Wondering how to become a travel nurse? With a few years of clinical experience, nurses from just about every imaginable specialty can take short-term assignments in healthcare facilities across the entire United States. Most assignments last about 13 weeks.
Why are there travel nurses?
When there’s an unexpected spike in patient census, a need for vacation or maternity coverage, or an expansion into new medical service offerings, healthcare facilities need more nurses. From big urban hospitals to small rural clinics, they reach out to staffing agencies for qualified nurses who can step in on a temporary basis. In some cases, they pay a higher hourly rate than you’d get for a comparable permanent job.
If the concept of travel nursing is new to you, you should know that it is one of the most popular and potentially lucrative career paths in the nursing profession. Top advantages that travel nurses enjoy include:
- Work schedule flexibility
- A wide variety of desirable work locations
- More personal freedom
- Accelerated professional growth
To be sure, travel nursing jobs come with challenges that may not appeal to everyone. You may feel homesick at first if you’re new to travel. You might have to overcome some initial shyness in new work surroundings. But if you’re the kind of nurse who’s willing to imagine a different life and give it a try, the personal and professional opportunities waiting for you are nearly limitless.
Why should I consider travel nursing?
Let’s be direct and put the bottom line on top. While most nurses have a real passion for patients and healing, they also have to make a living. Many travel nurses report that they’re able to boost their earning power either by taking assignments in high demand areas, or structuring their schedules in a way that allows them to maximize available payroll advantages.
As a travel nurse, you’ll work with an agency recruiter who understands your goals, needs, and preferences. They’ll get to know you and watch for assignments that get you the best available mix of location, hours, and compensation for your specialty. You can often set up your work week in a way that makes it easier for you to make the most of your off time in ways that matter to you.
One great reason to pursue a travel nursing career is the chance to experience a wide range of practice settings. By visiting different cities, states, and facility types, you’ll quickly expand and sharpen your clinical skills while building your resume at a much faster pace than in a permanent staff job. You’ll also see more diversity in patient populations and the kinds of cases you treat.
Some travel nurses do it simply to get a regular change of scenery. Working with your recruiter, the entire United States is open to you, especially now that the enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC) is gaining momentum across the country. If you want to hike all the national parks on your days off, or just work closer to friends or relatives for a while, you can pick assignments that get you there.
While money is a life necessity, you probably also have a personal story that drew you to the nursing profession. Maybe it was a family illness that gave you a burning desire to heal others. Maybe it’s a fascination with the inner workings of the human body, or a passion for improving quality of life for others. Travel nurses generally get to focus more on patients and less on administration and politics.
What are the steps to becoming a travel nurse?
1. Choose an agency
Travel nurses are placed in healthcare facilities of all types and sizes by staffing agencies who specialize in nursing. The larger and more reputable ones have placement teams that are dedicated by specialty, so your recruiter and their support team will know a lot about what’s going to be asked of you in an assignment.
Now, just to be clear, an “agency” can also be a solo recruiter working out of a home office who happens to have some staffing relationships at one or more healthcare facilities. If you’re just looking to take an occasional assignment in your own backyard, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of arrangement. However, if you want to travel full-time, you’re going to want a bigger agency with more resources and access to more jobs.
To make a career of travel nursing, you’ll want an agency with recruiters who not only understand your profession, but also have a team of experts behind them who can help you with licensing, credentialing, housing, payroll, and clinical consulting.
2. Connect with a recruiter
Although most travel nursing recruiters can handle the basic transaction of matching a resume with an open job, you should expect more from the relationship with your recruiter than just that. The best recruiters become part of your extended family and look out for your personal needs in addition to your professional interests. The good ones are also adept at looking beyond your practical experience to find the open jobs that will be the best fit for your personal strengths and preferred work style.
The happiest and most experienced travel nurses tell us that when you’re choosing a recruiter, these are the qualities you want to look for:
Resourceful. Your recruiter’s job is to make sure that you and the client both have a great experience while you’re on assignment. Even in the best of circumstances, the unexpected can happen. You want a recruiter who can quickly and calmly get things back on track for you, whether it’s a work, housing, or personal issue.
Reliable. You want a recruiter who is going to stick with you through the entire process, not just send you hundreds of miles away and forget you. Good recruiters check in with you on your timetable to make sure everything’s going smoothly.
Relatable. When you’re working with the right recruiter, there’s an unspoken understanding that they “get” you. They make an obvious effort to see the whole process through your eyes and handle things with empathy. They anticipate your questions and explain everything in terms that make sense to you.
Respectful. If you have questions about your paycheck or your housing arrangements, you want answers sooner rather than later. Also, if you’re working nights, you don’t want daytime calls waking you up. The best recruiters are accessible on your schedule, responsive, and respectful of your contact preferences.
Reputable. Recruiters at top-tier agencies behave as if the reputation of the whole company depends on how they treat you — because it does. You should be able to talk with other travel nurses who have worked with your recruiter to learn if they have had a positive experience. Good recruiters put doing the right thing over making money.
Relationship-focused. It’s amazing how many travel nurses come to see their recruiters as close friends. Some relationships are very business-focused because that’s what the nurse prefers, but many others find themselves connecting by phone or text outside of work because they care about each other as people.
3. Start your application
Once you’re feeling good about your choice of agency and recruiter, you’ll begin an online application process that helps you document your skills and experience. You’ll be asked for professional references and prompted to start gathering documentation on your credentials.
