Do you like the idea of becoming a travel nurse but have no idea what it entails or how much you can expect to make? Travels nurses are Registered Nurses (RNs) who travel both domestically and internationally to fulfill short-term roles in nursing shortages. Rather than working for one specific hospital or clinic, they are employed by an independent nursing staffing agency, giving them the flexibility to work whenever they need nurses.
With everything going on in the world right now, travel nursing has become high in local hospitals, across the United States, and around the world. And while travel nurses can certainly expect to see much higher than average pay packages right now, several factors need to be considered when it comes to how much you can expect to make as a travel nurse.
In this ultimate guide, we examine how much a travel nurse can be expected to make in a year, the factors that contribute to a higher pay grade, as well as what you can do to boost your salary as a travel nurse.
Due to the overwhelming need for Registered Nurses, RNs enjoy salaries that are well above the national average and receive generous benefits and competitive bonuses. And when choosing to take on a career as a travel nurse, you are highly likely to be able to secure a position that meets your salary requirements. With the increasing demand for those who are willing to travel, the salary for a traveling Registered Nurse will often well exceed the compensation of a staff nurse.
As a traveling nurse, completion, and referral bonuses are just some of the many benefits you will receive. With travel nurses being so high in demand, agencies and/or the facilities themselves will offer completion bonuses as a perk for finishing your contract.
Travel nursing agencies such as American Traveler will also give bonuses for referring a friend or colleague to their agency. In this case, you will receive compensation when the person you have referred has successfully completed a full-length assignment, earning you anywhere from $500 to $1000.
Also, travel nurses will often receive reimbursements for the cost of their relocation and their daily living expenses, as well as their state licensure.
You may be wondering: do travel nurses really make that much more money than permanent nurses? And if so, how much more do they make, and why do they make so much more? While travel nurses generally make more money than permanent nurses, this will depend on the assignments they choose to take on and the agency that the travel nurse works for.
Let’s examine how a travel nurse’s salary works and why they may end up making more money than a staff nurse.
While there are many reasons why a travel nurse will make more money than other nurses, the pay scale will tip higher for areas where there is a higher demand. And due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for travel nurses is currently at an all-time high.
Several factors go into a travel nurse’s overall salary that goes beyond their base monthly payment. Travel nurses will receive a total pay package that includes their hourly wage and compensation for housing, meals, continuing education, and other possible expenses relating to the job. The real bonus? The extra pay on top of the base pay is not considered income and therefore does not require taxes to be withheld.
The following is a sample breakdown of the monthly total pay package for a travel nurse versus a staff nurse:
A staff nurse’s salary:
As stated above, this is a sample breakdown of a total monthly pay package for both a travel nurse’s salary and a staff nurse’s salary and does not necessarily reflect what an agency will offer you. Both base monthly pay and housing stipends may be considerably more in the highest-paying cities.
It’s important to compare what different travel nurse staffing agencies have to offer to find the right fit for you and your lifestyle. It’s also important to clarify that the base monthly payment is always taxable as your nursing salary, while the additional benefits and stipends noted above are not taxable.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Registered Nurses made an average of $71,730 per year in 2020. And while there is no similar reported source of collective data for a travel nurse’s salary, Zip Recruiter reports a national average of $99,202 per year for travel nurses.
While several factors can affect your salary as a travel nurse, specializing in your field can open up a whole new range of opportunities for the jobs you are eligible for. Let’s take a look at what factors impact your pay as a travel nurse, as well as additional skills that can boost your salary.
Before we discuss the skills and nursing requirements that can earn you a higher salary as a travel nurse, let’s talk about the additional factors that can impact your pay. While additional education will often earn you a higher salary in both permanent and travel nursing positions, several more factors will increase your chance of a pay raise without the need for additional schooling.
First and foremost, the current COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased the need for nurses worldwide. As a result of this demand, the need for travel nurses has increased, along with their pay. Working in a pandemic comes with an increased risk to the health and safety of these workers, with hazard pay now commonly provided by agencies.
For putting themselves at the possible risk of endangering their health, this hazard pay may be the main incentive for those currently looking to sign a contract with a travel nursing agency. This is especially appealing since most staff nurses have not yet received any hazard pay from the facilities in which they work on a permanent basis.
Travel nurses are most likely to receive assignments in locations with significant needs. While competitive compensation may be partially based on need, it may also be based on higher living costs. This is important to take into consideration when calculating a travel nurses’ net profit.
