Travel Nursing 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting Your Journey

Travel Nursing 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting Your Journey

January 19, 2024

Nurses have a unique opportunity offered by few other career paths: as a travel nurse, you can explore a wide variety of locations around the country while expanding your skills and being compensated well along the way.

Travel nurses are skilled healthcare workers sent to healthcare facilities and organizations throughout the US to fulfill short-term staffing roles. The traveling aspect of this job makes it a perfect choice for nurses wanting to advance their careers or simply switch up their lifestyles.

Travel nursing allows you to explore your bucket list states as you sharpen your clinical skills and build your resume—all while enjoying premium benefits and pay.

What do travel nurses do?

Licensed and experienced travel nurses work as temporary staff to maintain quality patient care standards during staff shortages. They fill the gaps in the schedule, typically for weeks at a time. The standard travel nursing contract lasts for 13 weeks. However, it is common to find travel assignments between 8 and 26 weeks. Hospitals may offer to renew contracts, as well. These assignments generally last 3 to 5 weeks longer than the original contract.

The “travel” in “travel nurse” refers to working at different hospitals within their city, building a resume and a reputation among hospital administrators worldwide, and visiting other states or countries to help with surgeries and specialized procedures.

Another possible assignment could be working for a company supplying staff to community health clinics. These jobs and many more activities help nurses refine their skills and knowledge within their specialties, such as surgery, intensive care, rehabilitation, and more.

Perks of being a travel nurse

One of the most attractive aspects of travel nursing is the excellent pay. Still, travel nursing comes with other great perks, such as premium benefits packages, free housing or housing cost reimbursement, and the chance to build a reputation with the best hospitals in the country.

Here are some of the benefits you will enjoy as a travel nurse:

  • Unparalleled flexibility
  • Endless opportunities
  • Great pay and benefits
  • Living in, working in, and exploring vibrant locations
  • The freedom to take extended time off between contracts

Travel nursing is one of the best ways to advance your nursing career. Travel nurses are making a powerful difference in patients’ lives and in the healthcare industry. A travel nurse can work in a wide variety of healthcare settings. From bustling medical centers in large cities to small clinics in remote locations—you can make the most of your nursing specialty everywhere. 

Travel nursing experience can increase your skills, making you a better candidate for future nursing jobs. Travel nurses are exposed to a wide range of patients and healthcare systems. This exposure develops their knowledge of medical conditions and treatment options. These experiences can also improve your ability to communicate effectively with various doctors, nurses, and patients, helping you become a better nurse overall.

The importance of travel nurses

The travel nurse is critical to the global healthcare system because of the constant shortage of qualified nurses in many specialty and non-specialty fields. This situation creates several vacancies employers need for temporary nurses to fill, which creates a need for highly trained nurses willing to work full-time schedules in different hospitals throughout the year.

Travel nurses are pivotal in ensuring high-quality patient care, regardless of regional shortages, remains uninterrupted. Here are some common reasons for staff shortages that travel nurses help fill:

  • Seasonal population surges. For example, consider retirees traveling to warmer destinations over the winter and towns outside of National Parks that see increased visitors in the summer. Ski destinations also see an exponential boost in population over the winter.
  • Sudden upticks in healthcare needs. Upticks in demand for healthcare services can occur in almost all locations throughout the United States during the flu and respiratory virus seasons or public health crises. Travel nurses step in to fill the gaps.
  • Changes in staffing needs. Facilities often use travelers to cover their staff’s paid parental leave, vacation time, or disability leave. Travel nurses fill in when staff nurses leave their positions temporarily or permanently for various reasons.

Travel nurses are also important in rural or specialized healthcare institutions where there aren’t enough nurses in the area with the required education or experience in specific fields. Since there is such a high demand for qualified registered nurses with different specialties and training, travel nurses are some of the most in-demand healthcare professionals in the country.