Here’s what the application process is all about
- Documenting your work history
- Checking your core nursing competencies
- Validating your references and credentials
- Completing a routine background check
- Updating immunizations to be sure you’re healthy enough to work
- Running a few skills-based tests related to your specialty
The application process is easier than it looks
Although it might seem like a lot of paperwork, the documentation process is fairly standard and the best agencies have a process in place to keep things moving quickly. Your recruiter will guide you through the process, and they have credentialing specialists who will help you with every detail.
Don’t let the testing part of applying scare you either, because we have a dedicated team of clinical nurse liaisons who have a lot of experience coaching both new and experienced travel nurses through the exam process.
Background checks are routine and usually come through without any problems, but it’s important to talk openly with your recruiter if you have a misdemeanor or felony in your background. Life happens, and if you’re worried about some irregularity in your personal history, don’t assume that you’ll be automatically disqualified.
Some of our nurses have been working for 14 years and aren’t used to taking tests. We help get our nurses in test-taking mode and help them develop critical-thinking skills. Our clinical nurse liaisons will do phone or video calls to walk nurses through practice exams. They offer test-taking tips and review best practices if the nurse knows they failed a certain area of a test. We spend anywhere from 5 to 90 minutes helping the nurses, depending on what they need.
~ Bill Cornhoff, Director of Operations, RNnetwork
4. Choose your assignment
With the application process behind you, it’s time for the fun part. This is where you get to start imagining your ideal life on assignment and start talking with your recruiter about actual jobs and locations. All the documentation you’ve assembled in the application phase goes into a neatly organized profile that your recruiter will submit for open jobs that interest you.
Figuring out where to go
Your options are almost limitless here. You’ll talk with your recruiter about the things that are most important to you, such as pay, location, practice setting, or available schedule options. Obviously, the law of supply and demand is going to influence rates in different parts of the country. If you’re looking for a resort lifestyle in a popular coastal town, for example, your take-home pay will likely be lower than it might be in a less glamorous destination that’s experiencing a nursing shortage in your specialty.
Medscape recently studied nursing salaries and came up with this regional comparison.
Based on the feedback from the 10,000 nurses who took part in the Medscape survey, RN rates run highest in the West and Mid-Atlantic regions, and tend to be lower in the Southeast and Great lakes parts of the country. LPN rates are more favorable in the Northeast and West regions, and lower in the Southeast and North Central part of the country. California and Hawaii are typically two of the highest paying states, but keep in mind that higher cost of living could offset some rate gains.
Locking in the ideal assignment
You and your recruiter will talk about which open jobs are the best fit for your qualifications and narrow down the ones that line up best with your preferences as well. The recruiter will present your profile to the client and a nurse manager will call you for an interview if they’re interested in your profile.
You should know that this part of the process can sometimes take a few days or a few weeks. When you do get an offer, after a cheery phone celebration with your recruiter, it’s important to respond quickly, as other travelers may be interested in the same job. Depending on the facility, you typically have between 24 and 48 hours to accept the offer or turn it down.
Licensing and credentialing
With your new offer in hand, the best agencies help you get all of your credentialing in order for your upcoming assignment. RNnetwork pairs you up with a dedicated credentialer who walks you through all of the required paperwork for your upcoming assignment.
You’ll have a head start on some of this from the application process, but you’ll need more documentation to get you cleared for your new work location. Although this takes effort and diligence on your part, the good news is that most of your initial paperwork will be valid for a year.
If the job requires a new state license, your credentialing specialist can be your liaison with the Board of Nursing. Is your home license from a state that’s part of the enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact? If so, your license will open up assignment possibilities in more than two dozen other states.
You may have to update some lab work or immunizations before you report for work. In some cases RNnetwork can help you with the resources you need to get your final health records in order. In addition, their clinical nurse liaisons team can also help you track down source documents and fill in any last minute credentialing gaps.
Finding a place to live on assignment
When you’re with the right travel nursing agency, they’ll make it a priority to help you find safe, comfortable, and affordable housing close to the facility where you’ll be working. Although getting to the assignment is your responsibility, the RNnetwork housing team will take it from there. They’re prepared to offer you concierge-type guidance on making your own housing arrangements, or they can take all the stress out of the process by booking your housing for you.
Working with agency housing experts who know the healthcare facility and the surrounding area can dramatically improve your peace of mind before and during the assignment. They’ll make sure you have the best available amenities and plenty of resources to make the most out of your time there. You can reach out to your housing coordinator for help with any last minute travel glitches you might run into.
Tell your recruiter or housing coordinator if:
- You’re traveling with a friend, spouse or partner, parents, or children
- You’re bringing pets along
- You prefer to live on the bottom or top floor
- You have special needs
We try to take the unknowns and stress out of the equation as much as possible. We call our travel nurses a few weeks before they start to find out what they need for their stay and when they plan on arriving. We know that being happy where they live makes all the difference in how their assignment goes. We allow our providers to be part of the planning process by sending emails with photos and links to apartments and continue to work closely with them to find out what suits their needs.
~ Jacqueline Finz, Housing Manager, RNnetwork
Some travel nurses prefer to make their own housing arrangements on assignment. Maybe you’ll travel to places where you have friends or family you can stay with, or maybe you enjoy the adventure of seeing what you can discover doing your own research. In that case, you may have the option to have a housing stipend added to your assignment paycheck instead of working with the RNnetwork housing team.
Still not sure about travel nursing?
If you have questions or need more info to decide if travel nursing is right for you, just give us call: 855.289.9766.