In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Aspen Tucker was working as a staff nurse at a hospital in his native Spartanburg, South Carolina, making roughly $2,000 per biweekly paycheck. When he saw a posting for a travel-nursing job in Amarillo, Texas, paying $6,700 a week, he was practically on the next flight.
“I hate to say this, but I didn’t give notice. I got my stuff, went to Texas, and told my manager when I got there, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'” Tucker told CNBC Make It.
Tucker, now 29, has been on the road ever since, picking up travel-nursing contracts that range from four to 13 weeks long. While on contract, he typically works 48- to 60-hour weeks, putting in long shifts to maximize overtime pay.
The goal behind all that overtime is downtime. Tucker works only nine months out of the year and spends the rest of his time back in South Carolina or on vacation. His 2022 income: $187,000.
“I absolutely love living in Spartanburg and being a travel nurse. Spartanburg has a small-town feel. I know everyone here. I have family here,” he says. “The big benefit is the low cost of living in South Carolina. I’m able to have a high salary as a travel nurse, but come back to where the cost of living is low.”
For someone like Tucker, who says he has dreamed of traveling since childhood, travel nursing offers some obvious appeal. His jobs have taken him all over, from Rhode Island to California.
As a profession, it’s a no-doubt price performer. Tucker began his career as a travel nurse after earning an associate’s degree. On average, a four-year undergraduate degree will cost about $29,000 per year, compared with just over $11,000 for two-year degrees, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
A more expensive education often coincides with a higher salary. The median annual pay among American workers with a bachelor’s degree is about $69,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with an associate’s degree average just over $50,000.
Travel nursing bucks that trend — but it isn’t for everyone. It comes with drawbacks both personal and financial.
Time away from family
Life on the road means time away from your usual support system. “I’m away from home, I’m away from family, I’m away from my dog,” says Tucker. “I’m way outside my comfort zone — usually in different cities or different states. It does have its challenges.”
A tricky work environment
Hospitals bring in travel nurses when they need extra staff pronto, so there’s no time to ease into things.
“As a staff nurse you may get eight, 10, even 13 weeks to get [integrated] working there, but as a travel nurse, you get a day,” Tucker says. That may mean learning new workflows amid language barriers or with staff that’s less than delighted you’re there.
It’s not unusual for staff nurses to ask him about his pay, Tucker says.
“In their mind they’re thinking, ‘This company doesn’t want to pay us, but they’re willing to pay somebody to come here for a short period of time to make this kind of money.’ It creates a little bit of animosity there,” he says.
Spotty health care
What’s more, travel nurses pay premiums for health insurance when they’re under contract but aren’t covered between jobs. “I try to think smart and get everything done while I’m under that contract,” Tucker says.
Recently, that meant getting aching wisdom teeth pulled while working in California.
That also means when he’s on break, he’s learned to live cautiously. “I used to play a lot of basketball and stuff. And now I’m like, ‘If I don’t have health insurance, I can’t go ahead and break my leg.'”
If you’re not willing to live a completely nomadic lifestyle, being on the road means paying for a lot of things twice.
In December 2022, while working in Fresno, California, Tucker paid for a mortgage on his house in Spartanburg, plus the cost of a long-term stay in an Airbnb. He paid for a rental car for the month in addition to the payment on his truck. He also took care of his living expenses while paying friends to walk his dogs and keep an eye on his house and cars.
Tucker’s solution to defray the costs: earning extra income from real estate. He recently purchased a duplex in Spartanburg and rents half the home to a long-term renter while listing the other half on Airbnb. He’s planning to rent his primary residence too when he’s out of town.
In fact, that’s how Tucker hopes to use real estate income to replace or supplement his salary when he eventually stops travel nursing.
“I want to create more real estate opportunities for myself [so] that I can work less and less,” he says.
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