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Once upon a time
I was a burned out, disgruntled old hag who wouldn’t have recommended a nursing career to her worst enemy. Well, okay, I would like to see my worst enemy wipe poop from under a grown man’s testicles, so… maybe I would’ve. I left my last staff nurse position in 2015 and swore I was never going back to the profession.
When I told my husband I was never going to nurse again, he was totally supportive. That man has been ready to drop everything to be a campground host from the day I met him, and he cares much more about our sanity than my salary. I’m quite sure he responded with something along the lines of “Don’t threaten me with a good time.” But after a few months it was he who encouraged me to give a different kind of nursing a try. He reminded me I went to nursing school with the sole purpose of becoming a travel nurse.
Don’t get me wrong, I like taking care of (read: fixing) people, and I’m a big believer in modern medicine, but the real allure of nursing was the idea that I wouldn’t have to do it in one place my entire career. I just get a little uncomfortable with the thought of being stuck in one place for more than, say, two years. My father in law says we’re like a military family, only without the military. I’m fortunate to have found someone to share this nomadic life with.
Since leaving my “real” job in 2015, I have been a travel and a seasonal nurse in Tulsa, OK, Tucson, AZ, and in Salt Lake City, UT. (I’ll get to the differences later, but they’re pretty much the same). I worked four contracts in Tulsa, nine contracts in Tucson, and 1.5 contracts in Salt Lake, with time off between contracts to farm, have babies, and travel the world. Yes, we had both our babies while travel nursing and living in other peoples’ furnished homes. I have also worked four seasons as a temporary nurse in LaMoure, ND, giving vaccines to the locals while Greg farms. Now *that* is a great job.
When I left said “real” job in 2015, Greg quit his too and we spent an amazing six months traveling the country out of our converted Windstar minivan, God rest her soul… Oh, she’s not dead, we just sold her to a kindred spirit for a place to sleep on his climbing trips. We hiked, we camped, we rode bikes, we went to baseball games, we climbed mountains, we sailed with friends in Maine, we sailed with friends in Wisconsin, we backpacked with friends in Wyoming, we babysat our nieces and nephews in Oklahoma and North Dakota. And… looking at these pictures makes me want to quit my job all over again… Oh wait, I don’t have a full time job anymore. #funemployment
After all that amazing time off I was very gun shy about going back to work. The thought made me sick to my stomach because I was so miserable before, and I did not want to go through that again. If I was going to go back, I wanted to dip my toes into travel nursing rather than cannonball off the deep end. I chose to take my first travel assignment in Tulsa, where I had gone to nursing school and worked previously as a staff nurse. The day I walked onto the unit as a traveler I saw like five people I had either gone to school with, or had worked with at my previous hospital. It was like a framily reunion! And really helped calm my disgruntled fears about nursing again. And, it obviously worked, as I did an additional three contracts at that same hospital, then went on to keep traveling in Tucson and Salt Lake.
Why do I love travel/seasonal nursing so much?
Note: these are the reasons *I* love this kind of nursing so much. Obviously I cannot promise you the same results. But I *can* promise if you ever give travel/seasonal nursing a try and decide it’s not for you… you can go back to a staff job anywhere in the country any time you’d like.
13 week contracts! Look, I don’t like anyone telling me what to do, and I especially don’t like anyone telling me where I’m going to spend the next two years (or the rest) of my life. I get antsy, I start itching, and thoughts of moving on damn near consume me. But 13 weeks is a great amount of time to commit to a job. Long enough to get into the swing of things, but short enough not to stress.
I clock in, I make money, and I go home! I’m not on any committees, and I’m not trying to climb any clinical ladder or hustle for a raise. I do attend staff meetings sometimes, but only because I get paid to do so and they’re generally pretty entertaining. People have such “interesting” opinions.
New faces means new friends I just haven’t met yet! I think I have a good personality for travel nursing because I was the new kid so often growing up (also why I don’t like staying in one place too long). I’m never nervous to walk onto a unit, introduce myself, and declare early and often I have no idea what I’m doing aside from providing patient care. People are happy to help.
I don’t have to submerge myself in unit or hospital politics and drama! Hell, I don’t even have to talk to people if I don’t want to. Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt.
I have a special purpose! Travel nurses are brought in to fill a void, to put a band-aid on an open wound, to get the hospital through a staffing shortage. I am a warm body who is willing to work, and I function so much better having a clear role.
