A Beginner's Guide to Travel Nursing

Thinking about travel nursing, but no idea where to start? Or maybe you're just curious about how this traveling lifestyle all works. There is so much information out there about recruiters, agencies, contracts, etc.- it's enough to make your head spin! Believe me, I have been in those shoes! That's why I wanted to write a short blog post dedicated to basic obstacles that come with initially becoming a traveling nurse.


First Things First: What is YOUR why?

Before diving into anything, you need to get a little introspective. Recognizing your specific driving force behind wanting to travel will help you and your future recruiter find contracts best fit for you.


There are 3 main factors behind traveling: experience, location, or money. To put it plainly- those traveling for experience want to expand their personal skillset in the nursing profession as a whole. Traveler's with the driving force of location have a specific spot(s) in the country they want to be/explore. Finally, those traveling for money are simply pulled to the job to put as much as they can into their bank accounts.


At the end of the day, any contract as a travel nurse will give you aspects from all 3 factors mentioned above. Each contract you take will place you in a new environment- frequently forcing you to learn new charting systems, IV pumps, and practices that likely differ from what you're used to. You'll gain experience whether you want to or not. The same goes with location. Being a travel nurse doesn't require you to work on the opposite side of the country than where you're from (like I've chosen to do thus far), but you'll likely encounter new cultures, foods, and common health conditions in each area you work. And when it comes to money, travel nursing as a whole tends to keep nurses well paid no matter where the contract is!


Whether you are new to the blog or a longtime reader, I think my driving force for travel has been obvious from the start :)

Follow our adventures on social, click here!


Reaching Out

If you're anything like me, countless Google searches and endless research is one of the quickest ways to make me frustrated. What can I say, I'm a hands-on learner. I would rather hear the pros and cons from someone in the thick of it, someone who give it to me straight.


That is precisely why I recommend reaching out to a traveler.


Travelers have personal experience. They can set you up for success because they were newbies once, too. Travelers can give you the ins and outs of what to expect from an agency, a recruiter, and maybe even a specific hospital.


Often times, travelers can suggest good recruiters and/or agencies they've used or tell you to steer clear from the bad ones. Plus, it's common for agencies to offer referral bonuses- if a new traveler accepts a contract with the agency recommended by an established traveler, the established traveler gets some extra cash- which they'll probably offer to split with you!


Whatever you do, do not- I REPEAT- do NOT start signing up with agencies/giving out your contact information. I cannot stress this enough. Agencies will immediately and relentlessly start calling you. It's annoying.


Also, if you reach out and rely on a specific recruiter to get you started, they will naturally paint the picture of their agency being the best fit for you. It's not their fault, it's how they make their living. I recommend getting a profile set up with multiple agencies anyway, but more on that later!


Read More: How I Came to Choose Travel Nursing


The Basics- Are YOU Ready?

When it comes to travel nursing, it doesn't take much to get started. There are only a few things you HAVE to have in order to be looked at by hospitals as a potential hire.

  1. At least two years experience as a registered nurse

  2. An active nursing license in the desired contract state (find information on how to obtain on each state's board of nursing website)

  3. A pulse, lol.

The reason behind the required experience is simple. Traveling nurses are expected to adapt quickly. When starting a contract, the travel nurse will only get a few shifts of orientation- sometimes less! They are expected to be able to take on full patient loads immediately. A new grad simply doesn't have the time management skills to be able to handle that amount of change right off the bat.


I would like to point out that contracts sent to you by your recruiter may also have other requirements, but these may be more specific to the specialty of nursing you are trying to work in, i.e. particular certifications like BLS, ACLS, PALS, NIHSS, etc.


Contracts in General

Travel nursing contracts are most often 13 weeks in length. I've also seen some as short as 6 weeks. The hospital may offer you an extension if needs remain. Extending can be as short as you like or up to another full 13 weeks once agreed upon with the hospital.


Contracts are often 36 hours a week, split into 3, 12 hour shifts. I have also seen 8 hour shifts, 5 days a week. During the pandemic I heard a lot of travelers were pulling in huge amounts of money by signing onto contracts that were 48 and 60 hours a week.


Most contracts I've seen are nightshift. As someone who doesn't function well with a constantly changing sleep schedule, this has been frustrating. I've accepted nightshift contracts in the past due to great rates or desired location. It all comes down to what you want.


Making a Profile

To be established with a travel agency, you'll need to make a profile with them. This often involves uploading documents to an agency's website or emailing them to that specific agency's recruiter.


I recommend setting up a profile with 3-5 travel agencies; this will give you access to the most potential jobs.


Commonly Needed Documents

-RN License(s)

-Certifications

-Immunization Record

-Reference Letters/Reference Contact Information

-Applicable Receipts (more on this below)


I recommend making a file on your computer and/or a binder to keep documents organized. (I also keep proof of my continued education credits here!)


