Make the most money as a travel nurse
Money and Taxes

How to Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse

It’s widely known that travel nurses typically earn more than registered nurses (RNs) in similar staff roles and enjoy other perks, like the flexibility to work where and when they want while earning a substantial paycheck. But what if we told you that you could make even more money as a travel nurse? Many factors contribute to a travel nurse’s income, such as specialty, certifications, licensure, location, housing situation and overall flexibility. These and other factors can all impact your take-home salary. We’ve put together the ultimate guide to help you make the most money as a travel nurse.

How Much More Do Travel Nurses Make?

Let’s briefly look at how much travel nurses make compared to staff nurses. During the second week of January 2023, the average weekly travel nurse salary on Vivian was $2,557 based on active jobs posted over the previous week. This weekly salary breaks down to about $63.93 hourly in a standard 40-hour workweek. In comparison, RNs in permanent positions earned an average of $37.24 per hour, according to Vivian’s salary data for staff nurses.

RELATED: Travel Nurse Careers: Is Travel Nursing Right for You?

10 Ways to Boost Your Travel Nurse Salary

Everyone likes to make as much money as possible at work. Although travel nurses already start out on top regarding salary, these 10 tips can potentially help boost your travel salary even further.

1. Choose a High-Paying Specialty

Whether you’re seeking travel or staff nursing jobs, certain nursing specialties pay better than others. Any roles that require extensive training and experience typically pay a bit more, and specialties with consistently higher demand than supply may also offer a slight boost. However, in-demand specialties tend to match those requiring specialized training. You may also find a temporary need in a specific facility or area for a specialty not typically among the highest-paying RN specialties, so the highest-paid list for travel nurses frequently changes.

Of the travel nursing jobs posted on Vivian in mid-January 2023, the following specialties offered the highest wages:

Specialty Highest Weekly Pay Average Weekly Pay Number Jobs
Pediatrics $8,001 $2,858 2,541
Cardiovascular  Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (CVPICU) $7,611 $3,907 39
Labor and Delivery $6,931 $2,876 3,588
Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) $6,673 $2,693 1,172
Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) $6,584 $3,288 2,227
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) $6,210 $2,968 1,632
Operating Room (OR) $6,008 $3,029 6,305
Intensive Care Unit (ICU) $5,868 $2,552 8,406
Telemetry $5,425 $2,559 13,385
Medical Surgical/Telemetry $5,313 $2,455 25,860

The higher-paying travel nursing specialties include Labor and Delivery (L&D), OR (especially CVOR), Cath Lab, ICU and CVICU (Cardiovascular ICU). This doesn’t mean that another specialty won’t pay higher if the facility has a high need. Those fields of nursing tend to be the most sought-after and have the highest compensation, especially at in-demand locations.

Furthering your education to take on advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles can substantially boost your travel nurse salary. Some of the highest-paying APRN roles include assistant chief nursing officers, certified RN anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners in various specialties, especially acute care, oncology, emergency care, obstetrics/gynecology and urgent care.

2. Seek Professional Certifications

Professional certifications validate your advanced knowledge and skills in a specific nursing field and often position you for advancement and a bump in pay. Getting certified in areas that require heightened vigilance and nursing care, such as ICUs and emergency departments, can be especially beneficial. According to the Association of Critical-Care Nurses, three out of four Americans are more likely to choose hospitals employing a high percentage of nurses holding specialty certifications.

Hospitals pursuing Magnet status to demonstrate their excellence in nursing especially strive to increase nurse specialty certification. Although this typically has more bearing on permanent staff nurses, these facilities may also prefer travel nurses with specialty certifications to keep a level playing field.

3. Obtain a Compact License

As of January 2023, 36 states have fully implemented the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC), and one more state and two territories have enacted legislation and are awaiting implementation. With so many states as members of the Compact, the odds are good that you already live in an eNLC state. You may even have your compact license. If so, you’re ahead of the game on this tip.

A compact license increases the number of states you can work in without further licensure requirements, making you a popular travel nurse candidate. You also save yourself the trouble and potential expense of getting and maintaining multiple licenses in the 36 states already actively participating in the Compact.

If you want to take contracts in non-eNLC states, consider obtaining single-state licenses ahead of time to prepare. Many travel nurse staffing agencies reimburse you for state licensure, so work with your recruiter to see when you can seek these licenses and how reimbursement works.

Unfortunately, if you permanently reside in a non-Compact state, you can’t apply for a multistate license in another state. You must apply for a single-state license in your home state and licensure by endorsement in every state where you want to work.

