Travel Nurse

In 1978, the city of New Orleans brought in the first travel nurses to their hospitals to help with the surge of patients from Mardis Gras. Since then, hospitals and clinics across the country have been contracting with short-term temporary registered nurses to fill the gaps in their staffing needs. Travel nurses are essential for handling temporary surges, filling in for staff on leave, or keeping adequate staffing levels while hiring permanent staff. 

Any nurse can be a travel nurse as long as they hold a registered nursing license. Also, travel nurses can work in any specialty or with any population, although some are more in demand than others. Most hospitals have a high demand for any kind of acute care nurses, such as emergency, ICU, or NICU. Also, surgery and labor and delivery are two areas that typically need additional nurses.

Aspiring professionals must first earn their nursing degree from an accredited institution to work as travel nurses. After completing school, nurses will need to obtain a registered nursing license. While work experience is not required, it is highly recommended and may be required by travel nurse staffing agencies and hiring hospitals as travel nurses are expected to hit the ground running. Nurses will need to have a license to practice in the state where they will be working, so it is essential that they hold a license from a ​​Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) state or meet the requirements for the nursing board in the state where they will be working. 

Although travel nurses have been around for more than 40 years, the Covid-19 pandemic really brought them to the forefront. With cases surging, hospitals across the country needed nurses to help care for patients. Demand for these professionals soared, as did the salaries. In 2020 alone, this field grew by 35 percent. As the pandemic has waned, so has the demand for travel nurses. However, experts predict that this field will continue to grow, although at a slower pace. 

Travel nursing can be very lucrative. On average, travel nurses earn 30 percent more than staff nurses. Also, travel nurses can choose the length of their assignment and take time off between contracts to travel, relocate, visit family, or simply relax. Many contracts include a housing allowance, meal stipends, and travel reimbursement. 

To learn more about how to become a travel nurse, keep reading.

Travel Nurse Specializations & Degree Types

All travel nurses must complete a nursing education program and earn licensure as registered nurses. These programs can be either an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor’s in nursing. While either option will be sufficient for this career, a bachelor’s will offer traveling nurses more options, as a BSN is required by some hospitals and clinics. 

Travel nurses can work in any specialty. However, some specialties are more in demand than others. The most in-demand specialties for travel nurses are surgery, labor and delivery, and any critical or emergency care department.

Admissions Requirements for Travel Nurse Programs

Travel nurses must complete a general nursing program. Admission requirements to these programs can vary based on the location, number of applicants, and degree earned. Some degree programs may only require a high school diploma and an application, although nursing programs are generally quite competitive. Most programs will require prerequisite coursework and a minimum GPA. Other requirements can include medical volunteer or work experience, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and a current resume. 

Many bachelor’s of science nursing programs are RN to BSN degrees and require that applicants already hold an unencumbered nursing license in their state.

Travel Nurse Program Accreditation

State nursing boards require that students complete an accredited nursing program to be eligible for licensure. Therefore, it is imperative that students ensure their program has the necessary accreditation. 

Accreditation is a voluntary step that schools can take to certify that their degree has met a high level of quality in clinical experiences, facilities, faculty, student outcomes, and curriculum. Nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

On-Campus Travel Nurse Degree Programs

University of Washington – School of Nursing

The bachelor’s of science in nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing is a full-time two-year program. Ranked number two in the nation by US News & World Report, this is a highly regarded program with a good reputation for producing quality graduates who are prepared to enter the workforce. All students participate in lecture classes, labs, and clinical experiences. To help prepare students to care for patients, students spend time in the Learning Lab, where they can hone their skills before entering the clinical setting.   

Students must complete prerequisite coursework and general education classes before starting this program. To be considered for admission, applicants must have at least 100 hours of paid or volunteer work experience in a healthcare setting. Other admission requirements include at least a 2.8 GPA and 90 quarter hours or 60 semester hours of undergraduate coursework already completed. 

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $13,302 per quarter

University of Pennsylvania – School of Nursing

The University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing bachelor’s of science in nursing is ranked number one in the country by US News & World Report. This four-year program has students taking nursing classes from the very first semester, which helps prepare them to be outstanding nurses. There is a strong emphasis in this program on community involvement and cultural awareness. The unique mentorship component of this program pairs each student with a faculty advisor who helps coach them through their educational journey and job search. 

Required classes for this program include fundamentals of nutrition, nursing of women and infants, statistics for research and measurement, and biologically-based chemistry. Ambitious students can select master’s level classes starting in their junior year, which can count towards one of the 12 master’s of science in nursing degrees offered at this school.  

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $56,212 per year 

New York University – Rory Meyers College of Nursing

Students pursuing a bachelor’s of science in nursing have several options at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing. There is a traditional four-year program that includes general education coursework, a 15-month accelerated degree for students who have completed nursing prerequisites, and a two-year transfer degree program for students who have already completed a bachelor’s in a different field. 

