Per diems are a helpful way to limit out-of-pocket expenses when you’re traveling, but let’s face it: they don’t always go very far.
These rates vary by location and fiscal year. The travel manager’s job is to provide accurate reimbursement for each employee’s destination using sites like the US General Services Administration.
Yet, what the government suggests as a per diem rate and what businesses charge for those meals and incidentals are two different things. Sometimes, it can take a lot of creative juggling to make your M&IE limit stretch to cover the whole trip.
While on the road, you’ll incur expenses, pay for them, and save your receipts. You’ll either be reimbursed for those costs when you return or use the per diem cash you were given before the trip.
Either way, the funds have to cover your whole trip, so you must spend wisely. These tips will help maximize your business travel per diem reimbursement and reduce out-of-pocket costs.
1. Skip the Restaurants
One of the great parts about per diems is that you have flexibility in using them. You can choose to splurge on fancy restaurants and eat out every day, but you’ll hit that M&IE cap fast, and the rest of your trip will be on your dime.
Maximize your spending by skipping the high-dollar restaurants. If your hotel has at least a fridge and microwave, hit the grocery store and pack your meals to eat in your room or on the go. Avoid shopping at convenience stores and gas stations if you can help it, as the products there are nearly always more expensive.
Your per diem should cover three meals a day. If you can avoid restaurants for at least two of the three, you can splurge a little more on the last one or save the extra funds.
2. Shop Smart for Your Hotel
If you’re expected to pay for your lodging out of the assigned per diem, you can choose where you stay! Depending on your destination, the choices can range from high-end boutique hotels to cheap (but not the safest) motels.
It’s almost like you have your parents’ credit card — with a limit — and you’re not sure what to do with it.
Some people will go a little wild and look for hotels normally outside their price range. Your per diem rate is the limit the employer pays, as explained in this article by Hotel Engine. You are more than welcome to book something fancy and pay the extra yourself! But if your goal is to maximize your reimbursement, that’s not the way to get there.
Others will go to the opposite extreme, shop uber-frugal, and keep the rest of the money. That thinking might sound fiscally smart, but it can put you in an unsafe situation. Those cheap hotels are typically in less-than-convenient locations and aren’t always upholding the highest levels of hygiene.
Look for an in-between hotel with good ratings in a safe area that is convenient for your meetings. It should have various dining and shopping options nearby and be easily accessible by your transportation choice. If you plan to eat your meals in the hotel, paying a little extra for an in-room kitchen is still wise.
Before you book, check the fine print for extra costs. Many hotels charge resort fees, parking fees, and other hidden expenses. Unless your employer makes other arrangements, you’ll also be responsible for the nightly deposit.
3. Plan While You Pack
Per diems cover incidentals, such as laundry and dry cleaning, while you’re on the road. You may be able to limit these costs by planning for them as you pack.
If you are only gone a few days, plan your wardrobe for each day, taking into account the predicted weather forecast. Are there parts of your outfit that you can mix and match? What shoes will you need? Is there room in your luggage for everything, or can you use some packing strategies to maximize the space and skip paying for extra baggage?
You can always throw in sealed food items that you have on hand (not liquids), like trail mix, to save money later. Unless you’re flying internationally, most airports allow edible items in your carry-on and checked bags. Grab your favorite snacks locally, where you know how much they’ll cost, and save your meal per diem.
When your employer sends you on a corporate trip as part of your job, you aren’t expected to foot the bill. You’ll receive a per diem, either ahead of the trip or as reimbursement, but it probably won’t cover all your expenses. These tips will help you maximize your money without sacrificing your daily meals and lodging.