Among the many “pinch me” moments travel nurses Shannon McPeek and Samantha Reene shared, scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef stands out the most. “To this day, it gives me chills,” says McPeek. “Being able to see something incredible, surrounded by friends because of my job? It was just so euphoric.”
Nurses McPeek, RN BSN and Reene, RN BSN CPAN traveled together for a few years before and during the pandemic before settling down in hospital staff positions. Along the way, they met Laura Cempellin, RN BSN, a travel nurse with no plans to stop anytime soon.
The travel nurse industry has changed since the pandemic when positions spiked by necessity. Laura has noticed pay rates are no longer as high as in the pandemic when the urgent need to add staff in places with an outbreak was more acute. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, travel nurses during the pandemic doubled in the U.S.
Nursing needs to change and improve to keep nurses at the bedside, says McPeek. But she insists the travel nurse industry isn’t going anywhere, even if the positions have ebbed and flowed in recent years.
Speaking from a vacation home in Breckenridge, Colorado, all three nurses agree that travel nursing remains lucrative and enticing. They talked about the many advantages of travel nursing – how it changed their lives and how it’s helping nurses prevent burnout.
The many advantages and a few disadvantages of being a travel nurse
Working as a travel nurse isn’t for everyone. Family obligations make it impossible for some. Aversion to change makes even the prospect of additional income less appealing.
But for those who are easily mobile and seeking adventure, some time spent as a travel nurse is a no-brainer.
In 2023, travel nurses can make as much as $125K per year in some states and over $100K in many other places, according to ZipRecruiter. Compare that to the current highest nursing salary in Hawaii at $86K.
Besides the additional income, some of the advantages of being a travel nurse include the following:
- Control your schedule by choosing jobs with day shifts
- Schedule breaks for holidays and vacations in between travel nursing jobs
- Live in usually unaffordable cities with housing stipends adjusted by location
- Meet like-minded peers with similar interests and a sense of adventure
- Gain a wide breadth of experience from various patient populations, hospital networks and many co-workers
While Reene, McPeek and Cempellin all agree the benefits of travel nursing outweigh any downside, there are some distinct disadvantages. Most nursing teams are happy to have the additional support, but that’s not always the case – especially when travel nurses earn more than staff members doing the same work. Constantly being a new employee can mean that some travel nurses get stuck with the more acute, challenging jobs, says Reene.
Nurses build seniority over time in institutions, getting pay raises, PPO and better shifts. Returning to a staff position after a stint of travel nursing usually means accepting a job with night shifts and limited flexibility on days off.
The benefits aren’t always great for travel nursing agencies either, says Cempellin. She pays for her health insurance plan so that she doesn’t have to rely on any particular company and has continuous coverage during breaks between assignments.
Moving between jobs means that travel nurses should also carry malpractice insurance. CM&F Group provides comprehensive, portable, and flexible nurse liability insurance policies for travel nurses. It covers you 24/7, anywhere you go.
How being a travel nurse helps prevent burnout
In an era of nursing shortages and burnout, travel nursing is critical to keeping more nurses working at the bedside, says McPeek. In addition to nursing, McPeek launched Operation Happy Nurse in 2019, a nonprofit to help nurses struggling with stress, anxiety and depression.
Listen to an episode of Let’s Cover That! to hear more about Operation Happy Nurse.
For some nurses, testing travel nursing life is an attempt to stay in a profession they love, despite burnout. “You can take breaks from the unit, and you are making more money for the traumas you have to deal with,” says McPeek.
Still, she says, travel nursing as a solution to burnout is only a temporary fix for a profession plagued by shortages expected to grow in the coming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 203,200 openings for registered nurses are projected each year this decade. “We’re putting a band-aid on a problem that has many more issues that need to be addressed,” says McPeek.
That sense of burnout, a low staff-to-patient ratio, and low pay in some nursing jobs are why many people choose travel nursing. The prospect of making more money, having time off and feeling more appreciated is appealing.
What you need to consider before becoming a travel nurse
Travel nurse jobs usually require two years of experience, which McPeek, Reene and Cempellin all recommend. There’s no time to catch up on nursing skills when every position requires learning a new layout and work culture. Training is typically three shifts. But, McPeek and Reene recall one job in Sydney where orientation was simply a five-minute floor tour. “You’re going to enter units where you don’t know their protocols. You’re not going to know where everything is. If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions, you’ll struggle,” says McPeek.
While travel nurses need to be highly competent in their field, there’s a lot to learn and gain from the job, says Campellin. “You get a huge exposure to different patient populations, comorbidities and ways of working.”
Travel nursing assignments typically last 13 weeks. At the end of any gig, travel nurses can ask for an extension, which Campellin says she does nearly every time. This helps her reduce moves and coordinate job dates with holidays and vacations.
Flexibility is key for anyone who wants to be a travel nurse. Besides moving several times a year, there tends to be less stability within travel nursing assignments. “You’re there to help, so there are times when you get floated to other areas or are sent to a satellite campus,” says McPeek. “You have to be able to roll with the punches.”
All three women have had experiences where their pay was adjusted higher or lower during a job. And Reene even had a placement where she moved to a new town only to find out her position was canceled.
The gold rush of travel nursing during the pandemic might be over, but Cemellin recommends trying it out if you can. “I think travel nursing is probably the best thing that ever happened to me, and anyone interested in it should do it. It’s helped me grow as a person, and it’s introduced me to so many amazing people. I can’t see what my life would have been like without it.”
CM&F offers travel nurse liability insurance, also known as travel nurse malpractice insurance, tailored to your needs wherever you practice in the United States and within each states scope of practice.