If you are a qualified nurse or are currently training to become one, you may be considering the career path of the travel nurse, nurses who are ready to fill in in hospitals, clinics or other healthcare centers that are suffering from staffing shortages around the country.
Apart from the adventure of working in many different locations, one of the big draws of this nomadic lifestyle is the increased pay – and to help you understand how much you can make, in this post, we answer the question, how much do travel nurses earn?
What is a travel nurse?
Before we talk about how much travel nurses earn, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves what travel nurses are to make sure we know what we’re talking about.
Travel nurses are qualified nurses who are willing to travel to different parts of the country to fill positions on a short-term basis according to demand.
Effectively, this means they can be sent to any hospitals that are experiencing staffing shortages. They were particularly in demand during the covid pandemic when staffing issues became acute due to high rates of burnout and dissatisfaction within the nursing profession.
Travel nurses usually work for agencies, and the agencies organize their different assignments while also taking a cut from their pay.
Assignments can be of any length, but the average is around eight to 26 weeks.
There are many challenges to being a travel nurse. They are expected to arrive in a new situation and work professionally effectively right from the start, often in understaffed and chaotic departments.
They have to be able to adapt to new situations quickly, and they need to have a certain resilience to moving frequently and not having the time to develop long-term relationships with their coworkers while also living away from friends and family back home.
There are advantages too though, including having the chance to experience different working environments and seeing different parts of the country. The constant changing of positions also helps to prevent boredom.
However, the main reason most people choose this career path is the pay since travel nurses earn more than regular nurses.
Why do travel nurses earn more than regular nurses?
Due to the unique challenges associated with being a travel nurse, they receive a higher salary than regular nurses to compensate them.
The higher salaries are also partly driven by supply and demand – when a hospital or other health center is facing a staff shortage, agencies are able to charge higher rates to send nurses there to meet the demand.
When the need is particularly acute, this can drive salaries up even further. This is why travel nurses are currently receiving high salaries due to the number of regular nurses leaving the profession, either through retirement or to follow different career paths.
What is the average salary for a travel nurse?
So how much do travel nurses earn? Let’s look at this now.
Several factors can affect how much a travel nurses can earn, including experience, specialization and location of the posting.
However, let’s start by looking at some national averages, and then we can dig down into the details after that.
According to nursingprocess.org, the average yearly salary for a travel nurse in 2023 is $124,100. However, an experienced travel nurse can expect around $180,290 and a newly qualified travel nurse can make around $82,850.
This works out at an average hourly rate of $59.66, with experienced nurses making $86.68 and new nurses being paid $39.83.
Alternatively, according to healthjob.org, travel nurses earn an average wage of $2,132 per week, which works out at $110,864 for working a full 52-week year.
How does the salary vary by state?
Where travel nurses work also has a significant impact on how much they earn, with salaries varying significantly from state to state.
According to vivian.com, the top-paying state was California, with an average weekly wage of $3,070. At the other end of the scale was Florida, where travel nurses only make $2,220 per week.
Here are the top five paying states for travel nurses:
- California $3,070
- New Jersey $3,011
- North Dakota $3,002
- Nevada $2,958
- Washington $2,946
The lowest five paying states were:
- Florida $2,220
- Oklahoma $2,303
- Texas $2,323
- Missouri $2,330
- Alabama $2,379
However, these numbers are not the only factors to take into consideration. For example, the cost of living and the price of rent may also be important in determining how much you earn in real terms as a travel nurse.
For example, the same website estimates that the state with the lowest rent for travel nurses was Mississippi while the state with the lowest cost of living was Arkansas.
Although California is the best-paid state to live in, it also has the highest cost of living, so travel nurses working there don’t earn the most in real terms.
When other factors are taken into account, according to vivian.com, the best state to work in was South Dakota – while California ranked as the worst.
The best five states were:
- South Dakota
- North Dakota
Which specializations are best paid?
The other major factor that affects how much you can earn as a travel nurse is what specialization or specializations you have.
According to nurse.org, the highest-paid specialization is certified registered nurse anesthetist. Nurses with this specialization can earn an average of $194,352 per year or $93 per hour – with the top-paid nurses earning up to $311,500 per year.
Another well-paid specialization is operating room nurse, a specialization that is paid on average $181,460 per year or $87 per hour. The highest-paid operating room nurses can earn up to $286,000.
Here are some other well-paid specializations:
- Emergency room travel nurse: average $83,503/year ($40/hour), $171,500/year top
- Intensive care travel nurse average $143,416/year ($69/hour), $263,500 top
- Travel nurse practitioner average $140,086/year ($67/hour), $243,500 top
- Neonatal intensive care unit travel nurse $173,017/year ($83/hour), $281,500 top
- Med-surg travel nurse average $118,997 ($57.21/hour), $134.38/hour top
- Telemetry travel nurse average $124,122/year ($60/hour), $174,500 top
How to increase your salary as a travel nurse
Although salaries can vary significantly, there are several things you can do to increase how much you can earn as a travel nurse. Here are some suggestions.
- Train for a new specialization
As we’ve seen, the highest-paid travel nurses are those who can work in more specialist positions, so if you aren’t qualified for these positions, you can consider training and getting qualified for them.
- Be flexible with when and where you can work
Travel nurses are under no obligation to accept any position offered to them, but if you are flexible about which states or cities you are willing to work in, there’s a higher chance of landing the more lucrative positions.
- Work unpopular shifts or holidays
Certain shifts or holiday days are paid more, so if you want to earn more money, you can volunteer to work more of those shifts. For example, depending on where you work, working on holiday days may earn you 50% or even 100% more than working regular shifts.
- Fill in during crises
During periods when travel nurses are in high demand, rates can be higher, so if you are willing to fill in during times of staffing crises – for example, during the covid pandemic – you can earn even more.
- Ask about bonuses
Find out about bonuses in certain positions since this may help you supplement your regular salary.
- Change agency
Some agencies offer their nurses a better deal, so if you think your agency isn’t paying you enough and you can earn more elsewhere, there’s nothing preventing you from changing.
When it comes to agencies, shop around – especially if you are an experienced and highly trained nurse – since this is another way to potentially increase your salary.
- Remember that the highest pay doesn’t equal the highest earnings
As we saw above, just because a position offers you the highest salary, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be earning the highest amount in real terms due to things like rent and the cost of living.
As a result, you should do your research into a particular position and the local conditions to see how much you would be earning each month compared with how much you would need to spend while living there.
What other benefits do travel nurses receive?
As well as financial remuneration, travel nurses can also expect other benefits that may include free housing, medical, dental and eye cover, retirement plans and travel reimbursement, all of which can add to the attractiveness of the travel nurse experience.
Higher pay for the challenges and inconveniences
As we’ve seen, working as a travel nurse comes with certain inconveniences and challenges, and this is the reason these nurses are paid higher salaries than their counterparts who always work in the same hospital or clinic.
As a result, if you think you are adaptable and resilient enough to overcome these challenges, working as a travel nurse can be a rewarding option that will allow you to increase your salary while allowing you to experience working in different parts of the country.