Thursday, April 28, 2011

Business travel for newbies

A new graduate student recently attended their first conference, and was a bit confused as to what "counted" when filling out their expense report. So I thought I'd make a post about this topic in case anyone else was new to this. 

Every institution is different, but I'm generally of the opinion that from the minute your leave your house to the minute you get back you are on the clock, and everything "counts". (Assuming you're not also taking personal travel during the business trip, but that's an entirely different post). 

There are some things that will almost always be reimbursed - taxis, busses, trains, airplanes, rental cars, hotels, conference registration. Some things are usually reimbursed - internet usage, business-related telephone calls, meals. Some things are usually not reimbursed - purchasing toiletries, souvenirs, entertainment, etc.

Sometimes something you think might not be reimbursed is, like room service or dry cleaning, and sometimes something you think will be reimbursed won't (e.g., upgrading from a $45/day car rental to a $46/day car rental of a larger size. I really wish I was joking on this one.)

Some US-based institutions grant employees "per diem" for non-lodging related expenses. This is a fixed sum based on location, and is meant to include food and "incidentals". It is given as a lump sum to the employee, pro-rated for the entire trip. If you're able to eat cheaply, you often end up making money on your business trips instead of just breaking even, which is pretty nice.

Other institutions want you to save all of your receipts, and itemize every expense. If you go out to dinner at a conference with 34 people it can get a bit tricky, some people get around this by asking for separate checks or getting multiple copies of the big check circling what they had. One colleague takes photographs with their phone to save time, which I think is pretty clever.

In any case, it's always worth saving all receipts and trying for reimbursement. There's no reason to be shy, or sweat over an expense you're not sure is reimbursable. Usually the worse that will happen is you'll be told "no". 

Oh, one more thing. When you're on business travel, don't feel like you are required to share a room, stay in a roach-infested motel, or sleep on someone's couch. By the same token, don't stay at the Westin when there's a perfectly decent modestly priced place across the street. Be reasonable, and the people paying for your trip hopefully will be too.


  1. Per diem is great since receipts are a pain and at many institutions it's otherwise impossible to get reimbursed for beer. But it's not right to make money on the deal. A good alternative is, for example, telling the office that you only need four days per diem for a six-day trip. This especially makes sense for those conferences with a gigantic registration fee and they provide all meals.

  2. In cases when it's not an invited talk or seminar (so host pays my expenses), I typically charge only registration, airfare, and hotel for my own conference travel to my grants. Often, I will charge only registration to my grants, especially if I am staying only a day or two and it's a domestic conference. I do this so there would be more grant money left for student/postdoc travel. I would be quite pissed to find out that the students take conferences as a chance to make a few extra bucks by misreporting meals; fortunately, I have found that all my group members have so far been quite reasonable with their expenses. [Per diems are not large at my institution anyway ($40 tops) so one can't really make money unless the conference provides all meals.] I encourage my students/postdocs to stay at a nice hotel and at a convenient distance from the conference site, but typically two will share a room (not with strangers, of course, always two group mates). This saves money and is not a big inconvenience, and enables them all to go to more conferences.

  3. @John: yep, that's what I meant by 'pro-rated'. If the conference pays breakfast/lunch/dinner you should not receive the entire amount. One place I worked had a calculator - breakfast was worth $x, lunch $y, etc.

    @GMP: I don't know of any students misreporting things, it's just the opposite - students don't put down things because they're terrified of someone getting angry at them.

    As for the self funded trips - If you are well paid faculty member or business person and choose to do this sort of thing, fine, but absolutely students should not if the funding is there to support them. When your salary is as low as what grad students make, 4 days of meals in a foreign city can really, really hurt.

    I understand the idea behind the roommate thing, but frankly as a mature
    graduate student who has worked in industry many years I would find it insulting if a PI insisted on it. I'd rather be told : you have a maximum of $x to spend. You can room with someone at fancy conference hotel, or you can stay at a cheaper hotel by yourself n miles away. Etc. This implies the PI respects the student as a adult.

  4. @GMP, FCS:

    Another thing to consider with regard to sharing rooms: For those of us who snore, sharing a room with a fellow student would be A) quite embarrassing, and B) likely to result in no sleep for anybody.

    And I would prefer not to be put in the position of having to say so.

    I imagine there are people with other more serious issues (e.g. those who have been the victim of sexual violence) who would also rather be able to make their own sleeping arrangements without having to justify them to anyone.

  5. I never said I expect students to fund their own travel. In fact, I explicitly said that I do so myself so there would be more money left for student travel. I remember quite vividly being completely broke as a grad student, so their financial situation is not lost on me.

    About sharing, I never had complaints. When I was a grad student, I shared a room whenever it was possible (i.e. when there was another woman from the group). Sure, I would have preferred being alone, but it's just for a few days anyway.

