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  1. Weng, Susan Perry

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Pick up any newspaper and you'll find plenty of ads from agencies boasting exotic destinations for health care professionals willing to travel. If you're interested in pursuing these adventurous assignments, how do you choose among the agencies that offer them?


"Do your research," advises Karen Fields-Flaster, executive vice president and chief operating officer, HRN Services, Inc., Beverly Hills, Calif. Talk to travel nurses to find out their experiences with the different agencies. "A word-of-mouth recommendation is priceless," says Flaster. But above all, when making a commitment to this field, Flaster advises, "Look for an agency that offers you the best clinical experiences, one that will add to your expertise and future marketability."


That's good advice, but also look at how agencies operate to make sure you get the best deal possible. Start by calling them to request promotional brochures. These first personal impressions count, says Flaster. Was the representative courteous? Did she follow up with you when promised? "How you're treated when you contact an agency will give you an idea of how they'll treat you when you're working for them," she explains.


Next, read through the brochures and visit the agencies' Web sites to learn more about the ones that pique your interest. Among the major issues to confirm are pay rates and hours, housing, and insurance benefits. If you find these in print or online, don't hesitate to call agencies to find out exactly what they offer. Let's take a look at what you want to know.


What will your hourly rate be and how many hours will you work?

The pay you'll get and hours you'll work can vary by assignment. When discussing that rate, recruiter Ryan Hoffert from Fastaff's Denver office recommends you "clearly understand what dollar amount is being discussed-base rate or overtime rate." If an overtime rate is discussed, ask when you'll be eligible and how it's calculated. Also, look for guaranteed hours.


Seek an agency that offers conveniences travelers need, such as direct deposit paychecks, as well as flexibility, recommends Hoffert. "For example," he says, "look for different pay options and whether you can make decisions about benefits." These benefits can vary widely. For example, many agencies offer 401K plans, but ask about the selections within their plan, whether they provide matching contributions to your account, and if so, when you'd be eligible for them.


What housing options will you have?

Most agencies will provide some type of housing, but find out if they pay it up front or whether you do and request reimbursement. If you want to choose whether you want a room-mate or the exact location of your residence (such as close to ski slopes or beaches), make sure the agency gives you these options-and that you qualify for them. In some cases, that happens only after you've completed a certain number of assignments. "The agency may specify four assignments, for example-but remember that four assignments equals a year of working," cautions Flaster.


Another option can be arranging your own housing and getting a monthly stipend from the agency to cover the cost. This can work well if you want to make your own arrangements, including living with relatives or friends while on assignment.


What insurance coverage is included?

Typically, state laws require agencies to provide health insurance for their employees, although plans vary considerably. Some agencies provide dental and vision coverage; others don't. Think about what type of plan works best for you whether you're at home or on the road-an HMO, a PPO, or open-access plan-and ascertain whether the agency's plans include one that will meet your needs.


"Ask about when your health care coverage begins and ends," says Flaster. Most agencies start health care benefits the first day of an assignment but may cancel them on the last day of an assignment or at the end of the month. "That could make a big difference to you if you're planning leisure travel between assignments," says Flaster.


Be prepared and ask questions

"Nurses who want to travel have wonderful opportunities today," Flaster adds. However, do your homework before signing a contract. Prepare a list of questions before you call the agencies that interest you. The information you gather will help you choose the one that will work for you while you work for it.