It is also common for each travel agency you are establishing a profile with to ask you to complete a checklist. A checklist is sometimes also referred to as a skills list. Each checklist is specific to the specialty of nursing you could be attempting to get a contract in. The checklist mentions common skills necessary for that field of nursing (ex. IV start, advance directive, catheter insertion/maintenance) and you rank your proficiency in each category. I encourage you to complete this realistically because it corresponds with what hospitals will expect out of you on the job.


Receipts

One of the great things about working with an agency is reimbursement. It may seem like you have to shovel out a lot of money to take on a new contract. You have to pay for state licensing, travel to and from the contracted hospital, sometimes even buying new scrubs in the hospital's required color. Keep all receipts! Once you start a contract, the agency will reimburse you for your expenses. When it comes to traveling to and from the hospital, agencies often give a flat rate.


Looking at Contracts/Terminology to Know

When the time finally comes to start looking for hospitals, you'll be forced to face some potentially new terminology. If you're not a numbers person, like me, you'll likely also have to learn some basics about the wage breakdown if you're offered a contract. But first, let's break down some simple words:


"Gross" Your total weekly income prior to taxes being taken out


"Net" The actual amount that you take home after taxes


"Stipends" Non-taxable income designated for specific purposes (ex. food, housing)


Travel nursing is unique; in order to qualify for stipends, we have to have duplicate expenses. This duplicate expense is most often in the form of maintaining a permanent address or paying rent to friends/family. Having proof of duplicate expenses shows that you didn't just sell everything to start traveling. If you did, you are at risk of being audited.


Your listed hourly wage is what is taxed. Travel contracts often have lower hourly rates than staff nurses. This is done purposely so more money can be placed in your stipends (tax-free money). Be careful, though. Too low of hourly rates could make the IRS suspicious. I have learned not to take anything under $18/hour.


Housing

To break it down simply, when it comes to housing as a traveler you have one of two options. A traveler can use agency provided housing or take the housing stipend and find housing on their own. I recommend finding your own housing because if it is cheaper than the housing stipend, you can pocket the extra money!


We take the housing stipend and use it toward RV parks. RV living is relatively common in travel nursing but we've also seen people in extended stay hotels, Airbnb's, even living out of a van! Keep in mind that if you opt for a new place each contract, you'll have to pack up and move every time! We wanted something more permanent for this very reason- and so our two rescue pups, Bonnie and Stella, wouldn't have to adjust to something new all the time.


Check out our set up:

Full-Time RV Living: A Peek Into Our Home On Wheels


More tips here:

Dogs On The Road: Tips & Tricks

Insurance

As a traveler, you are technically an employee of the travel agency and not the hospital. Insurance is offered through the agency or you can opt to get it through a private insurance agent. One thing to keep in mind if accepting insurance through the agency is when it becomes active. I've worked with an agency whose insurance did not become active until I was a month into my contract. Insurance commonly lapses in between contracts if working with a different travel agency and/or taking time off in between contracts. This is one of the biggest cons of travel nursing, in my opinion.


Interviewing/Acceptance

Recruiters will often give you location/hospital name, contract shift and length as well as gross rate when initially sending contracts your way. This is usually enough information to determine if the contract checks enough of your boxes to move forward or not. If you want to move forward, be sure to let your recruiter know of any desired time off, weekend requirements, blocking shifts, and/or staffing ratios you may want/need so they can be a part of your official contract upon signing.


The rest of your wage breakdown will not come into play until you have a contract offer. To receive an offer, you'll likely have to do a phone interview with the hospital.


The interview process is a lot different for travel contracts than regular jobs. If you express interest in a potential contract, your recruiter will send your profile to the hospital. This profile acts as your resume. If the hospital is interested in you, that's when the interview can take place.


The travel nursing interview is your time to ask questions about the hospital to determine if you'd be a good fit. The biggest questions I ask are charting system, nurse to patient ratios, floating requirements, scrub color, and number of CNAs.


Below is a questionnaire I've used as a reference to ensure I get as much information about the hospital as I can.

Some hospitals will give you an offer without an interview. This can be intimidating, but I've done it before. If you want more information, I recommend joining the The Gypsy Nurse Travel Nurse Network Facebook Group. This Facebook group is made up of over 130 thousand travel nurses who may have answers!


Once given an offer by a hospital, you are usually expected to give a yes or no by the following business day.


Safety-

Coming from a small town I had reservations about my safety when it came to traveling, especially as a woman. As a traveler you will face unfamiliar settings constantly- new hospitals, new towns, new stores, new people...the list goes on. Not to mention those creepy parking garages! I have partnered with She's Birdie, to offer a personal safety alarm at 10% off to all of my readers. Birdie alarms help to deter attacks by flashing lights and a piercing siren. Use my code "Hale10" to snag one for yourself!

I hope I've provided some insightful information into travel nursing for you! It has been such an enjoyable lifestyle for me as I've been able to explore places I never would've been able to relying strictly on 2 week annual vacations. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have and be sure to subscribe to my blog to keep up with all our adventures, RV living, and travel nursing tips!


"Travel far enough, you meet yourself" -David Mitchell


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