Veterans Affairs revs up travel Web site

Department is latest to offer one-stop service for managing reservations and expense reporting.

The Veterans Affairs Department is the latest federal agency to offer employees a one-stop Web site for their travel planning needs. Now the department's 70,000 frequent travelers can make reservations, get authorization from managers, purchase tickets and receive reimbursement at FedTraveler.com, launched by the General Services Administration.

The site is part of GSA's E-Gov Travel Service program, a President's Management Agenda initiative to improve and simplify travel management processes. The FedTraveler.com contract, awarded to EDS in 2003, is slated to replace more than 250 travel management programs governmentwide. The National Science Foundation was the first agency to go live in 2005; since then nine other agencies, including the Housing and Urban Development Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the International Trade Commission, have implemented the system.

"The government is going in the same direction as private sector has for last decade in terms of harnessing the Web and some of the tools around travel management to create a more automated and efficient marketplace to book travel," said Scott Smith, program manager for EDS.

Smith said the online service costs half as much as the old-world approach of booking travel reservations by phone. Employees can log in to complete any trip-related tasks, such as booking airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, rail tickets or even reporting expenses associated with personal vehicles. "Any way you need to get there, the system can handle it," said Roger Williams, EDS product manager for FedTraveler.com. The service includes access to travel agents and a 24-hour help desk for employees who need assistance.

Smith noted that VA's implementation concluded in January after a year planning. "We didn't just flip the switch," he said.

"VA has been very thoughtful and deliberate," said Williams, adding that the department plans to use data generated by the system to better analyze and project travel budgets. "FedTraveler.com strengthens control for managers by permitting them to identify spending trends," Ed Murray, VA's deputy chief financial officer, said in a press release. "In the future, we will have much greater insight into how our travel dollars are spent."

One of the biggest improvements over legacy systems is in travel voucher processing. On FedTraveler.com, an employee can fill out a voucher, which then is automatically routed and approved. "We now have a very efficient voucher turnaround time," said Smith. "Employees get their money back in a few days rather than a few weeks. The funds are then automatically transferred to their government-issued credit card or reimbursed to their personal checking account."

The site also helps employees comply with a litany of travel regulations. "All the rules around federal travel are codified through our system," said Smith. Employees can find information such as per diem rates and discounts on airfare, hotels or car rentals through the federally negotiated contracts.

FedTraveler.com boasts 250,000 users so far. VA has the largest number, 70,000, followed by HUD, which has 9,000. Other agencies -- including NASA, and the Homeland Security and Commerce departments -- are in the implementation process.

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