This program boasts a 99 percent pass rate on the NCLEX-RN exam for 2019, which is above the national average of 92 percent. This school also houses the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing, which is dedicated to caring for older adults. Select undergraduate students will be able to complete a fellowship in this institute, which will prepare them for a career in geriatric nursing or for additional studies in gerontology. 

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: 15 months to four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,537 per credit 

Midlands Technical College

The associate’s degree in nursing at Midlands Technical College prepares graduates for a career as registered nurses. In addition to studying biological science and medicine, students in this program spend time learning social sciences to care for patients holistically. Students in this program will spend time in the classroom, laboratories, and clinics learning all aspects of nursing. Practical skills are gained in the simulation lab before working with patients. 

All graduates of this program are eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN program. To ensure students are prepared for the rigors of this program, applicants must demonstrate educational aptitude with either SAT or ACT test scores, completion of a pre-nursing certificate program, or an associate’s degree with at least a 2.75 GPA. 

  • Location: Columbia, SC
  • Duration: Five semesters
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $564 per credit 

Oregon Health & Science University – School of Nursing

Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing offers both a traditional and accelerated bachelor of science in nursing degree program. To help combat the nursing shortage in the state, OHSU joined the Oregon Consortium for Nursing Education (OCNE), which streamlines students into their BSN program from partner community colleges. This allows students to gain admission to the BSN program through a non-competitive process. 

While most students complete this program in Portland, there are also options to earn this degree in Monmouth, Klamath Falls, La Grande, or Ashland. This allows rural students to earn their degrees without having to relocate. Clinical experiences for students will vary based on their campus but can include hospitals, community clinics, schools, outpatient centers, and research labs. 

  • Location: Portland, OR 
  • Duration: 15 months to three years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $751 per credit

Online or Hybrid Travel Nurse Degree Programs

Herzing University 

Already licensed practical nurses can complete their associate’s degree in nursing through hybrid distance learning with Herzing University. While most of the coursework is offered online, students are still required to attend campus for some core coursework and labs. There are four sites to choose from, with one each in Ohio and Alabama and two in Florida. While this degree is sufficient enough to work as a nurse, many students who complete this program will transfer their credits to a bachelor’s of science in nursing program. 

To be considered for admission, applicants must have completed high school or have a GED. Depending on the high school GPA, applicants may have to submit test scores or complete prerequisite coursework. In total, students must earn between 72 and 73 credit hours to graduate with this degree. 

  • Location: Ohio, Alabama, and Florida
  • Duration: Twenty to 24 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $685 per credit 

Western Governors University

Students in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, or Utah can complete their bachelor’s of science online through Western Governors University. Approximately 60 percent of this program is online only, with the remaining 40 percent being clinical experience students must complete in person. Each clinical course requires three weeks of in-person work in simulation labs, at agency sites, or in clinical supervision. 

Western Governors offers a unique educational method that is competency-based rather than time-based. Online classes can be completed at a student’s own pace, and mastery is measured through skill demonstration. Tuition is one flat rate per six-month window no matter how many classes a student completes. Most students earn their degree in just two and a half years. 

  • Location: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, or Utah
  • Duration: Two and a half years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $5,930 per credit 

Northwestern Michigan College

Students can complete the didactic portion of their nursing associate’s degree through the Northwest Michigan College hybrid program.  All clinicals and labs require students to attend in-person, but overall this program has greater flexibility than completely on-campus programs. This program is only offered in a full-time format. Should students need to drop to part-time attendance, they will have to switch to the traditional program. 

This program has articulation agreements with three area universities that allow students to easily transfer their credits to pursue a bachelor’s or other degrees. Students may even receive college credit at these universities for passing the NCLEX-RN exam, making earning a more advanced degree easier. Admissions are based on a competitive points system. Students earn points for prerequisite coursework, work experience, GPA, previous degrees, and veteran status.

  • Location: Traverse City, MI
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Tuition: $227 to $261 per credit 

Rasmussen University Nursing School

With 19 campuses in five different states, students have many options for completing their associate’s degree in nursing through Rasmussen University’s Nursing School. Most coursework is offered through online learning, making this a hybrid program with a high degree of flexibility. As with most hybrid nursing programs, labs and clinical experiences require students to be on campus. Most students can complete this program in only 18 months. 

Students can enter this program quickly with no need for pre-nursing coursework and no waitlists on most campuses. There are even eight start dates a year to allow students the option to start their program when it best suits them. To graduate, students must complete 25 courses for a total of 102 credit hours. Required classes include nutritional principles in nursing, mental and behavioral health, pharmacology, health assessments, and more. 

  • Location: 19 campuses in five states
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing
  • Tuition: $409 per credit 

Maryville University

The online master’s of science in nursing at Maryville University is an advanced degree that can prepare aspiring traveling nurses for short-term leadership placements. There are five concentrations to choose from: gerontology, family medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry. While an MSN is not necessary to work as a travel nurse, it can help secure more prestigious placements. 