Housing and Meal Stipends! Every agency I’ve dealt with has offered housing, or a tax-free housing stipend if you want to find your own place while you’re on the road. Note: These stipends vary by state, and can vary between agencies, upwards of a couple of hundred dollars a week! Do your research. We’ve always chosen our own housing, and taken the tax-free housing stipend which means more $$$ in my pocket (provided we stay below our housing stipend). For reference, the stipends in Tucson were $1,057/week. We paid $1,000/month for our furnished rental so that was an extra $3,228/mo tax free. Salt Lake paid $1344/wk stipends and we paid $2000/mo for a furnished rental, so $3376/mo tax free.
Unlimited overtime! A nursing shortage means a surplus of extra shifts, and you know how I love making hay while the sun shines. But keep in mind, agencies can offer different overtime rates. For instance, if your hourly rate is $20/hr, one agency might only offer $30/hr for OT, whereas another might offer $60. If you plan on working overtime, make sure it’s worth your time as housing stipends do not increase with the amount of hours worked. Does that make sense? If you don’t like that an agency only offers $30/hr, you can always ask for more!
Freedom! Freedom to move about the country, freedom to take extended periods of time off work, freedom to extend my contract if work is going well, and freedom to run for the hills if it sucks (it hasn’t yet). If I want/need time off between contracts I just tell them in advance, and write it into my contract.
I can make my own schedule! This was one of the biggest factors in walking away from staff nursing. My last real job didn’t allow me to choose my own schedule which is like, unheard of in the nursing world. If I wanted to take a week off work, I would have to find other nurses to work that week for me. What a gd joke. I’ve heard of travellers not getting to pick their own schedule, but I think that’s very manager-dependent and I’ve personally never experienced that. That said, I know my role. I’m there to help fill gaps and I’m happy to work wherever I’m needed. However, if I need time off in the middle of a contract, I can write it into my contract that I’ll be taking eight days off without missing any time from work. (We nurses have the ability to work three 12 hr shifts at the beginning of one week, take eight days in a row off, then work three 12 hr shifts at the end of the next week without missing any actual work days) Or… I can take two or three weeks off in the middle of my contract, then just add those weeks to the end of my contract, for total 13 weeks of actual employment. Add Flexibility! to my pros. Also…. my last contract in Salt Lake I only had to work two days shifts a week! As a traveler! Two days is the *best* schedule in nursing, *and* I still got paid $137/hr. Tell me again why you wouldn’t want to be a travel nurse?
The ability to extend my contract! Look, I can’t speak for every travel assignment because I’ve only ever had good ones, but so far I would *always* rather extend than go start a new job somewhere. A known evil and all that.
There are jobs all over the country! I hear horror stories of people in other fields putting out 50, 100, 200 resumes and never getting a single job offer. On the contrary, as an ICU nurse I can put out one resume and get 200 offers. I mean, probably. I’m assuming. Whatever, I can work anywhere. In a national park, on an island, or in Tucson. Travel nurses are hot commodities!
My family gets to travel with me! When I took my first assignment in Tulsa, Greg got a job at the Tulsa airport working for the same company he had worked for in Montana. When we went to Tucson he was able to transfer that job to the Tucson airport. Note: Greg has only ever held a part time position, just so he could always travel with me, and take off when I do, but with the option to work as much as I do, too. That is, until he lost his airline job to covid then he became full time stay at home Papa. It’s *really* easy to travel nurse with your family if one of you is staying home with the kid(s)! Update: Greg now works a seasonal position with the airline and we both worked while in Salt Lake, which I would not recommend. Working. Both people working at the same time. We don’t have childcare so I worked my three on, he worked his three on, and we had one day off together. BLECH. When I extended my contract I asked for two days a week instead of three and Warcken morale improved tremendously.
Retirement accounts with agency match! My first contract provided an IRA with a 50% match. My next contract, the same travel agency changed to a 401k + 50% match. This totally varies between agencies, unfortunately, but every agency I’ve dealt with at least *has* a retirement plan, they just have different stipulations to qualify (i.e. hours worked, number of contracts/months worked). My seasonal contracts in Tucson offered a 401k with match, but my agency in Salt Lake did not yet offer a retirement plan to contracted employees. Lame!
Insurance! Every agency I’ve dealt with at least *offers* health, and even life, and disability insurance. Exception: I took a crisis contract and it didn’t offer any insurance whatsoever, just a lot of $$$. We’ve been on Obamacare since late 2014, so have never taken the health insurance offered by my agencies, but I have taken advantage of life and long-term disability insurance because why not? It’s cheap.
