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How to become a Travel Nurse | The Ultimate Guide

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How to become a Travel Nurse | The Ultimate Guide

I know why you’re here. You’re either a nurse looking for a change, a student who is looking at options post-graduation, or you’re trying to decide what your career path is. Well, I’ll break as much as I can down in this ultimate guide about the field and you’ll be well on your way to making informed decisions regarding your career. No fluff, no crap, welcome to your one-stop-travel-nursing-shop.

Some of you have probably heard about travel nursing and thought that it might seem a little too good to be realistic. Every 13 weeks, can you choose a new place to live and work? Yep, and Healthcare Consultant has you covered, we’ve got a ton of travel nursing jobs available to you, for free, at the click of a button, on our niche-specific healthcare job board. It’s just a great career path; plain and simple, and that’s why people choose to pursue it.

The Travel Nursing Job Description

They are a licensed, registered nurse (RN) who accepts temporary assignments on a contractual basis. They control their own schedule, choose their job locations, and experience a variety of healthcare environments.

What does a Travel Nurse do?

traveling nurses caring for a patient

  • Examine patients and speak with them about their symptoms and health histories to make decisions regarding their care
  • Deliver information and counsel with the goal of improving health
  • Play a key role in medication and treatment delivery
  • Perform research on patients conditions
  • Collaborate with other healthcare professionals to ensure the highest quality of care for patients


Top Travel Nursing Specialties

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the openings for nursing jobs are projected to increase by half a million by 2024, and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing found that a staggering 55% of the nursing workforce is of age 50 or older.

You know what that means, right? In the next 5-10 years over a million nurses are going to start retiring. By 2030, the number of senior citizens will have increased by 69 million. That’s an astronomical one in five or twenty percent of Americans.

Due to these openings, it means it’s a good time to become one. But better yet, it’s an even better time to put a specialty under your belt so that you can land the highest paying role, in the location of your choosing.


Emergency Room

It’s 2020 and emergency room nurses are making a comeback. 2019 yielded a pretty pathetic amount of Emergency Room Travel Nurse openings, in comparison to years past. The demand for this subset is now sky-high because of the thing that shall not be named. Becoming one requires you think swiftly on your feet and have the ability to take action. Many patients will have life-threatening injuries or conditions that require immediate attention. The benefit to working in the emergency room is that you’ll constantly be challenged, and you’ll get to experience a wide variety of conditions.


Medical Surgical Nurse and/or Telemetry

The majority of facilities require that their Med Surg Nurses be telemetry competent and vice versa. The demand for this specialty has been rising steadily throughout recent years.

With this career path, you are definitely kept busy. You will have an expectation to care to patients of any age with a slew of conditions. You have to be ready to learn and implement on the spot. During a normal shift, you might be starting an IV, changing another, or assisting a patient who is having an asthma attack.

travel nurses looking at test results for diagnostics


In this role you will often work with patients who require special monitoring, such as those who were recently released from intensive care. These are the patients who are often at the highest risk for complications, so you will need to make swift judgment calls and take action based on monitor readings.

Qualifying means you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (RCLEX-RN) as well as be licensed in your state of practice.


Women’s Health (NICU/MBPP/L&D)

There’s actually a shortage of nurses for open assignment for this role, and a growing demand. That means that there are some great locations and pay opportunities ripe for the picking.

L&D - These Nurses carry a significant amount of responsibility. Their role is to monitor and assist mothers and babies before, during, and after birth. RNs working in L&D require competency with both adult and pediatric care. This specialty also requires Nurses to be able to think quickly and act quickly, particularly during delivery.

MBPP - Or in other words, Mother Baby/Postpartum Nurses are the mother and baby’s champion immediately following birth. MBPP Nurses educate and support new mothers and have the ability to recognize potential complications.

NICU - Or as they would say, the neonatal intensive care unit, are responsible for caring for newborns who were born prematurely, or have life-threatening illnesses. You will be under an immense amount of pressure at times and have to remain empathetic regardless of the stressors. 

ICU Nurse

ICU Nurses are key to looking after patients who have recently had invasive surgery, accidents, trauma, or organ failure.

Nurses are responsible for carefully monitoring and assessing a patient’s progress and must have the knowledge and confidence to act when a sudden change occurs in a patient’s condition that requires emergency intervention.

They also have to manage patients’ medication doses, anesthesia, and their ventilatory support. People in this role start IVs, handle cardiac arrests, must remain vigilant and tackle life-threatening and day-to-day tasks.

To work in the ICU (intensive care unit), Nurses have to pass the NCLEX-RN and have to be licensed in their state of practice. You also need to have clinical skills and a year of clinical experience. All ICU Nurses are expected to have certifications in BLS/CPR, ACLS, and other certifications specific to their ICU unit. You will also need to learn how to use new equipment, it isn’t standardized from hospital to hospital.

