Promoting Efficient Travel Spending

» Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Hotels, Industry Postings, Payment Methods, Travel Professional Resources, White Papers | 1 comment

Last year I wrote about the emphasis on reduced travel budgets and gaining cost savings and efficiencies related to Federal Government travel.  Since that time, the Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have further reduced travel funding.  The President signed an Executive Order entitled “Promoting Efficient Spending” dated November 9, 2011 asking agencies to review policies and procedures to find savings and efficiencies related to official travel, and in other areas such as fleet, IT and printing.  The Order calls for reductions of not less than 20% below fiscal year 2010 budget totals, effective by 2013. The Order states: “As they serve taxpayers, executive departments and agencies also must act in a fiscally responsible manner, including by minimizing their costs, in order to perform these mission-critical function in the most efficient, cost-effective way”.

Specifically for temporary duty (TDY) travel expenses, the Order recognizes the importance of travel to agency mission and functions, but at the same time asks agencies to devise strategic alternatives to travel including teleconferencing and video-conferencing.

The Treasury Department intends to issue guidance in the near future on how this can be accomplished, but Treasury Bureaus always have the option to look at ways to save travel budgets. The Travel Services Division (TSD) has identified areas of Bureau travel policy and processes that could be changed to assist with compliance to the Order and to reduce overall per trip expenses. Much of the projected amount of travel budget reductions in the Order can be achieved from the suggestions outlined below, without having to reduce the number of trips by any significant amount.

I feel with the recent events that have highlighted Federal Government travel spending since writing last year’s paper, that a follow-up would be beneficial.

There is a historical perspective that reveals unnecessary travel costs that are inherent in Government travel.  First, there is no training mandate. The Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) tasks travel approving officials with authorizing and approving travel in a prudent manner and in accordance with established Federal and Agency/Bureau policies. While this responsibility is evident in the FTR, travel approvers authorize and approve expenses in many cases without this understanding and as a result, far too many travel documents contain errors that result in the Bureau paying more than is needed for official trips.

Secondly, the E-Gov travel service (eTS) as required by the FTR is limited by design. The eTS is an automated system of travel authorizations and vouchers.  Our Bureau’s eTS system is GovTrip which has many of the critical policy audits in place that require justifications to the approver. However, no system can ensure all policy requirements are met without reliance on travel approvers who have knowledge of the policy and financial implications of this function.

Third, our Bureau travel policy while very thorough can be enhanced to gain further controls and cost savings. The FTR requires an Agency or Bureau to have policies in place for certain items as described in the FTR.  While the existing BPD travel policy fulfills these requirements, there are still some things the Bureau can do to increase savings in the overall travel budget by making policies clearer and more in line with the FTR and best practices. [2]

Fourth, there are reimbursement errors that are found through our post payment travel audit process. TSD is required by OMB guidelines to conduct post payment audits of a representative sample of paid travel voucher, to include a 100% audit of all travel documents that exceed $2,500. Overpayments discovered during this process are collected back from the traveler.  TSD finds numerous instances of overpayments that need to be collected from travelers primarily because the approving official did not question the expense when the document was approved by them for payment.

To illustrate how understanding the FTR and Bureau policy can affect travel expenses, a travel approving official can authorize a TDY trip following FTR guidelines and still have the trip more expensive than it otherwise would have been if the approver had knowledge of all the rules. TSD recently presented a sample trip in a training class showing this. A hypothetical trip from Columbus to Las Vegas following the FTR cost $1,756 compared to the same trip with interpretation of the FTR applied with a cost of $763.  While this example is extreme and would not have every principle applied in every case, it does show the control approving officials have in authorizing travel expenses.

There are quite a few things TSD can do to achieve travel cost savings.  The number one thing we plan to recommend to our Executive Board is that because there is no provision for mandatory training for travel approvers to fully understand how they must discharge their responsibilities in adhering to travel regulations and policies, BPD should either strongly encourage or mandate training for all travel approvers in order to become more fiscally responsible as stated in the Executive Order. A training requirement currently exists for Government Travel charge card holders to have initial and annual refresher training on use of the card.  TDS feels this training requirement should also be in place for travel approvers. TSD can provide online or classroom training through GSA or our office.

