If you’re considering travel nursing or are already working as a travel nurse and want to boost your compensation, understanding standard pay rates and benefits within the industry is crucial.
Travel nursing has exploded in popularity over the past few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Demand for travel nurses has waned a bit post-pandemic and pay has likewise cooled from the frenzied compensation levels seen during the COVID surge.
Nonetheless, there remains a massive shortage of nurses across the country. Healthcare facilities still rely on travel nurses to fill gaps and provide high-quality care. Those factors, and others, mean many travel nurses can readily earn six figures a year working in the profession.
If the allure of high pay and unique adventures draws you to this non-traditional career path, you’ve come to the right place.
This guide breaks down the key elements of travel nurse compensation so you can make informed decisions about the type of work you’d like to do, as well as key benefits to negotiate in order to increase your overall pay.
Here’s a look at what you’ll find below in this guide, Pay 101: Compensation and Benefits in the Travel Nursing Profession.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- State of the Industry and Overview of Travel Nurse Pay
- How Many Travel Nurses Are in the U.S.?
- Base Pay
- Pay for Different Travel Nurse Specialties
- Bonuses and Incentives
- Tax Implications
- States With the Highest Pay for Travel Nurses
- Getting Started
- Questions to Ask Recruiters
- The Rewards and Challenges of Travel Nursing
- Travel Nursing Outlook
State of the Industry and Overview of Travel Nurse Pay
The current shortage of nurses in America is expected to continue for the next decade, with the country needing hundreds of thousands of more nurses. That’s an opportunity for travel nurses. In the nursing profession, the average age of an RN nurse is around 44 years old.
Hourly wages for most travel nurses currently range anywhere from $50 to $120 an hour.
The majority of travel nurses earn between $80,000 and $150,000 a year, but some have compensation that hits $200,000 a year, depending on their location, specialties, and expertise.
Cheryl Brown, owner of Achieve Home Nursing Services in Marietta, Georgia says “Travel nurses generally earn two to three times the pay of local nurses on staff in any given market.”
How Many Travel Nurses Are in the U.S.?
The American Nurses Association (ANA), the trade group for the country’s five million registered nurses, formally recognized travel health nursing as a nursing specialty in 2020.
Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, there were about 50,000 travel nurses in the U.S., or about 1% of the nation’s registered nurses. But that number skyrocketed once COVID struck. According to 2023 data published by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, there are now 5.2 million active RNs in the U.S. and approximately 974,000 nurses with active LPN/LVN licenses.
There is no official data on the number of travel nurses. But Zippia says there are 1.7 million traveling nurses in America, as of 2023.
Travel nurses typically earn an hourly rate through travel nursing agencies rather than a salary. On average, they work 36 hours per week and 46 weeks per year. While travel nurses earn an average of $3,167 per week, according to 2023 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earnings can range between $3,000 and $7,000 per week.
This wide range exists because work assignments vary considerably in their scope, location, demand, and nurse qualifications.
It’s also important to realize that travel nurses incur additional personal expenses from the nature of travel-based work, such as housing, gas, food, and other transportation-related costs. To compensate for these extra expenses, the pay rate for travel nurses is substantially higher than salaries for nurses employed permanently at healthcare facilities.
Pay for Different Travel Nurse Specialties
Unlike staff nurses who receive an annual salary, travel nurses are paid on a per-contract basis. Contracts typically last 13 weeks but can be as short as one to two months or as long as 26 weeks. Pay is determined by several factors, including your specialty, certifications, years of experience, and location. The highest demand right now is for ICU, ER, and Medical/Surgical care nurses. Here’s an overview of the current average weekly pay rates:
- ER/Trauma: $3,000-$6,000+ per week
- ICU/Critical Care: $2,500-$5,000+ per week
- Med/Surg: $2,500-$4,000 per week
- Labor & Delivery: $2,000-$4,000+ per week
- Operating Room: $2,000-$4,000+ per week
Keep in mind pay rates can fluctuate based on location. Hospitals in understaffed, competitive regions may offer higher rates to attract talent. The current hot spots include major cities and rural areas.