This degree program is offered entirely online, meaning students will never have to travel to the Maryville campus. While clinicals are required, students can complete these experiences at a site near them. Sometimes, clinicals can even be completed with a current employer. Typically, students can complete this degree in two years. 

  • Location: St. Louis, MO
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $813 to $897 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Travel Nurse?

The time it takes to become a travel nurse varies based on the level of education completed. Travel nurses need either a two-year associate’s or four-year bachelor’s degree and at least one year of nursing experience before embarking on this career.

How To Become a Travel Nurse  – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

The path to becoming a travel nurse starts with graduating high school or completing a GED. Not only is this a requirement for nursing programs, it provides students with a basic level of education necessary to complete additional studies. 

Step 2: Complete a Nursing Program (18 Months to Four Years)

The next step in becoming a travel nurse is completing a nursing education program. Depending on prior education, these programs can vary in length from 18 months to four years. Students will learn all the skills and knowledge necessary to find entry-level work as nurses during this time. 

Step 3: Pass NCLEX-RN (Timelines Vary)

Upon completing a nursing education program, all nurses who want to pursue licensure must take the  National Council Licensure Examination Registered Nurse test (NCLEX-RN). This exam tests nurses’ skills and knowledge to ensure they can safely practice. 

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure (Timelines Varies)

Travel nurses must be licensed in the state where they will provide care. Often, this can mean that travel nurses must hold and maintain licensure in several states or have a license in one of the 39 states that are part of the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). It is imperative that nurses contact the nursing board in the state where they will be working to ensure they have the necessary credentials. 

Step 5: Complete Additional Education or Gain Work Experience (Timelines Vary)

Work experience is not required, although highly recommended for aspiring travel nurses. Many staffing agencies will require it, as will hospitals or clinics. Travel nurses can work in high-demand fields to gain the experience necessary to fill some of the most requested specialties, such as emergency medicine and labor and delivery. 

Step 6: Apply for Work With a Staffing Agency (Timelines Vary)

Most travel nurses work with staffing agencies that help negotiate contracts and place them in travel nursing jobs. Staffing agencies will take much of the legwork out of applying for contracts, assist with paperwork, and have a steady stream of new opportunities.

What Do Travel Nurses Do?

Travel nurses work anywhere there is a nurse shortage. This shortage can be due to a surge in patients, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic, or a lack of adequate staff due to rural areas. Duties will vary based on the assignment and specialty, but typical day-to-day tasks can include:

  • Evaluating patients before seeing the doctor
  • Taking vital signs
  • Monitoring and recording patient’s conditions
  • Administering medications and vaccines
  • Assisting with procedures or surgeries
  • Writing care plans
  • Collaborating with other healthcare providers to provide holistic patient care
  • Using medical equipment
  • Performing diagnostic tests and interpreting the results
  • Educating patients on their condition or illness
  • Providing home care instructions

Travel Nurse Certifications & Licensure

Travel nurses must hold a license as registered nurses from their state’s nursing regulatory body. Because travel nurses may work in states other than their home state, they must hold a license in every state where they will be practicing. 

Thirty-nine states participate in the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which allows nurses to practice in an NCL state with additional licensure. To work in NCL states, nurses must maintain licensure in their state of residence. It should be noted that in most states, the NCL license requires an additional application. 

In addition to a required license, nurses can earn voluntary certification in over 180 specialties, including pediatrics, gerontology, obstetrics, surgery, emergency medicine, and more.

How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?

The 3,047,530 nurses in the US earn $82,750 per year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statics (May 2021). Currently, the BLS doesn’t differentiate earnings based on specialty. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $59,450
  • 25th percentile: $61,790
  • 50th  percentile (median): $77,600
  • 75th percentile: $97,580
  • 90th percentile: $120,250

However, because of the hospital’s staffing shortage, often these wages can be significantly higher for travel nurses. PayScale.com (2022) estimates that travel nurses earn $84,000 per year on average.

Travel Nurse Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a travel nurse: 

Become a Certified Nurse-Midwife

Certified nurse-midwives are advanced nurses specializing in women’s health, obstetrics, and labor and delivery. This additional training and education take between 18 months and three years, depending on the type of program and if the program is completed full or part-time. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Midwifery Certification Board (ACMB)

Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are mid-level health care providers with advanced training to provide more independent care than registered nurses. They can work in various fields, including midwifery, anesthesia, primary care, acute care, and more. In many states, they can provide care, prescribe medication, and order lab tests without the supervision of a physician. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) and American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Become a Registered Respiratory Therapist

Registered respiratory therapists are experts in all things breathing-related. They work with patients who have acute or chronic breathing disorders and can provide assessments and treatments. In hospital settings, they can also be responsible for monitoring and recording patient breathing. 

  • Typical Education: Associate’s or bachelor’s
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) 
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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