Travel Nurses Hit the Road for Adventure and Big Bucks

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Everette Bryant, an ICU nurse, was navigating a nasty divorce in Memphis when he decided to hit the road for Florida as a travel nurse.

“I wanted to get away from the area and all the drama,” says Bryant, 32, who’s been travel nursing for about two years. “Travel nursing was an opportunity to make a clean break. And I like the money.”

Travel nurses trade the security of working at one healthcare facility forever, for the freedom and adventure of nursing at different facilities every 13 weeks. A “gypsy” nurse, as they’re called, contracts with a healthcare staffing agency that finds nursing gigs throughout the country and, sometimes, the world.

The gypsy nurse technically works for the staffing agency, whose clients need nurses to cover chronic or acute staff shortages. The agency screens candidates and sends profiles to, say, a hospital who has an ICU nurse on maternity leave. The hospital ultimately selects the nurse, although the agency negotiates the pay package, which differs according to job location, specialty, certification, and experience.

“Our staff shortage is so bad, that until we can recruit permanent staff, we have to fill our holes with travelers,” says Julianne E. van Kalken, a nursing development specialist in Manchester, NH. “We’ve had travelers that our staff love and come back a year later and are greeted with hugs.”

How many nurses trade job security for the adventure on the open road?

No one knows exactly. But the Travel Nurse Network – The Gypsy Nurse, which trades stories and tips about gypsy nursing, claims almost 86,000 members. Victoria Saldana, senior account manager for Provenir Healthcare, a San Antonio, Texas staffing agency, says she fields 100 to 150 new applicants a week.

Saldana says there’s no mold for a gypsy nurse, but most are free from family ties. They’re either single or divorced; in their pre-marriage twenties, or in their post-kid fifties.

“Some will work a contract, and want the next one lined up,” Saldana says. “Others will take a week or two off, go home and chill before taking the next assignment.”

Reasons gypsies love travel nursing

Great pay

Our 2018 Nursing Salary Guide says stationary staff nurses earn, on average, $73,287 annually. Travel nurses earn a little more, $74,000 annually; but more of that compensation is tax-free, which translates into more take-home pay.

Gypsies are compensated in two ways:

  • Taxable salary, typically $18 to $25 depending on specialty and experience.
  • Tax-free “stipends” or “per diems” for food, lodging, and travel.

Download the 2018 Nursing Salary Guide

The federal government’s GSA sets maximum, tax-free per diem rates for cities throughout the country, and rates can differ dramatically. Example: The per diem for lodging in Mobile, Ala. is $93, while the lodging rate for Los Angeles, Calif. is $173.

Per diems can add up

Bryant, whose pay has doubled since becoming a travel nurse, takes his lodging with him – a 32-foot Cherokee travel trailer. He figures RVing costs him about $20 a day, allowing him to bank the remainder of his per diems. In five years, he hopes, he’ll be able to pay off his mortgage, truck, and RV loan.

“With all that paid off, I’ll only have to work one contract per year,” Bryant says.

Zero office politics

When you swoop in and out of workplaces every 13 weeks, it’s easy to avoid workplace drama – there’s no history to resent.

Travel nurses also feel more emboldened to question policy and procedures. They’ve seen how different hospitals handle situations and have nothing to lose by suggesting new ways of doing things.

“It’s a great way to grow as a nurse,” says Bryant. “I go to many hospitals and learn their ways of doing things. If I see something that isn’t going right, I have enough experience to say, ‘I’ve seen it done another way. Let’s check that out.’ I’ve gotten a lot of high fives.”

Great big world

More than money, gypsy nurses say they chose the wandering life to see new places, meet new people, get out of whatever rut they created.

The Travel Nurse Network posts messages of nurses having adventures and seeking cool things to do in new locations.

“A lot of travel nurses use it as a vacation/destination assignment,” Bryant says. “They want to see Seattle, so they work there three days a week, then tear up Seattle for four days. Then, onto San Francisco.”

Bryant calls himself a “fair weather” nurse and picks destinations with temperate climates.
So far, he’s worked in Bradenton, Fla; just outside Dallas, Texas, and Memphis, Tenn.

The gypsy life, however, isn’t all blue skies and 75-degree temperatures. Pulling up stakes every season can become lonely. Bryant says dating is hard with a timer’s always ticking.

“It hard to have anything meaningful,” he says. “And I don’t want to be single forever.”

Looking for love, Bryant recently tore up Key West with 11 gypsies he met on a matchmaking site for travel nurses.

The hope was to meet a gypsy “awesome enough” to follow to her next assignment, he says, “As long as it’s not too cold.”

Article by Lisa Kaplan Gordon. Lisa is an award-winning writer who’s covered stories for Yahoo, AOL, and many others. She lives in McLean, Virginia.

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