YOU'VE MADE THE DECISION. You're going to travel. Now, what's your first step? With the variety of travel companies, how do you decide which one is right for you?
Start with a clear understanding of why you want to travel. Sit down with a blank piece of paper or computer screen. Write down what you want, whether it's the chance for an assignment to a place you've always wanted to visit, such as Hawaii, or the convenience of housing with a health club attached. Then list the things you need, such as a top-notch retirement plan, if that's your main reason for traveling, or pet-friendly accommodations if you'll be taking your cat along. Keep this list focused by limiting it to three absolute “must haves.” It's this list that will help you eliminate agencies that can't meet your needs.
What to list? Consider the following:
- Housing: Do you want to live alone or share accommodations? If you have allergies or problems sleeping, sharing might be awkward. Some travelers have been linked with great roommates; others complain about their roommate's sloppiness, preference for loud music, or smoking. Consider the convenience of having your housing prearranged, with utilities and phones connected, rather than arranging it yourself. If you plan to stay with a friend or relative while on assignment, ask if you can just take the housing allowance.
- Retirement: If you're still young enough that this doesn't cross your mind, you probably won't put this on your list, but building up a nest egg isn't a bad idea for anyone.
- Domestic partner benefits: If you're in a committed, nonmarital relationship, this may be an important item for you, and not all agencies offer it.
- Salary: Of course, this is important—most people want to make as much as possible. But keep cost of living in mind; you'll be paid less in Hot Springs, Ark., than in San Francisco, Calif., but your expenses will be considerably less too. When comparing salaries, ask whether differentials are paid for off-shifts, weekends, and holidays. Some companies may offer a couple of dollars less per hour but pay bigger bonuses when you complete the assignment. Also ask about whether the agency deducts taxes and social security. If it doesn't, you'll get a bigger paycheck but you'll also have to take care of taxes yourself. That may mean hiring an accountant, especially if you're earning money in more than one state.
- Guaranteed minimum hours: Usually, travelers are hired by facilities that are having trouble meeting their staffing needs, so call-offs may not occur often. But it does happen, and you don't want to be stuck earning less than expected. Ask about the policy—some guarantee that you can't be called off more than a set number of hours, such as one shift per pay period.
- Locations: If you have certain destinations in mind, be sure the agency has contracts in all the states you plan to visit. One traveler had to leave an agency she was satisfied with because it didn't cover an area where she wanted to work for family reasons.
- Insurance: Does the agency's plan cover providers and facilities wherever you may travel? Do you need prescription card coverage? What about dependents and preexisting conditions? At the time I started traveling, I had two dependents, both with diabetes, so insurance coverage was a priority for me.
- Contact person: Although you might not think this is a must-have, remember that your contact person at the agency is your lifeline when you're far from home. Is someone available to you 24 hours a day? Do you deal with just one person? Some agencies require you to contact various people, depending on your call—payroll, housing, expenses, and so on.
- Shifts: If you're going back to school or have other obligations, this area may be the focus of your must-have list. Bear in mind that if you can work only a certain shift or a set schedule, agencies might have trouble placing you.
Do your homework
What's next after you're satisfied with your must-have list? Scan the advertisements for travel agencies in this publication or in your monthly nursing journals. Start visiting their Web sites and make some calls. They all list toll-free numbers, and most are answered around the clock. Stick to your must-have list so you don't get distracted by perks an agency offers. Ask the agencies that can meet your needs to send you more information.
Don't forget to tap into any travelers who work at your facility or with other nurses you know. Ask them what they like about traveling in general and their agency in particular. Keep their comments in perspective, particularly if they had a problem. Remember that agencies should handle problems like late paychecks or slow responses to phone calls, but problems such as inadequate staffing in a unit are beyond their scope. Also keep in mind that one person's experience is limited and her must-have list might be completely different from yours.
Travel nursing is an adventure I heartily recommend. By knowing your must-haves and finding the agency that suits you, you can make it a terrific experience.