How to become a Travel Nurse

Do you wish to become a travel nurse? If you have completed a registered nurse program and have a minimum of one year of experience in your specialized area, you have the opportunity to embark on a career as a travel nurse. This unique role allows you to apply your nursing skills in short-term assignments that can take you to various cities within the United States or even abroad. In addition to being a fulfilling and demanding position, travel nursing often provides flexibility, competitive compensation, and additional perks and bonuses.


Traveling nurses are healthcare professionals who provide temporary medical assistance on short-term assignments, typically ranging from eight to 26 weeks, with the most common duration being around 13 weeks. These nurses have the opportunity to select their desired destination and the specialty in which they would like to work.

According to Jessica Legaspi, a former travel nurse now practicing in Portland, Oregon, ensuring patient safety requires adequate staffing and resources. Insufficient personnel to handle patient volume can lead to potential harm. This is where travel nurses play a crucial role by filling in the gaps caused by prolonged vacancies, maternity leave, staff absences, or other reasons. By doing so, travel nurses enable departments to function efficiently during periods of staff shortages.

How Does Travel Nursing Work?

Traveling nurses are assigned to hospitals, clinics, or other medical facilities based on staffing needs and the preferences of the nurse. The demand for nurses is consistently high, particularly during times of seasonal illnesses and global health crises.

The specific job duties of a traveling nurse vary depending on their specialty, the type of facility they are working in, and the individual needs of their patients. However, regardless of these factors, traveling nurses play an integral role in the larger medical team by assisting doctors during examinations and surgeries, administering and monitoring medications, dressing wounds and incisions, documenting patient symptoms, and performing basic laboratory work.

Flexibility, critical thinking, and initiative are essential qualities for any traveling nurse. According to Jessica Legaspi, it is crucial for potential travel nurses to be confident in their critical thinking skills and possess a level of independence. They need to be well-prepared and capable of functioning effectively within a unit as if they have been working there for weeks.

Finding Travel Nursing Jobs

Traveling nurses commonly collaborate with agencies that assist them in securing suitable positions aligned with their preferred specialty, location, and duration of employment. Since various agencies partner with different medical facilities and specialize in specific areas, it is advisable to engage with multiple agencies simultaneously to increase the likelihood of finding assignments that meet your specific requirements

When considering travel nursing opportunities, it is essential to keep in mind that certain locations can be highly competitive. While cities like San Francisco, New York, or Honolulu may be desirable, it is advisable to remain open to other options. Additionally, it’s worth noting that highly sought-after destinations often come with a higher cost of living. Taking an assignment in a less popular location could allow your salary to stretch further.

During your research on agencies and contracts, it is important to gather information about the following:

  • The locations served by the agency.
  • How the agency structures its pay package.
  • The agency’s provision of health insurance.
  • Whether the agency offers free housing or a housing stipend.
  • Availability of paid time off.
  • Any signing incentives or end-of-assignment bonuses offered by the agency.
  • The amount of time you will have between assignments for personal time off.

According to Legaspi, when choosing a recruiter, factors to consider include their availability to answer questions, their attitude, and how they treat you as an individual rather than just a contract. It is also important to inquire about the resources provided by the agency once you commence your contract, such as your HR point of contact, payroll management, and emergency contact person.

Four Questions Travel Nurses Should Ask Their New Employer

After your agency secures a placement for you at a hospital or clinic, it is important for you to ask pertinent questions. Jessica Legaspi, a former travel nurse, suggests starting with the following inquiries:

  1. Why do you require traveling nurses? This question provides insights into any vacant positions or staff members on leave. It gives you a glimpse into the staffing situation. Additionally, you can inquire about resources, staffing ratios, and the average patient census to gauge the department’s level of activity.
  2. What accreditations does the facility hold? Understanding the facility’s accreditations informs you about the certifications they may require from their staff.
  3. What is the patient population like? By asking about the patient population, you can gain an understanding of the types of disease processes and chronic conditions you are likely to encounter. For example, working in a community hospital in a low-income area may involve caring for individuals with specific healthcare needs.
  4. Can I take time off? During the interview and contract negotiation process, it is reasonable to present the days you may need off. Most facilities are open to accommodating such requests as long as they are reasonable.

By asking these questions, you can gather important information about the staffing situation, patient demographics, and the facility’s policies regarding time off, allowing you to make more informed decisions about your travel nursing assignments.

Housing During Your Assignment

One of the advantages of travel nursing is that agencies typically arrange furnished housing and cover utilities, or they offer a stipend for you to handle it yourself. Some nurses may even find cheaper housing options and save extra money compared to the stipend provided.

Additionally, travel nurses may be eligible for untaxed stipends for meals and travel expenses. However, it’s essential to consider the tax implications of these benefits and conduct thorough research to ensure compliance.

To assist with housing, there are various online resources and social media groups available where travel nurses can connect and find accommodation options. These platforms also facilitate networking with fellow travel nurses, allowing for advice on different neighborhoods, finding roommates, and establishing connections.

Rachel Norton, a critical care travel nurse, acknowledges that finding accommodations in a new city can be intimidating. However, she highlights the extensive online community of travel nurses that can offer guidance on neighborhoods, roommate search, and opportunities to connect with fellow travelers.

Alternatively, some travel nurses choose to work in their local area, either staying in their own homes or finding nearby apartments. This arrangement is particularly suitable for those who have family members unable to relocate due to school or work commitments.

What’s the Difference Between Travel Nursing and Per Diem Nursing?

Per diem nurses, also known as day-to-day nurses, have a non-fixed schedule and work on an as-needed basis in medical facilities within their local area. They are called in to fill staffing gaps and provide support when necessary.

One key characteristic of per diem nursing is the high level of flexibility it offers. However, the availability of work is not guaranteed, and nurses in this role must be prepared to adapt quickly to different policies and procedures at various facilities.

Unlike full-time employees, per diem nurses typically do not receive benefits. However, this arrangement allows them to command higher hourly wages and may offer potential tax advantages.

In summary, per diem nursing provides flexibility and the opportunity for higher wages, but it requires adaptability and may not offer the same benefits as full-time positions.

What Kind of Degree Do I Need to Be a Travel Nurse?

Registered Nurses (RNs)

Registered nurses (RNs) are the most common type of travel nurses. To qualify as an RN, individuals must possess at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN), although many employers prefer candidates with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The Institute of Medicine initiated an effort in 2010 to have 80% of practicing RNs hold a BSN by 2020, although the goal has been revised since then and discussions regarding educational requirements continue.

As traveling nurses, RNs undertake various responsibilities within their chosen medical setting. These may include performing diagnostic tests, analyzing test results, developing treatment plans, and providing emotional support to patients and their families.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have greater authority and responsibilities compared to RNs, thanks to their advanced education and training. In order to become NPs, individuals must hold at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and obtain additional certification in their chosen nursing specialties.

NPs provide comprehensive healthcare services that go beyond the scope of practice of an RN. Their responsibilities may include conducting physical examinations, prescribing medications, and diagnosing illnesses. However, it is important to note that in some states, NPs may still be required to work under the supervision of a physician.

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

While less common, it is indeed possible to pursue a career as a traveling nurse as a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Unlike registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), LPNs do not require a college degree, but they must complete an LPN education program approved by the state. Additionally, LPNs are required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which is also required for RNs and higher-level nursing positions.

Compared to RNs and NPs, LPNs have a lower level of responsibility. Their duties typically involve entry-level tasks such as taking vital signs, dressing wounds, administering medication, maintaining medical records, and assisting patients with daily activities such as eating and dressing.