How to Best Utilize Your PTO When You’re a Staff Nurse

how to use your pto as a staff nurse
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I spent five years of my nursing career as a travel nurse, and let me tell you – there is nothing like the freedom that is awarded to you when you’re a travel nurse.  You don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have to worry about running out of PTO, you don’t even have to worry about getting approved for your PTO.  So when I went back to staff nursing after five years of complete freedom… it was a learning curve to say the least.

I’ve now been at my staff job for five months (longer than I’ve consecutively spent on one unit in the past five years), and I’ve quickly learned how to best utilize my PTO so that I can maximize by time off away from the bedside, prevent nurse burnout, and continue to see the world.  And I’m sharing all of my best tips with you!


Before reading further, if you are interested in travel nursing, check out these posts to get started:

Travel Nursing Information – The Basics

The 4 Requirements to Be a Travel Nurse

The Pros and Cons of Travel Nursing

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Jumping into the Crazy World of Travel Nursing


The Best Ways to Use Your PTO When You’re a Staff Nurse

When you’re a staff nurse, there is an art to using you PTO so that you can maximize your time off away from the bedside.  The tips I’m sharing below have gotten me more vacation days (without using PTO), allotted me quick and easy roadtrips, ensured that I’m getting the most “bang for my buck” and so much more.  So, let’s get started!


1.  Plan Your Year Out in Advance

My first tip in utilizing your PTO is planning ahead of time.  While spontaneous trips are always a good idea, I like to have a general idea of my travel schedule so that I know how much PTO I will ideally have “left over” at the end of the year.

To do this, figure out how much PTO you earn per pay period.  Then calculate how many hours you earn per year.  If you’re like me, I like to scatter my PTO throughout the year so I need to plan ahead to ensure that I have PTO left to use at the end of the year.  Or, you might be the kind of nurse who is saving your PTO for a huge trip and that will be your only vacation for the year.  No matter how you like to use your PTO, be educated in how much you earn/how much is in your “bank” at all times so that you don’t accidentally run out.

Tip:  You should also know if your PTO and your “sick” time come from the same bank.  If they do, you want to be careful about calling in sick (unless you’re actually sick), or you want to hold a couple of PTO days back in case you are to get sick and need to call in.  More on this below.


2.  Know How Much PTO You’re Allowed to Use at Once

Another thing that you should know about your PTO is how much you’re allowed to use at one time.  Some hospitals will only allow you to take off a couple of weeks at a time.  Some hospitals won’t allow you to take any PTO throughout the holidays.  Know what your hospital allows so that you can start planning when and how much PTO you’re going to be using.


3.  Capitalize on Not Needing to Take PTO

The greatest thing about being is a nurse is that you don’t actually need to take any PTO to get time off of work.  Because nurses only work three days a week, there are four days of the week that you can spend freely without worrying about taking PTO.  These days are great for mini trips, staycations, weekend trips, or even “8 Day Vacays”.  Plus by taking advantage of your days off of work when you’re not using your PTO, you can save your PTO for epic trips like spending three weeks in Europe over the summer or traveling to further destinations like Southeast Asia or Australia.

Unsure what an “8 Day Vacay” is?  The 8 Day Vacay is an eight day vacation that nurses can take without using any PTO.  All you need to do is work the first three shifts of week one and the last three shifts of week two to get eight days off in-between.  It’s a pretty sweet deal and a definite pro to the profession.


For more information on what exactly the “8 Day Vacay” is, make sure to read this post; and for ideas on “8 Day Vacays” to take make sure to check out these posts.


4.  Add on Non-PTO Days to Make Your PTO Last Longer

Another way to stretch your PTO is to add on days at the beginning/end of your vacation time – without taking extra PTO.  For example, if you plan to take a week off (Sunday-Saturday) you need to take three days of PTO.  If you want to take two weeks off you can still get by only take three days of PTO by working the first three days of the week before your vacation time is scheduled, and the last three days after your vacation time is scheduled.

So say I wanted to go on a two week vacation in May of 2022.  Instead of using six days of PTO I would take three days of PTO and schedule my vacation from Wednesday May 4th to Wednesday May 18th.


