If I could rewind four years, when my travel nursing career first began, I would’ve undoubtedly done many things differently. I would’ve been kinder to myself when I didn’t negotiate correctly. I wouldn’t have let staff nurses walk all over me. And most importantly, I would’ve told myself to keep wondering, dreaming, and imagining, because this travel nurse life is unique and not everyone gets the chance to experience the world the way that you do.
If you’re hoping to be a travel nurse, here are my biggest pieces of advice that I would pass on to you. Mistakes I learned the hard way, lessons picked up from 4+ years on the road. Things that I did right, and things that I did wrong. Some things that I would do over again, and some I wouldn’t. My hope for you is that you leap into the wide unknown with curiosity and innocence, knowing that this is a time in your life that you will never be able to get back again; embrace it with arms wide open and a heart for adventure.
10 Pieces of Advice I’d Give to Nurses Who Want to Become Travel Nurses
1. Make sure to save plenty of money before your assignment starts
As a travel nurse, you have a lot of expenses to cover upfront. You need to get to your assignment, pay the first month’s rent (which also sometimes includes a security deposit), and go two weeks without receiving your first paycheck. While you’ll be reimbursed (to an extent) for the expense of moving, and you’ll be making plenty of money, you still have to be able to afford quite a lot of expenses in the beginning. And while travel nurses get paid every week, you won’t be getting your first paycheck until two weeks after you’ve started work.
I recommend saving a minimum of $3,000 before heading to each assignment. Personally, my travel expenses usually cost around $600 one way. Rent can be anywhere from $1,500-$2,500 depending on where you’re moving to and if you have roommates. And in the past, I’ve had to put down a security deposit of $500+. On top of that, you’ll need money to buy things for your new apartment that you may have not planned for, groceries, and the ability to go out and explore your new city for the first two weeks.
2. Take breaks between your contracts
The biggest draw to travel nursing is the ability to take breaks every 13-weeks when your assignment ends. Take advantage of this! Instead of extending or jumping right into another assignment, I encourage you to save a little bit of money and get out there and see the world. Spend a summer in Europe, head to Southeast Asia in the winter. Go to the Olympics, party in Rio, attend Oktoberfest. Eat sushi in Japan and drink wine in Argentina. This world is incredible and not everyone gets the opportunity to explore it. Don’t miss your chance.
3. Don’t chase the money
Don’t end up in “middle of nowhere” Iowa just because you see a high paying contract. Chances are you’ll be worked to the bone, with limited resources, and there won’t be much to do on your days off. If you’re strictly travel nursing for the money, that’s fine! But if you’re not, don’t get sidetracked with high paying contracts in less than desirable places. There are way too many incredible cities and states to explore that still pay more than what you made as a staff nurse.
But, on the same hand…
4. Care about the money
Care about the money enough that you understand your pay package and want to be paid a fair rate. If you say to your recruiter, “I don’t care about the money”, you run the risk of them taking double the margin from you. Instead say, “I care about how much I make but I also want to live in a place that I can experience XYZ”. It isn’t a fun feeling to show up to your assignment and be the lowest-paid traveler in the unit and if that does happen to you, you’ll start caring about the money.
5. Don’t let travel nursing jade you
The longer you travel nurse, the more your eyes will be open to things that are just straight-up wrong. You’ll work on units where nurses are catty and no matter what you do, you won’t get on their good side. You’ll work with a team under poor management who have limited resources, are in dire need of help, and are stretched thin. You’ll work in places that don’t treat you as an equal simply because you’re a “traveler” and therefore you’re not as important. Take these experiences in stride. Keep your head up, know what’s right and wrong, kill people with kindness, do your job well, and then get out of there and move on. Be grateful that you never have to go back and you aren’t the one stuck as staff on such a poorly run unit with catty nurses.
Worried about getting stuck in a bad unit and hating your assignment? Read: I Hate My Travel Nurse Assignment – Now What?
6. Don’t pack what isn’t a necessity
Trust me when I say, I learned this the hard way. On one of my first travel nurse assignments I packed up my car – with ALL of my belongings – and road-tripped across the country to Santa Barbara, California. I had packed my crockpot, coffee mugs, and my heaviest winter coats even though I would be spending my days on the beach in sunny and warm California.
Lugging my worldly possessions around with me, stressed me out and left me unable to enjoy the spontaneity of travel nursing. So when you pack, walk away, come back, and remove at least 10 things.
Need more advice on packing? Read, How NOT to Pack for Your First Travel Nurse Assignment
7. Experiences will always outweigh “things”
A life of memories will keep you smiling, while a life of possessions will leave you empty. As you begin to live your life on the road, make as many memories as you possibly can. Instead of buying a new pair of shoes, save your money to go skydiving. Or instead of that cute purse you’re eyeing… take an “8 Day Vacay” instead.
The upside of experiences over possessions is that when you pack up and move every 13+ weeks, your suitcase will be a little bit lighter, your car will be a little bit emptier, but your heart will be as full as ever.
8. Be flexible
Remember, units need travel nurses because they need HELP. It’s necessary as a traveler to be flexible and roll with the punches. If you have to float, do it with a smile; if someone asks to trade you shifts and you’re available – why not? Your assignment will go much more smoothly if you lend a helping hand with a willing heart.
But, there is a difference between being flexible and bending over backward. Know the difference and stand your ground.
9. Have a backbone
As stated earlier, there is a difference between being flexible and bending over backward. One of the great things that happen when you become a travel nurse is that your confidence begins to soar as you start over again and again. And while your confidence soars, make sure that your ability to stick up for yourself becomes a priority or you run the risk of being eaten alive.
Remember that it’s okay to decline to pick up extra shifts, to decline to work a weekend for someone, and it’s okay to speak up if you’re floated out of turn. Be as helpful and flexible as you can, without letting people walk all over you. Be your own best advocate.
10. Embrace your new normal, say yes, be adventurous, and be spontaneous. Travel nursing is a fleeting moment in your life that you’ll never get back
And my biggest piece of advice is to wake up with “yes” in your heart. Yes to new adventures, yes to being spontaneous, yes to late nights, experiences, places, and people. Try your hand at dating. Take day trips, weekend trips, and road trips. Explore beyond your comfort zone with yourself or with others. Recognize that being a traveler is a fleeting moment in your life that you will never, ever get back.
Travel nursing has broadened my view of the world beyond measure. It’s left me feeling full and happy when nursing can sometimes be a dark and twisted place. And while it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, it’s an incredible career opportunity that will teach you more about yourself than you ever thought possible.