10 Steps to Take Before Becoming a Travel Nurse

Most nursing professionals know at least one travel nurse or have talked to their colleagues about travel nursing. You’ve probably heard about the amazing adventures or the incredible destinations and decided you’re ready to start traveling! However, you may be wondering how to begin the transition. Nurses who are uninformed or unprepared for travel nursing may find themselves missing out on their dream contract or having a less enjoyable experience. So what can you do to make sure you’re prepared? Here are 10 steps to take before becoming a travel nurse.

Step 1: Figure Out Your When and Why

Why are you traveling? Many travelers at one point had a long-term goal or dream of travel nursing. The concept appeals to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. What are your specific goals, and what do you ultimately hope to get out of the experience? Jot these thoughts down so you can refer back to them later. These goals will help you make better decisions when choosing locations, hospitals to work at, and positions to apply for. They also come in handy when selecting the right recruiter/agency. (More on that, later!)

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You don’t have to have your timeframe narrowed down to the exact date you want to start traveling. However, having at least a general timeframe will help you plan the next steps in the process. It may also give you a little more motivation to get things crossed off your list. I’ve noticed that personally, a trip or vacation doesn’t feel “real” until it’s on my calendar and I’ve got the tickets booked. When it feels “real,” you’re more likely to muster up the energy and motivation to take action. You’ll also want to make sure your recruiter is in the loop on your timeframe so they know when to be ready to start sending you relevant positions.

Step 2: Research, Research, Research

I’ve spoken with many travel nurses who made a common mistake. They waited until they were just a few weeks away (or less) from when they wanted to start travel nursing to contact agencies. They usually went with the first agency who called or sent them a job, filled out all the applications and paperwork, rushed through the onboarding process. When they got to the assignment, they were very disappointed when expectations did not match reality (understatement of the year?).

Often, they were disappointed to find that the recruiter wasn’t as helpful or supportive as they were expecting when something went wrong. Not getting timely or sufficient support led to a lot of unnecessary stress and frustration. In other words, they learned the hard way.

Don’t be “that guy!” There are loads of resources out there nowadays for prospective travel nurses. You can read agency reviews on websites like BluePipes and Travel Nursing Central. There are also Facebook groups out there for travel nurses where you can ask questions and get recommendations. If you work at a hospital that uses travelers, it’s a good idea to pick their brains and ask for advice. Many travel nurses have blogs and social media accounts where you can get tips and inspiration. And don’t forget, we have plenty of blogs here on this site where you can get some solid, helpful information.

Plan to spend a good chunk of time speaking with recruiters from different agencies to get a feel for what they have to offer and how they plan to support you before, during, and after the placement process.

This takes us to the next step…

Step 3: Find a Great Agency and Recruiter

My friends, this is such a critical part of the process of becoming a travel nurse. I really can’t stress enough how important it is. If you’ve done the research that we recommend you do from Step 2, you will read many different reviews of agencies. When you read these reviews, you’ll often find that the general experience of the traveler – whether positive or negative – often comes down to the recruiter. How honest and transparent was the recruiter? How supportive? If problems arose, how quickly were they resolved? How accessible were they when you needed help? Did they respond in a timely fashion?

As a first-time traveler, especially, you want to find a recruiter who is able and willing to walk you through the process from start to finish and properly educate you on what to expect. Suppose you’re speaking with recruiters, and they seem more interested in getting you to fill out their application and submit you to their jobs right away. They aren’t taking the time to get to know you and what YOUR needs and interests are. In those cases, you’re talking to the wrong recruiters. Plain and simple.

I’ve written a blog about finding the right travel nurse recruiter that I’d highly encourage you to read. It gives you suggestions of things you should be asking your recruiters during those initial phases.

Of course, you also want to make sure that the agency itself is a good fit.  They should have what you’re looking for as far as preferred positions, benefits, pay, housing, etc. Give some thought to what will be the highest priorities for you when choosing agencies. Express those priorities to the recruiters so they can focus on them.

Step 4: Plan Your Exit Strategy

Chances are, you’re leaving a full-time permanent staff position to start traveling, so you’ll want to have a plan in place for exiting on good terms. Find out from your HR team or manager how much notice they require in advance, and let your recruiter know, too, so they can plan accordingly.

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Your agency will require references for your profile, so find out what type of references you need and decide whom you will ask for a reference. It helps to give those references a heads up that someone will contact them. Telling your current employer that you’re planning to leave may be a bit uncomfortable. Still, usually, with enough advance notice of your plans, it’s an easier pill for them to swallow.

Step 5: Build Up Your Support Team

A few travelers are lucky enough to travel with significant others, family members, or friends who are also healthcare professionals, but most aren’t. For newbie travelers, especially, the idea of going to an entirely new location where you don’t know anyone else and aren’t familiar with the surroundings can seem daunting. Not everyone is super outgoing, either, so you may be worried about whether or not you’ll make new friends. It’s not unrealistic to expect that there will be some periods of loneliness and stress about being away from home and familiar territory.