    I don't understand why it is insulting to ask people to share rooms (it's always only same-sex roommates). You may find it very awkward if you are much older than your potential roommates, but I don't understand why it's an insult -- I would consider it more insulting to be paid a grad student salary after you were paid handsomely in industry. I don't know what I would do if someone would come and say "No way am I sharing, it's insulting" -- I would probably tell them that this is what they can spend and they can work from there. Hasn't happened yet, perhaps because my students are pretty uniformly 20-something guys.

    When I was a grad student, a fellow grad student was a snorer. His roommate teased him, but it was all in good fun. (Btw, my hub is a serious snorer. Earplugs help.) All these things are secondary when you are in grad school -- conferences are fun and good exposure.

    I understand that there may be people with serious issues about room sharing (such as what Anon above mentions), in which case I am sure I would do my best to accommodate them. But my guess is these are fortunately not common issues and I think it is still meaningful to discuss common practices that work well for a majority of students.

    Another bit of pertinent information: over the years, a typical size of an NSF grant has remained the same, while institutional overheads and tuitions have risen. This means that travel budgets are constantly getting smaller and smaller. Doing the budgeting as a PI with ever vanishing funds is very difficult; please don't think that the PI's do all these money-saving maneuvers for kicks.

  6. As a junior professor I often shared rooms with people up until I had kids, at which point I started to place a higher value on some alone time and a solid night's sleep. I still often stay a longish walk from the conference, however, but probably this is as much to create an excuse to go out for a walk twice a day as it is to save money.

    My students are encouraged to think of the group's budget as fungible and finite. If we spend more on travel, we spend less on equipment and people.

  7. When traveling I rarely see a substantial difference in PI expenditure for lodging two students as roommates at the conference hotel vs. them having individual rooms at a cheaper hotel.

    Clever use of kayak, tripadvisor, and google maps to plan transportation makes this sort of thing quite easy - I do it all the time. On a trip to a European country I once paid $Y a night to stay in my own room at an extremely nice hostel. I knew students from another university who stayed at a conference-designated hotel and paid $Y+30 per night each to share a room that was half the size of mine. I was only a 5 minute metro ride away from them.

    I think most graduate students are capable of working within given fiscal constraints. If their advisor says, "I've allocated up to $X for each of you to spend on lodging," they can figure out something for themselves. Presumably all of the costs are allocated before travel anyway, are they not? They are in my department. Each graduate student prepares an estimated budget and gives it to the grant holder, far in advance of travel. All of the big ticket costs can be estimated in advance, so rarely do students come back substantially over budget.

    As Anonymous pointed out, a student may have any of a dozen personal or medical reasons they don't wish to have a roommate, and should not be forced to describe these in detail to their advisor or colleagues. Snoring may be fun to joke about, but sexual abuse and anxiety disorder are not. I know quite a few people who deal with these issues, and it could be very upsetting for them to have to disclose details of their disability or survivor history to their advisor in order to justify having their own room.

  8. I am a survivor of sexual assault AND I have anxiety (woo hoo!). I totally don't mind sharing a room. (For the record, I'm not trying to start an argument with FCS or her commentors, I'm just stating facts.)

    Regardless, I think that advisors expecting students and even postdocs to share a room is fine. I've always shared rooms, even with the opposite gender (who was a person of my choosing, and I felt comfortable with him). I'm sharing a room with two people that I've never met at an upcoming international conference. No big deal. As someone said, less money spent on travel is more money spent in the lab.

    I do, however, draw the line at sharing beds.

    As for making money on per diem, I've done it. There are so many costs associated with travel beyond what can always be reimbursed and per diem is designed to cover these things. For example, I desperately needed BandAids at a recent conference. Had I been at home, I'd have gone to my medicine cabinet, but since I was in Conference City, I had to make a trip to the drug store. These things add up, especially over week-long trips.

    At my current institution, our per diem is dispersed according to federal rates. This can be upwards of $80/day depending on the the location. It is quite cushy!

  9. I'm kind of shocked that professors would micromanage issues such as where their students stay. Even leaving aside issues of respecting their judgement, I'm far too lazy to manage at this level.

  10. @ John Regehr:

    Lazy: Amen!

    I'd write more, but, well...

  11. When I worked as a manager in private industry, the "be reasonable" approach worked well. In fact, I would allow people to be slightly unreasonable in certain categories as long as they sacrificed somewhere else. You like food? OK, $35 for dinner becomes acceptable, if you stay at the cheaper hotel or go with the compact rental car when policy says you can get the intermediate. You prefer the convertible? OK, as long as something else gets cut.

    In the public sector, it is completely different - know the rules and follow the rules. Don't dare go outside the rules, unless you are willing to pay for it yourself. There is usually no flexibility in expense reimbursement for a university.

  12. So far, I have only taken my students to meetings where housing was available in University dorms, so they stayed there in their own rooms.

    If they were traveling someplace expensive (like DC, NYC, SF), I would probably ask them to share a room, since they would be hard pressed to find something close to the meeting and safe that would beat that price.

    As a student, I never minded sharing a room, as long as I knew the person I was sharing with (and was same gender). I would rather share rooms and go to more/better meetings.