What to Expect on Your First Travel Nurse Assignment?

As a first-time travel nurse, what can you expect on your first travel nurse assignment? How can you get a head start before your assignment begins? What can you do to ensure everything goes smoothly? What are some of the problems that can occur?

Below we get into all of the above along with tips and tricks of the trade.


Pre-Onboarding: What is it? How will it affect your travel assignment?


What new travelers don’t know is that your “start-date” and your “pre-onboarding date” can be a bit different. Some of the bigger healthcare systems in the country (e.g. Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) Hospitals) require their nurses to attend “pre-onboarding classes” before their start date.


Pro-Tip: Make sure to ask your recruiter if pre-onboarding classes are required before the start of your assignment.


It’s also good to note that these classes aren’t always located in the same location as the hospital you’ll be contracted with. For example: your hospital could be located in Kansas City, Missouri, but the classes may be located in Joplin, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. The good news is – these classes are generally only 3 to 6 hours long and most of the time, you are paid for that time, although generally the pay is at a lower rate than your contracted rate.


What do these “classes” include? In general: a lot of paperwork, so make sure to bring all your official documents with you (e.g. licenses, certifications, clinical records, etc.) Sometimes this paperwork will be stuff you’ve already completed with your travel agency – but because of various corporate policies at some of these bigger hospitals – you’ll need to do it all over again. Another thing these classes include are exams. So, make sure to pay close attention. Failing these exams could mean the cancellation of your contract.


Pro-Tip: You’ll be asked for all your paperwork (licensing, certificates, physicals, fit tests, tb tests, etc.) so download a scanning app or take photos of all your pertinent documents and save them to a file on your phone for easy access.


How is Travel Nursing Orientation Different?


Shortened Hours


Unlike staff nurse orientations, which generally last all day – travel nurse orientations don’t always come in at the full number of hours your contracted. For example: if you’re contracted for three, 12-hour shifts – your orientation may not last the full 12-hours and you may be sent home early. If you have a guaranteed hours stipulation in your contract – you’ll be just fine and will be paid for the full 36 hours (if that was what you were contracted for).


Pro-Tip: Make sure to ask you recruiter (and get it in writing) what protections are in place if a hospital shortens your hours in a given week.


Depth of Orientation

The level of information you’re provided during an orientation will vary hospital to hospital. Some hospital will put their travelers through the same orientation they send their staff nurses to, and others will give travelers an abbreviated version of the same orientation. The most common scenario is that travelers take about 4-days of classroom orientation, or 32 hours. You’ll learn about the specifics of the hospital, policies, information in relation to HIPAA and infection control, instruction on how to use specific equipment, an overview of the computer charting system and finally you’ll have an orientation with the unit you’ll be working on. On the unit you’ll learn where everything is located, door codes you may need, and protocols in place for contacting other healthcare providers.


Once that’s all done – you’re on your own – so during orientation make sure to ask questions if you have them so you’ll be able to perform your job safely and confidently.


­­­Pro-Tip: Bring a card with you to write down things like door codes, notes on where to find various things, etc.


Tips on Getting Paid on Time


While you are working for a hospital, it is your travel nurse agency that actually pays you each week (or bi-weekly, depending on how they’re structured). But what’s important to note, is that it’s the hospital who confirms your hours to your agency so that you can get paid. Sometimes this is done with a paper timecard which you submit to your agency for pay, and the agency bills the hospital for your hours. Other times, hospitals will have a Kronos timekeeping system, which tracks everything electronically and is then sent to your agency by the hospital’s system. Make sure you know what process your hospital is using, so that you can submit everything in on time.


Pro-Tip: Always make sure you’re tracking your own hours, so that in the event there is a discrepancy you can have it looked at. Sometimes a missed checkbox in Kronos, can mean a few hours less on your paycheck.


Are Travel Nurses Treated Differently?


The truth is, this will vary facility by facility. Some hospitals have a super warm culture and are very inviting to their travelers and welcome them in as one of the family. Other hospitals treat travelers as “relief” and will often give them their worst assignments. There is such a thing as “anti-traveler” sentiments as well, where staff nurses feel jaded by a traveler’s higher pay and blame them for their own depressed wages and benefits. But don’t be scared – most – and we mean most travelers are a welcome relief to the hospitals that hire them – otherwise you wouldn’t have so many happy travelers.


Problems Travelers Sometimes Face




The most common problem faced by a traveler, especially a new traveler, is feeling overwhelmed. From a new computer system to not knowing where to park to getting lost in a 560-bed hospital.


The best advice? Be gentle on yourself and give yourself a week or two to get into the swing of things. With time, comes confidence. If it’s been a couple weeks and you’re feeling like patient care is at stake – talk with your recruiter to hash out a solution – 9 times out of 10 – a solution will be found.


Broken Agreements


Sometimes a hospital will not honor an agreement made with a travel nurse. This can range for not getting approved time off to shorter hours to being required to float when you were told “no float”. The best way to avoid all of the above is to make sure your contract stipulates every detail of every agreement you made with the hospital.


Other Potential Problems


It’s not all too uncommon to run into issues with other staff nurses who may have issues with you for one reason or another. If it ever veers into the realm of “harassment” then speak to you nurse recruiter immediately. We heard of a case where a nurse was being harassed for picking up extra shifts by a staff nurse that felt those shifts belonged to staff nurses only. The staff nurse was a bit misguided because of course staff nurses are always offered extra shifts, and when those shifts are not taken – they’re offered to travel nurses.


Other Pro Tips for First Time Travelers


Don’t be afraid to ask questions: You’re new to this, and this is prime time to ask as many questions as possible. Don’t try to “fake it until you make it” for fear of looking dumb. What’s truly dumb is acting like you know something and then looking dumb doing it because you never asked how to do it. Or worse: putting a patient’s health at risk.


The plus side? Most nurses absolutely love teaching and are so very happy to answer questions.


The trick to making friends and getting everyone on staff to love working with you is to do all the things: help with admits, turns, etc. from the very beginning. Everyone loves a helpful nurse and it’s a great way to become popular super quick.


Other Resources


While we may claim to know everything there is to know about travel nursing, more can always be known. Below are our recommendations for preparing yourself for the road ahead:


Highway Hypodermics is a great website and resource of travelers just starting out. From tips on surviving your first assignment to the most difficult hospitals for travel nurses to work at to tips on how to survive hospital politics – this book (and website) is an endless resource.

PANTravelers.org – A reliable (and neutral) website set up by The Professional Association of Nurse Travelers to give unbiased resources for travel nurses.


Travel Nursing Central – A great community website for travel nurses that provides a ton of resources.


National Association of Travel Healthcare Organizations (NATHO) – A non-profit association of travel healthcare organizations, founded in 2008 to promote ethical business practices in the travel healthcare industry.


Gypsy Nurse– Very informative (and popular) site sharing how to travel for a living as a gypsy nurse.




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