Travel For Work – Make It Frugal, Or Splurge? Lets Debate.

As I mentioned Wednesday, I spent last week away from work and home at a conference in Florida (Agile 2017, specifically). Being away made me reflect on travel for work. It seems that there are two schools of thought when it comes to work travel, and I wanted to see where you – my readers – stand.

The question is this – do you still make it frugal when someone else is picking up the tab, or do you splurge on the companies dime? Lets debate.

The Argument For Splurging on Work Travel

There are some solid arguments for spending more on work travel than you might on a personal trip. For example – things like taking a direct flight can be in the companies interest because they lose less productive work time if you’re traveling non-stop.

If you’re taking a flight with two or three connections instead, the company is likely losing quite a few hours of productivity. If you’re highly paid, the extra cost for the non-stop flight can be easily outweighed by the benefit of your additional hours of productivity.

Also, staying in a decent hotel close to where you’re going to do business can help you work more efficiently.

Traveling for Work Hotel

Don’t forget, your company (especially if a large one) is likely getting some good price breaks from their preferred partners. So you staying at a certain hotel, taking a non-stop flight, or renting a car probably costs your company less than it would cost you to take a personal trip.

Usually, your company will also put limits on what you can buy – specific hotels, certain rental car companies, caps on food expenses – so whatever splurges you do make will be company-sanctioned and approved.

Making Work Travel Frugal

Even though it’s possible to spend a ton of money, there’s also plenty of places where you can save money. You can buy food at a grocery store, for example, or bring snacks from home. You could take that less-expensive flight with a layover. Or you can get a hotel that’s farther from where you’re doing business/attending a conference, but costs significantly less. Instead of parking in the airport parking garage, you could park in the lot farther away – or have someone drop you off at the airport.

I believe a lot of folks who work for non-profits are familiar with frugal work travel-more through being forced than through choice. I’ve often read on one of my favorite work sites, Ask A Manager, about non-profit workers and teachers doing things that we in the corporate world might be slightly horrified by.

Like sharing a hotel room – fortunately usually with someone of the same gender. Or driving excessively long distances crammed in a car with a dozen other people. Being forced to select the cheapest flight possible, even if it means a four hour layover and three connecting flights.

Even if you don’t take it to an extreme, there are certainly ways you can make work travel more frugal-or at least not excessively expensive. Not renting a car if you’re going to be in a place where you can take a taxi/Uber, for example.

Parking your car in a less expensive lot, but one still within reasonable distance of the airport. Buying inexpensive meals and not running up to the maximum food budget.

I haven’t even touched on the ways you can run up personal expenses while traveling for work. Souvenirs is one area you could save – I was just at a conference in Orlando, believe me, you could spend a lot here alone.

Sometimes those of us with kids feel bad about being away so long, so we try to make it up to the kids by picking them up something new. If you’re traveling to Orlando, you could also “swing by” the theme parks – or perhaps do some gambling while in Vegas at a conference.

If you have time, you could also see the city you’re staying in before or after the days you’re working. Suffice it to say that you can take a work trip and make it pretty pricey, if you’re so inclined.

Traveling for work souvenirs
These guys are absolutely adorable – yes, I did get some souvenirs. Aren’t they cute?

My Take:  Frugal Work Travel vs. Splurging On Work Travel

Before I give you my take, I wanted to share something I once read in “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office” on this subject. I read this years ago but it stuck with me ever since.

In one of the chapters, the author shared the story of a “nice girl” traveling for work whose flight was delayed until 2 AM or so. She was fretting about calling her husband to pick her up at the airport at that hour, because she didn’t want to spend the money on a taxi.

The author said that this was an example of “being a girl”, because a man wouldn’t hesitate to spend the companies money in that way.  I’ve always wondered if this was true – if there was a gendered aspect to how people choose to spend their companies money while traveling for work. I’d love to see some hard data on this question.

Men and women traveling for work
Difference of opinion by gender – yes or no?

I’d put myself squarely leaning toward the frugal end of the scale. I cringe whenever I see how other entities rip off companies. I’m looking at you, conference-charging for parking after charging so much for the conference is a little excessive, hmm!?

But that doesn’t mean that I’m making my husband pick me up at the airport at 1 AM, either. I take non-stop flights where it’s reasonable so I lose the minimal amount of work and personal time to travel, and I eat out for breakfast/lunch/dinner more often than I do at home.

I actually am very picky about food, though, and much prefer doing some grocery shopping and cooking myself where possible. Most hotel/restaurant food is just frankly not good.

