Look Both Ways Before Crossing

Consider the case of William Ziesenitz, who works for the Air Force in Rome, N.Y. He went to Fairfax, Va., in August 1996 and was told to travel by Aero Club aircraft, as that method of travel was "most advantageous to the government." When he returned, the Air Force reimbursed him $202.91 less than he spent, saying that would have been the cost had Ziesenitz used a commercial carrier. Even after appealing the decision, Ziesenitz ended up paying the money out of his own pocket. That's because the traveler only gets reimbursed the amount the regulations allow, even if he got bad information from a superior.
ltaylor@govexec.com

D

espite the best efforts of federal travelers, managers, and policy-makers, those who travel for government business continue to run afoul of the regulations. Most disputes over travel reimbursements are resolved at the agency level, but the really sticky situations go to the General Services Administration's Board of Contract Appeals (for civilians) and the Defense Department's Office of Hearings and Appeals (for military members).

The problems that rise to that level tend to fall into one of three areas:

  • A traveler got bad information or inaccurate travel orders and spent money following the orders in good faith.
  • A traveler did something that made sense but that the regulations don't allow.
  • A traveler did something dumb.

Or look at what happened to Murray Lumpkin. In January of this year, Lumpkin, who lives in Leesburg, Va., was scheduled to train people from all over the country in Rockville, Md. Because bad weather was expected the night before the training, Lumpkin went to Rockville that night and stayed in a hotel room to save his employer, the Food and Drug Administration, the "cost and inconvenience of potentially having to cancel and reschedule" the program. The hotel bill was $101.79. Although he was thinking smart and keeping the government's best interests in mind, neither the FDA nor the Board of Contract Appeals could find a rule that allowed them to reimburse Lumpkin.

Words to the Wise

Government travel experts have a few words of wisdom for those who want to stay out of trouble and to make sure they get back all the money they spend while on business travel. Only put travel expenses on the travel card. Though this bit of advice may seem like simple common sense, it's often not followed, says Bill Tirrell Sr., chief of the travel and transportation policy branch at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Some travelers put reimbursable-but not travel-expenses on the card when they're on the road; they won't be paid for those.

And make sure you never use the travel card for purchases when you're not on official travel, cautions De Perrin of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service's travel program office. She's seen people do that, with the best of intentions, and then when the bill came, "of course, there was no money to pay it with."

Check your receipts carefully advises Perrin, and make sure the lodging bill doesn't include charges you didn't incur.

Use your agency's commercial travel office or travel management center. Their job is to know the right way to arrange travel. They will take into account tax issues, fire safety codes, city-pair contracts and more.

The revised travel regs, which took effect in July, phase in the requirement to use an official travel arranger. Starting in 2001, all travel must be arranged through a government travel office. This rule is already in place for service members.

Know the travel regulations. The rules are long and complex, and it's impossible to remember them all. But they are easier to understand since many were recently translated into plain language. And a quick trip on the information superhighway before you pack can help prevent a lot of mishaps.

You can find the regs at www.dtic.mil/perdiem (for service members and DoD civilians) and http://policyworks.gov/ftr (for other civilians).

Don't try to work the system to your advantage. Play by the rules, which in the long run is always easier. For example, some travelers avoid using government travel offices so they can collect personal frequent flier miles. It's not worth the risk of not being reimbursed for the airfare at all.

Remember, says Tirrell, "whoever pays the piper calls the tune-and Uncle Sam is paying the piper."

If you think you will need to spend more money than the per diem allows, get authorized for "actual expenses" before you leave. If, for example, you have to pay more than per diem because hotels in the area are close to capacity or the conference hotel is expensive and there's nowhere else to stay nearby, the "actual expenses" exception can take care of you. This situation most often arises when federal workers are traveling to conferences not organized by the government, says Bill Rivers, travel team leader at GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

Know your tax rules. If you are on same-day travel for more than 12 hours, you can get reimbursed for meals and incidental expenses-but the reimbursement is considered taxable income.

If you do deal with hotels directly about their prices, make sure they include taxes in the rate they quote. Often hotels will set room rates at per diem and add taxes on top of that, Tirrell says.

Don't confuse business with pleasure. Travelers run into trouble in two areas here. First, if you are flying for business and want to take a different route for personal reasons, you can do that. But the government will only pay for the part of the trip that is business related. And you won't get the government contract fare on your personal trip-you have to pay the standard commercial fare.

Second, if you're on long-term temporary duty travel (more than 30 days), and you leave for another TDY location, you'll get both per diems. But you won't if you leave a long-term TDY location for personal travel.

Submit early and often. You're required to turn in your voucher within five business days after you return from your trip. Those who don't, says Nancy Murphy, chief of GSA's Travel Training Branch, often run into trouble getting their reimbursement by the time their charge card bill arrives.

If you're on a long-term travel assignment, you must submit expenses every 30 days. Keep the paperwork.You're required to keep a paper copy of receipts-lodging receipts and all others over $75-for six years and three months. You need them in case of audit-even if you leave the job.

Know the hand that feeds you.If the government gives you a meal, your meal allowance will be reduced for that day. But if a hotel gives you a free breakfast, for example, you still get the full meal allowance.

Choose your wheels wisely.If a government car is available and you decide to use your privately owned vehicle anyhow, your reimbursement rate will be reduced from $.325 to $.235 per mile.

When it comes to frequent flier miles, "you can't take it with you," says Murphy. Each agency sets its own guidelines on how you can use the coveted miles (for upgrades, free tickets, etc.) and when you can use them.

Understand per diem basics. If a location is not on the per diem list, the standard per diem for the continental United States applies: $50 for lodging, $30 for meals and incidental expenses.

Take your travel orders with you. They may come in handy for getting the government rate at a hotel or car rental firm, or you may need them if you get sick or need to change plans suddenly.

Don't accept rental car agency's offers of collision damage waivers or personal accident insurance, says Judy Hughes, a financial analyst in DFAS' travel policy branch. You won't be reimbursed for either one. In fact, you are already covered under GSA's agreement with car rental companies that offer government rates, if you are traveling in the continental United States.

Don't pay other employees' expenses. For instance, says Hughes, "if you are traveling with another government employee, and that employee is authorized [for] a rental car for you both to travel in, don't put the cost of the rental car or gasoline or other related expenses on your [charge] card and expect reimbursement. Travelers are responsible for their own authorized expenses, and reimbursement to employees for other employees' expenses is not guaranteed."

If you stay with a friend or relative while on travel, you won't get any lodging reimbursement. If you work for an agency that has a "gain-sharing" program, you may get some of the money saved, though.

Check before you change plans. Call your travel arranger (travel management center, or commercial or in-house travel office) before incurring any additional expenses.

Keep your work days and your weekends straight. You're expected to get to the TDY location the day or day before the work begins and leave the day the work ends or a day later. Some people go early or stay late to avoid traveling on weekends. But you won't be reimbursed for expenses if you go early to avoid traveling on a weekend, nor will you be reimbursed for expenses if you stay over a weekend after your work assignment is over and travel back to your home location on Monday, says DFAS' Hughes.

NEXT STORY: On a Wing and a Prayer

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