Low taxable income! The government thinks we’re poor! Poor enough to qualify for all the health insurance tax credits, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Just the way we like it.
Bonuses! The first contract I took I offered a sign on and completion bonus that were written into my contracts. The second contract I took didn’t offer a completion bonus, but I received $2500 when my contract was completed. Boy, was that a happy surprise! Agencies can also offer one-time travel bonuses to help you get to your new job.
License reimbursement! With my original agency I received a license reimbursement for the state I was working in every 13 week contract I took. So, even though I worked three contracts in Oklahoma one year, I received a license reimbursement for my OK license on all three contracts. Just pile the money on.
Guaranteed hours! Many agencies offer guaranteed hours, which as a staff nurse, is why you’ll be cancelled or put on call before a traveler, because travelers can get paid whether they work or not. If I’m guaranteed 36 hours, I get paid for 36 hours no matter what. That said, don’t bank on ever being put on call.
I make a $$$hit ton of money! As a traveler I can make 2-4x what staff nurses do. So 13 weeks is like working 26-52 weeks at my old job! I look at that extra income as paid vacation for our next mini-retirement. Rates vary by location, need, global pandemics, etc…
I worked a 48 hr/wk crisis contract in Jan/Feb 2021 making $90/hr ($135/hr OT) + $1057/wk stipends. While that’s obviously a $$$hit ton of money, I have nursing friends who made $10k/wk during covid! As well they (and all of us!) should have! In Salt Lake I made $100/hr ($150/hr OT) + $1344/wk non-taxable stipends for 36 hrs day shift at a great hospital. When I extended my hourly rate dropped to $81/hr but the stipends stayed the same. I was very sad when they cut all travel contracts in the middle of said travel contracts.
Ummm not much.
New employee requirements. Every contract comes with a laundry list of tasks before you can start. Skills checklists, providing references, hospital orientation, learning modules, a physical, lab draws, etc. Which is why, given the chance, I will extend as long as a hospital will have me.
You could be the ugly stepchild. There are rumors that certain units or certain hospitals poop all over their travel nurses and give them horrible assignments and/or are real catty to them. I felt shat upon a few times during this last contract, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m making twice, if not 3-4x what the staff nurses are. Why shouldn’t I take the shit patients? Bring me your CIWAs, your GI bleeds, your multiple downgrades! And yes, as a traveler, I’ve worked on some catty units. But no more catty than when I was a staff nurse. Some nurses are just miserable old hags and that’s all they’ll ever be. I’d be miserable too if I was tied to a job I didn’t like.
Housing. There is a caveat to the tax-free housing. You must take a job at least 50 miles from your tax home, and be able to prove you’re otherwise living in and maintaining said tax home in order to qualify for the tax-free benefit. If you’re considering travel nursing, I would encourage you to do your own tax research before making a housing decision. But also… I’ve worked with travel nurses who definitely do not live 50 miles away and have been traveling at local hospitals for years. So there are ways around it. But… if you don’t want the tax hassle, or the hassle of finding your own house, let the agency provide! You’ll make less money but sometimes less stress is worth its weight in gold. Also note: If you can’t prove you are maintaining a household back home, or maybe you just like to make more taxable income (max out that 401k baby!), you can always decline all housing assistance and just ask for a higher hourly wage instead. My Salt Lake job was also offered as a “local contract” for $130/hr minus all stipends.
Also, it can be a real hassle to find new housing in a new city. When we first moved to Tucson we lived in our travel trailer (and loved it) in a $395/mo RV park, but it ended up being almost an hour commute from my job. No can do. Most of the other RV parks here are only for the age 55+ community, so that can be an issue. And sometimes there’s a waiting list to get into monthly sites at RV parks, so you could be forced to pay their weekly or (gasp!) nightly rates while you wait for a monthly site to open up ($2k/mo here in SLC!). Grody to the max.
Furnished rentals are more expensive than RV parks, but without the age limits. But… you’re physically packing up and moving everything every time you take a new assignment . You can always go the cheaper route and get an unfurnished place but then, obviously, you have to furnish it new or used, or by renting furniture, then you have to get rid of said furniture when you take your next assignment. We like furnished rentals because we don’t own any furniture aside from baby stuff, and we don’t chase assignments or money. We go to a place we like, extend as long as possible, and make hay while the sun shines.
