions available for these types of assignments and some agencies will be first-come, first-serve.

What Travel Nurse Agencies Say About Rapid-Response Assignments

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. 


2. Bonuses

  • 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.

>> Click here to see available high-paying travel nurse opportunities!


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. 

Top 11 Tips For Travel Nurses (From a Travel Nurse Recruiter!)

1. Crisis Contracts

Crisis contracts were extremely popular during the pandemic. Travel nurses were able to garner premium pay and had the opportunity to make significant amounts in a short period of time. While these specific types of crisis contracts are not readily available, healthcare companies around the country still need to fill gaps, especially for short periods of time. 

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Work With Agencies Who are Known for Their High Pay and Transparency

Every agency is different and will structure its 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. 

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.

5. Make Sure Your Profile is Up-to-Date

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.

6. Work With Multiple Agencies

The 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 and 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!

7. 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. Even better – have a compact nursing license? This will automatically set you up for success. 

If you don’t have a license in that state, and you want to travel there soon, apply now! Some states have quick licensure turnaround 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.

8. Work Agency Per Diem and Pick Up Extra Shifts

Travel nurses who want to make even more money will often work local agencies’ per diem shifts. They’ll also volunteer to work extra shifts during their assignments.

9. Communicate With Your Recruiter

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.

10. 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. 

11. 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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Travel Nurse FAQs

  • What does a travel nurse do?

    • A travel nurse is employed by a temporary staffing agency to work a contract with a healthcare facility for a short amount of time, usually around 13 weeks. 
  • What is the highest paid travel nurse? 

    •  Any specialty area travel nurse, such as OR, ICU, MICU/SICU will have a higher earning potential. Additionally, APRNs such as a CRNA, will earn the highest wages. 
  • Is travel nursing worth the money?

    • Travel nursing can be highly profitable, but you’ll want to consider all of the factors involved with the job, such as short-term contracts, inconsistent benefits and pay, new environments, and sometimes, high stress. 
  • What do you need to be a travel nurse? 

    • In addition to being a Registered Nurse, typically, you need at least one year of experience on the floor to become a travel nurse. 
  • Is it hard to become a travel nurse? 

    • Travel nursing can be competitive, but if you want to become a travel nurse, there are endless opportunities. You can increase your appeal by earning certifications in specialty areas. 
  • How much money do travel nurses make? 

    • The take-home pay for travel nurses can vary widely based on the area’s need, the nurse’s specialty and any certifications, and other factors, but most travel nurses make well over six figures. 
  • Why do hospitals hire travel nurses? 

    • Hospitals and other healthcare facilities may hire travel nurses when they are lacking their own staff, when the patient census becomes too high for their current staffing, or when a medical crisis, like COVID-19, or an emergency occurs. 
Angelina Walker
Angelina Walker
Director of Nursing Content and Social Media

Angelina has her finger on the pulse of everything nursing. Whether it's a trending news topic, valuable resource or, heartfelt story, Angelina is an expert at producing content that nurses love to read. She specializes in warmly engaging with the nursing community and exponentially growing our social presence.

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