I think that most of you know that I am a travel nurse, but today I want to explain exactly what it is that I do and how I am able to backpack around the world long term—and show you the steps so that you can to! Travel nursing is a great alternative for those of us who don’t have the technology, social media, writing, or blogging skills to make it as a digital nomad.
WHAT IS A TRAVEL NURSE?
Many people assume that I work as a nurse when I go abroad, which is not the case at all. When I’m out of the country, I am strictly traveling and living off the savings I built up during my contract. A travel nurse is a nurse who works for a staffing agency. The agency will have contracts with hospitals all over the country who most often have urgent openings that need to be filled immediately, rather than hiring staff nurses who need to go through weeks of orientation. The contracts a travel nurse work are usually 13 weeks long, and if the hospital continues to have a need, you can often extend provided that both parties agree.
It is important to note that travel nurses work for their respective agencies, NOT the actual hospital where they are during the contract. Our pay, benefits, housing stipends, etc. are provided by the agency. Speaking of housing, there are two options for housing as a travel nurse: 1. Live in company provided furnished housing or 2. Take the stipend that your company provides and find your own housing. The stipend is generous and will account for the cost of living in the city you’re working in.
I’m currently nearing the end of my second contract. I’ve lived in company provided housing both times, and it has been great. The apartment is close to work, I’m able to quickly walk or uber to cool bars and restaurants, and my rent and utilities are completely PAID FOR by my company. This is the main reason that I am able to save so much money for travel. If you choose to take the stipend, I suggest subletting a furnished room so that you don’t have to sign a lease.
The best and most important benefit of being a travel nurse, and the reason that I got into it, is that after you finish your 13 week contract, you do not have to pick up another contract until you want to. I use this unlimited time off in between contracts to take my backpacking trips. This kind of freedom is truly addicting, and it’s awesome that being a travel nurse allows me this freedom while still being employed/easily employable when I return.
A common question I’m asked is, “Where is your company sending you next to work?” The answer? Wherever I want! Each company will have a listing of jobs available in each state, and you can apply to whichever postings you want as long as you have a license to practice nursing in that state (I will talk about how to get individual state licenses later). I just got my California license, so I will head there next when I get back from my upcoming trip. Now that you know what a travel nurse is, let’s talk about the steps to become one.
APPLY TO NURSING SCHOOL
Obviously, the first thing you’ll need to begin your travel nurse adventure is a nursing degree. You can go about this in one of three ways: 1. If you are still in high school, choose to go to a university that offers a 4 year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program 2. If you already have a bachelor degree in another discipline, go to an “accelerated second degree BSN program” (what I did!). The accelerated programs are around 15-18 months 3. Take the necessary pre-requisite science classes, and then do an associate degree in nursing at a community college. I recommend path 1 or 2 because having a bachelor degree makes you a bit more desirable for jobs, and prepares you for graduate study if you choose to further your education.
DURING NURSING SCHOOL
While you’re in nursing school, start to seriously think about what specialty you would like to go into after graduation and passing the board exam. If you want to start travel nursing as soon as you can, you’ll need to have at least one solid year in your chosen specialty. More importantly, study hard! Practice hundreds and hundreds of NCLEX (the American and Canadian board exam for nurses) style questions throughout your program so that you’ll be able to pass your boards quickly. The world is awaiting you so you need to pass that mother on the first try!
WHAT SPECIALTY IS THE BEST FOR GETTING INTO TRAVEL NURSING?
I don’t know if “best” is the right word, but the most available specialty, meaning the specialty that consistently has numerous job postings across several states, is med surg/telemetry. You should easily and rapidly find a travel nurse contract with a year of med surg under your belt. That said, I’m now a psychiatric nurse and haven’t had any problems thus far. I also regularly see lots of postings for pediatrics, emergency room, intensive care/neonatal intensive care, and labor & delivery. For ICU and L&D, you will need to have two years of experience before you can travel nurse. One year experience is sufficient for the other specialities. You can’t become a travel nurse with less than a year of experience so that’s why it’s important to get started with your first job as soon as you can!