Top five reasons I tend more toward the frugal when traveling for work:

  • Spending too much money gives me hives (figurative ones, anyway)
  • Eating out sucks. Sure, there are some great and fun places to eat out once in a while. But eating at the hotel because you’re too tired to go out, or buying sub-par food every day, just plain sucks.
  • Spending money on work travel is annoying. The more you spend, the more complex your reimbursement request is when you get back. Frankly I’m dreading submitting mine from the past week and I’ve been procrastinating all week long.
  • Excessive spending is a bad example. Spending too much on work events and work travel is something that I’ve seen as almost contagious. If one person takes the plane, and not the train, everyone else decides they should fly too. If someone’s going to an expensive restaurant, others will tag along. “Everyone’s doing it”, so it should be fine – right?
  • Excessive spending is wasteful. This is one of the key ones for me. Sure, “the company” makes plenty of money. BUT where did that money come from? Our customers. People worked long and hard for the money they paid the company with, and I want to respect that.

I hope this doesn’t make me a “girl” or anything like that (although it’s been a few decades since someone called me a girl).

This souvenir was totally worth it

Your Turn!!

What’s your philosophy about traveling for work? Do you try to spend right up to the limits given by your company? Do you drive instead of fly, deal with layovers, and have your spouse pick you up at the airport? Let me know in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “Travel For Work – Make It Frugal, Or Splurge? Lets Debate.”

  1. I think there’s a balance. My husband’s company thrives on responsible spending (they have a no-layoff policy and are 100% employee-owned, so it’s really driven into employees that the company’s money is their money). Even so, I have discouraged Mr. ThreeYear from taking flights from Boston when he can take them from nearby Manchester, and to book direct flights when possible. I also advise him to get a hotel in Boston if he has a flight arriving super late at night (we’re 2 hours away) because he’s not just putting the company’s money in danger, he’s putting his life in danger if he’s driving tired. Since he’s started picking the more expensive, but better, flights, he’s recovered from his work trips faster. He also has a hard time with people (especially the company’s clients) who go out to fancy restaurants and blow up the bill on the company’s dime. Like you said, it gives him figurative hives. I worked for a non-profit where we always had to find ways to be cheap, cheap, cheap, and I lasted 2 years. I think companies must spend a minimum on “reasonable” accommodations and travel for their employees, or the employees will burn out. But I don’t believe we need to waste, either, because like you said, we’re spending someone else’s money, and it’s our clients’, or ours.

    1. Sounds like Mr 3 year spends similarly to the way I do when traveling for work. I certainly wouldn’t travel to NY, NJ or Boston to catch a flight to save money – unless it was an international trip or something like that. Luckily I don’t have to deal with clients, but I’m sure we have some that run up bills on our dime. I mostly have to deal with other people at my level who think they’re entitled to spend without thinking. Interestingly, most of those people also spend their own money without thinking.

  2. mikemarriedandharried

    I was at aconference too last week! This one in Denver. For food during travel, we get a per diem and don’t have to turn in receipts. But, for a conference, we have to turn in the program and get a deduction for provided meals. I couldn’t have banked my money for a fancy dinner if I wanted to.

    I would never skip parking at the airport to have Em drag the kids to drop me off and pick me up, but I always park in long term. I know of someone that parked in short term for months. That did not go over well.

    I drive if the drive time is ~7hrs or less. With all the nonsense at airports it’s hard to break even on time, at least with the connections that we have.

    I think a lot of the spending comes down to people’s usual habits. The people that spend alot at home like to spend alot on travel. Those are usually the same people that want to just sit at a restaurant all evening instead of explore the local area. Depending on the crowd, I’ll stick around for relationship building, or ditch and explore.

  3. I’m with you! I tend to travel frugally (rarely hitting my per diem for food and staying at modest hotels), but I am also not going to sacrifice productivity and time for an extremely inconvenient flight, a distant hotel (if my employer has a nicer preferred hotel nearby like a Marriott or a basic Hilton).

    Since I also work for a larger company, it is easier to justify the discounted Marriott rate vs trying to find an AirBnB… which I think is “out of policy” anyways… or rooming up in a creepy Motel 6. I will also look to fly from our local airport and at decent times so that I am able to be productive and focus at work, but if prices are insane, I’ll try to find other options to reduce cost.

    I have actually had a blast trying out public transit in some cities! I fly to Atlanta every-so-often and the MARTA system goes right from the airport to our office location. So I will save $50 by taking a $3 MARTA ride vs a $50+ Uber/Lyft!

    And food, ugh, I am not a fan of travel food (esp airports!). I’ll pack snacks on the way up, bring a refillable water bottle for the trip and try to find the cheaper options for food in the cities I am visiting.

    Great topic for a Friday, Liz!! 🙂

  4. I’m all about the non-stop flights as long as they are not double in price. Other than that, I’m closer to the frugal end. I’m okay with staying at a hotel a bit further away if I have a car rental, but think it’s okay to stay at a closer hotel that costs a bit more if it puts you within walking distance.

