What Is a Travel Nurse?

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated April 16, 2024
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Do you dream of both exploring new places and working as a nurse? Here's everything you need to know to become a travel nurse.
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Job Outlook

6% growth from 2020-2030

Average Weekly Salary

$2130/week for RNs

Sources: BLS, Vivian

Travel nursing is a unique way to transform your nursing career into an exciting adventure. As a travel nurse, you get paid to be away from home — while discovering new places, people, and healthcare settings. Find out what the life of a travel nurse is like and how to become one.

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What Does a Travel Nurse Do?

A travel nurse is a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) who works short-term contracts in various locations. Hospitals or other healthcare facilities hire travel nurses to fill shifts during periods of short staffing.

A travel nurse contract typically lasts 13 weeks, which is how long it takes to hire and train permanent nursing staff. Contract lengths may vary based on a facility’s needs and a travel nurse’s availability.

Travel nurses work for third-party agencies that match them with facilities based on their experience.

When they arrive at an assignment, their training period can be as short as three days compared to three months for a staff nurse. For this reason, a traveling nurse must be well-prepared to care for patients in their specialty. Travel nurses typically need at least 2-3 years in their specialty. This combination of preparedness and experience contributes to the higher pay they receive.

While on assignment, travel nurses perform the same duties as the permanent nursing staff. Depending on the unit they’re working on, a typical shift for a travel nurse may look like this:

  1. Clock into work and check your assignment (or find out if you’re floating to another unit)
  2. Get a report from the off-going nurse
  3. Perform patient rounds
  4. Collaborate with the multidisciplinary team and nursing staff to facilitate patient movement, including procedures, diagnostic tests, surgery, and higher or lower levels of care
  5. Complete orders based on patient needs and the flow of the unit, like ambulating patients and monitoring intake and output
  6. Give a report to the oncoming nurse
  7. Clock out and get ready for the next shift

When their assignment is complete, the facility may ask travel nurses to extend their contract at a facility. Other times, they travel to other locations based on their preferences.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

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Key Responsibilities

A travel nurse is responsible for following orders and protocols to carry out individual patient care plans. On a typical shift, their job duties may include:

  • Performing head-to-toe assessments
  • Giving medications
  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Collecting labs
  • Participating in multidisciplinary rounds
  • Assisting with procedures
  • Managing IVs or central lines
  • Performing wound care
  • Admitting and discharging patients

Career Traits

A successful travel nurse is:

  • Confident in their nursing skills
  • Experienced in their specialty for at least 2-3 years
  • A quick learner
  • Flexible
  • Resilient
  • Not afraid to ask for help
  • A strong patient advocate

Where Do Travel Nurses Work?

Travel nurses can work in several settings, from hospitals to long-term care facilities. A travel nurse must have experience within their practice area to deliver the safest patient care.

Here are some examples of settings where a travel nurse might work:

Long-Term Care

A long-term care nurse may become a traveler and care for assisted living or nursing home residents. In these settings, a travel nurse’s key responsibilities include passing medications, assisting patients with activities of daily living, and collaborating with families.

Medical-Surgical Unit

Medical-surgical travel nurses care for hospital patients with various conditions, diseases, and therapies. They monitor vital signs, administer medications, and perform wound care. They have a wide skill set and are constantly learning about new conditions on the fly.

Intensive Care Unit

An ICU travel nurse cares for critically ill patients in the hospital. Intensive care nurses manage equipment like ventilators, cardiac monitors, invasive pressure devices, and continuous dialysis machines.

They’re ready to respond to emergencies anytime because their patients can take a turn quickly. A nurse must complete advanced competencies in an ICU before becoming a critical care travel nurse.

Why Become a Travel Nurse

Many nurses become travelers because they’re ready for a new adventure. Travel nursing allows you to see different parts of the country — and the world — while getting paid more than a staff nursing position.

But the travel nurse lifestyle comes with some frustrations, like always being on the move. Learn more about the pros and cons of being a travel nurse.

Advantages of Becoming a Travel Nurse

  • check-circleHigher pay than staff nurses
  • check-circleThe ability to see new places
  • check-circleNo commitment to a nursing unit (you don’t have to go to monthly staff meetings, town halls, or earn seniority within a unit)
  • check-circleBuilding a network of other like-minded nurses — who often make fun travel companions
  • check-circleHaving the freedom to take time off between contracts (more travel!)
  • check-circleTaking on a minimalist lifestyle as you make short-term living arrangements

Disadvantages of Becoming a Travel Nurse

  • x-circleBeing away from home and the comforts of a familiar nursing job
  • x-circleCompleting or submitting documentation of onboarding requirements like TB testing or vaccine records with each new assignment
  • x-circleAlways having to be the new person on a unit — and proving your strengths to other nurses and healthcare professionals
  • x-circleHaving less control over your schedule than you do as a staff nurse
  • x-circleDealing with the logistics of moving frequently
  • x-circleNot having your usual living arrangements
  • x-circleHaving to move as soon as you feel settled or comfortable

How to Become a Travel Nurse

To become a travel nurse, you first need to become a nurse. Then, you need to get enough experience in a specialty to feel comfortable caring for patients in new locations with minimal training. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. 1

    Get a nursing degree.

    Complete nursing education to earn a bachelor’s, an associate, or a licensed practical nursing degree.

  2. 2

    Become licensed.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN and earn an RN or LPN license in your state of practice.

  3. 3

    Get experience in a nursing specialty.

    Most facilities require a nurse to have two years of recent experience in a specialty. However, this depends on the unit, facility, and travel agency.

  4. 4

    Get licensed in other states.

    If you have a compact nursing license, you can practice in any state it covers. If you plan to travel to a non-compact state, you must apply for licensure with that state’s board of nursing.

  5. 5

    Get certifications.

    Nursing certification requirements vary by specialty. Some requirements may include ACLS, PALS, NRP, and chemo certification.

  6. 6

    Join a travel nurse agency.

    After getting plenty of nursing experience, you’ll apply to a travel nurse agency to get matched with jobs. They’ll walk you through a hiring process and help you transition into working as a traveler at a new healthcare facility.

How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?

A travel nurse’s pay structure differs from a staff nurse’s because a travel agency covers their cost of living. When nurses accept an assignment, their compensation package determines their pay. The details like housing stipends, travel reimbursement, and hourly pay are set during contract negotiations.

The pay range for travel nurses depends on the location and specialty. For example, nurses skilled in a high-demand department may get higher offers at short-staffed facilities.

Travel nurse salaries change constantly due to healthcare industry changes and hiring demands. A recent market report shows a national average of $2,130/week for RNs and $1,479/week for LPNs. Another report shows an average hourly rate of $49 for travel nurses.

Many factors go into a travel nurse’s pay rate, like:

  • Location
  • Demand
  • Nursing specialty

Frequently Asked Questions About Travel Nurses

A travel nurse assumes care of patients just like any other nurse on a unit. Examples of daily responsibilities include doing assessments, giving medications, monitoring vital signs, starting IVs, and dressing wounds.

In addition to performing standard nursing care, they may have to handle administrative tasks required by their travel agency. This might include submitting time sheets, compliance paperwork, and check-ins with a recruiter.

Page last reviewed on February 26, 2024

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