With any profession, there are natural ups and downs given industry trends, the economy, you name it. However, travel nursing can still be a positive, fulfilling experience if you have an adaptive mindset & the right “tools” to help you achieve success as a travel nurse.
Meet Kylee Nelson – traveling NICU nurse, blogger, and content creator. She began “Passports & Preemies” in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee sat down with Advantage Medical Professionals to share her personal travel nursing journey with us – including the highs, lows, and everything in between.
AMP: Let’s just dive right in here – you’re a travel nurse and doing the whole content creator thing as well, so you’re probably bouncing all over the place. Where are you right now?
Kylee: I am in Palm Springs, California on a family trip right now. I just signed my next travel nurse contract and will go to Seattle on Saturday. I’ve actually been on a break for the last four months.
AMP: Oh wow. Where have you gone in those four months?
Kylee: I moved to France because that’s where my boyfriend lives, so I’ve done some traveling to places like Belgium, Italy, and now back here, which has been very cool.
AMP: How long have you been traveling?
Kylee: After two years of nursing, I started traveling in 2016. I traveled from 2016 to 2020, and then I quit and went staff because I was so tired of moving around. At that point, I was 31 and had never owned anything myself. I wanted my own apartment with my own furniture. So, I got an apartment, bought all this furniture, and within three months (well, within three days) I realized I didn’t really like it. So now I’m happy to be back in travel nursing. It’s not something I thought I would be doing again, but I’m getting more and more excited about it because it’s so flexible and the pay is obviously much better. The sad part is that I went staff right when the pandemic rates shot up, so I have never been a part of that $10K-a-week group. So yeah, I guess I dropped the ball on that. When I contacted my recruiter saying I wanted to travel again [this time], she sent me rates, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, these are so much higher than when I traveled two years ago!” She basically told me I was the only person saying that, because everyone else was complaining that the rates had dropped.
AMP: Yeah, that’s something we see a lot – people still in the mindset of peak COVID times and accustomed to getting those $8-12K pay rates.
Kylee: I know. I cannot even fathom that. I’m like, why couldn’t I stick it out like another year? I could retire!
AMP: I’m sure it feels that way. Even though it’s a lot lower now than it was then, it is not as low as it was before COVID. Is the pay still higher across the board than before the pandemic?
Kylee: Yeah. This is my highest-paying contract this time, but I can’t imagine if it was even more. I’m sure nurses who traveled during COVID would say it’s not that much, you know?
AMP: How do you feel about everything within the nursing world now that the COVID pandemic seems to be on the steady decline since the beginning of 2020?
Kylee: Aside from the negative effects of COVID itself? I think both good and bad came out of the pandemic. Nurses found their voice during that time. Together, we did an excellent job coming together and bringing up issues that needed to be discussed – including problems that started before then, too. Many places were [already] understaffed and underpaid, and the pandemic greatly affected that. We really banded together, and I think now it’s exciting to see what we can do with that. I’ve heard positive changes coming out of the strike in New York, and I see a lot on social media about nurses getting raises now. I hope now that that we’re out of the trenches of it, we can change the profession positively. But it took COVID to open everybody’s eyes.
AMP: What kind of advice would you give nurses who are either too scared or too burned out to re-enter travel nursing after COVID?
Kylee: So, a couple things to acknowledge – I didn’t travel during COVID, and working in the NICU was so much different than working any other floor during that time. I can’t imagine how scary that would have been as a nurse. It must have been so exhausting going to work knowing what lies ahead. If you’re burnt out from that, it really is important to take a step back and take a break; whether that is taking a break and not being a nurse for a month or two, going staff to see how that goes, or changing professions. But I also hope that doesn’t scare people away from travel nursing. It’s important to take care of yourself and heal, but I hope [nurses] remember what brought them travel nursing in the first place, and that the spark comes back…but take care of yourself first!
AMP: Do you have some specific tips to help travel nurses decrease burnout or ensure a good work-life balance?
Kylee: Oh, I love this question. Definitely find what you like to do. When I volunteered in North Macedonia, I’d been a nurse for about two and a half years at a hospital that was very, very understaffed, overworked, and underpaid. at the time. I was a new grad before that, so it’s not that I could say I was burned out, but I just knew something was wrong. I’d look at these nurses who had been there for over thirty years and think, “How in the world are they still coming here every day?” The interesting thing is I was working five days a week throughout my time in North Macedonia, but I did not feel an ounce of burnout because on the weekends, I was traveling and doing what really set my soul on fire. That’s the key, figuring out what you like to do outside of work. The other important aspect of that is self-care. If you cannot go to work that day, use a sick day. If you are asked to pick up extra and don’t want to, learn to say no. That’s what I want to tell every new grad nurse – “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t need to rationalize it. You don’t need to give a reason; say no. Just do what you love, take care of yourself, and recognize when you’re too tired to give anymore.