5.  Don’t Use Your PTO if You Call in Sick

If you’re someone who wants to use your PTO strictly for vacations, then I would also encourage you not to use your PTO if you get sick.  Instead don’t take pay or work at a hospital that offers two separate “banks” – one bank for PTO and one bank for sick leave.

If you can’t afford to miss a day of pay, read my tips below for how to get around not calling out.


For more information on what different “banks” means, read Questions to Ask in Your Nursing Interview if You’re Looking for Work-Life Balance


6.  Know How Far in Advance You Can Ask For PTO

Some hospitals make it nearly impossible to take paid leave.  There are very few spots available each week and to get your leave you have to be one of the first nurses to ask (unless PTO is given by seniority).  For that reason try to plan your trips in advance, and set an alarm on your calendar of when to request time off.  Where I work, you’re allowed to ask for PTO six months in advance.  So I have made sure to know what trips I want to take for the year, and set an alarm six months before the date I want off so that I’m one of the first people to request time off.


7.  Don’t “Cash Out”

I hear of SO MANY nurses who “hoard” their PTO until they reach the maximum PTO allotted and then cash out.  When you cash out your PTO the money is taxed at a higher percentage than if you take your PTO normally.  So sure, you’re getting a lump sum of money… but you’re also leaving a huge chunk of money on the table.


Tips for Saving Your PTO if You’re Sick/Need to Call Off

This mainly applies to nurses who don’t have separate banks for PTO and sick leave.  One of the more frustrating things about being a nurse is that you often feel punished for getting sick.  We can’t just work from home for the day so if you do get sick that can throw a wrench in your plans for using your PTO.  (How frustrating – who wants to use their sick leave to sit at home and feel like crap versus using it for vacation?).

Now, you can always call out sick and not using any PTO.  Your paycheck would just be missing a shift.  But if you’re single, have a lot of bills to pay, or are already living paycheck to paycheck this might not be an option for you.  You have to get paid for every single shift.  Below you’ll find some things that have worked for me in the past that allow me to continue to use my PTO strictly for vacation days.


1.  If You Happen to Pick Up an Extra Shift, Then Get Sick, Don’t Use Your PTO

This applies to nurses who pick up extra shifts at the hospital.  If you pick up an extra shift on week one of your pay period and then you happen to get sick on week two of your pay period and need to call out, don’t use your PTO.  You don’t end up losing any money because the extra shift you covered from the week before will cover your missed day on the second week.


2.  Ask Your Colleagues to Switch With You Before Calling Out

This one feels like a no-brainer, but if you need to call out for some reason… ask your colleagues to switch you shifts so that you don’t have to call in “sick” and use your PTO.  And remember, always be flexible and trade with others when you can.  What goes around comes around!

If nobody will switch with you, you could also call the charge nurse and see if any shifts later in the week are short and ask to make a trade.


3.  If You Need to Switch a Shift and Nobody Will Trade You – Pick Up Extra then Call Out and Don’t Use PTO

Okay… so I don’t fully condone this, but I’ve also done it before when I had an emergency arise and didn’t have any extra PTO to use on a call out.  (Also, if you’re a manager reading this tip… sorry!).  If you know that you have to call out for a day and nobody will switch with you (and your hospital is busy enough to pick up extra shifts), consider signing up for an extra shift that week with no intention to work 48-hours that week.  Work that “extra” shift and then call out on the shift you can’t make it too.  You can call out and you’ll still get your 36 hours of pay.


If you’re a nurse who runs low on PTO because you like to travel (me!), then I hope that you found at least one tip helpful.  If there’s anything that I missed or any other tips you have, let me know in a comment below!


Read more:

10 Affordable Countries Every Nurse Should Visit

10 Countries Every Nurse Should Visit (Even if You Don’t Have PTO)


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Kylee is a NICU nurse passionate about making travel affordable and accessible to nurses. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia as a way to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee has been a NICU nurse for 9 years and a travel nurse for 7 years. Since starting her career in travel nursing, she’s worked in six different states, 10 different hospitals, volunteered as a nurse in North Macedonia, worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, and has traveled to 45+ countries. Her favorite travel nurse assignment was in Seattle and her favorite destination is Georgia (the country). Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potentially 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.

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