Bonuses and Incentives
Many agencies provide bonuses and incentives on top of your weekly pay. Common extras include:
- Completion bonuses – Receive $1,000-$2,500 when you finish the full 13-week contract.
- Referral bonuses – Earn money, typically $500 to $1,000, for referring a nurse who accepts a contract.
- Loyalty bonuses – Get a bonus for completing back-to-back contracts with the same facility.
- High-demand bonuses – Facilities may offer an extra $500 or more per week for critical needs.
- Overtime pay – Earn time and a half for extra shifts picked up during your contract.
- Holiday pay – Receive higher hourly pay for working holidays.
While travel nurses sacrifice some traditional benefits by not working as permanent staff, agencies offer monetary benefits to offset gaps in coverage. Here are some of the top benefits to look for with travel nursing contracts:
- Health insurance – Most agencies provide comprehensive health plans or stipends to purchase your own.
- Dental & Vision – Plans or stipends may be included.
- 401(k) options – Some agencies offer matching retirement funds.
- Licensure reimbursement – Agencies may reimburse the cost of obtaining/transferring your nursing license.
- Paid time off – Contracts include some PTO days (usually around 5).
- Per diem – Agencies provide additional money (typically $1,000-$1,500 per contract) for meals and incidentals.
- Housing and travel stipends – Tax-free stipends help cover these costs.
- Relocation assistance – Agencies may provide financial assistance for relocations.
When comparing contract offers, be sure to closely evaluate the monetary benefits. A higher weekly rate may be negated by less generous bonuses and stipends. Pay close attention to exclusions and limitations as well.
The pay structure for travel nurses leads to unique tax circumstances. The tax-free stipends for housing, meals, and travel are appealing perks. However, you must understand the IRS requirements to avoid any unpleasant surprises at tax time.
The housing stipend is tax-free only if:
- The agency requires you to duplicate housing costs.
- Stipend amounts are justified based on location.
- Per diem rates align with federal limits.
If your stipends exceed the IRS thresholds, the excess amounts become taxable income. Keep thorough documentation and work with a tax professional familiar with travel nurse taxes.
Some other notable tax considerations include:
- As an independent contractor, taxes are not withheld from your paychecks. Make sure to make quarterly estimated tax payments.
- Track and deduct eligible job expenses like medical supplies, training/licensing fees, job search costs, and mileage.
- Consider incorporating as an S-Corp to take advantage of tax write-offs.
- Research state-specific taxes. Some states do not tax travel nurse income earned within their borders.
States with the Highest Pay for Travel Nurses
Certain states offer much higher pay rates for travel nurse contracts compared to other locations. These high-paying states tend to have major shortages, high costs of living, and competitive job markets. According to 2023 data, here are some of the top-paying states for travel nurses:
California – Major metro areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco offer some of the highest travel nurse pay in the country. Contracts in California can earn $5,000 per week or more for experienced nurses. Demand is high and the cost of living is sky-high.
New York – The New York City area frequently has very lucrative travel nurse jobs. However, the state recently imposed wage caps for nurses which has lowered pay rates. Expect to earn $3,500-$4,500 per week.
Massachusetts – This northeastern state struggles with nurse staffing shortages. Travelers can earn $3,000-$4,000 per week in higher-cost cities like Boston.
Washington – Major hospital systems in Seattle compete for talent. Pay averages $3,500-$4,500 per week.
Maryland – The Maryland-DC area allows for high earnings. Contracts pay $3,000-$4,500 per week.
Targeting high-demand, competitive states with nurse shortages can really pay off if you’re looking to maximize your compensation. Just be prepared for a higher cost of living.
