Before you pack your bags, read this advice from three experienced nurse-travelers.


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Travel nursing is as wonderful and exciting as you've heard. But before you pack up and leave home, there are a few things you should know. Here, three experienced travel nurses share what they've learned.


1. Make the most of your free time. You have to hit the ground running on the job, and you should do the same with your free time, says Valerie Bacon, RN, who's been a travel nurse for several years. Part of the thrill of travel nursing, she says, is seeing the country, meeting different people, and learning about other cultures. "When I'm not working, I have something planned for every day," she says. Search out other travelers at orientation and plan activities with them. "I also ask about other travelers when I sign in at my apartment," she adds.Consider asking whether you can move in early, adds Patricia Boudens, RN, a cardiac step-down nurse who's also been traveling for several years. "Getting there a few days early lets you see some sights, relax by the pool, and get the lay of the land," she explains. "Although most companies let you move in on Saturday for a Monday start, they don't charge much rent if you come the weekend before."


2. Learn about the area before you leave for an assignment. Find out about the hospital, the city, and what's going on before you arrive. "Not only do you find out what you're getting into," says Bacon, "but you also get excited about going."


3. Read and understand your contract before you sign it. The contract usually is slightly different for each job. "I always confirm that the pay rate is what I've agreed upon," says Bacon. "I also make sure that my hours are guaranteed. And I always check the floating policy. I'm an obstetric nurse, and I'm not comfortable floating to the emergency department (ED) or intensive care unit. If necessary, I ask the agency to write into the contract that I'll float only to certain departments."


4. Be prepared. "I always make sure that my AAA membership is paid up, that my car is in good working order, and that the oil has been changed," Morris notes. "I also take a first-aid kit and cellular phone with me." In addition, she warns, you should know that your living quarters come with just the basics. "You'll need to take your own towels, linens, shower curtain, plates, glasses, and utensils."


5. Ask questions. Orientation typically lasts 3 days, says Boudens. The first session is handled by a human resources person. "After the paperwork gets done, you spend two shifts on the floor with a buddy nurse," she explains. There obviously isn't time to go over every policy and procedure. However, "I've found that colleagues don't mind answering questions about the job; they want you to do things right," she says. "I also ask questions about the area, such as 'Where's the grocery store?' and 'Are there any streets I should avoid?'"


6. Be informed about your benefits, especially your health coverage. "Knowing what your health insurance covers and where you can go for medical treatment is important," stresses Boudens. "Which hospitals can you use? Which health care providers? Can you use walk-in clinics?" Call the 800 number on your insurance card and tell them your address to get answers. Besides providing health insurance, many agencies also offer dental, disability, and life insurance; make 401(k) plans available; and provide licensing reimbursement.


7. Keep in mind that the choices are yours. "One of the big benefits of travel nursing is that you have control over your life," says Nancy Morris, RN. "You can specify which regions of the country you want to work in. And it's up to you how much or little you work." Although most assignments run 13 weeks, you can take off a week or month between assignments, says Morris, an ED nurse who travels. Or you can finish one job on Friday and start another on Monday.


8. Sign up with more than one travel company. "If one agency doesn't have a position in the region you'd like to travel to, other agencies might," explains Bacon. "Or different agencies might be able to offer you different jobs in the same area."


9. Remember that attitude can make all the difference. "Taking a new job can be stressful," Morris says. "Everything is new, and not everything is going to be perfect. But if you try to keep an open mind, a positive attitude, and a smile on your face as you adjust to the situation, everything will go more smoothly."


10. Do the final checks before you go. Lines of communication sometimes get crossed, so Morris advises that you always make sure your documents have arrived. Also make sure that you've taken care of all of the hospital's requirements. These can include drug screening and inoculations. Finally, she advises, you should talk with someone at the apartment complex. "The agency will arrange the apartment," Morris explains, "but you should confirm ahead of time that it will be ready."