AMP: That’s good advice. Going off that, what was your worst experience during a travel contract, and how would you recommend other travelers to avoid getting in a similar situation?
Kylee: So the interesting thing about my worst experience was I really liked the hospital and the nurses I worked with. However, when I started at this hospital, two things happened. My recruiter didn’t tell me we had to take an arrhythmia test [at orientation] that if you fail, you cannot move forward. It was an adult arrhythmia test, so it didn’t make sense for NICU nurses to take it anyway. Luckily, the NICU recognized that and provided help, but that was a really overwhelming experience! Especially because that was [only] my third travel contract, and I still considered myself a baby in the travel nurse world. Always work with a recruiter that will tell you these things. You can always ask the questions too, like what is expected of you when you arrive or what would happen if you don’t do X, Y, Z.
The second thing happened while I am being oriented. We had a very sick baby on the oscillator, and the educator came and questioned why I was caring for this baby in front of the parents (very inappropriate) during the shift while I was being precepted. She questioned me because she thought I didn’t have any oscillator experience at all, but she ended up reviewing my skills checklist and apologizing a few days later. For me, this reaffirmed why you should be honest on your skills checklist. You don’t want to get into a situation where you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’ve lied about it. If somebody comes up to you questioning your skills, take it with a grain of salt. Just take a deep breath and remember you’re only there for a few weeks. Whatever they want to think, just let them. Do the best work you can and move on without burning any bridges.
AMP: Speaking of recruiters, what are some things you think every travel nurse should look for in their agency and their recruiter?
Kylee: A recruiter that is good at communication! I always say I like to personally pick a recruiter over an agency because the best recruiter in the world could make a lousy agency amazing…and the worst recruiter in the world could make an amazing agency seem bad. I always suggest picking a recruiter that you vibe with who has excellent communication and will not force you into anything. I’ve spoken to many recruiters who have tried to get me to sign contracts. I’ll say, “Okay, I need a few hours to think about it,” but they’d call back every 10 minutes to remind me I’m running out of time. If I run out of time, it’s my own fault. Don’t work with anyone that’s going to pressure you into doing something you don’t want. Also, don’t work with anyone who isn’t going to take the time to answer all your questions in depth to make sure that you understand what you’re doing and getting into. When you find a recruiter that you really love and work well with, I encourage you to do everything you can to cultivate that relationship. You might not travel with them on every single contract, but when you can, they will do things for you that they wouldn’t do for a first-time travel nurse with them.
AMP: That is very important. What else would you share with nurses looking to travel nurse for the first time?
Kylee: Do your research. If you know any travel nurses, ask them what recruiters they like, but go with your gut. Another big thing is that it can be scary and overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it. It also doesn’t mean that you’re going to get on assignment and love it. Travel nursing is not for everyone, but I always say you would rather look back at your life in 10 years and think, “Yeah I tried that, and I hated it,” versus “I never tried that, and I don’t know if I would’ve liked it or not.”
AMP: What are some first-time contract negotiation tips you have for starter travel nurses?
Kylee: Being a new travel nurse is so complicated. I’m going to say this as frankly as possible. For pay reasons, it’s essential to always work with [at least] two recruiters. There are also some amazing Facebook groups to join. Some Facebook groups will share how much contracts pay, and you can use those tools to talk to your recruiter and find out if this is comparable to what other nurses are getting paid. You can also ask if you are taking out housing where another nurse is not? Are there are other benefits included in your package (like health or travel insurance) that wasn’t included in someone else’s? Do your best to be knowledgeable about the industry and what other nurses are making at that time. I think the hardest part is getting paired with a recruiter that isn’t going to take advantage of the newness. I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but being a new travel nurse is so hard. There are so many mistakes. I didn’t even know what questions to ask, so I signed this contract with this one recruiter who I ended up traveling with for three contracts before I realized I was getting about $500 less a week than everyone else, but I was too chicken to ask about it. Finally, I was so sick of it I just completely stopped talking to her. Looking back now, I don’t think that was the right thing to do. It’s important to have the conversation and say, “I don’t appreciate this, and I don’t want to move forward with you anymore.”
AMP: It’s important to find a recruiter that you completely trust, especially since they are the liaison between you and the hospital. As a staff nurse, you’d be the one directly speaking with HR and making all those decisions. As a travel nurse, you need to be very confident that the recruiter you’re entrusting to do this will strongly advocate on your behalf.