That’s why I recommend that you build up a support system back home so that you have a plan in place for when those moments of loneliness and homesickness creep up. Think of these people as your cheerleaders who can root you on and give you a pep talk when you need it, or reassure you that everything is fine back home, and maybe you’re not missing out on as much as you thought. They can help remind you about why you took the leap in the first place and of the goals and dreams you’re trying to fulfill. They can be great to have on standby and can be crucial to your success as a traveler!

Step 6: Have Your Finances in Order

The financial appeal of travel nursing is certainly a motivating factor for most travelers. However, it usually takes a couple of weeks to receive your first paycheck due to most clients’ and agencies’ timekeeping and billing cycles. Plus, you will need to factor in the costs of getting to your assignment, such as fuel, lodging, meals, etc. Most travelers these days set up their housing, as well, which may entail you putting down a deposit or pre-payment for wherever you may be staying.

All of that considered, you should put some cash aside to get you through to your first paycheck, at minimum. It also doesn’t hurt to have the money set aside just in case anything happened during the contract and you had to find something else ASAP (rare, but possible).

Step 7: Get Your Credentials and Licenses Sorted

You’ll want to have an idea of what kind of certifications and licenses you will require for the different facilities, hospitals, and states you’ll be working at and in.

First, identify which certifications hospitals typically require for your specialty. For example, hospitals will expect you to hold active BLS and ACLS certifications if you’re a critical care nurse. However, some hospitals may also require PALS, NIHSS (Stroke Scale), or even TNCC in some rare cases.

If you hold a compact or multi-state nursing license, you can practice in 30+ states without obtaining a new nursing license. However, you’ll want to check to see if the states where you want to work are compact states. If not, you’ll likely need to apply for the nursing license before a recruiter can submit you to any assignments in that state. (Need some help with licensing? Check out our blog about nursing license requirements for all 50 U.S. states!)

Again, your recruiter should be able to help you navigate through these scenarios. Many agencies (including Axis!) will help reimburse you for the costs of obtaining or renewing certifications and licenses.

Step 8: Complete a Travel Nursing Profile

Once you have found your fantastic recruiter or recruiters from Step 3, you should begin filling out a profile for those recruiters and agencies. We recruiters will send this profile when we submit you to a travel nursing job. Generally, every agency will require you to fill out an application, complete a resume, complete skills checklists for your specialties, and submit references. Some positions may also require you to send copies of your certifications.

My advice is to have a folder set up on your laptop, or even have a USB flash drive handy to store documents such as copies of certs, medical records, etc. This will make it easier for you to forward these documents to your agency once you’ve accepted a job offer.

If you’d like to learn more about creating a top-notch travel nursing profile, check out this blog!

Step 9: Determine Your Housing and Transportation Needs

Each traveler will have their own unique needs when it comes to housing and transportation while travel nursing. Some travelers intend to fly to their assignments and rent a car while they’re there, or they’ll rely on public transportation systems to get them around. Others prefer to take their own cars, saving on rental car costs, so they can get around independently.

Most travelers take a housing stipend for housing or lodging and set up their own, but not every traveler knows about the resources out there for corporate housing. Some people travel with kids, pets, kids AND pets, etc. Some people prefer rental homes or apartment comforts. Others are perfectly content with extended stay hotels or renting a room somewhere.

The bottom line is, you’ll want to have a general understanding of what YOUR individual needs will be and communicate this with your recruiter. Your recruiter should make suggestions about what housing and transportation options would make the most sense for you. They probably have some resources they could offer to help with your research.

Step 10: Start Packing!

Ahhh, the fun part, am I right?

When it comes to packing, chances are, you fit into one of two categories. You either love the idea of whittling down your possessions to live a more “minimalist” lifestyle, or you hate the idea of storing and getting rid of things.

Check out our ultimate guide to packing for your next travel assignment!

As an avid traveler who has lived abroad for extended periods, I can tell you this – you don’t need as much as you think you need. And one nice thing about living in the U.S. versus other parts of the world is that you can easily find a replacement if you left something at home. (Amazon Prime, anyone?)

A general rule of thumb is to ship heavy and pack light. There are car shipping companies out there if you would prefer not to drive across the country. It might be easier for you to ship some of your more oversized, bulkier items in the mail versus lugging them around in a vehicle or on a plane.

I am also a huge fan of packing cubes and vacuum-sealed storage bags. You can compress these bags, removing the air and excess space, which frees up more room in your luggage and car. Every little bit of saved space counts, my friends! Store wisely!

These are ten essential steps to take before you leap into travel nursing! I hope you found this information valuable. They say that preparation is the best medicine, and as clinicians, I’m sure you can appreciate good medicine. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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Charity Crawford
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