The rationale for this mandatory training requirement is because of the perception that approving travel for an official trip seems to many approvers  like an easy task, but in reality, there must be a great deal of thought given to the process. Travel approving officials have a two-part job.  Approvers not only authorize what can be spent in the travel authorization, they must also verify what was actually spent on the travel voucher. In financial terms, they are obligating funds in their travel budget and approving them for disbursement as payment to the traveler and/or associated vendors. Approvers should be aware of the importance of performing a thorough review of all travel documents, justifications, and receipts before electronically approving them in the E-Travel system.

Approvers may only authorize travel expenses that are necessary to accomplish the Government’s mission. In this current climate of reduced travel budgets, this function is even more important. Approvers must evaluate the need for the travel and whether or not alternatives such as teleconferencing, webcasts, or other means could be used. Approvers must ensure travelers exercise the same care as a prudent person would exercise if traveling at his/her own expense. In addition, travel approvers must also take into account policy considerations as outlined in the Federal Travel Regulation (FTR) as well as BPD policy. So what in particular do travel approvers look for?

In the travel authorization, approvers must determine:

  • If a City Pair contract airline flight is selected, or if a valid FTR justification is provided;
  • The mode of travel is selected and advantageous to the Government, or the traveler’s reimbursement is limited to the constructive cost of travel;
  • Travel is routed by the most cost effective means;
  • If the traveler is taking leave or planning personal travel in conjunction with official travel. Traveler must provide a cost comparison if adding personal to official travel;
  • A Government vehicle is used if available, before a rental car;
  • Courtesy transportation is used when available;
  • Public transportation is used before a taxi cab;
  • Per diem location selected is where the official business is conducted;
  • Lodging selected is FedRooms and FEMA approved, or justification provided;
  • The E-Travel system was used for all transportation and lodging reservations;
  • The correct accounting is selected.

In the travel voucher, approvers verify:

  • Receipts are attached electronically to the voucher and are valid and legible;
  • Receipts match the claimed expenses;
  • The daily lodging rate matches the receipt;
  • Actual expense, if authorized does not exceed 300% of per diem.
  • Lodging taxes for domestic travel claimed on the non-mileage expense section;
  • If meals were provided or leave taken, per diem entitlements are adjusted;
  • TMC fee is not claimed automatically and in ‘Other Transportation’;
  • Miscellaneous expenses are valid and documented;
  • Traveler used the proper form of payment for expenses;
  • Any travel advances are properly deducted in the voucher amount;
  • The travel claim is properly prepared in accordance with the FTR and BPD travel policy;
  • Unused tickets are returned to the TMC for a credit;
  • The accuracy of claimed amounts compared to the required receipts and justifications;
  • All business calls and internet charges were necessary to perform official business;
  • All personal calls were made to average $10 per day.  Travelers may not just claim this daily amount;
  • Approvers should question or disapprove any claimed expenses which were either not authorized or are contrary to policy.

For all the above complexities involved in approving travel authorizations and vouchers, mandatory or highly encouraged approving official training will go a long way toward the goal of reducing unnecessary travel costs. [3]

TSD also plans to ensure our Bureau travel policy is aligned with current and future regulations and adopts best practices in order to achieve cost savings. While we will have many recommendations, some of the highlights are shown below.

One recommendation is to emphasize lodging alternatives to the approvers. The FTR requires first consideration of the FedRooms lodging program.  FedRooms properties guarantee rates to be at or below the per diem rate.  In the current economic climate, the majority of FedRooms properties offer rates that average $23 per night lower than the established per diem rate.[4] Far too many travelers call specific hotels based on personal preference or use of frequent stay points resulting in the Government paying more for lodging in many cases. TSD recommends instructing travel approvers to ensure hotel reservations are made in GovTrip and with FedRooms properties. Using FedRooms whenever possible can save the Bureau thousands of travel budget dollars annually.

