Travel Nurse Starter Guide: Everything You Need to Begin Your Journey
New to travel nursing? While new stages in life can bring uncertainty and anxiety to the unknown, the first step to conquering those anxieties undoubtedly involves research! Traveling as a registered or licensed practical nurse, or nursing assistant is neither wholly difficult nor wholly simple. Nevertheless, in the spirit of making that first step of research easier and accessible, we’ve put together this starter guide for clinicians such as yourself.
1. Gather your documents and ensure they’re up to date.
It’s no secret the life of a nurse involves documentation to the extremes, however that quality translates outside the medical facility and directly to your own career management as well. Gather all your certifications, licenses, letters of recommendation, vaccination records, and your resume.
- Have any of these documents passed expiration?
- Are your letters of recommendation recent? (issued within six months)
- Does your resume include your most recent travel nurse contract?
- If you have no travel nurse experience, is your resume current?
- Are your vaccinations current?
- Do you have digitized versions of these documents?
- Do you have an eNLC?
2. Discuss with the travel agency recruiter your travel nursing goals.
Travel nursing is a fantastic opportunity to expand your career as well as your geographic knowledge of our country. What are your priorities out of a travel nurse contract? Is location your first concern or perhaps a specific position takes precedence? The distinction in this case, will determine how your recruiter works for your needs. For example, if your greatest desire is to be beachside during the warm summer months (where typically positions are highly competitive) your recruiter needs to know if you’ll be willing to settle for a job that offers a lower hourly rate or a less enviable shift schedule. Alternatively, if you’ve jumped into travel nursing to grow your career, then following an explanation of exactly what type of position and responsibilities you’re looking for they can expand their search network far and wide to get you exactly that. Furthermore, if you prioritize income over all other considerations, your recruiter can work to that specific benefit. There are quite literally, thousands of travel nursing contracts available nationwide, your recruiter requires these sorts of distinctions and clarifications to help them narrow the search appropriately in order to find you exactly what you want.
3. Learn the details of the pay structure offered in your travel nursing contract.
Often, the advertised pay rates for travel contracts reflect what we call a ‘blended’ rate. This rate is generally figured by combining the taxable and non-taxable amounts of your pay and then dividing it into an hourly amount. Ultimately, that will involve the following:
the actual hourly rate (this is the taxable portion of your pay package)
the travel stipend (typically delivered as one lump sum and non-taxable)
the meals and incidentals (normally delivered as a weekly allowance and non-taxable, although some agencies require you track these costs and submit for reimbursement)
the housing stipend (also generally delivered as a monthly allowance and non-taxable)
Understanding exactly how your pay rate breaks down will allow you to determine if, where, and how exactly to negotiate the pay on a contract. Perhaps the travel reimbursement isn’t actually high enough to cover your travel costs. Perhaps the housing stipend won’t cover the cost of a furnished Airbnb near your job location. Worse, perhaps the actual hourly rate of the position is much lower than the advertised blended rate and said rate is actually unacceptable to you. Yet, if you don’t understand the formula, you won’t know what requires attention or negotiation.
4. Ask for details on stipends and reimbursements.
In this day and age, most tasks that once required paper, are now completed digitally. Nevertheless, it’s important to ask for details on how your stipends and reimbursements are figured out and issued. You may need to complete some sort of travel log, or perhaps public transportation passes are valid for reimbursement submission. There’s no harm in asking, and having a complete understanding of your financial situation and expectations can certainly gain you peace of mind.
5. Understand your options for a placement extension.
While generally we see travel nursing contracts for eight to 13 weeks, there are occasions when a travel nurse is offered an extension for their placement. Before signing or accepting anything, best practice dictates that you be sure you understand the financial implications of doing so. Talk to your recruiter about this option, as some facilities will explicitly detail extension options directly into your contract. An extension may entitle you to a lump sum bonus, or an increase in your hourly rate for the period of the extension.
Be warned; there may be tax implications if you extend too often in one place. According to the IRS, if you are in one location the majority of a year (the wording is intentionally vague) you may lose your status as a traveling nurse which would impact your use of a tax-home. The tax-home is what prevents your stipends and reimbursements from being taxed income.
6. Ask questions and seek clarification.
Switching your employment from staff nurse to travel nurse may seem intimidating. Nevertheless, if it’s not clear to you from the first five points on this list, the key to success here is your own understanding of your circumstances. When something is not clear to you, ask for clarification. When something in the contract seems intentionally vague, ask to nail down specifics or details. When your travel stipend doesn’t cover your travel expenses, ask if you can submit receipts to ensure the entire cost is covered. Sometimes you will hear no, and yet other occasions may give you exactly what you need. To feel good about this experience you need to feel confident in your knowledge and believe in the process.