Whether you’re a newbie nurse who’s looking to pick a specialty that best sets you up for traveling or you’re an experienced traveler interested in finding the best specialty for travel nursing, learn about the most in demand travel nursing specialties.
Types of Travel Nurses and the Best Specialty for Travel Nursing
Nearly any nursing specialty can travel, but the highest paid travel nurse specialty can change for several different reasons. Census needs can change by seasonality, especially for locations that see higher populations during the winter months, or when viruses like RSV surge. But here are some of our top specialties, as of January 2023. These jobs have plenty of positions available.
PICU, NICU and Pediatric Nursing
As of publication time, the types of traveling nurses that work with kids are in the biggest demand, with the highest pay rates. RSV cases and other common children’s viruses typically increase in the winter months and so many PICU, NICU and pediatric nurses see an increase in open positions (and sometimes pay rates).
NICU nurses care for newborn babies who need continuous care. There are different levels of NICU and it’s possible that a smaller facility may not be able to care for the sickest infants. Level II NICUs care for babies as early as 32 weeks who may need help breathing on their own, eating and maintaining temperature. Level III NICUs can care for babies as early as 23 weeks and nurses who work in a Level III facility typically have experience with vents, continuous IV drips and central line management. Level IV NICUs care for the most complex, sickest infants and are usually found in large, teaching hospitals.
PICU nurses care for kids up to 18 years old who have life-threatening or high-acuity conditions. These patients are medically unstable, critically ill or have complex post-surgical issues that require constant monitoring and intervention. PICU nurses spend a lot of time with families and become very involved with a child’s medical case.
Pediatric nurses care for patients who don’t have such complex medical needs. They can work on an in-patient unit or even in a pediatric clinic so care can greatly depend on whether the child is seen for a well-visit or an illness or injury. Peds nurses do physical assessments, monitor vital signs, administer medications and vaccines. They also are fully involved with family members.
If you’re not currently working with kids, you’ll want to make sure you fully understand that these are not just small adults. Working with kids can come with many different challenges. It can be more difficult to see sick kids, plus you’re often dealing with adults who are experiencing some of the most stressful situations of their lives.
Patients cared for in the NICU, PICU and pediatric units include:
- Meconium aspiration
- Congenital heart disease
- Congenital viral infections
- Hypoxic-Ischemic encephalopathy
- Choanal Atresia
- Neonatal abstinence syndrome
- Bronchopulmonary dysplasia
- Respiratory Distress Syndrome
- Chest tubes
- Invasive Surgery
- GI-Renal disorders
- Cardiovascular disease/disorder
- Neuro/spine injury
- Congenital anomalies
- Severe infections
- Physical Trauma
- Respiratory Disorders
Operating Room Nursing
Other types of travel nurses that are in demand include operating room nurses, plus it’s one of the best travel nurse specialties if you’re looking for a higher rate of pay. OR nurses can either circulate, meaning they stay within the non-sterile field to monitor and document the procedure or they can scrub, meaning they stay within the sterile field, help the surgeons with putting on their sterile gowns and gloves and hand instruments to the surgeons. Another part of OR nursing is known as the RN First Assist or RNFA. These are scrub nurses who directly help during the procedure. They can help suture incisions, as well as apply dressings and bandages.
There are a number of reasons why OR nurses are in such high demand, but one reason is because there are operating rooms in hospitals throughout the country, as well as stand-alone surgical centers and outpatient surgery facilities. Currently Triage has OR RN jobs available throughout the country that pay more than $4000 a week (remember though, this info is current as of January 2023 and could change at any time).
Patients cared for in the OR include:
- Oral ENT
- Plastics (reconstructive and cosmetic)
- Ophthalmology ENT
Intensive Care Unit Nursing
ICU jobs are also usually in high demand. In the ICU, nurses need to use advanced skills to care for critically ill patients who have life-threatening illness or injuries. These patients require close monitoring and very specialized equipment. Smaller hospitals may treat all ICU patients in one unit, but larger facilities may have specialized units to treat specific patients.
The cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) focuses on patients with complex cardiac problems. The medical intensive care unit (MICU) cares for patients who aren’t as critically ill as ICU patients, but still require more intensive monitoring, but also aren’t quite as emergent. The surgical unit (SICU) cares for patients who have recently had major surgery and require ongoing monitoring. The burn ICU treats burn victims from fires, but also from explosions or chemical burns. Lastly, the neuro ICU cares for patients who have suffered from brain injuries or neurological disorders.
It may be possible to float between these units. Depending on your experience, you may be able to take a specialized position if you’ve worked at an ICU unit in a hospital that didn’t have a dedicated specialized units. Make sure to talk to your recruiter about your experience in these units and don’t be afraid to ask questions during your interview to ensure you have the experience necessary.
Patients cared for in the ICU include:
- Transfers from the ER that require close monitoring
- Life-threatening illness/injury
- Transfers from inpatient units that have rapidly deteriorated
Emergency Room Nursing
Emergency rooms are some of the fastest-paced places for a nurse and that this time, there are more than 500 ER nurse jobs listed on the Triage job board. Patients can have a number of different reasons for being in the emergency room, including allergic reactions, injuries from car accidents, broken bones, chest pain, abdominal pain and other health issues. Patients can be admitted into the hospital or treated and released. ER nurses typically don’t float and have to be skilled at working in incredibly unpredictable situations.
