How to Become a Travel NurseEdited by Nancy Lynn Swezey, BSN, RN, CNOR
Travel nursing offers a unique opportunity to work in many different cities across the country. Travel nurses are responsible for filling short-term employment gaps in hospitals and other medical facilities. Because policies and procedures can be different according to the nursing boards of different states, travel nursing is an excellent way to gain experience within a relatively short time. Travel nurses take on short-term assignments, so training is often minimal and they are often expected to have previous experience in the same type of role. For this reason, most travel nurses have years of specialized experience.
Nurses employed in this capacity can expect to use their full repertoire of nursing skills and should prepare to be exposed to new situations. Their duties will vary depending on the position they are filling, and the specifics of the role will vary accoring to the type of specialty they're employed in.
What Is a Travel Nurse?
A travel nurse accepts limited-term work in order to fill a temporary staffing need. As such, travel nurse candidates may need to relocate frequently and with little notice in order to find suitable and continuous work. The average length of a travel nurse’s assignment is approximately 13 weeks.
To apply for a travel nurse position, an individual must be licensed to practice nursing in varying capacities. Positions are available for certified nursing assistants (CNAs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and registered nurses (RNs), though RNs are the most common type of travel nurse. One challenge for travel nurses is that licensure is often state-specific and requires a tedious process. However, multi-state licensure is available through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, which offers the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). Obtaining this license makes it easier for travel nurses to accept assignments in different locations, as the license is recognized in 31 states.
What Does a Travel Nurse Do?
Travel nurses perform the duties required of any licensed nurse. They fill vacancies in hospital and other clinical settings, with the more common specialties including emergency departments, intensive care units, operating rooms, and telemetry units. The travel nurse is expected to carry out the same job functions as their colleague staff nurses, including assessment, medication administration, procedural assistance, patient education and care planning.
There are also travel nursing assignments available within psychiatric nursing, labor and delivery, community health nursing, and hemodialysis. Travel nurses can find work aligned with their specialty preferences, provided they have a solid foundation of training and experience in their respective areas of interest. When seeking to specialize, travel nurses should already have at least one year of experience within that field.
Where Can a Travel Nurse Work?
Most travel nursing positions are located within hospitals and other inpatient facilities. Where a travel nurse can work also depends on license and education level, as placements for CNAs, LPNs, RNs, and advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) can vary.
Other potential settings include nursing homes and research facilities. One resource for working with a specific patient population is the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA). VA Travel Nurse Corps (TNC) helps travel nurses find placement working exclusively with United States veterans.
It is possible for a travel nurse to hold positions in all of these kinds of facilities over the course of their career. Travel nursing thus allows an individual to acquire a broader range of experiences and knowledge than would be possible in any single position.
The travel nurse work environment can vary tremendously. Due to the ever-changing nature of a travel nurse’s work assignments, there is no standard when it comes to working conditions. One facility may be rich with resources, offering thorough training, development opportunities, and continued education, while another may only provide a cursory introduction and minimal support. However, due to the transient nature of the work, a travel nurse will never have to endure an unpleasant work environment for long.
The ideal travel nurse thrives under changing conditions and embraces new challenges every day. Communication and interpersonal skills are critical assets, as travel nurses seldom develop the rapport and implicit understanding that comes only after years of collaboration with their colleagues. A resilient travel nurse embraces new opportunities and adapts quickly to variable working conditions and professional communities.
Career Outlook and Demand
Job prospects for CNAs, LPNs, RNs, and NPs are projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. For RNs in particular, employment is projected to grow 15 percent in that time period to a projected employment of more than 3.3 million RNs. Since travel nurses are simply licensed nurses who take on short-term work contracts, these positive job growth projections also apply to travel nurses.
To determine whether one is interested in this career, it is important to consider which travel nursing specialties are in demand. Currently, common travel positions are in intensive care units, labor and delivery, emergency rooms, operating rooms, pediatric wards, neonatal wards, and surgical wards. A travel nurse who develops specialized knowledge in these fields is likely to have more choices when looking for a position.
While there are variables that can affect a travel nurse’s salary, a travel RN is likely to earn a higher wage than that of a typical registered nurse. According to PayScale, the median wage in the US for a travel nurse with an RN license is $33.55 hourly or an annual salary of $65,403. This salary can vary greatly by state, so nurses should investigate salaries in the state they'll be working in. Travel nurses have different salaries depending on their licensure, agency, location, and experience. Travel nurses often receive housing stipends and travel expense reimbursement as well. Most travel nursing agencies offer benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, education reimbursement, and retirement plans. Many also provide guaranteed hours to protect nurses who may get cancelled by a hospital they were assigned to.