The state of chronic medical care demands that seasoned nursing veterans keep moving from one hospital to another while staying up to date with the latest developments in patient care. This demand also makes travel nursing a highly sought-after career since the need for them comes with high compensation and speedier professional growth.

A young female nurse leans against the wall of her facility while taking a break from her duties.

What it takes to be a travel nurse

Travel nursing is about filling a need. Travel nurses must meet the same educational and clinical requirements as all registered nurses (RNs). This includes: 

  • Earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)
  • Passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN exam)
  • Acquiring a state nursing license

Most travel nursing agencies require a minimum of twelve to eighteen months of nursing experience. Some recommend having at least two years of experience in your specialty before travel nursing. Certain specialties, such as renal care, telemetry, oncology, labor and delivery, pediatrics, and emergency or intensive care, can have even more specific requirements. 

  • Education: Registered nurses must hold a nursing degree from an accredited university before taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN®) and applying for a license. Others earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
  • Experience: After passing the NCLEX and meeting licensing requirements, you can practice as an entry-level nurse. In general, hospitals prefer travel nurses to have at least 1–2 years of recent acute care experience in the specialty in which they wish to work.
  • Documentation: Typically, you must provide references and documentation of licenses and certifications.

Travel nursing skills

While the core principles of nursing care remain consistent, no matter where you work, as a travel nurse, you must be able to quickly integrate into a new healthcare team, understand and adapt to varying patient demographics, and quickly learn state-specific healthcare norms, new charting systems, new equipment, and procedural differences between health systems.

A good travel nurse must be:

  • Highly skilled: You must be confident and ready to hit the ground running. Travel nurse orientations are notoriously brief. You’ll be expected to hit the floor quickly without compromising patient care. 
  • Adaptable: Things will not go as planned, from housing to expectations on the job. Good travel nurses can adapt quickly and know who to contact at their agency to ensure they have the proper support.
  • Independent: The life of a travel nurse often means being away from friends and family, so you need to be comfortable going it alone occasionally.
  • Emotionally intelligent: It is crucial to empathize with patients from various cultural backgrounds, understand and manage their emotions in high-pressure situations, and communicate effectively with different healthcare teams.
  • A critical thinker: Travel nurses must swiftly assess complex situations, make sound decisions, and adapt their approaches to varying patient needs in a new environment.
  • Adventurous: Making new friends, learning new cities, and working with new equipment all come with the territory. So make sure you pack your sense of adventure.

Types of travel nurses

Travel nurses are usually hired per assignment or at least for agreed periods. Depending on the employer's needs, these can range from a few days to years. There are lots of options for travel nursing job opportunities. The following qualifications are often in high demand.

Registered Nurses (RNs)

The most common nursing credential is the registered nurse (RN). RNs can fall into a wide range of categories, such as helping people with cancer, heart disease, surgical procedures, post-operative rehabilitation, and much more. They are primarily found in hospitals, doctor’s offices, clinics, and nursing homes. The breadth of their knowledge and education makes them desirable for any healthcare provider to give care to patients with all sorts of health needs.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) defines nurse practitioners as licensed, autonomous clinicians who manage people’s conditions and prevent disease. NPs are often specialized practitioners focused on specific types of patients, such as pediatric and women’s health, or subspecialized in dermatology, oncology, etc.

The main difference between RNs and NPs is the educational background of each. A registered nurse needs an associate’s degree in nursing, while the minimum requirement to become an NP is a master’s degree.

Since being an NP allows for greater independence, they are considered primary care providers. And NP can take on a more holistic view of healthcare, providing physical and emotional care. Frequently, an RN will become an NP to advance their careers and get better career opportunities and higher salaries.

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) perform more basic nursing duties generally and are responsible for the patient's comfort. On the other hand, an RN will take on duties such as administering medication, giving out treatments, and even offering medical advice to the general public. While these two jobs may be similar, RNs and LPNs have less in common than it might seem.

