How Does Travel Nursing Work? A Guide to Navigating a Nursing Career on the Road

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The demand for travel nurses hit record levels during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Staff nurses were overwhelmed by the high volume of very sick patients, and hospitals turned to travel nurses to help manage the load. At the height of the demand, there were 48,000 open nursing jobs according to Aya Healthcare, a staffing services company.

Although demand has dipped as the pandemic has subsided, the need for travel nurses remains. The benefits of travel nursing when compared to staff nursing include higher pay and greater job variety. For nurses with the right qualifications and certifications, travel nursing can be greatly rewarding.

To understand how travel nursing works and whether it’s a viable career path, nurses should explore the responsibilities of the role, its pros and cons, and how to get started in the field.

What Is a Travel Nurse?

Travel nurses are registered nurses (RNs) or advanced practice nurses (APNs) who work in hospitals and other health care facilities on a contract basis. Unlike staff nurses, who are employees of the health system they work for, travel nurses are paid through the agency that places them. They also may get retirement and health care benefits through their placement agency.

Contracts may be as short as a few weeks or up to six months or longer.

What is a travel nurse’s day-to-day experience? They provide needed medical care in facilities that are short-staffed or experiencing high demand, with similar duties to those of staff nurses.

Like any other job, travel nursing has its pros and cons.

Benefits of Travel Nursing

Pay and job variety are among the primary reasons that nurses give for taking travel contracts. While this career may not be for everyone, nurses say that in the short term, it has many advantages.

  • High salaries. Depending on the job and location, travel nurses can command high salaries over short stints, making it possible to earn twice as much as a staff nurse or more.
  • New opportunities. For nurses who like to change things up, travel nursing allows them to experience new work environments and meet new colleagues.
  • Staying energized. Experienced travel nurses say that working in eight- to 13-week bursts allows them to preserve their physical and mental health.
  • New cities and climates. A big draw of travel nursing is the chance to live in cities and regions that would otherwise be impractical to visit.
  • Stipends for housing, meals, and other incidentals. The wage package for travel nurses includes paid housing or a stipend, travel expense reimbursements, and meal stipends, among other benefits.

Downsides of Travel Nursing

For all of its advantages, travel nursing can also have some drawbacks. Nurses considering travel nursing need to determine their own capacity for uncertainty, independence, and financial understanding.

  • Double the housing costs. Even with a housing stipend, many nurses also have to pay rent for an apartment or a mortgage on a house in their hometown, which doubles their housing costs.
  • Taxes. Travel nurses have to manage their own taxes and track all of their wages, per diems, and other compensation.
  • Retirement. Some agencies offer retirement and other benefits to travel nurses, but generally nurses have to set up their own retirement funds.
  • Managing loneliness. Travel nurses leave their families behind for long stints. Staying connected to family and making new connections in a new town can be harder for some individuals than others.
  • Conflict with co-workers. High salaries for travel nurses can cause frustration among nursing staff. Depending on the context, this may create a stressful work environment for travel nurses.
  • Cancellations. If a hospital’s needs change, they may cancel contracts, leaving travel nurses without a salary until they can take a new contract elsewhere.

How to Start Travel Nursing

To start a successful career as a travel nurse, it’s best to be prepared in advance. While staffing agencies will help with licensing and contracts, nurses should have a detailed understanding of how to start travel nursing to avoid surprises and potential delays.


Nurses have to be licensed in each state they work in. So how do travel nurses work in multiple states? Some states have a compact license with other states, allowing nurses to have privileges in all of them. The staffing agency will help with this process, but it could take weeks to months, depending on the state. Certain states will issue a walk-through license, which allows a nurse to start work right away while waiting for the formal license to be issued.

It’s important to have all documentation at hand to expedite the process. Relevant materials include:

  • Personal identification
  • Medical records
  • Up-to-date nursing credentials, including primary state of licensing


Some certifications are required for all nurses, such as basic life support and advanced cardiac life support certifications. Other certifications are in demand for travel assignments, especially for certain specialty departments. These include the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) and critical-care RN (CCRN) certifications.

Finding an Agency

Choosing the right agency is the first step in getting the hospital contracts that meet a travel nurse’s goals. Not every agency specializes in the same sorts of placements, and not every hospital contracts with every agency. Nurses need to research and interview agencies to find the best match for them.

Nurse staffing agencies handle the logistics of each assignment, from finding contracts and placing nurses with hospitals, to helping with housing. They match nurses to assignments based on their qualifications and availability. Nurses have the option to accept or decline assignments.

Agencies’ responsibilities also include confirming assignments and finalizing contracts. They will set up interviews with the hospital nurse supervisor, as well as help to find housing for the temporary assignment and set up wages, per diems, and stipends.

Choosing Assignments

Nurses typically need to have a year to 18 months’ experience before they can become travel nurses. At the beginning of their career, they may get the toughest assignments, depending on the facility. As a travel nurse gets more experience, they will gain insight into the types of assignments they prefer. They may start to get plum assignments in choice locations or in hospitals where they prefer to work.