    Like you I avoid eating out as much as possible and often pick up food from a grocery store. My husband and I drop each other off at the airport to avoid parking fees. If we are both traveling together (we work for the same company) we park at a far away lot for lower fees.

    I do schedule some of our employees’ flights, so I get to watch out for flight and hotel costs, but I’m very reasonable with it. I won’t make someone travel for 10 hours with non-direct flights to save a little money, but I have booked them on 1-stop flights to save $250 or more. Depends on the situation and individual too.

    1. Sounds like most people are in the middle but leaning toward the more frugal end of the spectrum like you and I are, Amy! I’ve never had to schedule anyone else’s travel before but it makes sense to try to save if it’s significant. Most times it seems that the direct flight is just a bit more than the one with layovers, at least when I book travel. I don’t travel too often though-maybe once every few months.

  5. Nice article! I travel frequently for work – actually in the airport now as I write this, waiting for my flight back home to the wife and kiddos. For starters, I first try to identify “win win” situations for myself and my employer. For example, I’m currently working on a project at which I’ll need to travel to the same location for approx 3-4 months. I’ve gotten approval from my employer to move into a corporate apartment, which saves them around 25% from the equivalent hotel room costs. This also makes my life much easier, as it allows me to keep my work clothes / supplies in the apartment which eliminates baggage fees and time spent checking luggage at the airport. It also allows me to have a kitchen and make meals at the apartment, which is less expensive for the company and also much healthier for me.

    However, I do tend to splurge a bit if it helps me maximize my time home with the family. While I like to be as productive as possible for work, the fact remains that travel requires me to spend lots of time away from home. (One of many reasons why I’m working towards FI!) I do place significant value on my time with my family, so that’s something that in my view my company needs to be able to compensate for. I am perfectly OK with (as an example) taking the higher-cost direct flight rather than taking one with multiple layovers and (therefore) higher risk of flight delays home. Similarly, I’ll spend the extra money for the early-morning Monday flight or the afternoon Friday flight, rather than purchasing the less-expensive flight on the weekend that would cut into my personal time at home. As a previous poster said, it’s all about balance!

    Finally, on a completely unrelated note – hope your husband is continuing to do well! Your article on your husband’s surgical issues brought chills down my spine, and have been an avid reader / subscriber ever since. I had a very similar issue (perhaps the same issue?) happen to me a few years ago, not quite as bad as your husband went through but still a terrible, life-changing experience for my family and I . Someday I’ll actually get my blog going and write a post about it. After an experience like that, you definitely get a better appreciation for what’s important in life.

    1. Thanks for commenting MSW! I think you’re right-no need to go overboard but the company certainly can pay for more convenient flights. I love how you created a win/win with the apartment-it’s better for you and the company.

      And thanks so much for asking about my husband! He’s doing pretty well-certainly much better than he was a few years ago. He had to have a very complex surgery two year ago after our youngest was born, but since then his health has been stable. He’s not the same as before the surgery and sepsis, but he’s come a long way. I hope you’re fully recovered as well! Going through something like that most certainly changes your entire perspective on life. If you ever do write about it let me know-I know my husband and I would both be interested to read it. He doesn’t know anyone who has been through something similar in real life, so I know he’d like to read about someone else’s experience.

      PS-I’m a big fan of the concept of stealth wealth, so love the name you picked!

  6. I have to say this really made me think. I put my time and efficiency above cost with any work travel. So I book the flight that suits me and if a taxi is more efficient than a train then that’s fine. But i travel a lot (>100k miles) and my company is interested in maximizing my work output.

    However I eat modestly, take uber, and bring a water bottle on the plane when I travel on business. But again that’s self interest since I try and eat healthy, and salad is often one of the cheaper menu items.

    I’m going to give this some more thought…
    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Thanks for stopping by AOF! This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for a few months, ever since seeing the travel habits of some of my coworkers during a training event. I bet the equation is different for frequent travelers like you and MSW, versus someone like me that usually only travels a few times a year.

  7. Mrs Simplest Happiness

    I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m see myself more on the splurge side compared to the responses here but more frugal compared to colleagues. I prefer driving or trains and public transportation when available. As far as flights I’ll take the straight flights anytime available. We don’t have perdiem limits /requirements and also get a corporate card (no receipts needed below $50) I don’t enjoy traveling for work much now with 2 little boys so I value my time and a nice dinner is fine with me. What I don’t like is being out too late and getting lots of expensive drinks ( seems to be the norm) and then running on 5 h of sleep.

    1. I’m with you that I prefer driving or taking the train over flying any day! We don’t need receipts under $25 or $50, and I also have a corporate Amex, but it’s a pain when I have lots of little expenses. It’s just tedious the way our reimbursement system works. And I can’t do only 5 hours of sleep anymore-too old for that! 😀

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