Alaska – Alaska is another state that often tops the list for high travel nurse compensation. Due to its remote location and frigid climate, Alaska struggles to attract and retain permanent nurse staff. You can earn $4,000-$5,000 per week at healthcare facilities in cities like Anchorage and Juneau. Keep in mind that Alaska’s freezing temperatures and abundant snow may not appeal to everyone. But if you don’t mind bundling up, an Alaska contract can be extremely lucrative for travel nurses who earn double or more than what permanent nurses make.
If you’re ready to enter the lucrative world of travel nursing, follow these steps:
- Research top agencies – Look for those that offer high pay, bonuses, and benefits. Focus on agencies specialized in travel nursing.
- Evaluate your qualifications – Agencies list specific requirements and preferences for each contract. Only apply to contracts you are well-qualified for.
- Apply and interview – The agency will likely conduct phone or video interviews first before presenting your profile to facilities.
- Review offers carefully – Scrutinize the fine print to understand pay, benefits, working conditions, etc. Negotiate if needed.
- Accept an offer and get ready for onboarding! – The agency will help you obtain licensure and walk you through the onboarding paperwork and requirements.
The application and onboarding process can take several weeks to a few months depending on the contract start date. Be prepared for a paperwork marathon!
Questions to Ask Recruiters
Here are some important questions to ask agency recruiters before accepting a travel nurse contract:
- What is the full compensation package including pay, bonuses, stipends, benefits, etc.?
- What are the insurance policy details including deductibles, copays, coinsurance, covered services, prescription drug tiers, and provider networks?
- How many PTO days does the contract include? Can I take them consecutively?
- Does the contract guarantee a 40-hour work week?
- Is the overtime rate time and a half?
- Will you provide assistance with licensure and immunizations? Are they reimbursable?
- Do you provide relocation assistance if needed?
- Are there financial penalties for terminating a contract early?
- How responsive has the hospital been during prior contracts?
- Will I have a dedicated agency contact for support during the contract?
Asking the right questions upfront ensures you choose the best contract for your personal and financial needs.
The Rewards and Challenges of Travel Nursing
If the travel bug has bitten you, then the adventures and exploration afforded by travel nursing can be highly rewarding. Each contract places you in a new city where you can soak up the local culture during your free time. Of course, relocating every few months also comes with challenges:
- See the country
- Experience new places
- Make great money
- Gain professional exposure
- Flexible schedule
- Greater independence
- Meet new people
- Isolating and lonely
- Long orientations
- Frequent moves
- Housing headaches
- Staff integration difficulties
- Licensing/insurance delays
- Tax complexity
Carefully weigh whether the pros outweigh the cons based on your personality, career goals, financial needs, and family situation. Some nurses love the nomadic lifestyle. Others become weary after a contract or two. Look before you leap!
Travel Nursing Outlook
While pandemic-related demands have fueled massive growth in travel nurse opportunities, the future remains bright for several reasons:
- Ongoing nurse shortages. Low staffing was an issue even before COVID-19 hit. As baby boomers age, the need for healthcare workers continues to rise. It will take years for permanent staff to catch up.
- High burnout rates. Record numbers of healthcare professionals are leaving staff jobs for less stressful options. Travel nursing provides more freedom and flexibility.
- Retirement waves. Up to 500,000 seasoned nurses may retire in the next 5 years. Healthcare systems will struggle to replace their clinical expertise and knowledge.
- Financial incentives. Traveler compensation remains substantially higher compared to staff wages. Hospitals depend on travel nurses to fill urgent needs.
- Desirable lifestyle. For nurses seeking adventure, travel nursing offers the perfect avenue. Demand from interested nurses is outpacing supply.
While compensation rates may fluctuate with economic changes, the overall demand trend for travel nurses looks strong for the foreseeable future.
Travel Nursing Can Pay Off
As this guide illustrates, travel nursing offers the opportunity to earn excellent compensation while enjoying a unique, adventurous lifestyle.
To fully capitalize on the financial rewards, research pay packages thoroughly and understand the tax implications.
With the right contracts and preparation, travel nursing can pay off with handsome earnings potential year after year.