If you are a registered nurse or are planning to become one, you should take some time to find out about travel nursing. Travel nurses sign short-term contracts to work in a facility or with a service provider for a brief period of time—anywhere from a few weeks to several months—and usually away from their home base. There are several pros and cons of travel nursing, and looking at a list of them can help you decide if this way of working is something that you might want to try.
For some people, the idea of being able to take a long-term visit to another location while working and getting paid sounds like a great way to have their cake and eat it, too. Nursing is hard work, but if you’re able to do it for a while in a part of the country (or world) you’ve always wanted to get to know better, then that is a benefit that many other professionals don’t enjoy. However, there are some potential downsides to travel nursing jobs that you should be aware of to inform your decision.
Why are travel nurses needed?
Travel nursing got its start in the 1970’s when an entrepreneur overheard some Boston nurses talking about how there was a shortage of nurses in New Orleans. The gentleman thought there could be a good opportunity to act as an agency that would match nurses with facilities in need, and he was right.
Some nursing shortages were seasonal. For example, hospitals in Florida often needed additional nurses to fill in during the winter months when more people would take temporary residence to escape harsh Northern weather. It made more sense for hospitals to hire nurses for the temporary influx of new patients rather than train full-time, year-round personnel.
If you have been listening to the news lately, you might have heard how hospitals are turning to travel nurses to help solve current nursing shortages. Because of the strain that COVID-19 put on many hospitals, some nurses and other health care personnel have resigned or taken early retirement. Some became ill from COVID themselves—a recent report from Los Angeles County, California, states that more than 60,000 frontline health care workers and first responders (RNs, LVNs, CNAs and EMTs) have confirmed symptomatic cases since February 2020. Health care workers in other cities, towns and states in the U.S. have seen their share of cases as well.
Those who have an interest in the nursing labor market point out that hospitals share responsibility for staff shortages. When the pandemic began and hospitals stopped doing elective procedures, they laid off or furloughed many nurses—but then wanted to hire them back when COVID hospitalizations increased. Some nurses didn’t—or couldn’t—jump back into the new slots.
For these reasons, hospitals have been hiring travel nurses at a furious pace. An article from Health Affairs says that travel nursing grew 35% in 2020 and is expected to continue to grow by 40% in the future.
(For this article, we use the term “hospital” to refer to any health care organization that hires travel nurses, such as a long-term care facility, research organization, government-run facility and so on.)
So, the opportunities for a travel nursing assignment are out there. Is travel nursing worth it? Look over this list of pros and cons and decide if the life of a travel nurse is for you.
Travel Nurse Salary
Pro: Pay rates for travel nurses are generally higher than for staff nurses. The rates will depend on your specialty area (ICU, ER, cardiovascular care, respiratory care, etc.) and what the hospital is willing to pay. Indeed.com says that travel nurses average more than $101,000 per year. That is a significant bump over the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) median annual salary of $77,600.
Con: Although that is an impressive average figure, you have to remember that assignments aren’t always back-to-back. You may have some periods in which you have no assignments, and you’ll have to deal with irregular pay.
Length of Assignment
Pro: Many contracts are for as short as four weeks, but others may last as long as three or six months in the U.S, and up to two years for assignments overseas. You might even be able to get an extension on your contract if the hospital still needs you (but the pay rate may change if your initial contract had “crisis” pricing).
Shorter stints can work out well if you have enough of a salary cushion to tide you over between assignments. And many travel nurses use these built-in breaks for vacations or other personal commitments.
Con: The nature of most travel nursing contracts is that the hospital may decide to terminate them at any time, for any cause. The hospital may find that it did not have the patient numbers to sustain your employment for the original term, or their staff nurse numbers might have returned to normal levels.
Pro: If you are in a highly desirable specialty, such as OR, ER, ICU or acute or long-term care, you should have no trouble finding assignments. And if you are working with a travel nurse agency, they will do the job searching on your behalf.
