Are you a registered nurse and take an interest in being a travel nurse but don't know how the travel nurse salary works or if it's even worth it? All of the information already online is clouded with agency bias and it all seems too good to be true. I remember when I first decided to be a travel nurse in late 2020 and I was incredibly intimidated by what I found. How do aspiring travel nurses decide who to believe? This article breaks down everything regarding average travel nurse pay so you can make an informed decision and be successful as a travel nurse.
Travel Nursing Pay Break-Down
As a travel nurse, you can expect to be paid at the end of each week. The pay package will consist of two parts, taxable income, and nontaxable income. What is considered to be taxable income is the set hourly pay rate. The hourly rate will vary widely based from state to state, the exact needs of the hospital, etc. Average hourly rate for travel nurses is around $47. For tax purposes, it is best to keep an hourly rate that is on trend with the area. For example, in California the hourly rate is going to be higher than national average because living costs are more than average. If you take a travel contract in another state with low cost of living, the hourly rate might be adjusted to the area. Its best to talk with a travel agency on these details!
I have taken travel assignment rates for as low as $18 an hour before. However, during times of high demand for nurses in healthcare facilities (such as the COVID-19 pandemic), people saw high hourly rates of up to $80+ an hour plus max stipend payouts. There is no denying the nursing shortages throughout the US, mixed with a pandemic registered nurses in high demand. Since the start of 2022, the market is trending back to previous COVID-19 pay amounts but still more than prepandemic dollar amounts.
Travel Stipends Explained
The second part of each pay package consists of stipends. Stipends are the nontaxable part of travel nurse income, and how a majority of where travel nurses make their money. Every part of a travel nurse stipend includes a housing stipend and a food stipend. Housing stipends are meant to cover the costs of second rent payments for travel nurses. Most travel agencies or hospitals will encourage nurses to travel at least 50 miles or more from their home residence. This is a method just to help prove travel nurses are duplicating expenses! Plus its fun to see different areas of the country. However, regardless if you travel 50 miles or not if you are duplicating expenses you should receive a tax free stipend to cover the cost.
Below is a real screen shot from one of my paystubs as a travel nurse. This portion specifically lists out the stipends and how much I earned for that single week! This travel contract was from a Denver assignment.
Per diem is the stipend portion for food and other living expenses. For housing I also received a separate stipend. Through out the paystub you'll notice an hourly rate for overtime, the hours of overtime, and total pay for overtime worked. Each assignment hourly rate for overtime was different. This particular assignment overtime was $90/hour. Average overtime rates for travel nurses is 1.5-2x their base rate. This assignment was in high demand for nurses so they offered more for overtime, like I said before it varies per assignment.
Housing stipends are calculated based on the housing market in the area they are traveling. Stipends will vary based on which state you are traveling to, your cost of living expenses, and which state you claim as a permanent tax home. Most states give a low hourly rate(with a few exception states), so your agency will be able to max out all housing and food stipends on each paycheck. Travel nurses accepting a tax free stipend must also prove to the IRS they double housing expenses. Audits do happen to people at random, so it is best to have a paper trail ready and available if need be. Keep clear logs of permanent housing and rental expenses when traveling on each contract.
Aside from the obvious expenses when looking into travel nursing jobs, hospitals may require things that a nurse did not need at their previous job. For example, the first hospital required navy blue scrubs to work, but the next hospital requires black scrubs. These types of additional expenses can be reimbursed by travel nursing agencies. Keep receipts of any extra expenses, it never hurts to ask if it can be reimbursed! Travel reimbursements are common for travel nurses as well. Continue reading to learn more about other benefits to travel reimbursement.
Pocket Extra Stipend Money
The greatest perk for aspiring travel nurses is the travel nursing salaries. The average travel nurse salary consists of the base rate pay (hourly) and the stipend pay. The stipends are where travel nurses make most of their extra money. The beautiful part about travel nursing is finding the perfect job, in the perfect place, and that paycheck! Acquiring an assignment that is favorable in pay with low living costs is ideal for maximizing travel nurses money.
What Affects Pay
There are many factors involved that affect pay packages for travel nurses. Some of the most common factors are based on nursing experience level, the department you work in, and job opportunities at the hospital. Recruiters can help many travel nurses with figuring out pay ranges.
Most recruiting companies will also stack on a travel allowance as well. Depending on how far a nurse travels from their home, depends on how much allowance they get. For example, on my first travel assignment I moved from Missouri to Oregon and my recruiting company gave me an extra $800 for travel expenses. The caveat with this is agencies split the amount, a nurse will receive half of the money on the first paycheck and the rest of it on the last paycheck. So, I received $400 on my first paycheck, then $400 on my last paycheck. Most agencies also use this as an incentive to finish your contract in its entirety. The agency I traveled with did not finish the payout if I did not work the entire contract.
The contract signed by the travel nurse will list required hours to work each week. The majority of contracts are 36-48 hours a week. As we all know, things do happen in healthcare and sometimes hours are not met. In this instance the pay is generally prorated to the number of hours worked. Some agencies still payout the stipend amount that was agreed upon, watch the paychecks carefully though. Occasionally, some agencies will cut a portion from stipends if a nurse does not meet their required working hours. Most travel agencies also provide benefits. Travel nurses can accrue sick time depending on the agency, but it is done very slowly. If call-ins happen travel nurses can opt to just not be paid for that day. Talk more with a recruiter on the agency policies and procedures.
