How to Become a Travel Nurse

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Summary: The first step in becoming a travel nurse is earning your BSN. You’ll also want to pick a specialization to focus on and develop your nursing skillset. If you are a self-starter, flexible, and ready to hit the ground running, this career may be right for you.

nursing setting that transitions to an airplane with text "How to become a travel nurse"

Of all the amazing career opportunities available for registered nurses, “travel nursing” is certainly one of the most intriguing.

Plus, with the recent COVID pandemic, travel nursing has been a much-needed resource for hospitals that need to meet a higher staffing demand.

Travel nurses complete temporary assignments at hospitals around the country. They can take on contracts in places they want to visit or help hospitals that are having a staffing shortage. Sometimes hospitals and other healthcare organizations will contract a travel nurse if they need someone who has a unique specialty.

As a result, they’re able to travel the nation while broadening their nursing skills by working at hospitals of all types, from rural facilities to urban trauma centers. However, travel nursing has some unique challenges, and it isn’t for everyone.

In this article, we’ll look at how to become a travel nurse, how to know if travel nursing is right for you, and what the travel nursing qualifications are.

1. Earn a BSN

The first step toward becoming a travel nurse is earning your BSN. If you’re ready to get out and start exploring the world as a nurse, chances are you don’t want to spend 2–4 years earning a BSN in a traditional nursing program. At Xavier University, our Accelerated BSN program leverages the bachelor’s degree you’ve already earned and prepares you to enter the healthcare field as a working nurse in as few as 16 months.

2. Work 1-2 Years as a Nurse

Before you’re employable as a travel nurse, it’s vital to spend at least one to two years as a working nurse. This time will serve to teach you how a hospital runs smoothly, allow you to adapt to best practices and help you develop into your role comfortably. Think of it as building a foundation that you’ll be able to draw from when you begin taking on travel contracts and blending into a new team.

Plus, you’ll gain experience with situations that can really only be understood once you’ve treated an actual live patient. This is your time to hone your nursing skills and adjust to life as a working nurse.

3. Search for Travel Nursing Jobs

After earning your BSN and gaining experience working in the field for a couple of years, you’ll be ready to begin applying for travel nurse positions. As mentioned above, travel nurses change jobs much more often than normal. In fact, travel nurses often start searching for jobs 8 weeks after they started their current job. Therefore, it can feel like you’re in a perpetual job search. This can be both stressful and a lot of work.

It takes time to apply for jobs, interview, and complete all the paperwork once you’ve landed the job. Additionally, you’ll be evaluating pay packages and negotiating contract terms, both of which are more complex than they are for permanent positions.

Fortunately, there are many useful resources available to help travel nurses streamline the process. First, recruiters should be doing most of the legwork required to find and apply for jobs. When it comes to pay packages and contract negotiation, there are plenty of informational resources available to help travel nurses become proficient with these topics. For example, this article from BluePipes provides a detailed breakdown of travel nursing pay packages.

Travel Nursing Qualifications

Aside from holding a BSN, there are required qualifications to be a travel nurse. The standard requirement is 1 to 2 years of experience within the last three years in the specialty applied for. Hospitals are looking for nurses who can contribute immediately, with nothing more than a brief orientation to the unit.

It’s important to note that certain specialties are in higher demand than others. Specialties with the highest demand include:

  1. Intensive Care / Critical Care
  2. Step Down / Progressive Care
  3. Telemetry
  4. Medical Surgical
  5. Operating Room
  6. Emergency Room
  7. Labor & Delivery
  8. Neonatal Intensive Care
  9. Pediatric Intensive Care
  10. Post-Anesthesia Care

It’s still possible to be a travel nurse if your specialty is in less demand. However, it will require greater flexibility with respect to location, shift, and pay.

This is a great example of why it’s so important to choose an ABSN program that has immersive clinicals placements. At Xavier University, our clinical experience allows you to “try on” different specialties to see which may be the perfect fit for you.

How to Know If Travel Nursing Is Right for You

Xavier ABSN graduate Diane using stethoscope

Travel nursing isn’t for everyone. While the idea of traveling to new places is exciting, there are some nuances of the profession that can be challenging depending on your personality. Travel nursing may be a good fit for you if you are:

  • A Self-starter
  • Determined
  • Comfortable with moving around a lot
  • Flexible

Let’s take a more in-depth look at how these traits complement a career as a travel nurse.

Flexibility with Job Requirements

The truth is that all travel nurses will need to exhibit some level of flexibility with respect to location, shift and pay at one point or another. As a travel nurse, you’ll be changing jobs 2 to 4 times per year. Additionally, it’s important for jobs to start soon after one another in order to maximize annual pay. Therefore, lengthy job searches are not advised.

Of course, your job selection will be limited to what’s available at the time you’re changing jobs. As a result, your most desired location may not be available. Or, it may be available but not with the shift or pay you’re seeking. So some degree of flexibility is required in order to succeed as a travel nurse.

That said, it’s important to point out that travel nurses are often pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed a location that wasn’t on their list of choices. They find great people, great hospitals, great culture, or stunning natural beauty in unexpected destinations.

Self-Starter on the Job

One of the byproducts of changing jobs so frequently is that travel nurses are acclimating to new hospitals more often than normal. Of course, travel nurses receive an orientation to the unit each time they arrive at a new hospital. However, hospital orientations for travel nurses vary from hospital to hospital. Some hospitals are very thorough and provide travel nurses with nearly the same orientation newly hired permanent employees receive. Other hospitals provide nothing more than the bare minimum to get you started.

In all cases, travel nurses must exhibit some initiative. They may need to find their own way around the unit and supply rooms. They might need to discover how to handle time-reporting or figure out the hospital’s scheduling system all on their own. Travel nurses must acclimate to new computer charting systems with limited training. For all these reasons, being a self-starter helps make travel nursing a much more enjoyable experience.

Living on the Road

Speaking of enjoying the experience, the “travel” part of travel nursing is perhaps the most alluring part of the career and potentially the most enjoyable. And why not? Living for 3 to 6 months at a time in various locations around the country or the globe sounds amazing. Travel nurses get to experience the local culture on a deeper level. They get to visit some of the most beautiful locations on earth and get paid while they do it.

That said, it’s important to consider all aspects of living on the road. Perhaps most importantly, most travel nurses are traveling on their own. This requires a certain level of independence. It can be easy to get homesick, lonely, or bored when you’re constantly moving to a new location.

Luckily, the staff at many hospitals are very welcoming of travelers and often include travel nurses in outside activities. Additionally, there are almost always other travel healthcare professionals at your hospital. They’re in the same boat. Seeking them out and partnering up for activities can be all it takes to have an amazing time!

If you don’t want to go it alone, then travel nursing with pets and/or family is certainly possible. Almost every travel nursing company welcomes pets. Nonetheless, it does entail some additional challenges, most notably with housing. Travel nursing with family is much more complex, especially if you bring the children. However, many families find travel nursing together to be an enriching and rewarding experience.

Ready to Make a Smart Move?

If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and are considering a career as a travel nurse, our 16-month ABSN program with locations in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland might be right for you. Contact our admissions team to get started on your journey to become a nurse today.

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