Career Resources

How Much Do Travel Nurses Make?

For most nurses, making the leap to travel nursing is well worth the money. The pay is usually higher than what you will be making as a staff nurse, even if you aren’t eligible for the tax-free stipends. If you don’t understand the travel nursing pay structure, head over to our guide to travel nursing pay packages.

Travel nursing allows nurses to work and explore new places, and to dictate how much time they want to take off in between contracts. Last year, I took two months off for a road trip across the country and into Canada. Can you think of a staff job that would allow you to take more than two weeks off without extenuating circumstances? Travel nurses can go on more adventures, all while bringing in more cash during the time they do spend working. 

Do Travel Nurses Make More?

Yes, most travel nurses receive higher pay and compensation than they would as a staff nurse.  You have to take into consideration the cost of benefits, duplication of expenses (if applicable), the absence of paid time off (PTO), and the initial cost of getting on the road. 

It’s best to have some money saved before you start traveling to cover fees for housing security deposits, and the cost of getting to and from your assignment. Some agencies will reimburse you for the cost of travel, but this is contract specific and the nurse usually has to pay the costs up front. 

Many travel nurses chase the money. Usually, if you are flexible on location and shift you can easily surpass your staff pay by hundreds of dollars per week. 

Average Travel Nurse Salary

How much do travel ICU nurses make

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average 2019 salary of RNs in the U.S. was $35.24 per hour. Travel nurses often see rates above $50 per hour for typical contracts. COVID-19 crisis pay has brought rates of $80+ per hour to nurses in high demand specialties.

The travel nurses market is expected to grow. Already this year, we’ve seen some of the highest demands ever for travel nurses. Check our salary tool to see average wages by discipline, specialty and location.

Which States Pay Travel Nurses the Most?

There is no easy answer to this question. In the past, the holy grail of travel nursing pay was usually found in California. California is known for its patient ratio laws and strong nursing unions. 

But, even in the past, if you were flexible on location it was possible to bring home a $2000+ per week salary. The state that pays the most is the facility with the greatest need in your specialty. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, facilities were paying unprecedented amounts for travel nurses. Specialties like ICU, ED, and PCU/stepdown are highly sought after for travel nurse crisis contracts. The contracts can be found in multiple states and lengths of contracts may vary. 

One of the biggest benefits of travel nursing is being able to move around freely and explore the country, often making significantly more money than you would as a staff nurse. Travel nursing pay is often based on demand for nurses, and travel nurses need to decide if they are willing to be flexible with pay if their heart is set on specific locations. Travel nursing pay is often confusing for new travelers and the way the pay packages are bundled makes it difficult to understand exactly how much the hourly rate is.

Travel nurses can seek out the highest rates by browsing jobs on Vivian and sorting by pay, and by letting the recruiters know that they are willing to travel wherever pay is best. Being adaptable and be realistic about where you are willing to accept a job will make the most money as a travel nurse. 

How Much do Travel Nurses Make Before Taxes?

Travel nursing pay is often reported as a ‘blended rate’. This means that part of the travel nurse salary is taxed, and part of the travel nurse pay is in the form of tax-free stipends for housing and meals/incidentals. When these rates are blended together, that is the hourly travel nurse pay rate. 

Travel nursing taxes and how travel nurse pay is taxed can be confusing. In order to be eligible for the tax-free stipends travel nurses must claim a permanent tax home. Claiming a permanent tax home means that the travel nurse is telling the IRS that they have duplicated expenses (at home and at the place of the travel assignment). A travel nurse can only receive tax-free stipends if they are responsible for costs while traveling, and are also contributing a ‘fair market value’ towards cost of living in their home state. 

If a travel nurse cannot claim a permanent tax home, the hourly travel nurse pay rate will still be higher than that of the average staff nurse, but you must pay taxes on the whole rate. Or, risk being audited and having to pay back the government for the tax-free stipends, along with other fees. 

Travel Nurse Pay Breakdown

If a travel nurse cannot claim a permanent tax home, they will be taxed as if they were a staff nurse. For example, if the travel nursing pay is quoted as $60 per hour and fully taxed- the nurse can deduct 20-25% of the rate for taxes (varies based on your annual income, dependents, and state of employment). This means, the travel nurse will take home $45-$48 per hour on the example of $60/hour rate. Travel nurses can then multiply the hourly rate after taxes by the number of hours worked each week to figure out your NET or take home income as a travel nurse. 