Another step you may want to take in this area is becoming a CCRN (Critical Care Registered Nurse). CCRNs have a distinct advantage over ICU Nurses because they can work in a variety of ICU units such as pediatric ICUs, cardiac care units, neonatal ICUs, telemetry units, recovery rooms, progressive care units, and even in emergency departments.


OR Nurse

There is a lot of benefit to becoming an OR Nurse. One of which is the high pay, which is offered in acute care facilities because surgery is such a critical source of revenue for hospitals.

An OR Nurse has a ton of responsibility because the operating room is one of the most delicate hospital environments. Highly skilled nurses must ensure it remains clean and aseptic at all times.

Successful OR Nurses are compassionate, knowledgeable, and keep the patient’s best interests at top of mind. They act as an advocate for a patient while they are unconscious and must be confident in speaking for them when there are issues with the patient or ethical issues. Or Nurses also collaborate with surgeons during surgeries. Almost all tasks fall under the assigned roles of a Scrub Nurse or a Circulator Nurse.

Circulator Nurses oversee patient care before, during, and after a procedure within their assigned OR suite. They are responsible for setting up the room, interviewing the patient, monitoring and documenting the surgical case, and assisting the CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist). The Circulator Nurse also acts as a patient’s advocate during the procedure by communicating with the patient’s family members. They also help with assisting anesthesiologists during surgery, help with scrub-ins, review a patient’s medical record, as well as document their vitals, fluids and blood loss.

Scrub Nurses, who we mentioned earlier, help the surgeon during the procedure. During an operation, they assist with passing instruments, maintaining sharps, gauze counts, and closing wounds. This role is very rewarding for some, but it can also be super stressful. A sterile area must be maintained at all times in the OR, Nurses should expect to spend hours on their feet with no break, and taking calls. Nurses working in the OR, a Nurse must take at least one call rotation and must be ready to report to the hospital at any time. However, if you can withstand these stresses, traveling as an OR Nurse is one of the most exciting jobs in the field.


CVOR Nurse

CVOR Nurses specialize in cardiovascular surgery. They work with patients before, during, and after a surgical procedure. A CVOR Nurse helps in sedating patients, assisting surgeons during procedures by administering medications, monitoring vital signs, and applying dressings. The CVOR Nurse is also in charge of making sure all sterile surgical procedures are followed, making sure medications are available, and necessary equipment.

A nurse needs to be good at clinical problem solving and interfacing with patients to be successful in this role. Aside from requiring a degree in nursing, passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and being licensed in their state, the majority of CVOR nursing positions also require Nurses to have a BLS certification and prefer they have certifications in CNOR, ACLS, and PALS.


LTAC Nurse

As the years go on, the number of aging Americans (baby boomers) increase dramatically. That means demand will only increase for Long Term Acute Care support and services. Demand for this specialty in the industry is always high, and LTAC RNs can find many good opportunities.

LTAC (Long Term Acute Care) Nurses serve patients with complex medical needs who require long-term hospital care. If you are considering becoming a LTAC Nurse, you should enjoy bedside care as these Nurses spend a lot of time giving their patients baths, helping them eat and interacting with their families.

Each patient's treatment plan is different and the nurses working in these units have to be open to learning new things on a daily basis. It’s perfect for Nurses who are quick on their feet, enjoy solving conflicts, and who are great with time management.

In addition to having an associate or bachelor’s degree in Nursing, passing the NCLEX-RN, and having a license to practice in their state, LTAC Nurses are encouraged to become certified in CCRN, CCNRN-E (Tele-ICU Acute/Critical Care Nursing) and ACNPC-AG (Adult Gerontology). Because there is a shortage of these nurses, many hospitals now offer acute care orientation and internship programs for Nurses who are interested in becoming a LTAC Nurse.


Psychiatric Nurse

Nurses that are looking for a challenge, this role is perfect for you. This role will also allow you to find job opportunities at some of the best hospitals in the country.

PMHN (psychiatric mental health nurses) play a variety of roles in a multitude of settings. They are expected to interact with individuals, their families, and any groups who help a patient get the mental health care that they need. This role is incredibly hands on, you assess patients mental health needs, diagnose them, and implement them for successful outcomes.

There are also more subsets to this specialty of nursing, like PMH-APRNs (Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurses). They work directly with patients who have mental disorders and practice at a more advanced level, so they need more schooling.

The key difference between becoming a travel nurse and a regular RN is the benefits. Now that we’ve covered the best specialties to get involved in, let’s talk about the monetary incentive.


