Travel nursing is one of the most exciting career options for nurses, an industry that’s been flourishing for years. It exists to help cover shifts when a staff member has to leave suddenly, to fill in during shortages or to pitch in during seasonal fluctuations, frequently used for filling in staffing gaps at hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
While the length of travel assignments can vary, anywhere from two to 26 weeks, the standard travel contract is 13 weeks. Across the board, the majority of agencies are seeking nurses to fill 13-week contracts, which is what most hospitals prefer as well. Of course, while this is the standard, what shifts a nurse works and the number of hours they work can vary significantly from one assignment to the next.
There are many reasons that most contracts are for a 13-week period. Healthcare facilities prefer it as orientation and onboarding periods for new nurses can take anywhere from four to 12 weeks, meaning travel nurses can provide coverage as new, permanently hired staff nurses acclimatize. Additionally, with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) providing employees with as much as 12 weeks of leave, travel nurses that take on a 13-week contract can adequately cover those periods of leaves of absence. Housing is yet another reason, as standard apartment contracts for 13 weeks are easier to find than contracts for shorter periods, making life easier for nurses who want to find their own, as well as for agencies that secure housing for their nurses.
A 13-week assignment is also preferable to many nurses. It’s the ideal length of time for a nurse to get to know the destination and avoid having to drive to a new assignment every other week, spending much of their time on the road. The assignment is long enough to provide stability and perhaps learn some new techniques, while still being able to visit four unique places every year.
That said, if healthcare travelers find that they’re enjoying their assignment and want to stick around longer, and the hospital is still in need, it’s often possible to renew by extending the assignment, sometimes multiple times if all are in agreement.
With times changing, there has been a shift in staffing needs, technology and lifestyles resulting in some travel contracts being more flexible. For example, with the emergence of vacation rental online marketplaces like Airbnb, it’s now easier for nurses arrange their own housing, without being held to 13-week contracts for apartments and other accommodation.
Shorter contracts of four to six weeks do occasionally become available. For example, if a hospital has someone out on short-term disability, the facility may need a temporary nurse for a shorter period of time. Nurses interested in taking shorter assignments should talk to their recruiter about it so that they can keep an eye out for those more unique opportunities.
Rapid response travel nurses have greater flexibility in assignment lengths with shorter contracts available. They often need to be able to start sooner, in as little as two days to two weeks. Traditionally these nurses have been used for difficult to fill, or very remote positions, as well as unexpected fluctuations in staff or patient loads during the flu season, for example.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many nurses are now needed for these shorter term, high-intensity assignments. Nurses who are knowledgeable, experienced and can start quickly, have a compact license or multiple state licenses, are mostly likely to be hired for these assignments and can earn significantly more than travel nurses in standard 13-week assignments.
For any travel nurse, it’s important to consider all options and what assignment length is best for their particular situation. Keep in mind that it can be more challenging to find assignments that are longer or shorter than the typical 13 weeks (although as noted, during the pandemic there is likely to be more flexibility with a greater number of nurses needed, and quickly). Having a thorough discussion with your recruiter is the best way to find the ideal travel nursing contract you’re looking for.