This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ali Brown, a travel nurse currently based in Billings, Montana. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I started working as a traveling nurse, or “traveler” as we say, in 2014. I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and my first assignment was in nearby Northern Virginia, which was great because it was a baby step into the traveling world. I was able to go home on weekends if I wanted to, and that turned out to be really helpful as two of my grandparents passed away during my time there.
I was a nurse for five years before I became a ‘traveler’
Travelers are not new nurses. Most agencies require at least a year of experience, if not two years. You need to be able to hit the ground running. In order to fill temporary needs, hospitals hire travel nurses like me because I’m able to jump right in after a couple of days of orientation instead of needing nine months of training.
Travel nurses save hospitals money on such training. Especially in certain specialized areas, like operating-room nurses, hospitals want someone with experience in their field who won’t need a lot of hand-holding.
Travel nurses typically register with an agency that provides us with job openings
Larger agencies definitely have more contracts, but sometimes you can feel lost in the mix. Smaller agencies may have a more personal touch, but they don’t have as many contract options, so you have to decide which matters more to you.
Contracts are usually a minimum of 13 weeks with the option to extend. If you’re a traveler, one of the great advantages is knowing that you only have to put up with a job for 13 weeks.
Sometimes, there are rare situations where people might get to a job and call their coordinator and say, “Hey, I don’t feel safe. I’m not staying here.” But for the most part, you can just suck it up for 13 weeks and move on.
I ended up extending my first assignment for the maximum amount of time, which is 364 days
For tax purposes, that’s how long you can stay at one assignment for. You’re considered a resident of that state if you stay longer than that. After my time was up, I was ready to take the show on the road. I went to Kansas City, Kansas, where I also maxed out my contract and stayed for another 364 days.
I’ve loved all of the locations I’ve worked at: Denver, Colorado; Richmond, Virginia; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But I left a piece of my heart in Kansas City. The city really charmed me, and I made lifelong friends during my time there.
Every hospital is unique, so it’s been cool to have those different levels of experience. Some were teaching hospitals where we had fellows and residents and all those extra hands. At smaller hospitals, the nurses are responsible for more. Even though heart surgery is the same everywhere, you can still bring your knowledge and experiences to new places.
For a lot of travelers, the real incentive is that you get paid more than a staff nurse
The listed hourly rate for a staff nurse usually averages around $30 to $40 an hour. Those hourly rates are lower if you’re a travel nurse, but you receive a living expense stipend and a housing stipend, which are considered reimbursements, not income.
Travelers have to be really careful to follow the rules, though. You need to show that you’re really paying a mortgage that is fair market value, not just taking the money for other uses. If you get audited, you’ll end up having to pay taxes on that, which will be a lot of money.
Some specialties — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — pay a lot more. A good contract pre-pandemic was $2,000 per week, but during the pandemic there were jobs posted for ICU and operating nurses for $6,000 a week.
High hourly rates for a traveler job aren’t always a good sign
If a travel nurse contract has an exceptionally good hourly rate, there’s probably a reason no one wants to work there. Maybe it’s in the middle of nowhere, or it has a really stressful work culture, but a super high rate is definitely a red flag.
Luckily, there are social media networks for travel nurses where you can ask ahead before you accept a contract and see if others have inside information on the job. I’ve used these to check on housing prices in potential contract areas to help me determine if I can afford to work there.
The job attracts everyone because the money is so good
There are definitely people who are good at being a travel nurse and those who do it because they can move a lot, since they don’t work well with others.
I love traveling. It’s an awesome way to see the country and experience all sorts of different places. I make time to explore the different cities I live in and places nearby. Right now I’m in Montana, and I’m within driving distance of Yellowstone National Park, so I made sure to visit.
The magic of a traveler is that they can come in and keep quiet, see how the hospital works, and then learn how to work successfully with the staff there. You bide your time, and maybe offer your own input after you’ve been there for a bit.
Being a good traveler means being flexible. My experience as a travel nurse has taught me so many different layers of perspective that I can use in my career moving forward.
Are you a travel nurse with a story about the job? Email Manseen Logan at [email protected].