A higher cost of living may contribute to the shortage of nurses in these areas, including states such as California, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, and New York. Southern states generally have a lower cost of living, while destination states like Hawaii and Florida have no shortage of nurses who wish to maintain a career there. Both of these factors contribute to these states having a lower need for travel nurses. A career as an international travel nurse will also consider these factors.
As is often the case with any profession, the timing of the shifts you are willing to take on will usually affect your pay rate. For example, travel nurses who work night shifts will earn a more competitive rate than those who work days or afternoons. Holidays, swing shifts, and on-call shifts will also usually bring in anywhere from a few extra dollars an hour to time and a half or more.
While assuming the risk of a hazardous position, working in a high-paying state or city, and accepting a less than desirable shift are all ways to increase your travel pay, you can increase your take-home salary even further by finding work in an in-demand specialty. Nurses who have been formally trained in a particular field of nursing will not only have the opportunity to increase their pay but are also more likely to be able to negotiate higher pay.
Travel nurses most commonly specialize in one or more of the following fields of nursing:
Whether or not you’re applying to an in-demand area, it’s important to highlight your travel nursing application that you have experience in or have been formally trained in a particular field of nursing. While you may also note that you are willing to be trained in certain areas, having a nurse who has already sought out specialty certification will be much more lucrative to yourself and the staffing agency that hires you.
In addition to the above factors, the type of facility that hires you can make a difference when it comes to your pay grade. While hospitals would previously only experience a crisis mode due to natural or manmade disasters, COVID-19 has brought a desperate need for nurses to work in hospitals all over the world.
The pandemic has brought an increase in pay rate for travel nurses coming to hospitals that have not been seen in many years, as hospitals began overflowing with patients, with not enough beds nor staff to handle them all.
Rapid response travel nurses are still most urgently needed in the following situations, making these opportunities some of the best for high paying nursing positions:
If you are willing to uproot within a moments’ notice, then short-term crisis/rapid response assignments may be for you. As mentioned, these types of assignments are usually only warranted in the case of natural/manmade disasters, such as in the case of Hurricane Harvey. One nurse staffing agency sent nurses from the United States within 48 hours to provide support to hospitals in the aftermath of this natural disaster.
While nursing strikes cannot be compared to a natural disaster, they are certainly considered an emergency. Travel nurse staffing agencies such as Fastaff, Bridge Staffing, and Healthsource Global all offer extremely competitive pay for those willing to cover short notice staffing emergencies. It should be noted that taking on this type of assignment is considered a personal risk, as nursing strikes often dissipate quickly and will quickly put you on your next flight home.
It’s also important to note that to be eligible for these rapid response assignments, you will need to meet all requirements in the form of credentials and documentation. This will not only include your nursing license to work in another state or country but also possible vaccines, drug tests, tax forms, etc.
To become a travel nurse, you must first complete your education and further licensure as a Registered Nurse. The minimum education required to find work as an RN is an associate’s or bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in nursing. If you are currently a Licensed Vocational Nurse, you may wish to look into an LVN to BSN program as a pathway to earn this degree.
Once you have successfully completed one of those degrees, you are then eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exam to be licensed as an RN. While this is the minimum education required to find work in this field, there are several other continuing education courses you can complete to specialize in a particular field of nursing. The more skills you have as a travel nurse, the more valuable you become to staffing agencies, which will quickly find you the highest-paying roles to fit your level of education.
The following are some of the most lucrative areas of nursing for a travel nurse to seek additional education in:
The demand for Emergency Room Travel Nurses has been on the rise for the past few years. This nursing field is most ideal for those who can think on their feet and provide immediate solutions to often critical situations. Those looking to be hired as ER nurses should obtain certification as a Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN). This is a nationally accepted certification for ER nurses that has been developed by the Emergency Nurses Association.
Certified nurses who hold this certification are considered to have attained a level of expertise in the standards and practices of emergency patient care and have undergone rigorous training to hone their practical and theoretical skills. To take the CEN exam, an ER nurse is required to have two years of emergency experience under their belt working as an RN.
In 2021, most facilities will require their Medical-Surgical Nurses to also be Telemetry competent. This means that a Medical-Surgical Nurse must possess the necessary technical skills to operate machinery that monitors a patient’s health, the most common being the echocardiogram (EKG).
Those who wish to seek employment in this field will be happy to know that you are not required to obtain any additional certification once you are established as a licensed RN. Many telemetry nursing units hire patients immediately after receiving their nursing licenses.
In fact, a study from Rasmussen University showed in an analysis of over 29,084 telemetry nursing job postings that 87 percent were seeking candidates with 0-2 years of experience.
Those who enjoy working with mothers and their newborn babies have plenty of opportunities to do so. Women’s Health Nurses include those who work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Mother-Baby/Postpartum Nurses (MBPP), and Labour and Delivery Nurses (L&D).
