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Travel Nursing vs. Staff Nursing: Who Makes More?

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Health Carousel Travel Nursing
November 3, 2022
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While there are many reasons to become a travel nurse, earning more money is one of the incentives to do so. Pay rates fluctuate depending on the destination, but generally travel nurses make quite a bit more than nurses with permanent staffing positions. 

Travel nurse staffing agencies work with a variety of healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics, that have a high demand for nurses, which means they’re willing to pay more to ensure adequate staffing levels or cover leaves of absence.

Traveling nurses don’t just earn a higher hourly wage, they enjoy many opportunities to maximize their earnings, including monetary incentives.

What Is a Travel Nurse?

A travel nurse is a registered nurse who works short-term assignments on a contract basis to help fill temporary nursing shortages in healthcare facilities throughout the country. Most assignments last 13 weeks, but contract lengths vary depending on specific needs.

Travel nurses are employed by independent staffing agencies and may receive stipends for housing, meals, and travel relocation assistance. Most agencies offer medical insurance, but travel nurses typically do not receive paid time off. 

What Is a Staff Nurse?

Staff nurses are registered nurses who are employed by a single healthcare facility on a full-time or part-time basis in a permanent position. Staff nurses are generally committed to one unit unless they are hired to float to other units. 

Staff nurses are eligible for medical benefits, retirement plans, and paid time off. 

What is the difference between a nurse and a travel nurse?

Staff nurses and travel nurses have the same requirements, they both must be registered nurses, be licensed in the state they are practicing in, and have BLS certification. 

Staff nurses and travel nurses work in the same facility and have the same duties. The main difference between a staffing nurse job vs a travel nurse job is a permanent position vs a temporary position. Staff nurses are employed by the healthcare facility and are committed to their position, while travel nurses work for travel nurse agencies and quickly move on to working in other medical facilities. 

Do travel nurses make more than staff nurses?

Travel nurses typically have more control over their income compared to staff nurses. Travel nurses tend to make a significant amount more than staff nurses, they usually receive a higher hourly rate and receive tax-free stipends that increase their take-home pay. 

If you can secure your own housing, you’ll often make even more money thanks to the tax-free housing stipends. If you can find a place for lower rent, you’ll keep more cash in your bank account. For example, if you’re allotted $2,200 a month for housing, but can find something for just $1,500 a month, you can essentially pocket the rest.

Stipends are considered reimbursements, rendering them non-taxable. Staff nurses typically have to pay taxes on all of their income. 

Most staff nurses are paid an hourly rate with shift differentials and receive a yearly review where they may receive a small salary increase. While travel nurses are paid depending on their assignment location and contract terms. 

For travel nurses looking to make the most money possible, they can choose assignments in the highest paying destinations, rather than being stuck in one general area close to home. In states where nurses earn the highest annual salaries and hourly wages, including California, Massachusetts, Oregon, The District of Columbia, Alaska, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, and Washington State, healthcare travelers can expect to earn more too. Keep in mind that popular vacation destinations like Hawaii often pay lower due to higher housing costs and being more desirable to nurses.

According to Zip Recruiter, the average national annual salary for a travel nurse is about $94,000 per year, while the average salary for a staff nurse is about $68,000 per year. 

Travel nurses have the freedom to choose assignments based on the amount of money they will make and select higher-paying positions. Travel nurses often choose to work holidays to earn pay rates that are frequently one-and-a-half to two times the hourly pay rate. Working extra shifts is yet another way to earn more money. As travel nurse agencies make more money when their travel nurses work overtime, some offer additional bonuses paid for working a certain amount of overtime too.

Travel nursing rates ebb and flow depending on need and how much hospitals are willing to pay during shortages and crises. Take advantage of higher rates whenever the opportunity arises. 

Now that you have learned the differences between travel and staff nurse pay, you can decide on what type of nursing job is best for you. The key to earning the most money as a travel nurse is to be flexible and have the skills that facilities need the most. 

Highlight both your flexibility and talents on your application, when speaking to your recruiter, and during interviews, and you’ll have a leg up on your competition while maximizing your earnings.

Why do hospitals pay travel nurses more than staff nurses?

High demand for nurses becomes an opportunity for higher pay for travel nurses. Hospitals will offer higher pay rates to attract travel nurses during staff nurse shortages to fill in gaps. 

Healthcare facilities need to operate 24/7, nursing shortages affect patient care and can lead to unsafe practices. The chief nursing officer will make a decision when there is low staff availability or a crisis such as a pandemic, and medical facilities will offer attractive rates for travel nurses to ensure adequate staffing. 

During times of high demand, hospitals may offer competitive rates to prevent travelers from working in other neighboring healthcare facilities. 

Hospitals pay travel nurses more than staff nurses because they need to attract traveling nurses during times of immediate need. It is more cost-effective to pay a travel nurse for a short-term assignment than it is to offer large bonuses or pay increases to staff nurses in permanent positions. 

What jobs are nurses the happiest?

Your happiness in staff nursing vs travel nursing job depends on what you want for your personal life and your nursing career. 

Staff nurses have stability, they have guaranteed employment and work permanently on the same unit with the same coworkers unless they decide to change positions. 

Travel nurses are constantly changing locations and interacting with different healthcare providers. They tend not to get wrapped up in hospital politics because they aren’t in the same place for very long. 

Travel nursing jobs allow for more freedom, nurses have control over where they work and when they want to. It is much easier for a travel nurse to schedule time off in between contracts than it is for a staff nurse to schedule a vacation when they are competing with the rest of their unit's schedule. 

Staff nurses tend to be people who do well with consistency and are reassured by having the same routine, while travel nurses usually thrive off of new experiences and changing up their scenery. 

There are many pros and cons to being a staff nurse vs a travel nurse. Your happiness in either one depends on what type of lifestyle you prefer and what you want for your nursing career.

What nurse specialty is in the highest demand?

You can increase your pay as a travel nurse even more by working in a specialty that is in high demand, such as the ER, ICU, Critical Care, OR, NICU, or Labor and Delivery. If you have experience in a high-demand specialty, highlight it on your application and bring it up to your recruiter as well. If you obtain specialty certification in that area, you may be able to earn even more.

Author Bio

Lauren Rivera is a nationally certified neonatal intensive care nurse with over 15 years of experience. She serves as a nurse expert offering support and educational classes for women from preconception through childhood. Lauren is also a freelance writer with works published on several nursing sites. She develops and curates content for various healthcare companies, and writes continuing education modules for other healthcare professionals.

Health Carousel Travel Nursing

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Interested in how the pay stacks up in other states not on this list? Our trusty Super Nurse sidekicks are standing by to answer any questions you have. Click below to get information on opportunities in other states!

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