What Does a Travel Nurse Do, and Is It Right for You?

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digital map of the world with charted plane routes

Travel nursing has gotten some major exposure in recent times, and it seems like more people than ever are interested in this unique nursing specialty. Of all the opportunities a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree prepares you for, many consider becoming a travel nurse to be one of the most intriguing.

What does a travel nurse do, and how does travel nursing work? Let’s cover some of the common questions that arise: how to become a travel nurse, who can do it, what are the advantages, and more. We’ll cover the details you need to make an educated decision about whether you see yourself in a career as a travel nurse.

Whether you aim to be a nurse at home or on the road, it’s vital to have a firm educational background when caring for people’s lives. At Felician University, our 16-month Hybrid Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program is set up to prepare students for successful nursing careers.

Now let’s get into the details of how travel nursing works and what you need to know before getting started.

What is a Travel Nurse?

Travel nursing is a short-term, contract nursing role where nurses come in temporarily to fill a nursing need at a hospital or healthcare organization. Healthcare facilities may hire travel nurses to fill in if they’re understaffed, if there is a natural disaster, if their nurses take another job or go on maternity leave, or if the facility gets more patients.

For example, in recent times with COVID-19, if an intensive care unit gets a higher patient volume as COVID-19 worsens in the region, the hospital may hire intensive care travel nurses to help care for the extra patients. These can be some of the most lucrative travel nursing jobs available, so if critical care is your field of choice, travel nursing can open a lot of opportunities.

What does a travel nurse do in these temporary positions? They have similar responsibilities as local full-time nurses, working alongside them in the unit to care for patients.

travel nurse standing on sidewalk

Travel nurses are not hired directly by the healthcare company, but rather through a travel nursing agency that acts as a liaison for the nurse and the healthcare organization. Travel nursing contracts at each location can vary in length, generally eight or thirteen weeks, but they can be shorter or longer than that.

How to Become a Travel Nurse: 4 Key Steps

Becoming a travel nurse doesn’t need to be complicated. The transition to travel nursing can go smoothly if you understand the main points in the process.

1. Earn Your BSN

To be a successful travel nurse, having a BSN is the best course of action. When transitioning into a new working environment, it’s important to have a solid clinical nursing education to support you.

If you’re ready to jump into travel nursing, you likely don’t want to wait around for two to four years to get your BSN. Entering an accelerated BSN program with a hybrid online curriculum, like ours at Felician University, can be the ideal option. By leveraging your prior 60 college credits or non-nursing bachelor’s degree, you can earn your BSN in as few as 16 months.

The hybrid ABSN program at Felician, combines online coursework with in-person simulation and skills labs and clinical rotations at top regional healthcare facilities to ensure our students get a comprehensive nursing education. Felician also offers an 18-month on-ground ABSN program based in Rutherford, New Jersey.

2. Take Your NCLEX and Get Licensed

Once you graduate from nursing school, the next step to becoming a travel nurse is passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This exam is unlike others in that it is a comprehensive test of all you’ve learned in nursing school. It requires 1–2 months of studying and practice with its unique style of choosing the “best” answer among multiple “correct” answers.

Once you pass the NCLEX, you can get your nursing license in your state through the department of health. After licensure, you’re ready to get to work.

3. Get Nursing Experience in Your Chosen Specialty

The next piece of travel nursing preparation is getting the hands-on experience. Travel nursing agencies generally require one to two years of experience in your desired field of nursing within the past three years. Many travel nursing jobs have minimal orientation processes, so it’s important to be confident in your skills.

When you’re in nursing school, you’ll want to gain exposure to varied nursing specialties, as this allows you to determine what area to pursue in your career. Once you’ve decided on a specialty, it’s important to get adequate professional nursing experience in that area.

Nurse sitting down with elderly patient

Some specialties (such as intensive care or surgery) require more experience than more generalist nursing jobs. However, these more specialized nurses can usually get higher-paying travel jobs than general floor nurses.

4. Connect with a Travel Nursing Agency to Apply for Jobs

Once you have gained adequate experience in your specialty of choice, it’s time to reach out to a travel nursing agency. Research agencies and healthcare organizations that provide positive travel nursing experiences. Talk to the travel nurses where you work and ask about which agency they use. You can also find forums and social media groups dedicated to this topic, helping you gain insight into which jobs to take.

