Quick Facts :
Travel Nurses

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Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses, May 2017

info-icon Bachelor's Degree
info-icon $73,550 Annual Wage
info-icon 15% Job Growth

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Growing Demand for Travel Nurses

According to a May 2015 report in “USA Today,” the demand for travel nursing is higher than it has been for the past 20 years. Some reasons for the demand include the renewed economy along with the requirement that more people have health insurance coverage under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. And this demand is not expected to decrease: Not only are hospital admissions increasing, but more patients are choosing elective surgery that they may have delayed when they lacked insurance.

When both hospitals and outpatient clinics can’t keep pace with demand, administrators turn to travel nurses for assistance. As a result, requests for travel nurses are currently at a seven-year high. This increased demand works in favor of the travel nurse because it translates to better hourly pay, a higher housing allowance, and other important benefits.

The Benefits of Travel Nursing

Diverse Practice Environments & Growth Opportunities

Many skilled nurses yearn to travel but are limited by the many hours they must work to support themselves. As a travel nurse, they enjoy the opportunity to not only make a good living wage but also to live in different states and experience a wide diversity in their day-to-day job responsibilities. Another benefit of travel nursing is the ability to form friendships with other health care professionals all over the country. Additionally, travel nursing offers excellent pay and benefits.

A travel nurse can state the specific parameters of assignments that he or she will accept and has the flexibility to change them at will before accepting another job. For example, if travel nurses work in a busy hospital in a large city and decide the stress is too much for them, they can request another type of assignment for their next position. They also can request a specific type of healthcare environment, such as a rural hospital, children’s hospital, or a large teaching facility. Travel nursing exposes nurses to a variety of patient populations as well as to different medical procedures and technologies.

Freedom and Flexibility

Travel nursing is especially attractive for nurses who desire increased flexibility and greater control over their careers. The travel nurse can deliberately choose assignments based on his or her own needs and goals rather than those of an employer, a benefit not common to nursing in permanent locations.

Moreover, while a staff position doesn’t allow for extended time-off, a travel nurse can take as many days between assignments as he or she desires, which provides the opportunity to take long vacations, spend time at home, attend school, and pursue hobbies. Each assignment varies in location, length, and types of skills required. The travel nurse has the ability to determine the job specifications and decline any assignment that doesn’t meet them.

Steps to Become a Travel Nurse 

For a nurse who likes to travel, explore different cities, try different specialties, and learn new techniques, travel nursing can be both exciting and rewarding. A travel nurse works temporary assignments, usually for approximately 13 to 26 weeks at a time in different locations around the country. Nursing shortages in the United States mean healthcare facilities are struggling to fill their vacant positions, so travel nurses are in high demand. Travel nurses choose where and when they work.

1. Earn Your Associate of Science in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Before you can become a travel nurse, you must first earn a degree in nursing and become a registered nurse (RN). A number of educational paths exist to become an RN, but perhaps the two most popular routes are the Associate of Science degree in Nursing (ASN/ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Associate of Science Degree in Nursing (ASN/ADN)

The Associate of Science in Nursing degree is a two to three year degree that involves a combination of in-class instruction and clinical rotations. After earning an ASN/ADN degree, a nursing student can take the (NCLEX-RN).

ASN/ADN degrees are usually offered by community colleges and nursing schools. These programs help prospective nurses develop the technical skills required to perform the functions of a registered nurse. For the student who wishes to become a registered nurse quickly, the ASN/ADN degree is often the fastest and least expensive route. Some students who earn their ASN or ADN degree go on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at a later date.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) is a four-year degree offered by colleges and universities. The BSN degree prepares registered nurses to assume both hands-on and leadership roles in healthcare facilities. Upon earning this degree, graduates also qualify to take the NCLEX-RN exam.

All nursing students must learn the required technical skills as well as the fundamentals of nursing theory and how to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios. The core curriculum for BSN students includes pharmacology, microbiology, nutrition, public health, anatomy, pathophysiology, mental health, and other science-based courses. In these programs, registered nurses learn to care for patients of all ages.

BSN students are exposed to current research, and they learn how to think critically about new ideas. They are taught the value of continuing their education throughout their careers, including how to filter research results and how to analyze those results and apply them to the real-life scenarios they will encounter in the workplace.

Like ASN/ADN students, BSN students complete clinical rotations, during which they have the opportunity to observe nurses at work in actual healthcare settings. BSN students learn how to use new technologies and software, so they possess the necessary technical skills as soon as they begin their first job. By the time a BSN student graduates, he or she should have mastered all the fundamentals of nursing required to take the NCLEX-RN.

