Nurse in facemask traveling due to demand in part-time and freelance nurses

The Pros and Cons of Travel Nursing 

As early as 2018, research data predicted a shortage of more than 150,000 RNs by 2020, with a gap of half a million RNs by 2030. 

Then the pandemic hit.  

Hospitals scrambled to provide care as ICU beds filled with COVID-19 patients. Nurses worked around the clock, often lacking adequate PPE, as they fought to protect their patients from the worst of the virus.  

Unsurprisingly, the immense pressure of the pandemic, coupled with the physical, emotional, and psychological strain it put on the healthcare system, drove many nurses out of the profession.  

In a 2021 survey by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, 92% of the more than 6,000 respondents said they believe their careers will be shorter than they intended, as the pandemic has depleted nurses at their hospitals. 

For those nurses who wish to continue in the profession but have found their current roles unsustainable, travel nursing provides a welcome second option.    

Related: Stress, Burnout, and Self-Care in the Face of COVID-19

What is travel nursing? 

While nurses, especially battlefield nurses, have traveled to meet their patients’ needs since the inception of the profession, it wasn’t until 1978 that the modern idea of contracted travel nursing took root.  

With the population of New Orleans swelling during Mardi Gras week, the need for healthcare workers increased proportionally, and nurses answered the call. New Orleans hospitals began hiring nurses from around the country to fill the demand, and the concept of travel nursing was born. 

Modern travel nurses work for a travel nursing agency, which contract with hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities in need of additional staff. Travel nurse contracts typically range from 4 to 13 weeks, and a nurse’s placement often depends on his or her specialty. Healthcare facilities hire for a positions across a range of departments, from med/surg to ICU to pediatric. 

How much do travel nurses make? 

In most cases, the nursing agency negotiates contracts, which may include benefits and bonuses on top of base salary. Hourly rates fluctuate depending on the state, but the average rate for most travel nurses hovers around $48. 

Here are the average hourly rates for the top-paying states in the US: 

  • New York: $59.22 
  • New Hampshire: $55.56 
  • Wyoming: $51.66 
  • Arizona: $51.41 
  • Tennessee: $50.67 
  • Massachusetts: $50.33 
  • Hawaii: $50.26 
  • Montana: $50.12 
  • Indiana: $49.89 
  • West Virginia: $49.84 

Becoming a travel nurse 

There are both pros and cons of travel nursing. While the base pay is often higher, the cost of living in cities like New York or San Francisco can eat up that extra salary. In light of this, many nursing agencies also include housing stipends. Some may even assist nurses in finding temporary housing during their contract. 

To participate in a travel nursing program, nurses must have graduated from an accredited nursing program. They must also have a certain number of years’ clinical experience. Additionally, a nurse must be licensed in the state in which their contract is held — the exception being for nurses working in a Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) state.  

In the case of an NLC, travel nurses are free to practice in any state as long as: 

  • The state in which they are working is part of the compact 
  • Their permanent residence is in a state that is part of the compact 
  • Their nursing license in their home state remains in good standing 

As of January 2023, 37 US states are included in the compact.   

Learn more about the pros and cons of travel nursing in our recent podcast series: Travel Nursing: Opportunities and Experiences.