Kylee: One hundred percent!
AMP: Switching gears here – travel nursing on your own can obviously get lonely, especially when you first arrive in a new place that you’re unfamiliar with to start an assignment. How do you combat that loneliness?
Kylee: That is hard, and that’s something that I was shocked at when I started traveling. I just had this notion everyone would be my friend and that I would start with all these travel nurses! You might start with a few other travel nurses, but they’re usually not working on your unit. Go in with an open mind. Be friendly, say hello. I like to show up with donuts on my first day and thank them for having me. If you’re finding what you love to do outside of work and aren’t afraid to do those things alone, do those things and see who you meet! I am lucky to have a mom who likes to visit me, which always breaks up the loneliness. One time I did Bumble BFF (Bumble, but for making friends). Just be open and try not to get your feelings hurt if the staff doesn’t reciprocate those feelings. That [lesson] was like a slap in the face to me at first, because I really went into travel nursing thinking I would be best friends with all the nurses on every unit. They may get a lot of travel nurses, and sometimes they don’t want to cultivate that relationship.
AMP: I love your idea of bringing donuts on the first day! I don’t think I could hate anyone that brought me a donut.
Kylee: Right? I’ll always bring snacks and a note to thank them for having me on my very last shift too, even if it was an awful assignment. It’s SO important to not burn a bridge.
AMP: How do you approach safety when you’re traveling for a contract, or even when you’re just traveling for fun?
Kylee: So, some general safety tips for travel nurses and as a woman traveling by herself. If you’re a travel nurse trying to rent a house, reading the reviews and do not stay anywhere that doesn’t have a review! Sometimes I will go to Facebook groups and search for travel nurse housing in the city I’ll be working in, then I like to find somebody rented from a house there. I’ll sometimes message the person and say, “Hey, did you rent here? Can you tell me about it?” That’s one thing you can do in terms of safety. Usually, I carry pepper spray with me when I am traveling alone and do my best to not go out alone at night. I’ll have dinner at six o’clock and go back home. I feel like the most dangerous part is drinking too much, staying out too late, and getting yourself into a bad situation. Oh, and also let loved ones know where you are, like your friends and family at home.
AMP: So, talking about moving and finding housing – what does your moving process look like? How do you normally find housing and get move ready? What do you do with your things?
Kylee: So, when you get your contract, the first thing I would do would be search for housing.
I have always tried to talk [directly] to whomever I’m renting from so I can ask, “Okay, if this scenario happens, what can you do to help me?” Sometimes people are generous, and sometimes they’ll say no, which is okay. I try to find housing up to a month out, maybe even two weeks. A good idea is to rent for one month and then find somewhere else [once you’re more certain of how long you’ll likely be working there]. When I had a car, I would pack all my stuff just into the car and drive – now, I pack and ship like two boxes instead. I used to overpack, but I’ve since learned that’s not smart. I like to dress up a lot, so I figure out how many days of the contract I’ll be working. So, if you work three days a week and your contract is 12 weeks, you will be in scrubs for 36 days. Next, take the total number of days you’ll be on your assignment minus 36 to figure out the rest. If you break it down like that, you don’t pack as much. Also, ask your recruiter if you need to show any receipts for travel reimbursement. Some agencies will just give you the money, and some companies need your receipts.
AMP: It’s essential to ask the question, or at least make sure you save copies of your receipts until you know for sure. I was reading some of your blogs, and I saw the one you wrote about how you weren’t told that you needed to take a picture of the odometer before and after.
Kylee: Yes! That made me feel like they purposely did not tell me that, you know? There’s no stupid question when dealing with recruiters because it’s much better to be over-prepared and ask too many questions than not asking enough. If you get a great recruiter and you forget the question, they’ll be flexible with you. But if you get a bad recruiter that wants to nickel and dime you, you’re pretty much out of luck.
AMP: What are some other non-glamorous parts of travel nursing that are important for everyone to know?
Kylee: I love this question too! I went into travel nursing thinking it was rainbows and butterflies. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until one day before you start, meaning you don’t even have your schedule. The second thing is you will go to hospitals and be watched like a hawk, and people will tell you that you’re doing things incorrectly. That was very hard for me to adjust to, to just swallow my pride and say, “Okay, how do you want me to do it?” I was still confident in my skills as a NICU nurse, which is why it’s so important to also get two years of experience! Another part of it is you must really keep a more meticulous record [of your hours] as a travel nurse. Look over your paycheck to ensure you’ve been reimbursed for your travel expenses and hourly pay. Keeping all your paperwork and vaccine records together in one place is also more difficult, mainly because you’re doing it every three or so months. Lastly, just dealing with the unknown is scary. What if you get canceled? It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard of people that show up, and then [the facility] says “Oh, actually, we’re not going to have you start.”
