Travel Warning

Managers and employees could end up footing hefty bills for work-related trips.

In March, the Agriculture Department sent employee Robert Teclaw from Washington to Atlanta on official business. Teclaw works for USDA in Washington, but his home is in Indiana. Normally, he travels back and forth on weekends. In this case, Teclaw's work in Atlanta wrapped up on a Friday, so he decided to fly back from Atlanta to Indiana, rather than back to Washington. He sought reimbursement for the flight home from USDA. The department denied his request and told him to eat the cost. Was that the right call?

Such disputes regularly arise across the government. Agencies spend some $15 billion a year on travel, sending managers and employees crisscrossing the country and circling the globe on Uncle Sam's business. Civil servants must comply with the General Services Administration's Federal Travel Regulation, which sets the rules for which trip expenses can and cannot be reimbursed. Employees could be left footing the bill if they -- or the managers who approve their travel -- don't understand the rules.

In Teclaw's case, USDA officials argued that travel regulations permitted reimbursement only for a flight back to Washington since his decision to go to Indiana was for his personal convenience. Teclaw looked at the travel regs and found that they allowed the agency to reimburse him for a change in travel plans made for personal reasons -- up to the cost of a flight to Washington. The flight from Atlanta to Indiana actually was cheaper than a flight from Atlanta to Washington, and he argued that he should get full reimbursement.

An independent agency called the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals decides such disputes. In June, the board ruled in Teclaw's favor. "Because the cost of travel for which he seeks reimbursement on the indirect and interrupted route was less than the cost of travel via the direct route, he is entitled to reimbursement in the full amount at issue," the board ruled. The agency got it wrong. Knowing the rules saved Teclaw the cost of a plane ticket.

Indeed, federal managers and employees need to be vigilant about travel expenses -- not only to watch out for agencies' mistakes but also to make sure they don't make mistakes themselves.

A separate case decided by the board recently involved a State Department employee who booked a flight last fall from Washington to Brussels, Belgium, for a NATO meeting. The $1,200 coach-class ticket was charged to a government account. Nine days before the flight, the employee contacted the department's travel agency and asked whether he could use his personal frequent-flier miles to upgrade to a business-class seat. The travel agency swapped his ticket, even though the change cost $870. The employee said he got a call from the travel agency informing him that he would be personally responsible for the $870 difference. He recalled telling the travel agency that he didn't want to pay the difference and asked to switch his ticket back to the coach seat. But the employee didn't record the date and time of the call or the name of the agent he spoke to. The seat was never changed back, so the employee flew business class.

When he got back to Washington, the employee was told he had to pay the $870. He took his case to the board. In this case, the board ruled against him, arguing it was his responsibility to make sure the reservation had been returned to a coach-class seat. "It is a fundamental, overarching principle that a federal civilian employee traveling on official business must exercise the same care with incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business," the board said.

So watch out. Failure to follow the travel regs can be hazardous to your wallet.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.