First Day Expectations

As with a staff nursing job, travel nurses also have to go through onboarding and orientation. This process will vary by hospital, but generally includes filling out documentation; discussion of hospital policies and safety protocols; training on technology such as electronic health records; and a tour of the facilities.

Resources for Getting Started as a Travel Nurse

The following resources may be helpful to nurses who are exploring travel nursing or getting started in the role.

Travel Nurse Housing: What You Need to Know

For travel nurses, figuring out where they’re going to live and how to pay for it is an essential aspect of understanding how travel nursing works. It’s crucial to know whether housing is provided or whether nurses receive a housing stipend before accepting a contract. Housing costs will vary by location as well, with certain cities having a higher cost of living than others. The following are some of the factors to consider when researching travel nurse housing.

Agency-Provided Housing

Depending on the contract and location, the agency may pay for housing, such as furnished apartments. These accommodations may be rather bare bones and could lack amenities. Agencies may pay for utilities, but nurses are generally required to pay for services like cable and internet. The benefit of these apartments is that they are usually close to the hospital.

Housing Stipend

Travel nurses who receive a housing stipend can use it to find a more comfortable place to live. However, nurses are responsible for the rent if the hospital cancels the contract. Short-term rentals also may be more costly than a typical apartment lease.


Experienced travel nurses say that bringing a pet can help make living in a new city more enjoyable. Nurses should be prepared by always traveling with their pet’s paperwork, such as their health and immunization records. Pet-friendly hotels and housing and any extra fees they charge, such as a pet security deposit, should be identified in advance. On the upside, nurses say, having a pet can make off hours more enjoyable and lead to meeting other pet owners.


Travel nurses may find it hard to uproot family members, as children have school and spouses have their own jobs. The upside is more adventure and a chance to travel as a family. Nurses must consider their schedule — they may have less flexibility in their shifts than staff — and whether the housing and the neighborhood can accommodate their family’s needs.

Sharing Accommodations

Some nurses share housing with other travel nurses or other renters. This means sharing accommodations such as the kitchen, living room, and sometimes bathroom. Shared housing can lower costs. A roommate can also provide companionship, especially if that person is another nurse. The drawbacks include lack of privacy and having to work around someone else’s schedule.

Local Travel

One misconception about travel nursing is that a nurse can’t stay in their home state and be a travel nurse. In fact, nurses can take advantage of local contracts. However, nurses should bear in mind certain considerations. Local assignments may impact the stipends that nurses are eligible for and the tax implications of those contracts. The benefits of working locally are that nurses can be closer to family, will still get paid at a higher rate, and will not have to be licensed in another state.

Resources for Travel Nurse Housing

For travel nurses, finding housing can be stressful, even if they opt for agency-provided accommodation. Experienced travel nurses often look for homes that are furnished and have full kitchens to help make their contract more enjoyable in their off hours. The following are some resources that can help travel nurses explore housing options.

  • Airbnb. Airbnb provides a listing of furnished homes and apartments that can be rented on a short-term lease.
  • com. Users can customize their search by applying various filters including city, size of the apartment, and price.
  • Furnished Finder. This site is directly aimed at travel nurses and other professionals who need to travel for work. As a bonus, it includes a blog for travel nurses that provides helpful tips and news.
  • com. Users can search for housing options across a variety of websites, comparison shop, and make choices based on their criteria.

How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?

The COVID-19 pandemic focused attention on the high compensation for travel nurses, especially compared to staff nurses. It ignited a debate over caps on travel nurse pay as the American Hospital Association complained of price gouging. Several states have introduced legislation seeking to put a cap on travel nurse rates.

The pandemic also shone a spotlight on the ongoing nursing shortage, as many nurses are retiring or leaving the profession and too few new nurses are entering the workforce —one of the major factors driving travel nursing rates.

The Reasons for High Rates

Why do travel nurses receive such high compensation? Staffing agencies point out that travel nurses are highly trained and provide a much-needed service to hospitals over the short term without requiring long-term benefits. They alleviate the workload of nursing staff, helping prevent burnout and maintain the hospital’s quality of patient care. Wages are also high because travel nurses have to pay for their own health care. All of that goes into the formula that dictates how much travel nurses make.

How Do Travel Nurses Get Paid?

Although travel nurses track their hours and shifts through the hospital they’re working for, they are paid by the agency. The agency and the hospital agree on the rates for travel nurses in advance. The hospital pays the agency for its services — hiring and staffing according to the hospital’s needs. The agency pays the travel nurse through that contract.

Travel Nursing Compensation

Compensation varies by location and specialty, and doesn’t necessarily include nonwage compensation such as bonuses, housing, and travel stipends. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2021 median annual wage for registered nurses was $77,600, while nurse practitioners earned $120,680. The BLS does not break out pay for travel nurses.

