Why Do Travel Nurses Get Paid So Much?

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated May 12, 2023
    The highest paid travel nurses work in their states and specialties. The pay is commensurate with the challenges they face and the skills they bring to the job.
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    • Hospitals use travel nurses to fill short-term staff and managerial positions.
    • Travel nurses live away from home for 13-26 weeks per assignment.
    • Additional compensation is paid to help offset related costs and difficulties.

    In 1977, the first travel nurses clocked in at a New Orleans hospital to help treat a surge of patients from Mardi Gras. Since then, the industry flourished as one answer to a national nursing shortage, which continues today. Incentives for leaving home included higher pay for nurses willing to travel.

    Technological advances have made the travel nurse transition simpler and more streamlined. However, many of the personal challenges have not gotten any easier. This page explores the benefits and disadvantages of travel nursing, including why and how travel nurses are paid more than staff nurses.

    Travel Nursing: Pros and Cons

    Travel nurses are skilled healthcare professionals who take on temporary nursing positions in high-need areas. Typically, an independent staffing agency places a travel nurse at a hospital somewhere around the country, or even the world, who has expressed a need for extra nursing help. Travel nurses come from a variety of clinical backgrounds. In fact, some hospitals and agencies look for nurses willing to accept managerial roles.

    Travel nurses get the unique life experience of getting to know a destination far more intimately than an extended commitment as opposed to a quick visit. This gives them a deeper understanding of culture and geography, as well as a chance to make new friends and colleagues.

    On the other hand, travel nurses find themselves in unfamiliar environments, working with unfamiliar colleagues. Travel nurses must be flexible and willing to take on more undesirable patient assignments. Based on the contract, you may also be asked to float to another unit. Loneliness and time away from loved ones also is a clear drawback.

    Although there is a nursing shortage, sometimes your contract will be canceled. This can happen before you’ve even started working for the institution.

    Why Do Travel Nurses Tend to Earn More Than Staff Nurses?

    The average salary for a travel nurse varies depending on location and work assignment. According to Vivian, the average salary for a travel nurse in 2023 is $2,267 per week. This information is based on data from roughly 100,000 active jobs. By comparison, the average hourly salary for a staff nurse is $41.24 per hour.

    Travel nurses make the most money in Alaska, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California. These states also have the highest cost of living. Conversely, staff nurses get paid the most in Washington, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Virginia.

    Travel nurses are paid by the nursing agency, which in turn is paid by the hospital. Pay packages for the travel nurse vary, so nurses should have a clear understanding of their contract.

    While the benefits can be substantial, the reason travel nurses are paid more is to compensate them for the disadvantages of the experience. Each nurse will have to decide for themselves whether the decision is right for them.

    Overtime can increase a travel nurse’s average annual salary, but as with permanent staff nurses, it also significantly impacts work-life balance. Travel nurses may be offered bonuses, most of which are dependent on experience and medical specialty. For example, according to Fortune magazine, the highest-paid positions can be found in the emergency department, intensive care unit, and medical surgery.

    The higher pay may not be enough to overcome the challenges of working as a travel nurse. For example, with each new assignment, a travel nurse must learn the new facility’s policies and procedures while integrating seamlessly with the current staff. There is no time for an extended orientation.

    Travel nurses must handle several other duties outside of their primary job function. This includes accurately filing their taxes, saving for retirement, and maintaining insurance for their health, home, and car. For some, even one of these challenges can be enough to decide travel nursing is not for them.

    One of the benefits of a travel nurse assignment is you do not have to take an additional assignment if you decide the experience isn’t for you. Each nurse must play to their personal strengths. In some cases, however, the difference in compensation can be enough to encourage an adventure.