Look over the job opportunities available at each agency, paying attention to the city, healthcare organization, pay rate, and other benefits. Reach out to your top one or two travel nursing agencies, and then the recruiters will do most of the heavy lifting from there. They’ll help you by submitting your applications, managing the paperwork and licensing, and helping you transition to each new job.

When you reach out to an agency, you can expect the process to look similar to this:

  • Recruiter responds and asks for your resume with references and skills tests.
  • You tell the recruiter which jobs you’re considering.
  • The recruiter sends you the specs on each job, including pay rate and housing stipend.
  • You finalize which jobs you want the recruiter to apply for.
  • You phone interview with the healthcare organization.
  • (Only needed for the first job with each agency) You work with the recruiter to submit required documents. They may also need a drug test, physical exam, TB test, immunizations, etc.

After this process, the travel nursing contract can begin. Then, when the end of the contract approaches, travel nurses can request to stay in the same location for longer, or they can ask the recruiter to apply to other jobs for them. Travel nurses often rotate between multiple agencies for different jobs, as it’s better to diversify with more than one agency.

What are the Challenges of Travel Nursing?

Travel nursing is not an easy career, and it takes on some unique challenges compared to a traditional nursing role. One challenge is that as a travel nurse, you’ll have to adjust quickly to new surroundings and protocols. Because you’re a short-term nurse, the orientation process can be brief. This means you need to have the initiative to problem solve and ask questions of local nurses.

Doctor standing speaking with nurse

Another challenge of travel nursing is that the relationships you develop with coworkers will be different than if you were a permanent employee. The other nurses may have worked together for years, but you’re only there for a short time. This can make it challenging to find friends. You’ll need to go outside your comfort zone and talk to people you don’t know. Also, try connecting with other travel nurses in the area, as they are in the same boat as you.

Advantages of Being a Travel Nurse

There’s a reason so many nurses are leaving home and flocking to travel nursing positions. This career is ripe with benefits, both professionally and personally.

Some of the benefits of travel nursing include:

  • Excellent compensation rates significantly higher than for permanent nursing jobs, averaging well over $100,000 per year, according to Indeed.
  • Valuable, diverse, resume-building experiences in many healthcare settings.
  • The ability to travel and visit new places while also making a good living.
  • Great benefits, including paid housing or housing stipends, travel stipends, health insurance, and 401(k) matching.
  • Variety in your work and life that’s appealing to the free-spirited person.

How to Know if Travel Nursing is Right for You

As you can see, travel nursing offers many enticing advantages worth exploring, but it also has some drawbacks. Therefore, it’s up to you to look inside yourself and decide whether travel nursing is for you.

Think about some of the common characteristics of successful travel nurses:

  • Adaptable
  • Go-getter
  • Excellent communicator
  • Quick learner
  • Passionate about new people, places, and things

Also consider the logistics and practical aspects of having a job where you’re away from home. Do you have any ties to your current home that would keep you from being able to travel? Perhaps you’re caring for an ill family member, or you have children in school.

In some cases, working in your local healthcare facility is the better option. However, if you have a flexible lifestyle, and you want to get out and see the world while also experiencing diverse working environments, travel nursing may be the right fit.

Another common option is for nurses to travel for a year or two while still early in their careers for the experience and high salary. Then after a while, they move back home and return to a stable, permanent career. Make it your own. Do what works for your goals and passions.

Take the First Step toward Your Nursing Goals

If you are passionate about people, traveling, and healthcare, travel nursing may be the opportunity you’re seeking. Whether you aim to be a travel nurse or a professional nurse in your own city, earning your BSN is the first key benchmark.

Pursuing an accelerated nursing program can be the ideal way to get a great education without wasting time. When earning your degree at Felician, you can choose between our 18-month on-ground ABSN program and 16-month hybrid ABSN program. If you have 60 prior college credits or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, the accelerated path can help you launch your career sooner.

To learn more about how you can get started with earning your BSN at Felician University, reach out to an admissions counselor today.