FIRST YEAR ON THE JOB
Congratulations! You’ve graduated nursing school, passed your boards, chosen your specialty, and now you’re ready to begin your career as an RN. The first few weeks, and even months, will be nerve wracking because you are now responsible for your patients’ lives. Just breathe, and take every single opportunity to learn new things. Take any opportunity to do procedures and hone your clinical and dexterity skills. If you have the opportunity to cross train with another unit, meaning that you will be trained in two different specialties, DO IT!!! For example, a friend of mine from nursing school was offered the opportunity to train in both the emergency room and labor & delivery at her first job. This will make you a hot commodity on the travel nurse job market.
Another reason that it’s important to get comfortable with your skills is that you get a very short orientation to the unit as a travel nurse. Mine was 3 days. You’ll need to feel comfortable in your abilities and hit the ground running.
Do your best to ignore any rude/condescending/petty/gossiping/know it all nurses. You’ll soon be traipsing around the world while they are in the same place, living the same day over and over again while bitching about mundane work things. Ask for help when you need it, but be confident. Your preceptor during the first 12 weeks or so of orientation will be an invaluable source of knowledge, assistance, and hopefully will become someone you can trust and confide in while at work.
APPLYING FOR LICENSES IN OTHER STATES
During your first year as a nurse, you should apply for your nursing license in the states that you are interested in travel nursing in. This does not involve taking another exam, thank goodness. You’ll have to go to the state’s board of nursing website to find the official application procedures, but you’ll usually have to send all nursing licenses you have and fingerprints, at the very least.
Good news! If you live in and have a permanent address in a compact state, you can travel nurse in any of the other compact states using your original license and don’t have to apply to the board of nursing in those states.
APPLYING TO TRAVEL NURSE COMPANIES
Toward the end of your first year is when you should begin research on which company you would like to work with. There are TONS so make sure you do your research and read any reviews by other nurses that you can find! You could consider signing up with a few different companies to widen your database of available jobs. One month before you make your one-year nurse anniversary is when you should actually apply to the company. The timeline from applying to leaving for your first assignment is FAST. As in, it can take as little as 8 days so don’t apply until you’re ready to tie up loose ends at home. If you would like some recommendations for companies to use, and not to use, email me.
DURING YOUR CONTRACT
During your first contract, your priorities will be to figure out where you want to travel when the contract is over, saving money, and exploring your new city. Saving money should be fairly simple since you will be making a much higher hourly rate than you would if you were staff, plus your rent will be paid for. Pick up over time shifts to pad the pockets with a little extra cash, but make sure you leave yourself time to explore your surroundings! You should choose a contract in a new to you city so that you can get your fill of domestic wanderlust while you wait to begin your international trip.
I made myself a Denver bucket list and found that it really motivated me to make the most of my off days. Make friends with the other travel nurses on your floor or in other areas of the hospital, and stay out of the staff’s drama and gossip! And there will be some sort of drama and gossip because nursing is full of it. Again, just ignore it and keep yourself out of it. Good vibes only. Each and every shift, make sure you do what you need to do for your patients, with your charting, with report, etc., because as the traveler on the floor, you will be the first one to be thrown under the bus. Sad, but true. But if you do your work, are friendly with your co-workers, and smile, you will be just fine!
END OF THE CONTRACT & PREPARING TO LEAVE
If you choose to live in the company’s housing, your lease will only be as long as your contract. You should not have brought much with you other than your car and clothing as your housing will be furnished. If you want to, you can ship your car and items that you aren’t taking on your trip back home, or put them into storage, which is what I did when I went to Central/Eastern Europe and the Balkans after my first contract ended. I suggest flying out a day or two after your contract ends. That way, you won’t be tempted to spend any of your hard earned money and you will also get a paycheck deposited a week into your trip! Which is a great feeling, trust me.
You can continue this cycle of doing a travel nurse contract followed by a multi-month trip indefinitely while you saw the world. It’s an amazing opportunity, and one that I think you should consider even if you think that nursing isn’t for you. Working three long 12 hour shifts a week is a small sacrifice to make for a pretty sweet gig. I hope this post helped in some way to clear up any questions about being a travel nurse. If you have any other questions or comments, let me know!
Any travel nurses have anything else to add? Do you think travel nursing is in your future?