Travel Nursing Salary: What do travel nurses make?
People choose careers for many reasons, but at some point in time, even starving artists have to take a good hard look at their earnings.
If you’ve already been working as a nurse for a few years (and you’ll need at least one year of experience before jumping into travel nursing), you might be wondering if it’s worth taking the plunge, quitting your job and starting something new.
One of the deciding factors? How much money travel nurses earn.
If you’ve been clicking around agency websites (click here to see our Ultimate List of Travel Nursing Agencies), you’ll notice that they all claim to offer competitive or great pay packages, but few give actual numbers.
This isn’t a marketing ploy, it’s just the nature of the business. If you asked, “How much do teachers make?” you’d get a wide range of answers based on location, experience, education levels, type of school etc. And then you’d have to factor in pensions and benefits separately. It’s the same with travel nursing.
There’s a wide range of per-hour earnings: Between $20 and $48 are the most widely reported statistics, and that large fluctuation usually depends on location, among other factors. For example, working in a rural midwestern hospital is likely to earn you near $20, while working at a prestigious facility in California will get you closer to $48 an hour.
Other factors include your specialties and experience. Crisis nurses will often make more, and if you are willing to take the night shift, that might increase your pay.
Bill Rate and It How It Affects You:
First, remember: Nothing is free. Did you hear that? Nothing is free!
An agency might offer you “free” housing, meals, health insurance, etc. but all of that is coming out of what hospitals call a “bill rate.”
So what is this mysterious “bill rate”? The amount of money, per hour, that a hospital will reimburse an agency for your work.
Why does that matter? Think about it: If a hospital promises your travel nursing agency a $80 bill rate (this is on the high end), that means that’s the absolute most the agency can “get” in return for finding you and placing you with that facility. Thusly, that’s the absolute most an agency can give you, unless the agency wants to take a financial hit.
And they don’t! In fact, they want to make a profit. So right off the bat, a portion of that bill rate is going to the agency for helping you find and negotiate a job contract.
Then everything else — from 401K matches to housing stipends to your hourly wage — comes out of the remainder of the bill rate.
All that “free” means is that instead of taking $15 for profit and offering you a $65 hourly wage, the agency adds up the costs of all of those benefits, divides them by the hours you’re expected to work, and then subtracts that from your hourly bill rate.
What’s left? Your hourly earnings.
How your benefits and hourly earnings get shuffled around to fit into that $65-after-profit bill rate depends on what’s important to you and how flexible the agency is. But at the end of the day, you won’t be making more than that $65/hour bill rate.
The thing is, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever know what this bill rate is. Even if it’s unfortunate, travel agencies just don’t disclose what the hospitals pay them. But don’t lose heart: Just understanding how the bill rate works will help you negotiate your pay package.
For example: Knowing that an agency only has $X to give you, you know that they can’t necessarily give you a high hourly rate, free health insurance, a 5% match on your 401K, free meals and incidentals AND a $4,000 signing bonus. However, you do know that there’s wiggle room to “shuffle” those benefits so you get the benefits that are most important you.
Take housing for example.
Housing Can Make or Break Your Earnings:
The way that travel nurses earn large salaries is by being smart with the “extras,” specifically housing.
Think about it: If you work in California and make $48/hour, and you can live with your great aunt and take a $2,000 housing stipend, you can pocket that monthly amount and use it to travel or pay off debt.
Or you might make the $48/hour AND take the free agency housing. Since accommodation is one of your biggest expenses in a high-cost-of-living-state, you no longer have to budget for it, and you can make (or at least save) a lot of money.
But that higher hourly wage is fully taxable, whereas if you keep a tax home (we’ll get to that later), all those “extras” like a meals allowance and sign-on bonus come to you tax-free. So you might prefer a lower hourly rate if it means you get other tax-free bonuses that feel “worth it” to you.
Still, that’s not everything you need to consider when asking, “What will I make as a travel nurse?”
The Downsides Subtract:
So great, you were earning $30/hour at your previous nursing job and now you are living in sunny California raking in $48/hour and not paying for housing. Does it get better?
For some people, no, it doesn’t. But are you that person?
Consider the things you are giving up when becoming a travel nurse: Paid vacation (for the most part, you MAY find an agency willing to work that into your contract, but don’t forget that bill rate!), job security, your hospital community, maybe your friends/family community, etc.
That might be worth it if you hated the hospital you worked at, you were living away from friends and family anyway, and you really want to see the country. In that case — travel nursing is perfect! But don’t forget to compare benefits before seeing dollar signs.
Some Benefits Are the Same:
You probably already have health insurance coverage and 401K benefits at your current job, so unless the travel nursing agency is matching your 401K at a much higher rate or offering a lower premium, those “selling points” shouldn’t make or break your decision.
Work Isn’t Guaranteed:
When you work as a normal nurse, you have a year-round position with a standard salary. When you work as a travel nurse, you know what you’ll make for three months at a time.
It’s not exactly fair to multiply your three-month earnings by four and say, “I’ll make $XX,XXX this year,” because an assignment might not open up as soon as your first one ends.
Plus, you’ll need to allow some time for travelling from one state or city to another. These unpaid breaks can be great for recharging or seeing the sites, but they aren’t great for your bank account. Be sure to factor that in!
How Taxation Changes the Picture
You know those sign-on bonuses, meal allowances and housing stipends? If done correctly, those can be tax-free benefits. You might not realize how much that saves you until you crunch the numbers.
Keep in mind the taxation situation is complicated — it depends on whether or not you have a “tax home.” If you don’t have a home state where you pay taxes, all of those extra benefits will become taxable, sometimes at nearly 30%! But the easiest way to keep a tax home is to have an apartment in your home state that you pay rent for, essentially negating, in some cases, your housing stipend.
So make sure you set yourself up for success, rather than a hefty IRS bill.
To understand that more, check out our Travel Nursing Taxes (How to Survive Until April 15th) guide.
The Hidden Costs of Travelling
You really want to understand how a travel nursing agency will reimburse you for travel expenses because those are expenses that other nurses just don’t have.
If you are moving every three months, sometimes driving or flying across the country, staying in hotels, or renting cars, you’ll have to consider how those compound. Just eating out on the road can add up quickly and eat into your savings.
And again, those travel reimbursements are really just coming out of your bill rate, so you ARE actually paying for travel, one way or another.
So Wait, How Much Am I Getting Paid?
In the end, the average travel nursing salary, all things being equal, won’t be much higher than the average standard nurse salary. It could be, especially if you are moving from Nebraska to New York City, but it’s not a guarantee.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the median RN pay was $67,490 per year or $32.45 per hour. In California, the average mean wage was $48.92 an hour or $101,750 yearly, while in Florida, it was $31.07 hourly and $64,630 per year. To get an idea of the averages in the states you want to travel to, look here.
So as you can see, your travel nursing wage will increase and decrease based on location. If you can cleverly negotiate your contract so that the cost of living is more or less negated (“free” housing/meals) and you still get a higher per-hour rate than you were used to before, travel nursing can earn you more than your current nursing job.
However, don’t go into travel nursing “for the money.” The biggest benefit of becoming a travel nurse is the travel! If you want to see the US, or are ready to try out some different cities, travel nursing can offer you a competitive salary while giving you the freedom to get out there and experience America from sea to shining sea.