What is the Salary of a Travel Nurse?

Normally, travel nurses have great potential in making over $3,000 per week. That’s over $50 an hour, plus the company who hired them will likely pay for housing accommodations. Making it easy for travel nurses to make over $100,000 annually. But during times of crisis like right now, some hospitals are offering over $10,000 per week or $100,000 for a 13-week assignment.

The difference between a travel nurse's pay and a staff nurse's pay is that staff nurses work in the same hospital and are usually paid a set salary based on their education and experience. With time, they will receive incremental pay increases.

A travel nurses pay can sometimes be a bit of a gray area and they are paid with packages that have a multitude of components. These components are likely to consist of hourly pay, non-taxed housing stipends, non-taxed per diems, travel reimbursements, and more.


What about Non-Taxed Stipends for Travel Nurses?

They receive both taxable hourly rates and non-taxed stipends. Non-taxed stipends are used for various expenses such as housing, meals, and other incidentals. Additionally, they also receive hourly pay.


What Determines How Much Your Pay is as a Travel Nurse?

Crisis situations like what we’re experiencing now likely are to increase the amount of money you can make as a traveler as it is significantly more dangerous for them to even go to work. But there are other factors that can determine how much you can expect to make in income as a travel nurse:

Location

The location of the assignment taken is what most heavily influences your pay as a travel nurse. To put it simply, the cost of the living for the area and regional trends largely play into this.

So which states pay the most for travel nurses?

In most cases, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, New York, and California offer the most pay. Southern states in comparison have lower costs of living and in turn, lower travel nurse pay. You might also assume that vacation spots like Hawaii and Florida would pay well because of the high cost of living in those areas, but they actually pay lower because the locations are considered ideal. If the assignment requires a rapid-response, then this isn’t always the case.

Specialty

a travel nurse being safe in the hospital

Please refer to the above section on specialties to see why the specialty determines pay. To sum it up, they have specialized skills which are highly sought after, and they have the ability to earn more lucrative pay as a result. So if you have any of those skills, try to land an advanced travel nursing job on our job board.

Shift

I’m sure you’ve heard of this, but night shifts are more common in the world of nursing. The good news is that most hospitals offer higher rates for their night shift assignments. Remember to be flexible if you want to maximize your earning potential. But if you won’t be able to handle a night shift, don’t burn yourself out by doing it.


Make the Most with the Highest Paying Travel Nursing Jobs

While the factors above influence a travel nurses pay, there are specific types of assignments that almost always pay well. They’re often not influenced by location, specialty, or shift.


Rapid Response and “Crisis” Assignments

These assignments have some of the highest rates in the travel nursing industry due to their urgent requirements. The name suggests that you need to be quick, they require nurses to arrive at work fast, within two weeks. The locations for this type of work are typically limited, and the assignments are likely shorter than the standard 13-week contract.

Usually these types of contracts open up because facilities are experiencing an unexpected census spike, emergency responses, unit openings, EMR upgrades, and more. In some cases, it could also be a response to an emergency such as a hurricane. Some facilities may leverage flexible assignment length options to manage patient care during short-term staff shortages.

A reason why 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 have the ability to offer travelers a larger selection of shorter and higher-paying assignments.

These assignments range from 36 to 48 hours per week, but are certainly more lucrative for the nurse working 48, particularly given overtime pay rates. If you’re burnt out from an assignment, you can also become a travel nurse part-time and take the time you need for yourself off before accepting another assignment.

Bonuses

Many assignments advertise bonuses and you should be able to differentiate between them so you can use them to your advantage:

Hospital vs Agency Bonuses

Hospital bonuses are paid separately from the bill rate, and are usually offered as completion bonuses. This means they won’t pay you until after the assignments. These bonuses usually range from $250 up to $5,000.

Agency bonuses may be taken out of the bill rate and affect your overall pay. If you love getting a large amount of money as a lump sum, this is great.

How do you know the difference between agency and hospital bonuses? Make sure to ask your recruiter where the bonus comes from an agency or hospital?


Retention Bonus

Some agencies pay nurses bonuses once they accept and work multiple assignments with them. It’s commonly referred to as a retention bonus and each agency will have its own requirements. These bonuses are often $100 to $2,000.


Referral Bonus

It’s probably obvious what this is, but to be specific, the referral bonus is a fee the agency pays to travel nurses who refer other nurses they know to come work for their agency. The funds often come from a separate budget allocated to referral fees and should not affect the travel nurse’s pay package. Referral bonuses are typically from $500 to $4,000 per nurse referral. 


