Becoming a travel nurse has plenty of benefits, most notably the recent pay increase sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic and staff shortages around the country.
Travel nurses must be able to work hard, adapt quickly, be willing to learn, ask questions, and prepare to uproot themselves as often as every 13 weeks.
What Is a Travel Nurse?
Simply put, being a travel nurse is nursing — but with a twist, according to Emma Pointer, a former travel nurse who now works as operations manager for Trusted Health, an organization that matches nurses with travel jobs. “Travel nursing is the same as regular nursing,” she said. “You’re just working as a contracted employee on a short-term contract. Most of the contracts are 13 weeks long.”
Pointer learned plenty as a travel nurse, going from a small Indiana hospital’s ICU to a progressive care unit in Seattle. Her desire to help other travelers led her to Trusted Health and to authoring the book, “A Comprehensive Guide to the Fundamentals of Travel Nursing.”
“The first step I always tell people is to do research,” Pointer said. “The travel nurse industry is not something you jump into haphazardly. At the time I was looking into travel nursing, there were not great resources.”
Now there are blogs, websites, and social media groups that discuss various aspects of how to become a travel nurse and what to do once you’re on the road.
Makaya Carter, BSN, RN, CCRN-CSC, who has spent the past five years working various travel assignments on the East and West coasts, offers a word of warning about online information: Do your homework to find the most reputable sources on how to become a travel nurse and follow the same practice when looking for a travel agency.
“Be mindful about the things you read,” she said. “Of course, you want to work for a good company, but you also want a recruiter that is honest, supportive, and will advocate for you. It is trial and error.”
Travel Nursing Requirements
Though Pointer said Trusted Health works mostly with RNs, there are travelers who are LPNs as well. “CNAs can travel, respiratory therapists can travel,” she said. “Most any healthcare profession has travel opportunities.”
Those opportunities come with a few requirements. “We generally say two years of experience is recommended in order to be a traveler,” Pointer said. “Taking that leap and leaving the comfort of your staff job really requires you to be able to be independent as a nurse and function independently.”
Pointer said requirements will vary by hospital, and prospective travelers should research what each hospital is seeking from candidates.
What Does a Travel Nurse Do?
Just as any healthcare profession has travel opportunities, nurses from nearly any specialty are being sought by employers. “In general, all specialties employ travel nurses,” Pointer said. “We’ve seen anything from home health nurses to critical-care nurses to med-surg nurses. Any specialty can travel.”
Last year, Trusted Health surveyed more than 3,300 nurses, more than half of whom were travel nurses. Among the reasons for taking a travel contract, 55% of travel nurses said “ability to work in different kinds of hospitals and clinics” was a driving factor, while 45% said a “desire for more variety on the job” led them to travel.
The pandemic’s impact drove a “really high demand” for ICU nurses, according to Pointer.
Just as travel nurses are needed across various specialties, geography plays a role in travel opportunities. Travel nursing agency Aya Healthcare noted in a February report that the highest demand was in Texas, which has 11% of the nation’s open positions. That was followed by California and Texas at 9%, New York (7%), and Ohio and Tennessee (5%).
How Much Does a Travel Nurse Make?
This question can be viewed through the lens of a basic economic lesson — supply and demand. As the need for travel nurses grew amid the pandemic and a wave of nurses leaving the profession entirely, travel nursing salaries rose dramatically to $10,000 a week in some COVID-19 hot spots, according to a February report by National Public Radio. That has led to an influx in travelers.
Among the respondents to Trusted Health’s survey who had taken a travel nurse or per diem contract, 48% did so for the first time during the pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases ebbed and flowed and more nurses left their jobs across the country, demand got higher for travel nurses. “Demand is four times higher than what we’re normally seeing,” Pointer said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep up with that demand, but the entire staffing supply chain in health care is broken and has been for some time.”
The average travel nurse salary, according to a Becker’s Hospital Review report in February of this year was $2,103 per week. As a veteran traveler, Carter advises fellow nurses to not just focus on money.
“Yes, the money is good, but it was not always this good,” she said. “Everyone has their own personal reasons why they are choosing to travel now. You just have to decide if traveling is for you because it is not a fit for everyone.”
Carter said traveling helped grow her confidence on a personal and professional level, so much so that current and former colleagues were among those who wrote recommendation letters for her recent acceptance to graduate school.
“As a traveler, you have to be comfortable with change,” she said. “Be open to learn because that is the only way you will evolve.”
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