Picture this: you’ve just gotten home from a five day long business trip where you met with demanding clients, attended multiple boring conference panels, and pretended to laugh at all your boss’s weird jokes. You’re exhausted, you have a headache, and you are definitely feeling queasy from that last resort plane food. When you finally arrive home, you take off your coat, grab a quick drink of water, and then head straight to your home office and start putting together your expense report for the trip…
What? You say you’d rather immediately collapse into bed and fall asleep while your spouse rubs your feet? Me too, buddy. Me too. And in reality, that is what most of us will do. Collating all those receipts and travel documents and trying to figure out what you can get reimbursed is a pain in the tuchus. Yet, it needs to get done (though it can certainly wait until the next day in this scenario).
The truth is, anyone traveling for work is really doing two jobs at once: the job which required the travel; and collecting and reporting the details and expenses of that travel back to management. As a business traveler, you know keeping track of all that information can get irritating and mess with your business headspace. And in today’s economy, you probably also have managers breathing down your neck about keeping those travel costs down. If your company uses a mobile booking tool that also tracks receipts, that can really help–however, not everyone is so lucky.
So, we’re here to help! Below you’ll find our best tips for managing expenses in both senses of the word: how to keep travel info organized so that filling out that expense report is a breeze, plus how to save a little money here and there so that you come under budget and keep the bosses happy (which keeps you happy).
Managing Expenses: Organize #LikeaBoss
1. Stay informed about your company’s travel policies.
Perhaps the most important first step is knowing your company’s travel and reimbursement policies. This may seem obvious, but knowing exactly what you can book within policy, and what kind of information you’ll need to provide upon return, is going to make filling out those expense reports go much more quickly–and make sure you’ll get fully reimbursed. A new study from the GTBA reveals a big disconnect between what business travelers book and what their managers think they’re booking. If it’s been awhile since you looked at the company handbook or read through an advisory email, it’s worth reaching out to HR or your company’s travel division and seeing what’s new. Maybe Uber and Lyft have been added as acceptable items? Maybe you can splurge on a five-star hotel after all? Know the full extent of your spending powers, and act accordingly.
2. Keep track of the details.
You should not only keep ALL receipts associated with your trip, but you should also jot down a few notes that include the when, where, who, and why associated with the purchase. Taking a client out for dinner? Before you leave the restaurant, write on the back of the receipt the client’s name, the business topics discussed, the number in your party, etc. These details will be much harder to recall later on when you’re staring at a blank expense report, so save yourself a headache and do the grunt work ahead of time.
3. Download a mobile app for expense tracking.
Some travel management companies, such as Concur or our own Claire, provide mobile app services for everything from booking to expense tracking to duty of care. Even if your company doesn’t systematically use a mobile app, you can use a mobile app for instant receipt submission and expense approval on the go. For example, the Expensify app allows you to scan a receipt, which will then be coded, reported as an expense, and then automatically submitted for approval. The app also learns your company’s policy to decide what expenses can be automatically approved without managerial oversight–so you don’t have to wait on approval. Please note, though, that you’ll likely still need to keep hard copies of those receipts to turn in after your trip. The IRS is picky like that.
4. Submit your expense report ASAP.
It’s important to submit your expense report it a timely manner. We’re not saying the night of, but try for submission within 48 hours of returning from your trip, when any details you didn’t write down will still be fresh. Plus, the sooner you submit, the sooner you’ll be reimbursed, and the more efficient you’ll look come promotion time. Win, win.
5. Divide and conquer!
One last tip about receipts: keep a special, or at least separate, envelope or folder for receipts, itineraries, invoices, and all other documents associated with your trip. This prevents business expenses from getting tangled up with personal expenses. Better yet: have a dedicated credit card for business travel (if you don’t have a corporate credit card, open one for yourself). Being highly organized from the start will make everything go more smoothly down the line when you’re trying to get reimbursed for that last minute flight out of Albuquerque.
Managing Expenses: Save Money #LikeaWizard
Okay, you’ve got the organizing part down and have turned into an expense reporting wizard. Huzzah! Now for the next part of the equation: staying within budget or, even better, saving your company money.
6. Plan Ahead.
Again, we’ll go with the most obvious tip first: book in advance! According to a recent study by Concur about last minute travel, booking a flight at least eight days in advance can save an average of $148 per ticket. Booking at least fifteen days in advance can save you an additional 22%–that adds up to a lot of moolah! Additionally, you’ll have a better chance of picking out or upgrading your seat if it’s done ahead of time, and due to lower prices, you’ll likely be able to afford a changeable ticket in case plans change down the line. Making plans in advance allows you greater flexibility and convenience, and reduces travel-booking stress.
Bonus tip: A ticket with the letter Y or B equals an automatic class upgrade if the flight has open seats!
7. Book airfare with stops or plane changes.
Look, we all love nonstop flights. You get to your destination faster and don’t have to do the boarding and deboarding dance multiple times. But nonstop flights can be more expensive, and sometimes sacrificing a bit of convenience is worth the money. It all depends on the price comparison, departure/arrival times, and most importantly, one could argue, the quality of the airport’s business class lounge.