2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)

The National Council Licensure Examination is the test that nurses must pass before they can begin work as an RN. This comprehensive, computer-based examination measures a nurse’s understanding of the fundamental concepts and skills to safely practice nursing in the United States.

The NCLEX-RN exam is scored and designed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), an organization that works with state boards of nursing to regulate standards in the nursing industry. The purpose of the examination is to ensure that all registered nurses in the U.S. possess the same knowledge of basic nursing fundamentals, regardless of the type of degree they’ve earned or their location.

To take the exam after graduating from a nursing program, the nurse must first apply for a nursing license in his or her state. After submitting the application, the new graduate will receive a bulletin announcing his or her candidacy to take the exam. Upon receipt of the bulletin, the nurse can register to take the NCLEX-RN.

The test is divided into four categories and six sub-categories, including:

  • Management of Care
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Physiological Adaptation
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Physiological Integrity
  • Safe and Effective Care Environment
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance

All the questions on the test are designed to measure the test taker’s ability to meet patient needs. Topics include disease treatment, injury, illness, and disease prevention. Each question is automatically selected based on the test taker’s answers to previous questions, a system that enables the NCSBN to evaluate the test taker’s critical-thinking skills and his or her knowledge of the standards set by the NCSBN.

To prepare for the test, prospective nurses should study topics such as infection control, safety, management of care, disease prevention, and pharmacology. More information about the NCLEX-RN exam is available on the NCBSN website.

3. Start Working as a Registered Nurse

After graduating from college and passing the NCLEX-RN exam, nurses must work for at least one year in a hospital or another type of healthcare facility. Travel nurses play many roles in facilities around the country, and diversity in work experience helps them prepare for a career as a travel nurse. This experience also makes an RN a more attractive candidate for travel nursing positions. Those who have an interest in travel nursing should seek experience in high-demand areas, such as labor and delivery, neonatal nursing, ICU, telemetry, emergency room, and perioperative/operating room nursing.

4. Pursue Professional Development Opportunities

Accruing experience at multiple facilities helps the candidate become more prepared to work as a travel nurse. Nurses who want to expand their knowledge base without switching jobs regularly can do so through professional development opportunities.

5. Volunteer Locally or Abroad

Many volunteer opportunities are available for RNs both locally and abroad. Nurses who step up to help underserved populations as a volunteer gain valuable experience as well as how to deliver health care services in new environments. Volunteer nurses face adversity and challenges that other nurses may never face, including how to manage more with less while working in fast-paced, understaffed environments. Volunteer nurses also learn how to deal with doctors, patients, and healthcare administrators from different backgrounds and cultures. Gaining this type of experience makes an RN an attractive candidate to travel nursing agencies.

6. Connect with Nursing Organizations

Nationally recognized nursing organizations not only produce publications that provide the foundational knowledge required in nursing, but they also host educational conferences and events that bring nurses together to collaborate and network with each other. In this manner, nursing organizations spread information and keep nurses informed as to current research and developments within the industry. Additionally, some nursing organizations offer certifications that help nurses prove their competency in specific areas. Listed below are several national organizations that provide resources for travel nurses:

7. Apply to a Travel Nursing Agency

Travel nurses accept assignments from staffing agencies that serve healthcare facilities all over the country. These agencies have contractual relationships with hospitals, nursing homes, birthing facilities, doctors’ offices, and medical clinics in both urban and rural areas. Nurses who work with these staffing agencies can choose any type of facility, any population, and any area of the country in which they wish to work. Travel nurses can accept any assignment they are offered; conversely, if they wish, they also can turn down the offer. For an independent-minded nurse, travel nursing is an ideal occupation.

Is Travel Nursing Right for You?

While travel nursing offers some exciting opportunities, not all nurses are particularly suited for this type of career. Nurses considering travel nursing must first evaluate their personal situation and needs. They must be ready to leave on assignment abruptly, stay at a facility for many weeks at a time, and take jobs on a case-by-case basis. Nurses who have families, pets or young children may not enjoy the stress of leaving home for weeks at a time. Nor is this type of position ideal for a homeowner who must tend a lawn and maintain a property.

However, if you like to travel, can leave home for weeks at a time, and enjoy adventure, the lifestyle of a travel nurse may be ideal. Relatively few nurses can realistically handle travel nursing, so the pay and benefits for these professionals are usually very good. Those considering travel nursing as a career should apply with multiple agencies to compare pay, benefits, housing allowance, 401(k) information, sign-on bonuses, and other benefits. Not all this information is available online, but candidates can inquire when they interview.

What Are Travel Nursing Agencies Looking For?

