So many factors contribute to the income of a travel nurse. Variables like specialty, location, tax-free stipend eligibility, and housing situation can all have an effect on the take-home salary of a travel nurse. We’ve put together the ultimate guide to help you make the most as possible!
Vivian works with multiple agencies, which means they have a large selection of jobs. You might even notice that some agencies have the same job but pay differently! Vivian gives you all the information you need to help you with your search, it is unbiased towards any agency or hospital. See our Travel Nurse Pay Guide for more info on how much travel nurses make.
Choose a Nursing Specialty
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 may 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.
L& D nurses are always in demand. People are not going to stop having babies. Labor and delivery RNs’ salaries are consistently $2600-$3200/week GROSS (before taxes) throughout the US before pandemic, and we are seeing even higher rates post COVID-19.
OR and CVOR nurses make approximately $1900-$2800/ week, but there are contracts with high needs that pay a bit more. Cath Lab RNs salary is almost always over $1800/week, with some positions paying over $3K per week! CVICU nurses in California can expect to gross over $3000 per week, and other states aren’t far behind. ICU nurses became THE in-demand specialty during COVID, and that hasn’t slowed much. General high acuity ICU experience is almost always in high-demand.
Location, Location, Location.
Yes, California pays significantly more than most states. But this cost of living is becoming un-livable. Travel nurses almost HAVE to share housing with another person to make working there worth it. The best way to make the most money is to be 100% flexible in your location. Find the highest paying job with the lowest cost of living. To make the most money as a travel nurse, you can sort the jobs on Vivian by pay.
Optimize Your Taxes
Know the rules! The ‘standard’ minimum distance to qualify as a ‘travel assignment’ is 50 miles. That standard is defined by the IRS, but many facilities have different rules and may have a further distance requirement. Additionally, just traveling 50+ miles to and from work isn’t enough to receive the tax free stipend. You MUST duplicate expenses (pay for housing at ‘home’ and at the location for your assignment) in order to be eligible for stipends. To make the most money as a travel nurse, nurses should ideally split housing and pocket the rest of the stipend.
Be aware of how much time you are spending in one area. The IRS states you must take a ‘significant’ break before returning to work in the same area. This means at least 30+ days in a different location. To be safe, do not work more than 12 months in a 24 months period in the same area or you may be subject to back taxes and fees.
Check out our article about travel nurses and tax rules.
Lastly, make sure your paperwork is in order to receive the tax-free stipends and maximize your travel nurse income. Clarify requirements with your agency and do some online searches about permanent tax homes. If you do NOT qualify for any tax-free stipends, try to negotiate your rate as high as possible. See our article on:
See our article on Keeping your travel nurse documentation organized!
Don’t be Afraid of Overtime!
Working overtime as a travel nurse can really help you rake in the cash, especially if you are not receiving tax-free stipends. Your overtime rate should be at least 1.5x your base pay. For those that receive the stipend, the ‘base rate’ may be somewhere in the range of $20 per hour, and agencies will frequently only give 1.5x on that rate for OT. Meaning, your OT rate may only be $30 per hour. Negotiate with the agency for a higher, more appropriate OT rate if you anticipate working lots of extra hours to make the most money as a travel nurse.
BONUS TIP: If you are really trying to get on that money train- look for a contract that offers 48 hours- be sure that the additional 8 hours is overtime pay that’s worth it.
Did you know? California nurses get paid 1.5x their hourly rate for any shifts over 8 hours, and 2x the rate for anything over 12 hours.
Be Smart About Housing
If at all possible- share housing with someone! Rent a room, drag along a nursing friend for an accomplice, cohabitate with a significant other, or ask the agency if they know of anyone looking for a roommate. Travel nurses can save SO much cash by splitting housing costs and make the most money possible. If you absolutely must live alone, try to find your own housing as cheap (yet, still safe!) as possible.
Some travel nurses opt to use an extended stay hotel as accommodations if they plan on traveling back and forth from home frequently. Asking the agency if they have any negotiated discount agreements with local hotels can save a few dollars. And, since COVID, many hotels are offering discounts to healthcare providers to help with their travel costs. Also, consider arranging for the repeated rental of a room with an Airbnb rental owner.
Take an Extension
If you want to make the most money as a travel nurse, plan to take an extension. You can often negotiate for a bit more money for an extension and you can usually dictate the time of the extension if they have a need (it doesn’t have to be 13 weeks). Moving around every 3 months can be exhausting. Why not stick around a location you like for a bit longer AND get paid more?
If you feel like you need a bit of time, it’s completely okay to ask for a week off at the end of your assignment before starting your extension. Be sure to inform the manager if you need any days off during the extension before you sign the contract.
Keep an Eye on Your Paycheck.
Know if you worked OT (even if it’s just saying 15 minutes late), keep track of your hours, and whether or not you had time to take a lunch. Make sure the correct amount of stipends are allotted in your check. Agencies do their best but occasionally may make mistakes in your pay. It’s the travel nurses’ responsibility to know how many hours they worked and what they are supposed to be paid for.