Keeping track of individual licenses eats up a lot of time (and possibly money) for initial licensure fees and maintaining those licenses at appropriate intervals if you don’t receive reimbursements for these fees. If you plan to make travel nursing a career, you should seriously consider moving to a Compact state. A move now could really work in your favor financially over the long term.

5. Work in Higher Paying Locations

Make the most money as a travel nurse

California consistently pays significantly more than most states for nearly all types of travel nursing roles. Working in the Golden State likely sounds like a fantastic idea, both for the money and the environment. However, you might be cautious about taking some travel nursing jobs in California due to the state’s astronomical cost of living. Although your weekly salary and housing stipend should reflect those higher costs, you could end up taking home much less than anticipated.

To make the most money as a travel nurse, you must be 100% flexible in your location. Consider smaller towns that might not be as appealing as Southern California, New York City or most of Florida. Small towns and rural areas often have a difficult time attracting travel nurses because they’re less appealing, but they may offer enticing pay packages to reel you in. 

Many smaller or more rural states also have lower costs of living, allowing you to save more of your paycheck. For example, travel nursing jobs in Oklahoma pay less than those in California, but the cost of living in Oklahoma is 18% less than the national average, while California’s is 50% higher. No matter where a contract takes you, chances are you can find fun attractions and nearby areas to explore for the short time you’ll likely be working there.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of Overtime

If you have the energy to squeeze in extra shifts, working overtime (OT) as a travel nurse can really help you rake in the cash, especially if you don’t qualify for tax-free stipends. You should earn 1.5 to 2 times your base rate for overtime pay, but the amount of your actual overtime can differ based on your travel nurse contract and state tax rules.

For example, if you receive tax-free stipends, your base rate only includes the taxed hourly salary rate you receive. This amount may only be $20 because you get the bulk of your pay untaxed as stipends, so your OT rate may only be $30 without any additional stipend money. If you anticipate working lots of extra hours, negotiate your OT rate with your staffing agency to ensure you make the most money as a travel nurse.

If you’re really trying to get on the money train, look for contracts offering 48 hours per week, but make sure the additional 8 hours are paid a decent OT rate to make it worth it. For example, California pays 1.5 times the base rate for hours worked over 40 in a workweek but double time for any hours worked over 12 in a 24-hour period.

In California, you may earn 1.5 times your base rate for any hours worked over 8 in a workday, but exceptions exist for healthcare employers. They don’t always have to fully comply with all of California’s OT rules if they’ve adopted an alternative schedule that includes workdays exceeding 10 but not 12 hours in a 40-hour workweek.

Always keep a close eye on your paycheck to ensure you’re getting paid for all the OT you’ve earned. Even if you only worked over by 15 minutes or you received a shorter lunch break, keep track of those minutes because they can add up.

If you receive per diems for meals and other incidentals, make sure your check includes the correct amounts. Agencies do their best but can make mistakes like any person. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to know how many hours you worked and how much you should have been paid.

6. Work Weekends and Holidays

Everyone wants off on the weekends and holidays, especially if they have a family. If you’re working away from home, having weekends off might not be that important to you. Unless you’ve worked out your travel contracts to be off during the holidays and/or plan on flying home temporarily, you may also find yourself stuck out of town on major holidays. If so, it’s an ideal time to pick up some potentially lucrative shifts and make a staff nurse’s day who now gets to take a weekend or a holiday off while you work.

Holidays often pay higher rates, sometimes 1.5 to 2 times your base rate. They also present an opportunity to take on shorter travel contracts if you don’t want to be stuck somewhere for the average 13-week contract. Healthcare facilities may offer short-term contracts of 4 to 6 weeks just to cover staff vacations during holidays and often pay a premium for the limited number of travelers willing to work through particularly popular holidays.

7. Be Smart About Housing to Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse

When possible, share housing with someone else. Rent a single room in someone’s house instead of an entire apartment, condo or house. Find a nursing friend to travel with and share expenses or ask your travel nurse agency if they know of anyone in the area looking for a roommate. Splitting housing costs can save travel nurses a lot of cash, allowing them to make the most money possible.

If you absolutely must live alone, try to find your own travel nurse housing as cheaply as possible while ensuring you’re still in a safe situation. If you’re offered agency housing, the agency usually comes out ahead on this, not you. Consider an extended stay hotel, which may be cheaper than traditional housing, especially if the franchise offers healthcare worker discounts. Your agency may have a deal with a hotel chain that offers its travelers discounts.

Some travel nurses have also bought an RV or travel trailer and stayed in campgrounds. Many campgrounds offer discounts for extended stays that make them a much cheaper housing alternative. However, some of them have stay limits. Finding a camping spot at the height of the camping season might also be challenging in some locations.