Con: There is a lot of competition for desirable positions, particularly in attractive locations. Because hospitals are spreading their hiring net nationwide or internationally, hundreds of people might be competing for one post instead of a couple dozen for a permanent staff position.
In addition, if your contract is cut short, you might have to scramble to find your next position. Even if you fulfill the agreed-upon term, you will be doing job applications and interviews multiple times per year. Whether working through an agency or as an independent contractor, you will have a lot of paperwork to keep track of. (See section on Clinical Requirements and Licensure, below.)
Housing and Expenses
Pro: Many hospitals provide lodging near the hospital. Some travel agencies arrange for apartments or houses to rent, while others offer tax-free money for a housing stipend, meals and travel expenses. Some travel nurses enjoy the opportunity to find their own accommodations, especially if they have a pet or family members living with them. If this is your choice, you must be careful to find a place that offers short-term rentals (remember that your assignment might get cut short with no warning) that are within your stipend budget.
To take advantage of tax-free dollars, you must maintain a “tax home” where you pay income taxes. Typically, this is rent or a mortgage on your primary residence, and you must spend at least 30 days there over the course of the year.
Con: There’s a lot of packing, moving and unpacking when you’re a travel nurse. And assigned housing might not be in the best neighborhood. Work with your agency and research the area before you commit. And if you’re arranging your own housing, be on the lookout for places that sound too good to be true—they probably are.
Getting a Benefits Package
Pro: One of the main benefits of working with a travel nursing agency is that they might offer benefits, such as health and dental insurance, paid sick time, overtime pay, 401(K) retirement savings packages and other benefits that staff nurses usually enjoy.
Con: Not all agencies offer these packages, and you are on your own if you are an independent contractor. If your hospital doesn’t pay for sick days, you’re going to lose money if you’re not working—both salary and stipend.
Pre-Testing and Orientation
Some hospitals require you to take one or more pre-tests to determine if you can fulfill the job requirements. Known as the Performance-Based Development System (PBDS), the tests can vary widely from one hospital to another. Some are paper-and-pencil tests, some are given in a digital format.
Pro: These tests frequently cover drugs and medication calculations, and you can brush up on this information beforehand. In other cases, they provide scenarios—typically involving patient safety issues—and you have to identify or explain the correct nursing response. If all goes well, you will go through orientation to learn hospital and department procedures.
Con: These tests aren’t always good measures of a nurse’s competency. Tests that are generated by staff administrators are quite common, and they aren’t always reliably graded, especially if there is an essay component. More importantly, you need to know if failing the test automatically cancels your contract. Your agency should be able to get that information for you, but if they can’t, you might want to consider passing on the offer. Sometimes travel nurses are not offered orientation, and they have to hit the ground running. This can be very stressful.
Licensure and Clinical Experience
Pro: Hospitals and travel agencies will require you to have an RN license to practice in the state where you will be working. Some states are part of the multistate compact for licensure, which means participating states will honor a license granted in another participating state. (There are 18 states that are not part of the compact.) Some agencies will cover licensing fees.
If you are certified in a specialty, you will have to make sure that certification is up to date.
For most assignments, it is best to have one or two years of experience in the department you will be working in. Having clinical references from previous contract employers is good to have as well.
Con: Getting the license in hand before your start day can be challenging. Even in compact states, the process may take up to four weeks. This can be a serious problem if a job calls for an immediate start.
Start Your Nursing Journey with Marymount University
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, you can make the switch to nursing by taking advantage of Marymount University’s online accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. This program is specifically designed for people who want to change careers into nursing within 16 months.
Coursework is offered online but also includes opportunities for skills learning at an on-campus residency. The program also helps arrange your clinical rotations at no extra charge.
The Nursing programs at Marymount University are fully accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). They are ranked among the best regional colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
Marymount allows you to fast-track your path to becoming an RN with our ABSN.