Job and compensation research sites found a range of hourly wage data for traveling nurses:

  • The median pay was $35.87 per hour, as of August 2022.
  • HealthJob based its findings on the job listing site Indeed. Its data ranged from a median rate of $45.23 per hour in California to $34.43 per hour in Utah.
  • Job site ZipRecruiter had the highest average hourly rate for a travel nurse, at $57 per hour as of August 2022.

Resources for Travel Nurse Compensation

The following resources offer tips for negotiating wages and other compensation with staffing agencies.

Travel Nursing and Taxes: What You Need to Know

One of the potential challenges of travel nursing is that tax filing is often more complicated. Nurses may have to file in multiple states. They have to keep track of their per diems, stipends, and expenses. Compounding the issue is the fact that commercial tax preparation software is generally geared toward traditional workers.

Knowing what to do at tax time is a key aspect of understanding how travel nursing works. The following are some top tax tips for travel nurses:

Hire a Tax Adviser

A tax adviser provides expert help in navigating the tax system. These consultants can explain the tax code as well as a nurse’s tax liabilities and exemptions. As certified public accountants (CPAs), they can also represent a client in an IRS audit.

Keep Documents Organized

Travel nurses should maintain a well-organized file system, whether paper or electronic. They need to have copies of contracts, mileage logs, and receipts. They also need to understand what stipends and per diems are included in their contract, because this impacts their taxable income.

Identify a Tax Home

A tax home is where a traveling nurse is a permanent resident. A tax home may also be where a nurse has regular employment and where they plan to return and spend at least 30 days. Some nurses may mistakenly change their address each time they take a contract. This can cause many issues, especially if a nurse files taxes in multiple states.

Identify Nontaxable and Taxable Income

Depending on each nurse’s situation, some of the most touted benefits of travel nursing may not apply to them. These include per diems, which have requirements attached. Working with a tax adviser to clarify the tax benefits before accepting a travel contract is a good way to be prepared.

Travel Nurse Tax Planning: Resource Guide

Understanding the ins and outs of travel nursing and taxes can take some of the uncertainty out of the job. The following resources can help a nurse set out on the road knowing they have their financial ducks in a row. Nurses should keep in mind that the tax code changes often, so it’s best to find resources that are as up to date as possible.

How to Find a Job as a Travel Nurse

Once a nurse decides to start looking for travel contracts, they’ll need to research their options for the opportunity that aligns with their experience and credentials. They may have a specific region where they want to work. Perhaps they want to work a local travel contract to start, just to get their feet wet.

Experienced travel nurses advise the following steps to start the travel nursing journey.

Find an Agency

Health staffing agencies aren’t “one size fits all.” They have different contracts and specializations. Travel nurses should interview agencies in the same way agencies interview them. Nurses work with a recruiter who is responsible for setting up their assignments, so having a good relationship with that person is important.

Have the Right Qualifications

Travel nurses generally need at least a year’s experience as a registered nurse, along with some required certifications. Some specialties are in higher demand than others, and they often require several years of experience and certifications. These nurses often receive more lucrative contracts. In-demand specialties include labor and delivery, and neonatal and pediatric intensive care units. Other desired specialties include operating room and emergency room, medical-surgical, and school nurse.

Be Realistic About Expectations

When researching how to find a job as a travel nurse, nurses need to be realistic about their expectations. First-time travel nurses may not get the assignments and locations they prefer right away. The first few assignments may be less desirable. On the plus side, sometimes these contracts pay higher wages to make up for that, especially in a region suffering a shortage in a particular specialty.

Start the Licensing Process

The agency will help throughout the licensing process, but nurses should get a jump start because this takes time. Licensing requires fingerprinting and background checks. If a nurse has a compact license that is valid in other states, that can streamline the process. Other options include a walk-through license.

Prepare for Travel

To prepare for an assignment, nurses should research the city and facility, from investigating the weather to know what to pack to learning about rush hour patterns and the best places to eat, exercise, meet people, and enjoy life outside of work. Travel nurses can reach out to staff nurses. They are part of a travel nurse’s new team, and they can help with acclimating to a new place.

Resources for Finding a Travel Nurse Job

Agencies often have their own job listings they’ve contracted to fill. Other sources include job boards for travel nurses that specify locations, specialties, and wage information. The following resources can help travel nurses find a new contract.

Beginning Your Career as a Travel Nurse

While the pandemic caused an unprecedented surge in demand for travel nurses, the fact is that travel nursing will continue to be necessary. The role of a travel nurse is sometimes challenging, but it can also be financially rewarding and satisfying on a professional level, providing nurses with greater flexibility and a sense of personal adventure. Travel nursing can also help improve retention rates by preventing burnout among staff nurses, which ultimately benefits patients. For nurses who have the right education, skills, certifications, and determination, becoming a travel nurse may present an exciting career opportunity.