8. Use an app that tracks your spending habits and helps you stick to your budget.
For the simple version, Fudget is an app that will list your expenses and keep track of your budget for short term periods. LearnVest and Goodbudget both allow you to set up different expense categories and track your spending to meet your designated goals. Check out a bigger list from Forbes here. The best part? All but one of these apps are available on both iOS and Android, and they’re all FREE. (This is actually a good life hack for saving funds for retirement, your mortgage, or any other big ticket item. You’re welcome.)
9. Consider the year as a whole as you plan travel.
Every company is different, but some companies give annual travel budgets to their employees. If this is true for your employers, make sure you look over your annual budget and calendar in January and see where you might be able to plan ahead and save some money through early booking on airfare, rental car, and hotel reservations. When you analyze your annual budget and look at multiple trips in advance, you can see where you might be able to save money on the shorter trips and therefore allocate more of your budget to the longer ones. The end result? Splurges that still come in under budget!
10. Book two one-way tickets instead of round trip airfare.
This may feel counterintuitive, but there are two good reasons to give this a try. One, for reasons passing understanding, sometimes booking two one-way tickets is actually cheaper than round trip flights (even within the same airline!). Two, if you need to cancel or reschedule only part of the journey, like the return flight, you only have to worry about transfer fees or a new ticket for one of the flights, not both. Otherwise, you’ll have paid for a roundtrip ticket, plus a cancellation fee, plus any additional transfer fees (there’s always more fees), plus the cost of the new return flight. Ouch.
11. Pack an in-flight meal.
Even in first class, an in-flight meal is loaded with sodium and often contains dry poultry or overcooked red meat (don’t get me started on the vegetables). Translation: tough, inedible last resorts. Plus, a lot of airlines have cut back on complimentary meals in economy (especially on shorter flights). Don’t pay for overpriced airport food ($20 for a plain, barely edible hamburger? Ugh!) or even more overpriced airline “snack boxes” with stale chips and soggy sandwiches. Find your inner kid and pack your own meal in an insulated lunchbox. Then revel in your crisp veggies and guacamole, your banana pancakes with crunchy peanut butter, your Mediterranean quinoa salad. Your wallet, your tastebuds, and your blood pressure will thank you.
12. Consider local ground transportation.
Are you traveling to a place like London or NYC, where you can take the Underground and save both time and money as opposed to a hailing a cab? What if you’re in a totally new city? Look up average local costs ahead of time or whip out your smartphone and get a ride estimate while you’re waiting for your luggage. Maybe you can book lodging further from the convention and spend $10 on a daily Uber instead of $100 extra per night of your stay just to ride in crowded elevators every time you go back to your room.
13. Search Yelp for food options ahead of time.
Hotel restaurants are notoriously overpriced, as is room service (and there you often have mediocre food at lukewarm temperatures). While you’re waiting to board your flight or while sitting in a taxi cab, take a few minutes to explore food options near your hotel. You’ll likely find fresh, local fare that beats a chain restaurant on both taste and price any day, and you might get a nice opportunity to stretch your legs after a long flight.
14. Compare airfare not only for airlines but also neighboring airports.
You might be able to find a cheaper flight, or perhaps a flight at a more convenient time, at nearby airport. For instance, Burbank Airport and Long Beach Airport are both located within 20 miles of LAX, and may actually be closer to your destination depending on what part of the city you’re traveling to (let’s not forget L.A.’s notorious traffic). During peak travel time (weekends and holidays), those smaller airports will be less crowded and may have cheaper flight options. A site like FareCompare can help you out: I found roundtrip flights from the LA area to Minneapolis/St. Paul that ranged from $225 to $1100 economy, $600 to $1600 business class. That’s a big difference.
15. Get ALL the points.
If you’re not already, you should seriously be signed up for all the loyalty programs available that fit within your company’s travel policy. This will help out not only with potential upgrades, but also with booking last minute flights and accommodations, or other travel perks like free checked baggage for those longer trips. If you don’t want to chain yourself to only one company, get a credit card which rewards miles and/or points regardless of which airline or hotel you book (or where you spend your money).
16. Another bonus tip!
We had the pleasure of speaking with Suzanne Wolko, a consultant for Arden Road Travel and a travel blogger (find her at Philatravelgirl), who recommends business travelers “take clients to lunch rather than dinner” to avoid the additional expense of alcoholic drinks and higher menu prices. She also pointed out this leaves “more time [to] spend with family at night” if you’ve got companions along for the ride!
We hope these tips help you stay organized and on top of your business game as you travel for work. Remember that preparation is key for having a good travel experience, both before and after your trip. Stay tuned for our follow up article: 10 Tips for Managing Your Employees’ Business Travel Expenses.
Safari is a PhD candidate in English Literature. When she’s not grappling with her dissertation, she’s usually obsessing about upcoming films, singing karaoke, or attempting to perfect her short rib lasagna recipe.