If the travel nurse is claiming a permanent tax home, a smaller portion of the travel nurse’s hourly pay is taxed, and the rest will be in the form of travel nurse tax-free stipends. For example, in this scenario if the rate is travel nurse pay is $60 per hour, the travel nurse will most likely only be taxed on $17-$30 per hour, depending on the state and facility. The rest of the travel nurse hourly pays will be reported as tax-free stipends for housing and meals/incidentals.

If a travel nurse opts to take agency provided housing they will NOT get any sort of travel nursing housing stipend, and will still have a very low taxable hourly wage. It is more beneficial for the travel nurse in most locations to find their own housing. Travel nurses will still receive tax-free stipends for meals and incidentals, also known as a per diem stipend. 

Travel Nurse Salary and Travel Nurse Tax Free Stipends

Travel nurse pay and salary can be hard to comprehend. Below is an example of a travel nurse pay package and how it will be reflected in the travel nurse take home pay.

Example travel nurse pay package: 36 hours per week, “Hourly Base Rate” (taxable wages) $25/hour, Weekly stipends $1500 ($1000 per week for housing, $500 per week for per diem)

Yes, the $25 an hour seems low for nursing pay, but that’s ok for a travel nurse. Travel nurses often take home more cash due to the large amount of their pay being in the form of tax-free stipends. Travel nurse tax-free stipends are a huge perk. 

The travel nurse pay breakdown can be calculated by dividing the $1500 in tax-free stipends by 36 (the number of contracted hours per week), the result is $41.67 per hour worked. This means the total travel nurse pay rate is $66.67 per hour. ($25 + $41.67 = $66.67) 

So the travel nurse gross (before taxes) weekly pay will be $2400.12 per week. This is the travel nurse hourly salary ($66.67) multiplied by 36 hours per week.

How Much do Travel Nurses Make After Taxes?

The nurse will only be taxed on the ‘hourly base rate’ if they are claiming a permanent tax home. So in the above example, the travel nurse would only be taxed on $900 of their travel nurse wages weekly ($25/hour x 36 hours). If we use the 25% tax rate (example only- travel nurses taxes will depend on annual income and state of residence, among other factors), that means $225 will be deducted from the travel nurse hourly base pay.  The travel nurse would take home $675 of your taxable income, in addition to the $1500 per week in travel nurse tax-free stipends. The total NET (take home) travel nurse weekly pay $2175. 

Travel Nursing Pay and Negotiation

Travel nurses should be ready to negotiate pay and have a hard limit for what they are willing to accept and not accept. Travel nurses should set a goal pay rate and decide how important location and shift are for them. There may not be a pay differential between shifts, but many hospitals only have night shifts available.   Nurses should research travel nurse salaries in their cities of interest with Vivian in order to have realistic and accurate facts when comparing pay with the recruiter. 

Who Pays Travel Nurses?

Agencies have some flexibility in how the money travel nurses receive is distributed, but travel nursing pay is often compared to a cake or pie. If the agency increases the size of one piece, by default they are decreasing the size of another. For example, if the travel nurse wants more money allocated for travel or licensure reimbursement, the agency may offer a lower weekly meals and incidentals rate. Travel nurses should always try to take the majority of their travel nursing salary as tax-free stipends. The money isn’t unlimited, but travel nurses should advocate for what they deserve.

More Travel Nurse Pay Considerations

Overtime (OT) is not always common as a travel nurse, but the OT rate should be listed in the travel nurse contract. If the travel nurse is taking tax-free allowances, the OT rate may only be 1.5x the travel nurse’s hourly taxable pay. If a travel nurse plans on working a lot of OT, he or she may want to consider renegotiating this rate with their recruiter. Travel nurses should always ask if there are opportunities for overtime in the interview with the facility and try to re-negotiate the OT rate before signing if there is a need for travel nurses to work overtime.

Rachel Norton BSN, RN

I have been a critical care nurse since 2007. I grew up in the northeast but enjoy every corner of the country. My passions are people and travel. Travel nursing allows me to meet amazing people and satisfy my wanderlust. I love inspiring other nurses to travel and expand their practice.

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