What Is a Travel Nurse?

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Some questions may arise when planning a nursing career. What is a travel nurse? How does travel nursing work? A travel nurse fulfills short-term contracts at healthcare facilities across different states, working for a travel nurse agency. Traveling registered nurses need a nursing degree, multistate license and clinical experience.

nurse holding coffee walking outside

Like any workplace, hospitals sometimes experience staffing shortages. Whether due to parental leave, staff turnover, or a significant influx of patients, inadequate nursing staff can increase the risk of poor patient outcomes. Hospitals address short-term staffing shortages by turning to travel nurses.

What is a travel nurse, and how does travel nursing work? Let’s explore this exciting alternative career for nurses and discuss the career pathway. We’ll also examine common questions, like, “How much do travel nurses make?”

How Does Travel Nursing Work?

Travel nursing is a stopgap solution for hospitals with staffing shortages. Working through a travel nursing agency, a travel nurse signs a short-term contract with a hospital or other healthcare facility to work there for a set period. The typical contract length is 13 weeks. However, contracts may range from two to 26 weeks in length. Once the contract is over, the travel nurse may take time off or jump into the next contract and travel to a new location.

nurse at desk talking to patient virtually on computer

Another career possibility is telehealth nursing. Learn all about what telehealth nursing has to offer.

What Do Travel Nurses Do?

Traveling registered nurses handle the same sort of tasks as other RNs. These tasks include:

  • Taking medical histories, recording symptoms and observations, and updating medical records
  • Assessing patients and developing treatment plans
  • Delivering patient education
  • Performing diagnostic tests
  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Setting up IV lines
  • Collaborating with other healthcare providers

Of course, an RN’s daily responsibilities can vary, depending on their workplace setting and nursing specialty. For instance, a NICU nurse will care for newborns, while an emergency room nurse will triage patients suffering from severe and life-threatening medical emergencies.

Benefits of Being a Travel Nurse

Why consider navigating the process of how to become a travel nurse? This type of career has many perks, especially if you have an adventurous spirit and love to meet new people and see new places.

Consider the following benefits:

  • The ability to explore new areas over weeks or months — longer than a typical vacation.
  • The potential to receive a higher pay rate, a housing stipend, travel reimbursements, and excellent benefits.
  • The choice between a range of contracts.
  • Avoiding or minimizing exposure to office politics.
  • Meeting new people and expanding one’s professional network.
  • The considerable potential for career development since travel nurses gain exposure to various facilities, patient populations, healthcare technologies, and experiences.

Plus, if you choose, you can arrange for prolonged time off between contracts, which you can use to enjoy the new region, travel abroad, or visit with family and friends. Furthermore, if you’re considering moving to a new place, you could use a travel nursing contract as a trial run to see if it fits you.

nurse standing in parking garage

Travel Nurse Salary & Career Outlook

How much do travel nurses make? Like all career paths, it varies, depending on the employer, geographic region, nursing specialty, and experience/credentials. In general, however, a travel nurse can expect a higher salary potential than a non-traveling RN.

According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), the estimated traveling nurse salary in 2022 was about $100,000. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay in May of 2022 for all types of RNs was $81,220.

All types of RNs are in high demand and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. According to the BLS, the job growth rate for registered nurses is expected to be 6% from 2022 through 2032, faster than average. This indicates that employers will fill about 177,400 RN positions during this period.

How to Become a Travel Nurse

Now that you know the basics, you may wonder how to pursue this career. There is no universal pathway toward becoming a travel nurse; professionals come to this career from all walks of life and with various academic backgrounds.

However, all traveling registered nurses do need to meet a few universal requirements. Here’s a look at how to become a travel nurse.

What can you do with a BSN? Check out 15 options for your future career.

Smiling Nurse

1. Earn a Nursing Degree

The first step toward pursuing any nursing career is earning a nursing degree. A traditional Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program takes four years. However, with prior non-nursing education and fulfillment of other admissions requirements, you may be eligible to earn your BSN in as few as 12 months with the University of St. Thomas Houston’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. You can sit for the NCLEX sooner and work toward a career as a traveling registered nurse.

2. Pass the NCLEX Exam

Earning a nursing degree is the first step toward licensure. You’ll also need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is a rigorous exam required of all aspiring nurses in the U.S. and Canada. It’s recommended to begin studying for the exam as early as your first semester in nursing school.

3. Obtain a Nursing License

The Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) is an interstate agreement that allows nurses in one member state to practice in any other member state without having to arrange for a different state license. Most states are already members (including Texas) or have pending legislation to join.

If you already know that you want to be a travel nurse before you take the NCLEX and you live in a member state, you can apply to take the NCLEX to earn a multistate license. This procedure is known as “license by exam.” If you’ve already passed the NCLEX and then decide to become a travel nurse, you can apply for a multistate “license by endorsement.”

nurse standing on side of street

4. Gain Clinical Experience in Your Specialty

You might be eager to jump right into travel nursing as soon as you earn your license, and understandably so. However, you’ll first need to gain at least one, and more likely two, years of full-time clinical experience, as travel nursing agencies tend to have minimum experience requirements for applicants.

It’s also a way to promote the best interests of you, your patients, and future temporary employers. The first couple of years as a nurse involve a significant learning curve. Although you’ve completed nursing coursework and multiple clinical rotations, you still have much to learn on the job.

Travel nurses are expected to jump right in after a short orientation, with little to no supervision or coaching required. After you gain a couple of years of clinical experience, you can approach your first travel assignment with greater confidence.

5. Choose a Travel Nurse Agency

Once you’ve gained the necessary clinical experience, you can research different travel nurse agencies. Some travel nurses may join multiple agencies to choose from a broader range of contracts.

nurse outside closing trunk to car

There are a few factors to consider when weighing your choices, including:

  • Amount and variety of contracts available.
  • Whether the agency has exclusive contracts or managed service agreements with specific healthcare facilities.
  • Industry longevity.
  • Approachable, transparent agency recruiters (your main point of contact).
  • Excellent benefits packages.
  • On-the-job support system.

6. Select Your First Assignment

After you’ve signed up with a travel nursing agency, the exciting part begins: choosing your first assignment. Of course, you’ll need to look for assignments you qualify for that fall within your nursing specialty, but there are other factors to consider.

Ask yourself the following questions when choosing your first contract:

  • Is it in an NLC member state?
  • Do I want to visit that location?
  • Is the salary attractive?
  • Does the facility have a good reputation?
  • Are there guaranteed hours?
  • What’s the hospital’s floating policy? Do they float travelers to other departments first before floating permanent staff?
  • Are there any additional benefits, like a signing bonus?

Once you’ve selected an assignment, your recruiter will arrange a virtual interview.

Begin Your Nursing Journey With the ABSN at UST

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If you have at least 60 non-nursing college credits from an accredited school and meet other admissions requirements, you could graduate with your BSN in as few as 12 months with UST’s ABSN program. Our nursing program uses a hybrid approach, enabling you to conveniently complete online nursing coursework and develop essential nursing skills through in-person experiential learning components.

With small class sizes, dedicated instructors, and Academic Success Coaches, the ABSN program at UST is committed to supporting your success.

Contact our admissions advisors today to find out if our ABSN program could be right for you and begin your journey toward becoming a travel nurse.