An LPN usually takes on a more basic range of care responsibilities, which generally means comforting the patient, treating minor injuries and pain, interpreting charts, inserting IVs, and taking vital signs.

Check out some specialized options in our Top Travel Healthcare Jobs blog.

A female nurse changes bedding for a patient.

Travel nurse pay packages

The average salary for a travel nurse varies based on location, demand, and nursing specialty. While this is also true of staff nurses, the life of a travel nurse is unique, and how they earn income is no exception. Beyond salary, components comprise a travel nurse pay package, such as hourly pay, non-taxed stipends, travel reimbursements, and more.

Let’s break down the basics of travel nurse salary and what to look for in a pay package.

  • Hourly Equivalent: A travel nurse pay package generally consists of two main components: the regular, taxable hourly rate and the non-taxed reimbursements (stipends, subsidies, per diems, or allowances). Your hourly rate is a combination of taxed and non-taxed portions.
  • Non-Taxable Per Diems: Per diems are set by the General Services Administration and refer to allowances for reimbursing federal employees for expenses incurred on official travel.
  • Taxable Income: This is where you’ll find your taxable hourly rate. Social security contributions and more originate in this portion, like a permanent, local job.
  • Benefits: More and more agencies offer benefits similar to perm employers. So unless you carry private insurance or are insured through your partner, medical benefits can factor into your overall pay package.

Tips for new travel nurses

New travel nurses can benefit from key tips to make their assignments smoother. First and foremost, strategizing and getting organized are crucial steps to ensure a successful transition into a new healthcare setting. This involves understanding the hospital's systems, familiarizing oneself with local protocols, and establishing a routine to manage workload effectively.

Flexibility is vital for travel nurses, as adapting to new environments and different hospital procedures is inherent to the job. This flexibility extends to housing choices as well. A comfortable and convenient housing option is essential for a positive experience during an assignment.

Before committing to a new assignment, taking a test drive by visiting the location and hospital is advisable. This allows nurses to assess the workplace culture and community fit, ensuring a more informed decision.

For those with pets, thorough preparation is key. Travel nurses should research and plan for their pets' well-being, considering factors like veterinary care and pet-friendly accommodations.

Home logistics, such as mail and bills, should not be overlooked. It's crucial to establish a system for handling these matters while away to maintain a sense of stability.

Packing smart is another important aspect of successful travel nursing. Ensuring that essentials are packed, including necessary certifications and documentation, helps to minimize stress during the transition.

Finally, planning housing details in advance contributes to a smoother experience. This includes researching potential housing options, understanding lease terms, and clarifying any questions with the housing provider.

Getting the most out of travel nursing

Travel nursing can be a rewarding and lucrative career choice, especially if undertaken with extensive information and intention. A bit of research and some forethought will help ensure that your time traveling on travel nurse assignments will be the best it can possibly be.

Life as a travel nurse is always exciting, and flexibility is part of the beauty. Every travel assignment presents new experiences, challenges, lessons, and adaptations. Each contract may bring new insights, adventures, and amazing memories.

Travel nursing jobs through Prolink

Travel nurses are often needed when healthcare organizations cannot hire the nursing staff required to handle their day-to-day patient care operations. This need causes many reputable hospitals to develop close relationships with travel nurse staffing agencies, who hold their nurses to the highest standards of professionalism and use them to fill their staffing needs quickly.

At Prolink, we provide all the help you need to land an ideal contract position in any state you wish to visit. We give you front-of-the-line access to thousands of travel nursing jobs and can help you obtain new state licenses or renew your current licensure. We offer the industry's most competitive salaries, benefits, referral bonuses, and 401k enrollment from day one. 

In short, we give you support when you need it. When you begin working with Prolink, we pair you with a dedicated recruiter. That professional can link you to top jobs and provide assistance when it comes to landing that perfect contract role. 

If you want to begin your travel nursing journey in 2024, look no further than Prolink’s selection of top nursing jobs. Click below to get started.

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