Travel nursing education requirements are the same as the requirements for any other nursing position. Candidates must have the appropriate degree or certification for their chosen role. For example, while one can find employment as a registered nurse (RN) with an associate degree, many hospitals have implemented policies to hire only RNs with a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN). Furthermore, attaining an undergraduate degree may be the first of several travel nursing requirements.
A travel nurse must have specialized experience and training prior to accepting contract work. Working in a clinical setting for anywhere from one to two years is generally considered sufficient experience. When a candidate has established themselves in this way, they are ready to begin looking for positions as a travel nurse.
Applying to Nursing School
The American Nurses Association does not recognize travel nursing as a specialized practice that requires its own formal training. As such, prospective nursing students and future travel nurses may choose any accredited university or college that offers a degree in nursing.
As healthcare sciences and nursing skill sets become more complex, the standards of nursing are becoming higher. As such, while there are no precise travel nursing prerequisites, candidates may stand to benefit from obtaining a bachelor’s degree as a strong career foundation. After graduation, nursing licensure and experience are necessary before starting work as a travel nurse.
Due to the changing nature of the profession, a successful travel nurse will benefit from pursuing continuing education opportunities. This may increase their qualifications, making them eligible for more specialized posts at different facilities. All licensed nurses must maintain continued education credits and a minimum of contact hours to remain in good standing, and travel nurses are no different. Opportunities for continued education may be offered by travel nursing agencies or the institutions that use them.
These continuing education credits may vary by state and licensing agency. There are different requirements as to the number of education hours required, as well as what courses qualify as continuing education. A savvy travel nurse keeps abreast of relevant requirements and incorporates discussion of continued education into his or her contract when choosing an agency.
To become a registered nurse, a candidate will have to sit for a licensure exam. As a registered nurse, an individual is technically eligible for any position as a travel nurse. However, there is another optional license that may be of significant benefit. This is known as the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) and is offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. This secondary license is recognized in 25 different states, allowing a travel nurse to move freely between them without having to go through the inconvenience and expense of obtaining multiple licenses.
However, the NLC does not cover all 50 states. For candidates wondering how to become a travel nurse capable of practicing anywhere in the country, there are some additional complications to consider. Travel nurses working in a non-participating state will be required to pursue individual licensure in every state where they wish to work.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is International Travel Nursing?
Travel nurses have the opportunity to seek international placement. By accepting temporary work in different countries, a travel nurse will gain a wider range of experience while making significant humanitarian contributions. International travel nurses may work in first-class hospitals in modern cities or developing countries with limited resources. Working with underdeveloped infrastructure and less access to modern medical equipment may present considerable challenges to a travel nurse, but it may also yield great reward.
Can LPNs Do Travel Nursing?
An LPN can enter the field of travel nursing. In some parts of the country where hospitals have difficulty finding skilled nurses on a full-time basis, traveling LPNs can be an indispensable part of the workforce. LPNs can often find employment with nursing homes, inpatient centers, and outpatient facilities, where they are overseen by RNs and APRNs in caring for a wide range of patients.
What Are the Highest Paying Travel Nursing Jobs?
As mentioned previously, travel nurses generally have a higher income than facility-specific nurses. This is partly due to the fact that their institutions may pay a premium to nursing agencies in order to meet temporarily increased demands. The additional benefits of housing, travel reimbursements, and referral bonuses for travel nurses also add to their income. Travel nurses can examine location differences when considering income; states like New York and California generally offer higher salaries, while Arizona and Nevada may have a lower cost of living.
How Long Can a Travel Nurse Stay in One Place?
While the average length of a travel nurse’s position in any one location is 13 weeks, some assignments may last longer. If the arrangement is agreeable to both the nurse and the employer, it is not uncommon for travel nurses to be offered an extension at the end of their term, or even permanent placement. Travel nurses can also try to extend their stay in a given city by looking for temporary positions at nearby hospitals.
How Does Travel Nursing Work?
After acquiring the appropriate level of education, licensure, and experience, travel nurses may begin a career. Candidates may be able to find certain positions on their own, but most travel nurses choose to work with a hiring agency. These agencies help travel nurses find placement, negotiate appropriate salaries, and develop their contracts. Working with an agency allows a travel nurse to navigate the complex issue of multi-state licensure, constant travel, and an adventurous career.