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How Much Experience Do You Really Need to Be a Travel Nurse?

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Health Carousel Travel Nursing
September 28, 2022
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Travel nursing has become increasingly popular among nurses, especially new graduate nurses who may have dreamed of a nursing career, but do not want to be tied down. A career as a traveling nurse provides the exciting opportunity to work short-term contracts throughout the country while caring for patients, meeting new people, and receiving excellent pay. 

While it may be tempting to apply for your first travel nurse assignment once you receive your nursing degree, you need some solid nursing experience under your belt first. There are several reasons why you need previous experience to be a travel nurse and they involve protecting you, your patients, the healthcare facility, and the travel nurse staffing agency. 

Let’s explore how long it takes to become a travel nurse, and what is required to have a successful travel nursing experience. 

Why Travel Nursing Experience Matters

Travel nurses are expected to be independent and jump right in as soon as they begin their new assignment. There is no time for hand-holding for travel nurses, you must adapt to new environments quickly, possess strong clinical skills, and be able to practice independently. If you’re wondering about how much experience is needed to be a travel nurse, it definitely requires previous expertise in the field. 

Orientations are often short (only a few days) and are geared towards familiarizing the nurse to the unit, rather than teaching nursing skills. This usually consists of learning where supplies are, understanding the unit's workflow, and meeting fellow staff. Certain pieces of equipment and supplies may function differently than you’re used to, and you may also need to learn a new charting system in a very short amount of time. All of these things to absorb in such a short amount of time, on top of patient care, can overwhelm a nurse without enough experience.

Patient safety is always the number one priority, and healthcare facilities don’t want patient care to suffer at the hands of an inexperienced travel nurse. Graduate nurses learn basic nursing skills in nursing school, but most of what you need to know to be a great nurse comes from years of experience and learning from other healthcare professionals. 

What are the Prerequisites to Work as a Travel Nurse?

Prerequisites for travel nursing are the same for any nurse, you need to have a nursing degree and an active RN license in the state you are practicing in. Most travel nurse jobs require about 1-2 years of previous experience

Follow these tips for an in-depth look at what it takes to become a travel nurse:

Get your nursing degree

Just like any other nursing position, students must first graduate from an accredited program with either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). A BSN is typically preferred by most travel nurse agencies and healthcare systems.

Pass the NCLEX

After graduating from nursing school, nurses must pass the NCLEX ( National Council Licensure Examination), which is the Nationwide examination for all nurses in the United States. 

Apply for your license

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you need to become licensed in the state you intend to practice in. All nurses become licensed in their home state first, if your home state happens to be a compact license state you will have an advantage as a travel nurse. However, don’t let not having a compact license stop you. You can obtain additional licensure as needed for whichever state your assignment is in. 

Obtain required certifications

All nurses must have a valid BLS (Basic Life Support) certification. As a travel nurse, it is a good idea be certified in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) as well as have you PALS (Pediatric Advanced Life Support) and NRP (Neonatal Resuscitation Program) certifications as well if you plan to work in those specialty areas or in emergency medicine. 

Specialty certifications

Specialty certifications are completely optional, but they help you stand out and show that you are knowledgeable in your nursing specialty. While there isn’t a specific national certification for travel nursing, having an advanced RN certification will give you an advantage as a travel nurse. The most common certifications travelers have include CCRN (Certified Critical Care Nurse), CEN (Certified Emergency Nurse), and CPN (Certified Pediatric Nurse). Consider becoming certified in your specialty to advance your career. 

Earn experience as a nurse

Once you obtain a position as a staff nurse, immerse yourself as much as you can. Don’t shy away from experiences, use this time to learn everything that you possibly can. Get out of your comfort zone as much as possible during orientation; take the medically complex patients, ask your preceptor tons of questions, and offer to help fellow nurses with their care.

See if you can observe or assist anytime someone is performing a procedure that you haven’t yet done. Ask to float or train on other floors, the more exposure you get as a nurse the stronger your skills will be. Putting yourself out there and gaining the skills and knowledge you need to make you an experienced nurse will give you the confidence you need later in your travel nursing career. 

Most travel nurse agencies want nurses to have at least 1-2 years of experience before your first travel nurse assignment. Length of experience varies from facility to facility, but the consensus is typically around 2 years. Travel nurse requirements are usually listed on specific job postings, so ask your travel nurse recruiter for the details for any assignments that you may be interested in. 

Why Is Previous Travel Nursing Experience Important?

Having previous experience before landing your first travel assignment is extremely important. Hospitals hire travel nurses during times of increased need and are reliant upon experienced nurses to jump right in and help, there is no time to train nurses on basic care skills. 

Requirements for prior experience are put into place to help to protect your RN license and the healthcare facility. Travel nurse experience requirements help ensure positive patient outcomes.

After two years of working as a nurse, you develop your own system of managing your workload and your patients. You become more confident and knowledgeable in your role as a nurse with experience, and as a result, you are better able to manage day-to-day stresses and respond to different types of emergencies in true super-nurse fashion. Becoming a confident nurse takes years of nursing practice. Waiting to travel until you have at least two years of experience will give both you and your patients a better chance of success 

Contact Health Carousel Travel Nursing to speak with a travel nurse recruiter if you are ready to explore travel nursing options. Check out our job board or sign up for On Demand, a self-directed way to search for assignments, to view listings that fit your experience and expertise. You can also sign up for On Demand 

How Much Experience Do You Need to Be a Travel Nurse?

The amount of experience you need to become a travel nurse varies depending on the travel nurse agency you work with, the healthcare facility, and the specialty. Most agencies would like you to have at least 2 years of experience as a staff nurse under your belt before taking a travel assignment. Other agencies will consider 1-2 years. Some healthcare facilities have certain requirements, especially for specialty units like the NICU or CICU. Of course, these requirements may become lessened during times of increased need, such as when they did during the pandemic. 

Remember that as a travel nurse you are expected to already be independent in your skills, so the more experience you have before traveling the smoother your assignment will go. Reach out to a recruiter to find out how many years of experience are needed to see if you qualify for an assignment. 

FAQs

Can I get a travel nurse job as neonatal intensive care nurse with less than a year of experience?

Most credible healthcare facilities will require a minimum of two years of experience as a NICU nurse before offering a traveling position. Taking care of some of the hospital's most fragile patients requires years of experience to be comfortable and confident in your skills. If you are itching to travel prior to having two years of experience, you might consider a travel assignment on a mother baby unit in a newborn nursery instead. This will still give you some of the basic skills you need as a NICU nurse and help build up your resume, but ultimately you will need at least two years of experience before becoming a traveler in a NICU. 

Do I have to be certified in my specialty to be accepted for a position as a travel nurse?

While specialty certification is not required for a travel nurse position, it can certainly help you stand out amongst other nurses. Deciding to become specialized in your nursing specialty shows your dedication and proves that you have the knowledge and skills needed to obtain a national certification. Possessing extra certifications like national certification, ACLS, and PALS help build up your resume and may open up more opportunities for you as a travel nurse. 

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 health and wellness 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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