Hirability. While it sounds great to work three months and take off nine, you’ll probably have some trouble finding a hospital willing to hire you for a travel position when you decide to go back. At least, a hospital in an area you’d actually like to work. You can read all about the trouble I had taking six months off between ICU contracts when we first came to Tucson. It was not a good time for me. But… I found the seasonal position there and that was a fantastic experience. Consider this incentive to go back to a hospital where you’ve already worked. They know you, and at least in my case, haven’t minded when I’ve taken off say, seven months for maternity leave.
And… that about sums it up for cons.
So what’s the difference in travel and seasonal nursing?
A travel nurse (or tech, or pharmacist, or whatever) *travels* to different areas of the country, or world, that actively needs extra help. Typically travelers get those jobs through a third party agency, who takes their cut of what the hospital offers. Read: less money for you.
Seasonal nursing is *seasonal*, meaning a hospital in a certain area expects a greater number of patients during certain times of the year, and hires accordingly. I was a seasonal nurse in Tucson, AZ, which has a higher number of visitors in winter than in summer. I can only speak about my personal experience, but I’ve heard of other seasonal positions in Florida and southern California as well.
As a seasonal nurse:
I work 13-week contracts, with the option to extend.
I don’t have to live 50 miles away from my tax home.
I don’t get any housing or meal stipends.
I don’t have access to any health or life insurance benefits.
I have access to a 401k with employer match after one year.
I make $65/hr + 15% differential for night shift.
I’m employed by the hospital, not an agency. Therefore I’m treated like core staff and am entitled to core staff incentives, like $20/hr on top of my overtime rate when I pick up an extra $$$$$$$$hift.
If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I’m not guaranteed hours and I don’t accrue PTO. But Arizona has up to 40 hrs/yr state-mandated sick pay so even though the hospital doesn’t offer it, if I call in sick, or for a mental health day, or if my kid is sick, whatever, my hospital in Arizona is legally required to pay me up to those 40 hrs/yr.
I’m usually the one making the most money, so as I’m treated as a hospital employee (and not a traveler with guaranteed hours) I am typically the first person to be put on call, to be sent home early, and to float. Note: I haven’t been put on call all year, and I’ve only been sent home early once, and that was during my fifth shift of the week. But I do float a lot, luckily only between med/surg and cardiac ICUs, and the ICU stepdown (where I’m limited to four patients). You know what I say: “Hey, at least it’s not tele!”
When I first started *thinking* about traveling
I reached out to a recruiter at TRS and was like “Look, I don’t know if this is what I want to do, but I just wanted some more information about it.” My recruiter was so great, and she gave me all the information I wanted without any pressure to take an assignment with her. She is still my favorite recruiter and her company is always my first choice when looking at new assignments.
If you’re *thinking* about traveling I would encourage you to do the same – get some questions together and just ask. Note: I hardly speak to anyone on the phone, ever. Feel free to text any of these numbers you’d like.
Travel agencies I am currently affiliated with:
TRS Healthcare, recruiter Virginia Johnson (479) 303-4201
Aya Healthcare, recruiter Rob Wilson (858) 201-6441
Fastaff Travel Nursing, recruiter Suzanne Fastje (720) 897-1719
Medical Solutions, recruiter Devin Juel (402) 986-5064
LiquidAgents Healthcare, recruiter Laura Frank (972) 543-5254
3D Medical Staffing, recruiter Alana Salter (801) 268-8822
If you decide to start traveling with any of the agencies I’m affiliated with, put me down as a referral and I’ll split my referral bonus with you! But you have to tell me who you are when you do it so I know who to pay. Ea$$$y money!
Here’s the deal
If you’ve ever thought you might like to travel nurse, you should just do it. It’s 13 weeks. If you hate it, go back to your old job. Or to a new job in your old town. Or to a new job in your new town. Or to a totally different job- full time, part time, PRN, or travel- in a totally new town. Nothing is permanent. You’re a nurse, you can get a job anywhere. The country is your oyster and there is no reason to stay, burned out and disgruntled, at a job you don’t like. Take it from me, I know from experience.
And, just for some travel lust nurse porn, here are some pictures from trips we’ve taken during and between travel/seasonal contracts. Or maybe you’d like to watch some vids.
We didn’t want to be tied to our jobs. We wanted to focus on what is important to us: camping, hiking, backpacking, national parks, seeing the world, saving and investing for our future, baseball games, high points, all you can eat buffets, and now sharing all the things we love with our babes. Travel nursing has given us the time and the resources to allow so many of our dreams to come true. I love it, and you can too.
Where my travel nurses at? What do *you* love about it?