April 8, 2021

Considering Travel Nursing? Here Are Some Tips to Pack Before Hitting the Road

In a matter of moments, so many things can change. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, like a wrench tossed into gearworks, demonstrated the rapid and devastating impact that a single catalyst can have on an entire system, exposing fragilities we didn’t acknowledge or detect. It also renewed our focus on the tireless efforts and critical importance of healthcare workers. Nursing has always been a high-demand profession. Now it’s more imperative than in many years past. For those who are exploring a career in travel nursing, the timing is perfect. The job offers great pay, increased opportunities, a sense of adventure, and the fulfillment of a pressing need in society. Before you pack up and hit the road, however, there are some fundamental things to consider that will make the journey a lot smoother.

The Rewards and Relevance of Travel Nursing

Travel nursing is equal parts passion, mission, and reward. It’s a dynamic and exciting career. As the pandemic grounded millions of families or led them to relocate with the widespread adoption of telework, it also shifted the demographics and medical needs of different communities. All of these factors have propelled the appeal and necessity of travel nursing. There’s also a growing shortage of available nursing talent.

  • The need for nurses will increase as the aging population grows, doubling in size by 2060.
  • Nurses themselves are also members of this aging workforce. That means many of them are approaching retirement. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that 62% of registered nurses age 54 and over are expected to retire within the next three years.
  • According to the American Journal of Nursing, more nurses have chosen to take roles as managers instead of practitioners. Others have decided to continue their education in other areas. Whichever way you slice it, more nurses seem to be heading toward non-clinical positions during a time when hands-on expertise is sorely needed—further indicating a serious dilemma between supply and demand, 

Travel nursing isn’t just a stop-gap measure for the staffing challenges we face, though. The role comes with some enticing benefits.

  • Enhanced opportunities in high-demand locations
  • Access to greater levels of professional growth
  • Increased earning potential and higher salaries
  • Lower cost of living
  • Freedom and flexibility
  • Exploring new areas or discovering a more ideal place to call home
  • Regular change, which prevents burnout and the frustrations that can come with office politics in a long-term  environment

Understanding the Credentialing Process

Obtaining the licenses required to work in various states can be a daunting process. For that reason, travel nurse candidates should seek out staffing agencies that step up to handle the documentation, organization, planning, screening, and costs of credentialing:

  • Licenses and certifications
  • Physicals
  • Immunizations and titer tests
  • Background checks and drug screens
  • Fingerprinting

That’s just the beginning. Many states have their own requirements. The Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), created by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), allows travel nurses to move across states without having to pay for temporary, provisional, or permanent credentials. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, not all states participate in the NLC. For those that do, a travel nurse must still furnish proof of residency in a compact state (e.g., driver’s license, state ID, voter registration, bills, tax filings, etc.). You can find out which states belong to the NLC at this site

Some locales outside the NLC are known as “walk-through states.” They will issue temporary credentials to nurses who are planning to relocate there, already have a position secured, or are engaged in completing a permanent license. When staffing shortages are significant and requirements urgent, expedited licenses may be granted to eligible candidates. This is particularly crucial in states such as Illinois, Washington, and California where credentialing takes much longer than normal. 

All of this said, the burden of navigating the bureaucratic and cumbersome waters of state licensing entities should not fall on the shoulders of travel nurses. Make sure the agency you’ve selected as your potential employer of record has established procedures for managing all of these costs and processes. 

Understanding Your Housing and Pay Package

One of the biggest, and sometimes most complicated, aspects of a travel nurse’s pay package is housing. Employment agencies handle housing stipends differently, which adds to the confusion. Essentially, there’s no set standard. That’s why travel nurse candidates must know their options. 

In the basic sense, a housing stipend is a sum of money provided to travelers on assignment to cover the cost of their accommodations. Although the parameters surrounding stipends can be complex and nuanced, there does exist a common foundation. 

Per Diems

The General Services Administration (GSA) sets the per-diem rates of federal employees, which cover “the maximum allowances that federal employees are reimbursed for expenses incurred while on official travel.” 

These expenses fall into three categories: housing, meals, and incidentals. The reimbursements are paid free of tax. Allowances also vary across areas because counties with higher costs of living will typically require higher per diem rates to account for the increased expenses. You can access and review the rate schedules published by the GSA. The interesting facet for travel nurses is that the IRS applies GSA per diem rates to private sector employees. So, for example, the per diem lodging rate for a travel nurse in Chicago is currently $216 a day. However, the daily rates vary by month. So in July, that figure drops to $187 a day.

Housing Stipends

There is a distinction between per diems and stipends. By definition, a stipend is a “fixed regular sum paid as a salary or allowance.” Most staffing agencies pay housing costs in lump sums, generally on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. This is the norm in the healthcare staffing industry for travelers. Per diem rates, on the other hand, more often involve on-call or daily staffing arrangements. 

The calculation for housing stipends still relies on the GSA per diems as a baseline. To illustrate, let’s go back to the scenario of a travel nurse in Chicago for the month of April. At $216 a day, the monthly housing allowance would be in the neighborhood of $6,480. That doesn’t mean staffing agencies must pay out that amount. Could be higher or lower, depending on the agency’s reckoning of adequate coverage for lodgings in the area. If $3,000 would be more than enough to maintain comfortable accommodations, a travel nurse shouldn’t necessarily expect a stipend of $6,000. But recruiting and retaining talent is a fiercely competitive undertaking, so salary packages and stipends may vary greatly between staffing firms. 

Even with this variance, travelers should understand that the reimbursements are usually based on demand. So if you’re being offered a lucrative package in one area, it’s because the demands dictate the spike. It doesn’t mean that this rate will carry across every state. In all likelihood, the stipend will be reduced in places where the cost of living and needs are much lower. 

General Tips 

With all the sticky credentialing and compensation matters taken care of, travel nurses will be eager to embark on their journeys. There are incredible and thrilling experiences on the horizon. But being prepared will make the difference between joy and frustration. Here are some general tips to ponder before diving headfirst into a new assignment.

  • Do your research. Learn the layout of the hospital or healthcare facility you’ll be dispatched to. Every site has its own location of units, supplies, and equipment. New cities may also present unfamiliar routes and commute times. Getting familiar with the facility and the travel time from your temporary residence will help you adapt to your first day much easier. 
  • Get the details. Travel nurses should ask as many questions as possible about the role, the facility, and all its processes prior to starting. Staffing agencies can step up their games by hosting events, forums, mentoring sessions, informal gatherings, and knowledge sharing groups within the community of nurses on their staffs.
  • Find a mentor. Buddying up with an experienced nurse at the hospital goes a long way toward acclimating to the new environment, understanding the culture, and gaining familiarity with new protocols.
  • Know your routine. Travel nurses should work with their agencies to determine their schedules, including shifts, shift hours, holidays, and the dates and times they want to be on call, if that’s in scope for the position or if the nurse will join a float pool.

Above all else, be optimistic. It’s always a bit hard to say goodbye to home, even on a temporary basis. But travel nurses are heading out to deliver one of the most valuable and essential services, at a time when their expertise is sorely needed. Prepare yourself for the challenge while anticipating the advantages that come from this voyage of discovery. A positive attitude translates to exceptional performance and patient care. And every experience enriches the future moments of your life.

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

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