Travel Nurse Salary: Why Do Travel Nurses Get Paid More?

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Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse is pleased with his travel nurse salary.

Your new coworker just signed a 13-week contract in your ICU and you couldn’t be more thrilled to have more nurses joining your team. You discover their average travel nurse salary is $2,200 per week — a whopping $700 more than yours.

You know they relocated to take this position, but you’re performing the same exact job, so why the discrepancy in hourly rates and average annual salary? You wonder: Why are travel nurses paid so much? Who pays travel nurses? Is this a normal traveling nurse salary?

If you’ve ever had those thoughts, you’re not alone. In some facilities, a travel nurse can make up to four times more than a staff nurse. You likely already know a few factors that lead to a travel nurse getting paid more, such as a shorter orientation, but does that justify such dramatic salary discrepancies?

What Is Travel Nursing?

The term “travel nurse” refers to a nurse who is hired for a temporary position at a facility that’s located away from their place of residence. Some of the agencies that work with travel nurses include American Traveler and Aya Healthcare. They’re usually looking for experienced nurses, as most travel nursing positions require a year or more of nursing experience in the hired specialty. Their contracts usually last 8–26 weeks. Typical RN travel nurse requirements include:

  • Possess active RN license
  • Located at least 50 miles away
  • 1–2 years of recent nursing experience in desired specialty

Why Facilities Hire Travel Nurses

Travel nurses fill an important gap in staffing and nursing coverage for weeks to months at a time. And they’re not just any nurse — they’re experienced, specialty-trained nurses. This makes for a pretty alluring short-term staffing solution for facilities experiencing staff nursing shortages.

7 Common Stressors Travel Nurses Face

Why do travel nurses make more than staff nurses? The short answer is because they endure more risk and hardship than staff nurses. That’s not to diminish the stress or high workload of staff nurses. In a similar way, staff nurses who work night shifts (usually) receive a pay differential for working an inconvenient shift that has negative health impacts.

The long answer? A travel nurse salary is more than the typical staff nurse because they face many inconveniences and additional stressors that staff nurses do not.

1. Short Orientation

Most travel nurses receive one to two days of orientation to their unit and facility. Comparatively, a staff nurse typically receives a few weeks to months of orientation. This means the travel nurse is often learning the layout of the unit and how they operate as they also care for patients.

2. Financial Insecurity

Although travel nurses are compensated at a higher rate than staff nurses, they do have more risks about job and income security. They are signing a contract to work for a predetermined number of weeks, whereas staff nurses are typically long-term employees.

While most travel nurse agencies have an agreement in their contracts that protects them from having a contract canceled at the last minute, there are instances where promised shifts or hours may be changed or dropped. For example, if the census in a unit drops, the travel nurse may be called off because the priority would go to the staff nurse to work their agreed-upon hours. Also, the travel nurse is being paid more, so the facility is incentivized to call them off first. This instability can be a stressor to the travel nurse.

3. Relocation

Even for the travel nurses who love an adventure, moving can still be stressful and costly. There’s no getting around it. Some travel agencies provide a tax-free relocation stipend or travel reimbursement to offset the financial burden, but uprooting your life is a challenge for even the most relaxed person. Then, to have to turn around and do it again for your next assignment? It can take its toll.

4. Separation From Friends and Family

Although you have the option to move your family with you, it’s not always feasible as a travel nurse. Travel nurses may commute long distances for their shift, stay in a hotel for three or four nights away from family, or go away for the entire contract. As you can imagine, this long distance can be disruptive for both the traveling nurse and their family.

5. Learning New Policies and Procedures

Each facility has their own set of policies and procedures. Travel nurses have to become familiar with the new policies and procedures in a limited amount of time. This can add to the stress of a short-staffed unit and fast-paced work environment.

6. Working in Short-Staffed Units

If you’re a nurse, you can likely empathize with the stress of working short staffed. We don’t have to explain it to you! Travel nurses are usually hired to supplement existing staff, so they typically work in units that are more likely to have had consistent short staffing, high turnover, and nursing burnout.

7. Always the Newbie

Because travel nurses frequently move from facility to facility, they have limited time to build rapport with their coworkers. As a result, many feel like they are constantly having to prove their competence to fellow nurses, physicians, and other members of the healthcare team.

Examples of Travel Nurse Salary

The average annual registered nurse salary is $94,480, or $45.42 per hour. Just like with staff nursing, your salary can also vary according to the specialty you choose. Here are some common hourly traveling nurse salaries, based on specialty:

You can also expect some variance in salary depending on your role. For example, the average RN travel nurse salary is $100,200 per year, whereas the average LPN travel nurse salary is $73,200.

Likewise, if you hold an advanced nursing license you can expect a different salary. The typical traveling nurse practitioner salary is $118,500 per year, and the average annual travel nurse anesthetist salary is $135,200.

Geography is another contributing factor. The top three highest-paying cities for travel nurses are all in California: Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Fremont. While big paychecks are attractive, keep in mind the cost of living varies greatly throughout the country, and California is right behind Hawaii in terms of states with the highest living expenses. From electricity and gas to groceries and cable bills, your dollar will go further in places like West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Travel Nurse Salary and Experience: FAQ

Why do travel nurses make so much?

It’s highly likely that if you talk to a travel nurse, they’ll tell you they aren’t paid enough. But why do they make more than staff nurses? It’s mostly to offset the inconvenience. They are working away from home and family, have limited scheduling/shift selection, and are almost always working in units that are short-staffed. Translation: They’re signing up for stressful positions, at a baseline.

Is travel nursing limited to RNs?

No — CNAs, LPNs, RNs, and APRNs can all take advantage of traveling positions.

Who pays travel nurses?

Travel nurses are typically hired by a travel nurse agency that also handles the payroll. The facility the nurse works for pays the agency, and then the agency pays the nurse.

Do staff nurses treat travel nurses poorly?

This largely depends on the unit culture. Some units welcome travel nurses with open arms, seeing them as a blessing. Other units may see the traveling nurse as an outsider and give them last-minute admissions and more difficult assignments since they are paid more.

Do travel nurses pay taxes?

Yes, travel nurses must pay taxes on their income. The way taxes are paid may vary depending on whether the traveling nurse is hired as a 1099 contractor or W2 employee. If they are a 1099 contractor, the nurse is responsible for withholding and filing their taxes quarterly. If they are a W2 employee, their agency will withhold their taxes from their paycheck, and the nurse will file their taxes annually.

Is Travel Nursing For You?

Though travel nursing has its challenges, a travel nurse salary might be sounding pretty attractive right about now. If it sounds like the right career step for you, we can help you find a good fit. Search for travel nursing jobs with IntelyCare and apply today.