Travel nursing agencies look for RNs with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of nursing. Good grades in school and positive references from previous employers help candidates find work as a travel nurse. In addition, agencies look for RNs with excellent communication and social skills.

RNs who schedule interviews with travel nursing agencies should be prepared to describe their experiences in nursing and how it has helped prepare them to work with a diverse patient population. Nurses can support this information with examples of different patient groups they’ve treated.

Travel nursing agencies also look for nurses with flexibility. Requests for work often come at the last minute, and travel nurses must be able to accept jobs with little-to-no notice. Since jobs come in from all over the country, in many different types of facilities, travel nurses must be adaptable and have the ability to assimilate to new methods of working. Agencies are likely to ask nurses to discuss their adaptability and flexibility in the interview. Many nurses find these questions easier to answer if they have curated their responses prior to the interview.

In addition, travel nurses must have a positive attitude and learn quickly. Because travel nursing assignments only last a few months, the ability to learn quickly is especially important. A nurse who must spend most of an assignment learning how to manage routines in a new workplace may not be suited for this line of work.

For the right person, a travel nursing career can be both lucrative and exciting. A nurse with excellent people skills, a sense of adventure, and a flexible personal life may find this type of career very rewarding.

Travel Nursing Jobs: Top Specialties in Demand

In travel nursing, some specialties are in greater demand than others. The specialty areas described are identified by Healthcare Traveler as those with the greatest need for travel nurses:

  • Labor & Delivery

Labor and delivery nurses provide comfort and coaching to women before, during, and after the birth of their babies. Care includes providing epidurals and other forms of pain relief, instructing the patient during delivery, timing contractions, and cleaning and evaluating the baby immediately after his or her birth. Labor and delivery nurses tend to the new mother for the rest of her hospital stay, while a neonatal nurse cares for the baby.

  • Telemetry

A telemetry nurse connects machines to patients that monitors their heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, heart rhythm, and level of blood to oxygen. The computer automatically transmits data from these machines to a nursing station or remote location where a health care professional can closely monitor the patient. Another member of the nursing staff uses this data to develop an ongoing treatment plan for the patient.

  • ICU Nursing
    Patients in intensive care require complex, specialized care in areas such as cardiac care, pediatrics, and neonatal nursing. The demand for experienced ICU nurses is always high because these patients need the most care. Because of the focus on preventive health care and patient wellness, hospitals try to keep patients at home unless they are extremely ill. Those who end up in the ICU often require nurses who are experienced at providing extremely complex care.
  • Perioperative / Operating Room
    The travel nurse who works in the operating room assists surgeons during various procedures and cares for patients before and after their surgery. He or she must pay special attention to proper sterilization of surgical instruments as well as to disinfection. Some of the other duties of an operating room nurse include preparing the room for surgery, getting the patient’s anesthesia ready, and prepping the patient for the surgical procedure. A major driving factor behind this demand is the average age of current operating room nurses. Many are planning to retire in the next few years, and replacing them immediately isn’t always possible.
  • Neonatal Nursing
    Neonatal nurses work with newborn babies during their first 28 days of life and sometimes longer. Babies who are born healthy require only basic care from neonatal nurses, such as feeding, bathing, monitoring of vital statistics, and diaper changes. Those who are born prematurely, with a birth defect, or who are ill need the services of a neonatal nurse to help them recover and receive the best possible start in life. The newborn intensive care unit, or NICU, provides the highest level of care for newborns. 
  • Emergency Room Nurse
    The emergency room nurse treats patients who report to the hospital for immediate care. Some walk in, while others are brought by ambulance. Accidents, sudden symptoms of illness, assault, and heart attack are some of the common reasons patients seek treatment from their local emergency room. Emergency room nurses help triage patients in order of severity and treat them when they get back to a room. Some situations are not as severe, but the patient was forced to seek emergency care because he or she had no other treatment options at the time of the injury or illness.

Travel Nurse Salary and Employment Outlook

According to the website TravelNursing.org, the average salary for a travel nurse is $75,000 for full-time work throughout the year. However, this includes more than just the hourly rate of pay. Travel nurse compensation typically includes a housing allowance, meal allowance, travel reimbursement, base pay, and a stipend. A travel nurse who earns a base salary of $20 per hour may actually earn closer to $40 per hour after accounting for all the various types of compensation. However, compensation excludes benefits such as health insurance and contributions to retirement savings.

The travel nursing industry is growing because of unprecedented demand. Aging baby boomers, greater access to health insurance, fewer nurses going into the profession, and large numbers of retiring nurses are only some of the factors driving the necessity for skilled, experienced travel nurses.