How to Make the Most Money as a Travel Nurse

To earn the most money as travel nurse compensation packages, you can calculate the hourly rate you earn from stipends and reimbursements in addition to your gross pay.

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Comparing travel nurse compensation packages is more difficult than comparing staff nurse offers. You need to consider more than just your salary. Travel companies differ drastically in the way they present their pay. Some provide weekly pay, others hourly, and a rare few give information for the entire contract. To make sure you are adequately comparing one contract to another, you can calculate your hourly rate—break down your total compensation and divide it by the hours in your contract. While it’s easy to count a month as four weeks, it’s critical to acknowledge that a month is longer than that, and three months is 13 weeks (not 12).

Parts of a travel nursing contract

Recruiters will often quote you a sizable weekly salary that combines both taxable and nontaxable income. Your total income starts with a lower hourly rate that is taxable. The stipend includes nontaxable income to provide for living and travel expenses. This article will give you all the information you need to compare the jobs, so you pick the one with the highest pay. Here are some terms that can help you navigate travel nurse pay packages:

  • Gross pay is your total compensation
  • Your W2 Pay is your taxable base pay
  • You might receive tax-free stipends to cover housing, meals and incidentals
  • A travel reimbursement covers your travel to your travel nurse location
  • You might receive a completion bonus for finishing your contract
  • Health, vision and dental insurance
  • Retirement benefits such as a 401K

Below, you'll find a real-life example of a travel nurse listing from April, 2020.

Weekly gross pay: $2,295.30
Housing, meal and incidentals stipend:
$1,500
Travel reimbursement:
$600
Completion bonus:
$1,000
Basic insurance included

Who qualifies for nontaxable income?

Travel nurse pay is either taxable income or nontaxable income. Travel nurses qualify for the nontaxable stipends if they meet at least two of the following requirements to have a tax home:

  • Earn a minimum of 25% of your income in a different geographical area
  • You have a permanent residence.
  • You don’t abandon the “tax home”

Having a “tax home” sounds like next level accounting, but it’s pretty simple. You have a tax home if you visit your primary area of residence at least once every 12 months and can prove you are paying the expenses to maintain your primary home. Keep copies of your utility bills, voting registration, or driver’s license that use the address of your primary residence.

How do you compare travel nurse pay packages?

When comparing travel nurse pay packages, you can start by calculating your hourly rate from the following four parts of your offer:

  1. Take home pay from taxable income
  2. Non-taxable travel reimbursement
  3. Non-taxable stipend
  4. Taxable bonus

The taxable income is straightforward for travel nurses. The nontaxable income includes reimbursement for professional and travel expenses, a weekly stipend for living expenses, and incidentals. Some travel companies offer bonuses for referring to other nurses or crisis pay. To figure out what you’re working with, you need to do a little math.
For taxable income, your tax bracket can significantly impact final pay. Usually, the initial quote from a recruiter includes a weekly taxed rate. Divide that rate by the hours you will work per week. To find the salary after taxes, multiply the hourly rate by the percent of your income you will keep (100%- tax rate=percent of income).

1. Example of take home pay from taxable income:
To find the taxable hourly rate, $2,295.30 weekly/36 hours per week= $63.76 per hour
To find the take home pay, (100-20=80%) * $63.76/hour= $51.01 per hour

Your travel reimbursement usually comes in one lump sum of money and is nontaxable.  To add travel reimbursement to the pot, find the number of hours in a travel contract by multiplying the hours per week by the number of weeks in the travel contract.  Next, divide your travel reimbursement rate by the total hours of the agreement.

2. Example of non-taxable travel reimbursement:
36 hours per week X 13 weeks in contract= 468 hours
$600 / 468= $1.28

Next comes your stipend, which includes your housing, meals, and incidentals.  You divide this weekly rate by the hours you work per week.  Depending on your travel destination, this rate can vary due to the cost of living. If you’re interested in the per diem rate for various locations across the United States, the U.S. General Service Administration gives the current rates.  

3. Example of Nontaxable Stipend
$1500 weekly stipend / 36 hours per week = $41.67

If you receive any bonuses, make sure you understand if they will be taxed or not.  If they are taxed, they should be multiplied by the percentage that you found in A.  The next step is to divide the bonus by the number of hours in your contract that you found in B.  

4. Example of Taxable Bonus
$1000 bonus * (80%)= $800
$800 take home / 468 hours in contract = $1.71

Now, add 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 to get your total hourly rate. $51.01 + $1.28 + $41.67+ $1.71= $95.67. Use this rate to compare each company against one another to make sure you are getting similar rates.  
Supply and demand for travel nurses can vary by state. Now, if you are comparing different destinations, it’s important to think of the cost of living. If you are comparing Ohio to California, you would need much more money in California to cover the cost of your housing arrangement or your food.
It can be a bit harder to quantify the worth of health insurance, policies that work in your favor, or life insurance. However, at a bare minimum, I recommend negotiating against any out of pocket fees. Negotiate for reimbursement for any necessary licensure costs, certifications, or physical exams and immunizations.

Travel nurse pay package calculator

Questions to ask a travel nurse recruiter

Besides your hourly rate, there are a few things that you can consider when comparing offers. When comparing offers, think about policies that may work in your favor or are not relevant to you. Some facilities often cancel travel nurses, and you do not get paid. This can wreak havoc on your paycheck and change the overall numbers you just computed. Make sure to ask your recruiter the following questions:

  • If a facility cancels me, will I still be paid for the time I should have worked?
  • What are the requirements to obtain health insurance?
  • Do you offer a 401k plan or life insurance policy?
  • Do travel nurses get PTO or sick leave?
  • What is my potential for over-time, and what will the payment be?

While discussing pay to another travel nurse seems harmless, it’s crucial to ensure your comparison is reasonable. With all the factors that go into comparing compensation packages, you need to make sure you are working with a recruiter who is transparent about the amount you will receive.