How Does Travel Nursing Work?

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What is a travel nurse and how does travel nursing work? Quite simply, a travel nurse is a registered nurse who accepts short-term positions at healthcare facilities across the country. These months-long positions give travel nurses the opportunity to explore while earning a living doing meaningful work they enjoy. Get started today by applying to the ABSN program at Marian University.

toy airplane with stethoscope

One of the great aspects of pursuing a nursing career is the diversity of career opportunities. For instance, you can choose from a wide range of nursing specialties. Since nurses are in demand across the country, you’ll also have plenty of options for where you can work. And did you know that a nursing career could also afford you the opportunity to travel? How does travel nursing work, exactly, and what is a travel nurse? This career guide explains.

What Is a Travel Nurse?

Some nurses actually do travel while they work, such as nurses aboard cruise ships, for instance. Travel nursing, however, refers to something quite different. A travel nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who accepts short-term assignments at healthcare facilities in various places. For instance, if you live in Indiana and decide you’d love to travel, you might accept a 13-week travel nursing assignment in San Diego, California.

Travel nursing allows you to explore and immerse yourself in new regions. You’ll have far more time to explore your temporary home than you would if you took a week-long vacation there. Plus, you’ll earn a salary at the same time. Travel nursing is ideal for RNs with an adventurous spirit.

There are travel nursing positions available to all types of nurses across all healthcare specialties—from oncology RNs to nurse anesthetists to critical care nurses and beyond. No extra skills are required to be a travel nurse; you just have to meet the same education and training requirements as if you took a long-term nursing job in your hometown.

How Travel Nursing Works

So, how does travel nursing work, exactly? Licensed nurses seeking short-term travel nursing assignments can contact a travel nursing agency. There are plenty of travel nursing agencies out there. It’s a good idea to carefully compare them to find one that best suits your needs and preferences. Once you choose a travel nursing agency to work for, you’ll choose your assignments from a database. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities across the country submit these job openings to travel nursing agencies when they need to address short-term staffing gaps. A travel nursing assignment may last just a couple of months or up to about half a year.

The logistics of travel nursing licensure have been streamlined in recent years. As an RN, you’re required to be licensed by the state in which you work. However, thanks to the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), participating member states have agreed to recognize the licensure of nurses from other member states. As of 2023, 39 jurisdictions are members of the NLC, and more states have legislation pending to join the NLC.

nurse outside packing the back of her car

How to Enter the Travel Nursing Field

Travel nursing can be an ideal career path for RNs who love to see new places, meet new people, and try new things. Plus, travel nursing is highly flexible; when a contract expires, you’ll have the option of pursuing a permanent placement if you wish, perhaps even at the hospital where you were last placed. Here’s a quick overview of how you can get started on a travel nursing career.

Step 1: Earn Your BSN

Just like other RNs, aspiring travel nurses first need to complete their nursing education and earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. If you previously completed a non-nursing Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS), you may qualify to apply for an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. With an ABSN program, you could earn your BSN in as few as 16 months. Like traditional BSN programs, an ABSN program will combine classroom instruction with experiential learning in skills and simulation labs, as well as clinical rotations.

Step 2: Earn Your RN License

After graduating with your BSN, the next step is to acquire state licensure. All aspiring RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN exam—a national test designed to evaluate nursing knowledge and clinical skills. The NCLEX-RN is a rigorous exam, so it’s important to set aside plenty of time to prepare for it. If you don’t pass it on your first attempt, you can retake it.

nurse with mask standing on roadside

Step 3: Gain Nursing Experience

Historically, travel nursing agencies have preferred to hire RNs who have at least a couple of years of clinical experience. However, there has been a shift in the industry toward hiring nurses with less experience. It may even be possible to find a travel nursing agency that will hire you right away after earning your nursing license.

However, it’s more likely that you’ll need to gain one to two years of experience first. During this time, you’ll be able to sharpen your nursing skills and deepen your healthcare knowledge. Plus, you might encounter some travel nurses in your own hospital. If so, don’t be shy about picking their brains. Ask them which agencies they work for and if they would recommend those agencies to aspiring travel nurses.

Step 4: Apply to a Travel Nurse Agency

Every travel nurse agency establishes its own hiring criteria and processes. Once you’ve chosen the agency that seems right for you, you’ll need to follow their application directions. In general, however, you will need to fill out an application and submit it along with your academic documentation, professional licenses, certifications, and medical clearances. You’ll have a chat with the agency’s recruiter (either in person or via a videoconferencing platform) and talk about the next steps. Be sure to ask plenty of questions during your session with the recruiter, such as which reimbursements are available and what their benefits packages are like.

Where Should You Look for Your First Travel Nursing Job?

The real question should be, “Where would you like to work?” As a travel nurse, you could work virtually anywhere—from a major city on the East or West Coast to a rural town in Alaska. Write down a list of all of the places you’ve longed to visit and explore, and then look for travel nursing opportunities in those places.

California is one popular destination for travel nurses, in part because the pay rates tend to be quite favorable and because the scenery leaves little to be desired. If you’re curious about travel nursing jobs in California, here’s a quick look at what you might expect.

a smiling Marian ABSN student

How Does Travel Nursing Work in California?

Travel nursing jobs do tend to pay well in California overall, although you may find higher pay rates in Northern California compared to Southern California. However, it’s important to evaluate more than just the pay rate when considering a travel nursing position. The cost of housing and the cost of living overall tends to be higher in California, particularly in specific locations like San Francisco. The Central Valley tends to be a prime destination for pay rates compared to the cost of housing, although some hospitals in this region require more hours per workweek.

If a career in travel nursing appeals to you, you can get started working toward your dream career. At Marian University, we offer an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program designed to enable students with a prior non-nursing BS or BA to complete their BSN degree in as few as 16 months. Contact us today and speak with an admission advisor about taking the next step in your career path.