- Travel nurses live a life of adventure, but the lifestyle is only for some. It can be challenging to develop real relationships quickly, often leading to loneliness.
- It's expected that travel nurses be experienced in their field and able to perform many of the same tasks as their full-time colleagues.
- Travel nurses can take time off to visit family or travel between assignments.
Are you curious about becoming a travel nurse? Although you love what you do, you may be ready for a challenge. Before jumping headlong into a 13-week assignment away from home, it's important to note that travel nursing is not for everyone.
It can be challenging to make real relationships as you're moving from city to city, leaving you needing a close support system.
Explore what a travel nurse does on a typical day and the pros and cons of becoming a travel nurse.
What Does a Travel Nurse Do on a Typical Day?
We spoke with two travel nurses to hear about their experiences and ask advice for our readers. Ashley Bryant is a busy travel nurse on a cardiac stepdown unit. She loves her travel assignments and the camaraderie she shares with nurses across the U.S.
Julia Waller enjoys her travel nurse career and the option to take several weeks off to go home and visit family and friends between assignments. Bryant and Waller talked with us about their typical day on assignment and the different types of "first days" they have at different hospitals.
Preparing for the Shift
Bryant says that the pandemic taught her the importance of emotionally, mentally, and physically caring for herself outside the hospital. For her, self-care has meant taking a walk or enjoying a cup of coffee before heading to work the night shift.
"I've noticed that taking a simple 30 minutes to mentally prepare before leaving my house makes a big difference in how my work day flows," she says.
Waller also finds that spending time before getting to work to care for herself can help improve how the day flows. She says that coffee and breakfast are the essentials to starting her day.
Arriving at the Unit
Both nurses told us that a typical day starts the same way as when they were full-time staff nurses. Waller has found that she likes having a home unit instead of being part of the float pool.
"I feel more organized and in control of my day when I have an idea of the patient population and the flow of the unit," she says. "I also find that having a home unit gives me more help and resources than when I float."
Bryant describes a routine that is not unlike starting the shift for any full-time staff member. She takes five minutes to learn the basic information about her patients and then meets with the nurse who cared for the patient on the last shift at the patient's bedside.
After meeting all of her patients, she takes another 20 minutes to take a deeper look at their charts, noting medication times, abnormal results, and upcoming tests.
She said that on a perfect night, the rest of the shift is spent administering medications, helping patients, and monitoring cardiac changes that may quickly evolve into an emergency.
New admissions from the emergency room or a transfer from the intensive care unit are interspersed in this busy schedule. She acknowledges that everyone plays a critical role in the unit's success.
"It is so important that I give the unit secretaries, nurse techs, environmental staff, transporters, and kitchen staff their 'flowers.' I would truly be lost without them," she says.
Ending the Shift
Ending the shift is much like the start but in reverse order. Travel nurses gather the information needed for the next shift, ensure they have charted all pertinent information, and complete the documentation.
The end-of-shift report collects the details of what happened to the patient in the last hours. It must include information for the incoming shift so patient care is seamless. This information includes medical history, medication, allergies, pain level, and pain management.
Bedside reporting is an integral part of involving the patient, family, and incoming nurse so all parties can get their questions answered and the patient can be actively involved in their care.
What's Expected of Travel Nurses
Travel nurses are expected to be experienced in nursing care and the patient population they care for. They should have mastered their skills before they begin traveling.
Your first day on a new assignment can include picking up your identification badge and getting a unit tour to a full-blown orientation day with your preceptor. Waller says that she has experienced a completely virtual first day since the pandemic's start.
She has consistently found that the new hospital usually requires travel nurses to do multiple learning modules so they are familiar with the hospital policies and procedures. Travel nurses can expect to be paired with a nurse for the first 1-3 days.
Although these preceptors are resources, travel nurses must have mastered their skills and work independently. Bryant has found that she often works 2-3 day shifts for orientation and then is released to work independently.
"The other nurses on the floor will ALWAYS be there to help you! There has never been a time when a fellow nurse was not willing to answer a question or come to my rescue on nights when it seems like everything is going haywire!" she says.
The Pros and Cons of Travel Nursing
The nationwide nursing shortage has made travel nursing an appealing career option for nurses who want to work full time or part time. Even hospitals that are fully staffed can experience seasonal shortages or the need to cover nurses on maternity leave.
But while travel nursing is an exciting adventure, it may not be for everyone. It is important to have a good grasp of the advantages and disadvantages of working as a travel nurse so you can make an informed decision about what you want to do.
Control over when and where you work
Ability to see the country as a resident and not a tourist
Variety in your career experience
Higher pay rate and greater benefits to compensate for traveling away from home
Better professional nursing network when you can maintain these relationships
Paid to travel to new places
Opportunity to make new friends that can last a lifetime
Typically no workplace politics
Flexibility to take several weeks off between assignments
Experience of a geographical area before deciding to settle down
New life skills working in different situations away from the comfort of home
Unfamiliar environments consistently
Always the new nurse on the unit
Away from home for at least 13 consecutive weeks
Logistics of traveling for a long- or short-term assignment
Loneliness trying to develop real relationships in a short time
Unfamiliar territory working in float units
Necessity of a "tax home" to enjoy the advantages of tax-free money
Need for multiple nursing licenses when practicing outside of a nurse compact state
Not working your dream shift
Challenging to do your taxes
Complicated paperwork when working with several agencies
Inadequate healthcare benefits and typically no 401k
Pushback from full-time employees over high wages sometimes
What to Do When You're Not on Assignment
Travel nurses often find their assignment goes quickly. Before you know it, the contract ends and you're on your way back home or to your next assignment. Sometimes, the hospital facility will want to extend your contract.
In this case, your nurse recruiter or the nearest manager will let you know. It's up to you to decide if you want to stay or move on. Bryant notes that one of the best perks of being a travel nurse is taking off as much or as little time as you want between contracts. For instance, some travel nurses work the holidays, while others choose not to.
"I have met some travelers who take the entire holiday season off. It feels great to be able to take three weeks off to go home and visit family to really give yourself a break," she says.
This is one way that travel nurses have to care for their mental, physical, and spiritual health to prevent nurse burnout. It gives them a chance to come back to work refreshed and give the best possible care to their patients, Bryant notes.
Remember to make the most of your days off in a different city. By the time she has ended her assignment, Waller has completed a list of places to visit, the best malls to shop in, and has a list of some "must visit" restaurants and eateries.
Meet Our Contributors
Ashley Bryant, BSN
Ashley Bryant began her career in nursing in 2019 after earning her BSN from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Her love for everything heart related began in nursing school and was the driving force behind her decision to specialize in progressive cardiac and medical telemetry nursing. She began travel nursing in 2021 and has completed six travel contracts in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and California. What Bryant loves most about this season in her career is being able to combine her love for nursing with traveling and gaining experiences that only travel nursing can offer.
Julia Waller, RN
Julia Waller is a registered nurse with experience working in the hospital and healthcare industry. She also has experience in diverse informatics systems and healthcare systems. She attended the clinical nurse leader program at Augusta University where she earned her MSN.
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