AMP: Yeah. In cases like that, I imagine it’s important to have some savings to fall back on so you’re not left without any money to pay bills if something like that happens.
Kylee: One hundred percent. I have savings, and then I also have travel savings, but travel savings is to travel. If something like that were to happen, I would also pull from that. So yes, definitely build your savings. I suggest having $3,000 before you even start travel nursing because while you’re waiting to get reimbursed, it’s a lot of expenses up upfront. So, I just had to pay for my Washington license. I let it lapse, so it cost me $250. Then I had to pay $40 for the flu shot, then renewed my BLS and my PALS, which is another $100 – $200. You have to buy the plane ticket or drive your car to get there, where you then pay your rent upfront. That’s a lot of money!
AMP: That is a very good tip. So, what are some of your go-to favorites for scrubs, comfy shoes, or other things you need daily while working?
Kylee: I love to wear Figs because I love the colors and they are marketing geniuses. I always wear New Balance shoes because I think they look cool and comfortable. I’m not into Danskos; they’re not very comfy. I used to wear Adidas to work, but they hurt my feet so bad and I don’t know why. I also have a 64-ounce jug because sometimes you don’t have time to refill your water bottle. Since I like to bring my lunch, I always bring my lunchbox. Something that’s very cheap, affordable, and really fun for changing your look are those cute little badge reels. I follow this girl that makes these badge reels I really like called Badge Beauties.
AMP: We’ll have to spread the word about Badge Beauties to our nurses then! So, just a couple general travel questions since that’s your thing. You’re this big travel influencer, especially for travel nursing. What was your favorite place that you’ve traveled for a nursing contract?
Kylee: I have two answers. My favorite place for location would be Santa Barbara, California. I also love the city of Seattle and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Seattle is so traveler friendly and so much fun!
AMP: Where’s the favorite places you’ve gone on vacation?
Kylee: Georgia – the country, not the state. I went there for a month in 2021 because I heard it was the birthplace of wine, and I love wine! Plus, it’s SO cheap. Literally, I stayed in an amazing Airbnb for $9 a night. The food is spectacular. The wine in Georgia is different; it’s not like French Italian wine, but it’s so unique and it’s such a big part of their life. Families will make wine. You’ll walk by these homes and see they have water bottles of wine outside. It’s just a beautiful culture with beautiful places to see. Georgia is my number one, but another underrated place I love is Slovenia. Everyone visits Greece or Croatia, but not Slovenia. It’s not on the coast, but it’s next to Croatia and it still has this beauty to it. It’s also cheaper and less crowded because nobody really visits, but I don’t know why because it’s an amazing country. Those are my top two recommendations – I’ll stop there or else this interview would be four hours long!
AMP: I can imagine! Now that we know everything you love about traveling, what do you love about nursing?
Kylee: I love the impact that I can have on families. There are a few nursing specialties where you have an impact on the patient, but the patient doesn’t know it, right? This might be more NICU-specific, but I just love seeing a parent’s face light up if I get to ask them, “Do you want to hold [your little one] today?” Or sometimes it’s as simple as just teaching them something. Across the board, nursing as a career can be so impactful every single day and that’s something I really like about it. Of course, it’s hard to go to work if you’re already having a hard day, but if I can touch a parent, it really changes the narrative and improves my entire day.
AMP: I think that’s beautiful. I really like that. So how did you get into NICU? Why did you decide NICU was your specialty?
Kylee: So, when I went to nursing school, I hated everywhere I went [on rotation]. You know, you go to Med-Surg, Peds, Labor and Delivery, and everywhere. Toward the end I was asking myself, “My program’s almost over. What am I going to do?” I’d spent all this time and money at that point. Luckily, when we got to ICU settings, something happened with the facility we were at and there wasn’t enough space for all the students to go [to the regular ICU], so I was able to go to the NICU instead. I can’t explain why, but I immediately loved it. I loved that the patient couldn’t tell you what was wrong. You truly had to figure it out alone, and that’s something I still really like about it.
Kylee is a Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) nurse who is passionate about making travel affordable and accessible to nurses. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia as a way to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potentially 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.
>> Follow Passports & Preemies on social!
>> Take the next step in your travel nursing career with us TODAY!