Recruiters also need to put guaranteed hours in the contract. Guaranteed hours hold the hospital accountable for scheduling the travel nurse on the agreed upon hours. Agencies are good about putting guaranteed hours in contracts to be sure the staffing agency gets paid. Guaranteed hours also benefit the travel nurse. It is disappointing to uproot your life, travel many miles, and double expenses just to find out the hospital doesn't hold up their end of the deal. Having guaranteed hours is a way to hold hospitals accountable to pay travel nurses.
If guaranteed hours are not met due to low census, put on call, etc. Staffing agencies will not penalize the travel nurse. Instead, the travel nurse will continue to receive their full housing and food stipend amount.
Local Travel Nursing
Being a local travel nurse is possible! However, local travel nursing has a different pay structure. Traveling locally means you get to stay home, but remain as temporary help for the hospital. When traveling as a local traveler, they accept a higher hourly rate, but not the tax free stipends. So a traveler may receive $60 an hour to work, but taxes will be taken out. While the payout is may not be as lucrative as traveling, being a local travel nurse is more convenient for family life and higher pay compared to a staff nurse.
Researching before traveling is important to see where the pay market stands and what pay range to look for before signing a contract. Word of mouth is an over looked option when discussing travel nurse pay. Never hurts to ask! The majority of travel nurses are willing to share with others interested in their pay breakdown. There is a hand full of states that are known to have the highest-paying cities, such as California or Washington.
Initially, I like to go through recruiting companies' websites. Most will have a page you can sign in as a guest and look through their pay packages. Some that I frequent the most are Triage Staffing, TNAA, and FlexCare. This will give you a general idea of the average pay by state for your specialty. Another strategy is to pick a few agencies, input your information, and let recruiters come to you and talk pay. On the introductory phone call ask recruiters to send you an email of pay packages in areas that interest you. If you would like to put in some offers and sign up with that company you can! Recruiters work a sales job, it is customary for them to try and sell you on an offer. Do not be afraid to say no to explore more options, most recruiters know it's apart of the job and do not take offense.
Another way to shop around is to go to sites like vivian. On vivian you can input your specialty, the unit you work in, and the a desired state. A database page will load and you can sift through which jobs interest you the most. Vivian also shows pay packages for different jobs. It is important to note different specialties have different pay ranges. Highest paying jobs tend to be ICU, OR, Med-Surg, and PCU/Step Down.
Many other things may affect your pay as a travel nurse. Variances in pay differ between state to state, depending on living costs and tax laws within the state. California is known to be one of the highest paying states for travel nurses, however, the cost of living is also one of the highest in the US.
We as nurses all know that the influx of patients admissions will ebb and flow. During winter time people are generally more sick and hospitals will need more help. Summertime is a slow time for hospitals and will not require as much help. These fluctuations can make it difficult for travel nurses to find decent paying jobs. It is best to be in good contact with your recruiter about the market. If you are on a contract and not finding any decent jobs, ask to extend at your current hospital. Oftentimes you will be able to negotiate a higher pay amount as well! It is cheaper for hospitals to keep you rather than spend money on HR onboarding and training a new travel nurse.
Unfortunately, situations happen out of your control as well. Some hospitals may do a bait and switch. This is when you sign a contract at a certain rate of pay and hours, but after you arrive and start working at the hospital they lower your pay amount, which may or may not affect your stipends (depending on the agency). In these circumstances, nurses have two options. To accept the new rate amount or put in a two week notice. This is one situation where a travel nurse could cut their contract short with no repercussions. My worst contract experience with a hospital did this to me as well. I traveled twelve hours from home to be there and after four weeks of working at this specific hospital my recruiter told me they would be lowering my pay by $400. That news is devastating considering everything I had been through to be there and help a less than welcoming hospital out. My travel nursing agency ended up putting in my two week notice, I broke off a lease I had just signed (and paid $2,000 for it), and went back home with no plan. There are ways to protect yourself from these situations, a knowledgeable recruiter can help you avoid hospitals notorious for bait and switches.
There are a couple of ways to negotiate pay as a travel nurse. The easiest way is to let the recruiter do the talking between the hospital and the agency. For example, towards the end of an assignment (about four weeks out) travelers decide if they would like to extend or move on to a new facility. If the hospital does not specifically ask a nurse to extend and it is nearing the end of the contract, it's perfectly fine to have the recruiter reach out and request an extension. Once there is approval for an extension, this is the open window of opportunity for a travel nurse to negotiate pay. Travelers need to tell the recruiter if they would like an increase in pay and how much they believe is fair. Hospitals are incentivized to keep a travel nurse there rather than hiring and training a new person. Let the recruiter do all of the work from there, they will give updates with any changes.
Another way to strengthen negotiation is to find matching positions located at the same hospital that offer more money. One common way to figure this out is word of mouth. Speak with other travel nurses about their pay. More often than not people are willing to discuss it with fellow travel nurses. Speak with a recruiter about the pay difference, a good recruiter will get the pay raise for their traveler.
The least common way is to request higher pay right off the bat. When applying to different hospital openings a travel nurse may receive an offer and before accepting they can request higher pay. This happens when the pay rate received is extremely low. If an hourly rate is $17 or lower it is suggested to negotiate higher. An hourly rate that is below average RN market pay can signal possible issues to the IRS. It is important for travel nurses to make an average pay rate to meet tax guidelines.
Traveling nursing can be an ideal option for nurses looking to see the country while gaining financial freedom! However, to be successful as a travel nurse it is important to understand travel nurse pay packages. Understanding how to analyze travel contracts and pay packages will make a travel nurse successful. I hope you found this article helpful. If there are any tips I did not mention here, that you would like to know more about, shoot me an email! I would love to hear from you.