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Travel nurses: What they do and how to become one

Study.com researched ways people can prepare for a career in travel nursing, including skills beyond that of a typical RN.

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Two women in scrubs walking in a hospital hall looking at the clipboard.

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Be a nurse. See the country. Travel nurses do just that: attend to hospitals nationwide struggling with staffing shortages due to lack of personnel, leaves of absence, and extreme demand.

While health care facilities often struggled to fill nursing roles before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the global health crisis exacerbated the shortage by increasing demand and driving out experienced staff.

Health care facilities turn to contract travel nurses to fill these short-term staffing gaps to maintain appropriate levels of patient care. Once their contract ends, they travel to another health care facility needing help elsewhere.

Study.com researched ways that people can prepare for a career in travel nursing, including particular training or skills beyond that of a typical registered nurse.

Travel nurses are a relatively small subset of the nursing field. In 2021, about 63,000 nurses—just 2% of the 3.1 million nurses in patient-care roles—worked as traveling nurses, filling contracts that commonly last 13 weeks, AMN Healthcare reports. Nurses can choose to work many contracts in a row, or they can take (unpaid) time off between stints.

The job's flexible nature is attracting more nurses: A 2023 AMN Healthcare survey of RNs found that 12% of nurses plan to work as travel nurses in 2024.

Flexibility is one perk, but money is another. Travel nurse salaries are typically higher than that of staff nurses. They're not as high as the peak of the COVID-19-induced nursing shortage, when salaries averaged nearly $3,800 per week in December 2021, according to nurse staffing agency Vivian Health. However, as of Jan. 15, 2024, travel nurse salaries averaged over $2,175 per week. This translates to over $100,000 for a full year of work. Comparatively, the median annual wage for an RN was $81,220 in May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What you need to become a traveling nurse

Like any RN, travel nurses must have an associate or bachelor's degree from a licensed nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination.

RNs also need a license from the state in which they work. Fortunately for travel nurses, 41 states and U.S. territories offer reciprocity through the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact, meaning their license is recognized nationwide. The eNLC includes licensing and criminal background checks at both the federal and state level. To obtain this multistate license, nurses must not have felony or nursing-related misdemeanor convictions. To work in a state not covered by the compact, nurses must get a single-state endorsement.

Travel nursing is not for new graduates. Health care facilities expect their temporary hires to be highly skilled, particularly for in-demand specialties such as pediatric care, neonatal, trauma, and emergency room nursing. Nurse staffing agencies typically demand two years of bedside experience in a hospital setting. This is critical because travel nurses need to be able to hit the ground running for every contract. Onboarding can be minimal, so travel nurses must quickly adapt to new work environments and systems.

Although travel nursing can have its downsides—nurses don't have health insurance when they're not working, and contracts can be canceled on a moment's notice—it can be a satisfying option for those looking for flexibility and adventure in the nursing field.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.




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