A tale of two nurses: How average travel nurse compensation compares to all US nurse salaries

Vivian Health used its proprietary data and BLS statistics to map differences in pay between registered travel and staff nurses across the U.S.


An African American nurse wearing glasses using a stethoscope on male patient resting in bed.

Shutterstock // Gorodenkoff

Heightened demand made nursing a high-paying profession over the last decade, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Registered nurses today earn more than $45 per hour on average—about $14 more than the average wage across all occupations in the United States. Traveling nurses with the same skills and credentials can earn another $16 more per hour, on average, compared to staff nurses. A typical contract for a traveling nurse is about 13 weeks but can be shorter or longer.

In some states, the pay difference between travel and staff nurses is even more dramatic.

Vivian Health leveraged its proprietary data, along with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to analyze and chart the differences in pay at the national and state levels between staff and travel registered nurses. We pulled data from both sources on May 2023, the last time the BLS updated its data. BLS data on registered nurses is conflated with staff nursing positions in this analysis, though the numbers would technically include travel nurses, as well. However, travel nurses comprise a small portion of the overall RN workforce, and their wages won't affect the overall averages too much.

The pandemic exacerbated existing nursing shortages, driving high demand for RNs who could temporarily fill gaps through travel contracts. While COVID-19-related demand has eased, travel nurses remain a vital solution for ongoing nursing shortages.

The biggest nursing pay gap can be found in the Upper Midwest

A heat map showing the difference in hourly wages between travel nurses and all RNs by state.

Vivian Health

The Midwest enjoys higher ratios of nurses per capita than other areas in the U.S., which should translate to less demand for travel nurses overall.

That said, nurses who take travel contracts in the Midwest, on average, earn the highest per-hour wage difference compared to their on-staff counterparts. Travel nurse pay stands out here, as a lower cost of living in this region often translates to lower compensation for residents. Offering high wages for traveling nurses in parts of the Midwest that are in need can help attract more RNs to these states, which are not ranked among the most popular for state-to-state migration.

Conversely, the smallest differences in pay exist in the states where nurses are paid the most: Hawaii and along the West Coast. These locations also have relatively high costs of living, particularly in urban areas, as well as strong nursing unions that help nurses demand better pay and benefits.

States on the West Coast are home to top nursing/medical schools and major medical employers, including Kaiser Permanente (California), University of Washington medical centers, University of California hospitals, and other large health care facilities. Nurses in California additionally benefit from legally mandated minimum staffing levels, which help prevent overworking and burnout.

Regardless of where they operate, travel nurses typically have the potential to earn much more than their staff counterparts. There are some downsides to these contracts, including a lack of stability, the challenge of learning a new workplace every few months, and less opportunity to build lasting relationships with co-workers and patients. But they also offer a chance to see new places, learn skills associated with various roles, meet many people, and build wealth.

Staffing up with temporary contracts, like those of travel nurses, created huge cost burdens for hospitals from 2020 through 2022. Many hospitals are in precarious financial situations to begin with and may need to rework their staffing strategies to be more sustainable. Still, amid nursing shortages and an aging, increasingly care-dependent population, travel nurses will likely continue to be a critical element of the American health care industry.

Story editing by Nicole Caldwell. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.

This story originally appeared on Vivian Health and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.