The smartest housing move is to take the tax-free stipend if you qualify for it. Taking the tax-free housing stipend decreases your take liability, which keeps more money in your pocket. If there’s any way for you to qualify, take the stipend. If you take the stipend, you must find your own housing and can’t rely on any agency housing that might be available. While securing your own accommodations can be more stressful, it’s one of the best ways to make the most money as a travel nurse. If you do NOT qualify for any tax-free stipends, be sure to negotiate your rate as high as possible.

RELATED: 5 Best Websites for Travel Nurse Housing

8. Watch for Rapid Response and Strike Assignments

If you’re very flexible and able to act spontaneously, you can earn much higher sums of money taking on rapid response and strike assignments. These assignments often require you to act quickly and move to a new location on very short notice to cover staffing emergencies. Ideally, these assignments not only provide a huge salary but also cover travel expenses and accommodations.

The major downside to these assignments is that they aren’t guaranteed, especially strike contracts. Strikes can end at a moment’s notice should both parties come to an agreement, so you could arrive and learn you don’t have an assignment after all. Another potential con is that you usually don’t have many options for the unit you work in or the shifts you work. You must be willing to work anywhere within your scope of practice and during any shifts required.

9. Take a Contract Extension

If you want to make the most money as a travel nurse, plan on taking an extension if the facility offers one. You can usually negotiate for a bit more money for an extension and dictate the length of time for the extension. An extension doesn’t necessarily have to be for another 13 weeks. However, moving around about every three months can get exhausting. If you like the location and the facility, why not stick around a bit longer and get paid more to do it?

If necessary, you can ask for a week off before beginning your extension to give yourself a short break. This may be especially essential if it’s a fairly lengthy extension. If you’re going to need any time off during the extension, be sure to inform the facility and your travel nurse agency before signing the new contract.

10. Use Vivian as a Resource

Vivian Health advocates for nurses and makes it easier and quicker for you to find travel nursing assignments. We work with multiple travel nursing agencies, meaning you’ll always have a large selection of jobs in a variety of locations around the country. Vivian is unbiased towards any agency or healthcare facility and arms you with all the information you need to make informed decisions.

Our commitment to transparent pay means you’ll see pay rates posted with every job an agency and hospital posts directly through Vivian. You also have access to our salary tool, which lets you compare pay rates for various nursing disciplines in cities and states nationwide. Getting started is quick and easy with a Vivian Universal Profile, which gives you access to 1,000s of travel jobs from 100s of agencies with a single application.

rachel-nurseflygmail-com
Rachel Norton BSN, RN

Rachel Norton has been a critical care nurse since 2007. She grew up in the northeast but enjoys every corner of the country. Her passions are people and travel, so travel nursing allows Rachel to both meet amazing people and satisfy her wanderlust - and she loves inspiring other nurses to do the same.

Comments (8)

So, for those of us who travel locally, our OT/call back rate should still be 1.5 times our base? My base is currently $74 and my OT/call back rate is only $85.

Reply

Hello Danielle and thanks for reaching out. An OT rate is generally 1.5 times the base, but all agencies and contracts are different. Read your contract carefully to see what it includes. If you feel your rate isn’t meeting the norm in your area and/or for the type of work you do, consider negotiating for a higher amount. If you have any questions about our website, please feel free to use the “Contact Vivian” option under the Resources tab to reach our 24/7 help desk for further assistance.

Reply

Can you tell us about mileage …… how much is it and is it set by IRS or company ?

Reply

Hello Reuben and thanks for reaching out! First, we want to emphasize that it’s always best to talk to a tax professional familiar with tax rules related to travel healthcare workers to ensure you have the most up-to-date information. Regarding mileage, if you’re talking about taking a mileage deduction on your federal tax return, traveling nurses and allied health professionals currently can’t deduct travel-related expenses such as mileage and gas on their federal taxes under the new tax laws. However, federal tax laws are subject to change, which is why we suggest speaking to a tax professional. A handful of states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Hawaii and New York) still allow mileage deductions on state tax returns. The IRS issues standard mileage rates, which in 2022 were 58.5 cents for the first six months of the year and 62.5 cents for the last half. The travel agency may factor in mileage in its travel-related reimbursements, but you’d need to speak to individual agencies about this.

Reply

Excellent advice! Great article, thank you!

Reply

Great Article. Very informative. Thank you

Reply

This is awesome and great guide/tips!
Well appreciated

Reply

Well said 🤙

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