Another recommendation to approvers is to consider how the trip is routed.  Approvers are required by the FTR to route travel by the most cost effective and usually traveled route. BPD needs a policy stating approvers must look at alternate airports in addition to Port Columbus when the mode of transportation selected is common carrier. The fact that Parkersburg has no viable air service and traveler must depart from Columbus Ohio for trips involving common carrier, surrounding airports should also be considered from a cost standpoint.  Pittsburgh, PA, Charleston, WV, Clarksburg, WV and Akron/Canton airports among others should be looked at by travelers and approvers. These airports also have contract City Pair fares, and/or commercial fares far cheaper than Port Columbus. Approvers can achieve substantial savings when considering alternate airports.

Evaluating the need for transportation at the TDY site is another important recommendation.  BPD policy should clearly state the FTR provisions of the hierarchy of authorizing transportation at the temporary duty site. Too often, approvers authorize a taxi cab at the TDY location when courtesy or public transportation is available for free or low cost. We have seen instances where rental cars are approved in areas with viable courtesy and public transportation. Not only is parking needed for the rental car, we have seen the cases where the car was provided simply to get from the airport to the hotel where the conference was held, so the car was not used during the trip. Other cases involved both a rental car and taxi cab reimbursement at the TDY location. Clear BPD guidance will save transportation expenses while on TDY.

Airport parking is another area of emphasis for travel approvers.  Travelers departing Parkersburg, WV on flights normally use Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio due to the high cost and connection problems departing from Parkersburg. Port Columbus offers three long term parking lots ranging from $4 per day to $9 per day, with the difference in cost stemming from the proximity to the terminal. BPD should create a policy to require travelers to use the lower cost green lot or limit reimbursement to the cost of the green lot. While per trip savings are small, the overall cost savings for this expense an annual basis for the Bureau is high.

TSD believes adopting these and other recommendations can achieve substantial savings in the Bureau’s travel budget with a minimum of cost and impact. This would then allow us to be in compliance with the President’s Executive Order to Promote Efficient Spending as well as becoming more efficient stewards of the public’s money.

By Daniel Carozza 

Disclaimer: The contents of this message are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the Government or my agency. 


[1] Note that each area does not need to be reduced by 20%. A combination of any of these items is needed to reduce the overall 20% reduction. The Order also requests agencies ensure there are proper controls in place for domestic relocation expenses. The recent update of FTR Chapter 302 applying best practices enhances our existing relocation controls, which are sufficient to comply with the Order.

[2] The FTR is in the process of being re-written by GSA, and TSD has staff participating in this effort.  One of the objectives of the FTR re-write is to make the FTR easier to understand and have less specific regulation. A direct result of reducing guidance in some areas is to shift this responsibility for guidance to the agency policy realm. 

[3] Even though TSD forwards post payment audit findings to the managers and travel approving officials, it seems to have only a modest impact on the fact that further training is needed for approvers.

[4] Based on the most recent fall 2011 GSA and FedRooms analysis of FedRooms rates compared to the industry ‘Government rate’.

1 Comment

  1. Since writing this paper last year, there have been recent developments affecting the efficient spending of Federal travel funds. As a result of GSA Inspector General audits of questionable spending involving temporary duty travel trips, The Office of Management and Budget issued Memorandum 12-12, “Promoting Efficient Spending To Support Agency Operations”, on May 11, 2012. This Memorandum instructed agencies in part to:

    “…Travel is often necessary for Federal employees to discharge their duties effectively and the travel industry plays an important role in creating jobs and supporting local economies; however, as good stewards of Federal funds, agencies must do all they can to manage their travel budgets efficiently. Accordingly, in FY 2013, each agency shall spend at least 30 percent less on travel expenses covered by this memorandum than in FY 2010. 1 Agencies must maintain this reduced level of spending each year through FY 2016. For the purposes of this section only, the term “agency” means any agency described in 31 U.S.C. 901(b)”.

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