Patients cared for in the ER:
- Auto accidents
- Farming/industrial accidents
- Chest pain
- Heart attack
- Mental illness
Labor and Delivery Nursing
With more than 200 current jobs on the Triage job board, labor and delivery nursing is definitely in demand. Labor and delivery nurses work with families before, during and after the birth of a baby. They’ll monitor and assess the mother and baby and coach the mom through the labor and delivery process. They can also help with epidurals and assist the doctor during delivery. After delivery, they care for the mom, watching for excessive bleeding and pain.
Labor and delivery nurses also care for the baby immediately after birth, checking their breathing, vitals, blood sugar and more. Some nurses focus on high-risk cases and are assigned cases with mothers who have high-risk factors like diabetes, pre-eclampsia, multiples, prematurity or low birth weight. Labor and delivery nurses who work with high-risk moms try to keep the mothers pregnant as long as possible. Other labor and delivery nurses circulate during C-sections. They’ll help prepare the mom for surgery, help during the procedure and care for the mom afterwards.
Labor and delivery nurses can expect that they will start IVs and run drips, insert catheters, perform cervical checks and monitor the baby electronically.
Patients cared for in labor and delivery:
- Antepartum (before labor)
- Intrapartum (during labor)
- Postpartum (after delivery)
- High-risk OB
- C-sections (pre-op and post-op)
With more than 1300 jobs currently listed on the Triage job board, telemetry is certainly an in-demand specialty. In the telemetry unit, nurses care for patients who are recently released from the ICU or those who have chronic cardiovascular issues. These patients require constant monitoring of their vital signs, heart rhythms, blood pressure, breathing rates and more. Telemetry nurses need to react quickly in case a patient deteriorates rapidly. In some facilities, the PCU, stepdown unit and IMCU can all be a subset of the telemetry unit, but this may not be the case everywhere. Telemetry nurses may float to Med Surg too.
Patients cared for in the telemetry unit:
- Heart attack
- GI bleeds
- Renal failure
- Chest pain
- Advanced cancer
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Post CABG
Medical Surgical Nursing
There are currently more than 1600 medical surgical jobs on the Triage job board, making it a popular specialty. Typically called med surg, these nurses handle all types of cases. These patients aren’t sick enough for a specialized unit like the ICU or telemetry unit, but they’re not well enough to be cared for at home. Med surg nurses give medications, monitor vital signs, admit and discharge patients, run tests, insert catheters and NG tubes, start IVs and change wound dressings. Usually, med surg is the last step before patients are released to home. Nurses who work in med surg can float to telemetry, if they have their ACLS.
Patients cared for in the med surg unit:
- Bariatric surgery
- Heart disease
Stepdown Progressive Care Unit Nursing
The Progressive Care Unit, also known as PCU or stepdown, is for patients who don’t require the 1:1 care of an ICU, but they do need more care than what’s provided in the med surg floor. PCU patients are stable, but they still need continuous monitoring. They may be on a vent or need complex medications so a typical ratio in the stepdown or PCU is 1:3 or 1:4. Currently there are more than 700 stepdown/PCU jobs in the Triage job board.
Patients cared for in the PCU/stepdown unit:
- Orthopedic surgery
- Severe pneumonia
- Sepsis or other serious infection
How to Switch Travel Nurse Specialties?
If you’re looking to switch specialties to experience different types of travel nurses, you might be disappointed to know that you can’t just dive right into a new specialty. Most facilities want their travelers to be able to start immediately and make an impact—they’re short staffed and that’s why they’re hiring travelers.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change specialties though. You have a couple different options that might work. Also, have a conversation with other travelers or even your recruiter. Your recruiter likely has seen someone else in this situation or can ask around at the office. A good recruiter will want to ensure that you’re doing what’s right for your career and may have some advice from other travelers. Don’t be afraid to ask your recruiter if they have any advice!
Option 1: Take a PRN Position
If you’re close enough to travel home every month or so, you could try to find a PRN position at a hospital close to your home. Each facility sets its own rules regarding these jobs though, so the best thing to do is call the unit you want to work in and talk to the manager. Once that’s done, you may need to call the facility’s HR department and ask what the PRN requirements are for the facility.
Option 2: Join a Float Pool
Another option is to increase your skills by joining a float pool. This may work if you’re floating to a lower acuity or similar specialty. For instance, an ICU nurse could probably float to a specialty ICU like CVICU, MICU, SICU, burn ICU or a neuro ICU, a PCU/step down unit or telemetry. But other specialties like ER or OR nurses typically don’t float and may not have this option. It all depends on your facility though. If they have a great enough need and the ability to help you in a new specialty, you’ll have a greater chance of floating into the most in demand travel nurse specialties.
Option 3: Take a Staff Position
If you’re striking out when it comes to a PRN or float position, you may have to transfer to a staff job to get the experience in the specialty you want. Obviously, this means you can’t travel for a while, so just be aware of that if you want to eventually go back into a travel position. It’s a great option if you want to settle down for a few years before coming back to traveling.
Are You Ready to Become a Travel Nurse?
Are you ready to dive in? Once you have two years in your preferred specialty, then is the perfect time to chat with a Triage travel nurse recruiter. The best way to get started is to reach out through our Quick Apply form and you’ll be connected to a recruiter who will take a few minutes getting to know you through a phone call. They’ll walk through what you’re looking for in a position, including pay rate, location and answer any questions, which is especially helpful if you’re traveling for the first time.
Visit our allied and travel nurse jobs board today and we’ll get you started.