Ten Tips To Maximize Your Income As A Travel Nurse

  1. Find your own housing
    • It’s probably best for you to take a housing stipend and secure your own housing. This gives you the freedom to choose your price point. Agencies often house nurses in pricier accommodations. Agencies also sign corporate leases and these leases come with a corporate price tag. Some agencies may even allow you to stay in a hotel.
  2. Be flexible
    • If it’s about the money, flexibility is key. The highest paying assignments pay higher because they are not the most ideal. They might be in a bad location or have a bad time slot. Though it might not always be the case, these types of assignments often have higher pay or shift differentials.
  3. Work with agencies who are known for high pay and transparency
    • Every agency is different in how they operate and structure the pay packages that they distribute. From your side and their side, transparency is critical to getting the best result. Nurses won’t have to sit there and waste time negotiating for a dead-end offer or look for facts. Some companies will blast you with industry jargon like ‘blended rates’ and that can get confusing. That’s why it’s advised to work with agencies that don’t allow for negotiations and will give the nurse the best rate they can get from the start. Ask yourself why that recruiter isn’t just giving you the best rate they can from the beginning (hint: it’s more money for them).
  4. Stay organized
    • The top paying assignments come with a timeline. They are in high demand and the competition for these roles is significant.
    • Keep your paperwork up to date and ready to send for applications (resume, references, skills checklists, license, etc).
  5. Work with multiple agencies
    • No agency will have assignments available at all times for every location in the United States. Some hospitals even pay agencies a different rate than other agencies. By working with multiple agencies, you will increase your opportunities.
  6. Maintain multiple state licenses
    • Did you know that a lot of hospitals won’t even look at your professional profile unless you are licensed in their state? Makes sense. You’ll increase your chances of landing a high paying gig by maintaining active licenses in as many states as possible.
    • If you don’t have a license in a specific state and you are planning on traveling there soon, go get your license! Some states have a quick licensure turnaround of about 48 hours while others like California may take up to 6 months to process licensing paperwork.
  7. Work agency per diem and pick up extra shifts
    • Travel nurses can make more money by working local agency per diem shifts. They can also volunteer to work extra shifts during their assignments.
  8. Communicate
    • Recruiters connect you with the highest paying travel nursing assignments. You need to communicate with them about your needs. Ask them for high paying assignments, ask them for sign-on and completion bonuses, if you won’t accept an assignment below a certain amount, let them know.
  9. Ask for sign-on, completion, and retention bonuses
    • Some travel companies offer bonuses. They are either paid on the first day of your assignment or upon assignment completion. Make sure to always ask about them.
  10. Refer your friends to agencies
    • In this niche, referrals are the gateway to bringing in extra cash. Other nurses are more likely to trust their friend’s opinion of an agency they’ve actually worked for than they are for an advertisement or a recruiter. This is why agencies pay nurses referral bonuses to refer their friends. You can get as much as $4,000 for a single referral. Get some more nurse travelers in the industry!


Travel Nurse Organizations

When you’re a travel nurse, joining travel nursing organizations will often be beneficial to your professional development. There are also some amazing Facebook groups (basically Travel Nurse Forums) out there for you to connect with like-minded individuals and compare experiences, seek advice, and gain career insights. Here are some of my favorite communities:


Pan Travelers

The Professional Association of Nurse Travelers also known as Pan Travelers brands themselves as the voice of healthcare travelers. They claim to be the best repository of unbiased information available to travelers on the net! It’s free to register with them and they provide distinct resources that can help you further your career as a traveler.


Travel Nurse Lifestyle

Personally my favorite Facebook group. They’re small and the community isn’t overrun with recruiters posting terrible job openings. Lots of room for growth in this small group. There is also a minimum to the hourly wage that recruiters are allowed to post here.


Travel Nursing: The Premium Job Board

This group is a job board for travel nurses to find new contracts and the contracts posted cannot be any less than $46.00 an hour. If someone posts something lower, they get bashed! 


Travel Nurses: The $1,800+ gross per week, $50+ per hour Nursing Job Board

Yeah, the name of this group is an absolute disaster. However, they have some amazing opportunities that get posted there on a daily basis as their barrier to entry is higher than other groups.


I hope that you learned a ton about travel nursing from this all-inclusive guide on the field. The field is a very important one, and it’s growing rapidly especially during these times of covid. There is a lot of history behind the field, with more getting added each and every day. If you are looking for your next opportunity, the best place to go is definitely our job board. We accept only the best assignments and will ensure that you are matched intelligently with the employers who will treat you with the highest respect that you deserve.




How to become a Travel Nurse | The Ultimate Guide
Jake Tilk

Jake is the Digital Marketing Manager for OptyConnect and Healthcare Consultant. He holds a B.B.A. in Marketing with a minor in Business from Western Michigan University and has a certification in Software Development.

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