Although certification outside of your licensure as an RN is not required to find work in any of these positions, it is certainly valuable. It will put you at the head of the line when it comes to being assigned to these positions.
A NICU Nurse can obtain Critical Care Neonatal Nursing Certification through the American Association of Critical Care Nursing, as well as the RNC Certification for Neonatal Intensive Care Nursing (RNC-NIC) via the National Certification Corporation (NCC). To be eligible to sit this exam, licensed RNs must have a minimum of 24 months (2,000 hours) of specialty experience.
An ICU Nurse is responsible for looking after patients who have experienced accidents, trauma, organ failure, and/or invasive surgery and is a career that is incredibly in demand among permanent and travel nurses alike. To work in the ICU, nurses must have passed their
NCLEX-RN and are licensed in their state of practice.
It is also necessary that they have at least one year of general clinical experience, as well as their Basic Life Support (BLS), Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) certification. Becoming a CCRN (Critical Care Registered Nurse) is also a highly valuable career move for ICU nurses. It opens them up to working in various ICU units, including pediatric ICUs, neonatal ICUs, cardiac telemetry units, and progressive care units.
As of 2019, an Operating Room (OR) Nurse is one of the highest-paying specialties for staff nurses and travel nurses alike. While OR Nursing positions are available to new RN graduates who have successfully completed an internship program or to experienced nurses with at least one year of bedside experience, the following certifications are desirable for those who wish to find work in the OR:
For those who enjoy working in the field of mental health, psychiatric nursing may be the perfect specialty for you. In this challenging role, a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse (PMHN) must interact with individuals and families to get patients the mental health care they require. While the only necessary requirements for a PMHN are an Associate’s degree, passing the NCLEX-RN, and a nursing license in their state of practice, several continuing education courses are available specializing in the field of mental health.
The role of a Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (PMH-APRN) involves working directly with patients with mental health disorders and does require advanced schooling in the form of a Master’s degree.
When searching for the highest-paying travel nurse jobs, it’s important to consider where travel nurses are needed most. As discussed above, certain states pay more than others due to increased demand, which can be largely due to living costs.
While we’ve discussed the regular need for travel nurses in states such as California, Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, New Jersey, South Carolina, and New York, location needs also change according to the time of year.
For example, states like Vermont, Maine, and Alaska are more often needed during the winter, while states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama are most needed during the summer. If you haven’t already guessed, this is due to the harsh climates that these states receive at this time of year, making these states less than desirable to accept assignments for many.
When looking to become a travel nurse, it can be confusing to know where to start without being pointed in the right direction. With an increase in popularity in the travel nursing profession, we have seen an increase in travel nursing agencies forming, making it tough for aspiring travel nurses to know how to choose the right agency.
If you’re looking for the best travel nursing agencies in the United States, the following have been widely praised for offering competitive pay, as well as housing assistance, benefits, and a variety of assignment types to suit both your skills and interests:
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for nurses continues to be at an all-time high, with health systems vying for those who can be flexible with their shifts and location, as well as those who offer specialized areas of focus. And with travel nursing continuing to see significant growth, the demand for travel nursing is as present as ever.
New opportunities are being created all the time for travel nurses, with an increase in the need for those who can assist with Electronic Media Record (EMR) systems. Telemedicine opportunities have also become widely popular over the past year for both virtual nurses and physicians, allowing an entirely new option for travel nurses looking to stay put.
Strong demand has remained for nurses with specialty skills, such as those who are certified to work in operating rooms, trauma nursing, emergency departments, labor and delivery suites, the NICU, and critical care units. A career as a travel nurse will always be in high demand, especially if you are willing to travel anywhere in the world that requires immediate help. With the presence of continuing education certifications and specialized skills, travel nursing can prove to be extremely lucrative and provide you with a long-term and stable career.
With the opportunity to work in a field you love with the chance to explore the United States and beyond, more and more RNs realize the many benefits of finding work as a travel nurse. It cannot be denied that travel nursing can be a difficult career to maintain if you have a family.
However, it is important to remember that travel nurses can choose the assignments they go on and have no obligation to accept a travel assignment beyond what they feel they are personally able to commit to. Travel nursing allows you to make a great salary (often in a shorter period of time), with a bonus of a housing stipend, travel reimbursements, health insurance, free continuing education, a 401k plan, and more.
Plus, this profession allows you to develop an incredibly diverse resume that will stand out above the rest. If these many benefits sound appealing to you, then travel nursing may just be the opportunity you’ve been looking for.