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US Travel Tips for New Faculty…and for Not-so-New

The academic year is beginning, and I have already been asked by new faculty about travel. I also recently heard about a problem from a more senior colleague. As I have traveled a lot for my work in the last 20 years, I have built up some experience as an academic “road-warrior.” My assistant, Marlene, has also helped out with some great ideas as she has observed my difficulties getting from point A to B and back again. Here are some general tips for lower-stress travel as you travel to conferences and speaking engagements around the U.S.


Familiarize yourself with your university’s travel rules. Most have specific rules about advance notice, forms to file, etc. Know the rules before you travel so you don’t do the wrong things.

When you meet people at conferences, or when speaking, or otherwise on business, write the date on the back of the card, along with info that will help you identify why/where you met the person. If you promise to send them a copy of your recent results, then write that on the card, too. I have over 3000 entries in my online address book and card collection, and I no longer remember who half of them are, where I met them, or why….a note would have helped me in trimming the collection some.

Note on your itinerary what the next and previous departures of the plane, train, etc might be. If your business finishes early or runs late you have some idea of alternatives. In many cases, for a small free, you can switch to a different departure time on the same day. You can usually get that fee reimbursed by the same source of funds that pays for your ticket.

Take paper copies of articles, theses, or other items you need to read or review. If you are stuck in an airport waiting area with a delayed flight, you can put your time to use without running down laptop batteries. Furthermore, you can read the papers when on the plane during times that no electronic devices can be used, and you can write comments in the margin when you have a small fold-down seat tray that isn’t large enough to hold an open laptop.

Keep business cards with you. At least once a year I find someone sitting on a long flight next to me to be worth a follow-up contact. Several times these have led to industry grants for my research or internships for my students. Be prepared for opportunities!

Always pack an extra day’s worth of critical items in the event your flight is cancelled or too badly delayed. Also, you are prepared when the airline asks for volunteers to be bumped to the next day in return for a free ticket—that means you can save money on your grants for the next conference, or else use the free ticket to have a spouse/SO accompany you on a trip.

If you are going someplace interesting, investigate staying an extra day or two to sight-see, or simply relax. Depending on timing, you may actually save money by flying on a weekend day instead of a weekday evening and staying the extra night in the hotel!

Consider joining frequent traveler programs for the airlines and hotels. You may not collect enough for a free trip any time soon—and if you do travel enough to do so, another trip is not likely your idea of a reward. However, most of those programs have some small perks for members—free Internet service or breakfast at the hotel, priority on better seats, etc.

Airline clubs can be valuable places to unwind between long flights or during delays. You can buy day passes or full-year memberships. Some cover multiple airlines. Consider the expense of Internet access and several cups of coffee each time you need to spend more than an hour at a major airport in a waiting area. At a certain point, the airline club fee comes out to be a win. Plus, their front desk staff can often fix a scheduling snafu on your ticket faster (and with more options) than the personnel out at the desks.

Try to always be cheerful with travel personnel, even if you’re having a bad day. Airline check-in people can give you a better seat or waive a change fee if you are nice, flight attendants will sometimes comp a drink or give you the last blanket, and hotel clerks can put you in a better room—all if you are nice. Be grumpy or curt, and TSA will make your life miserable, you’ll get checked into the non-reclining seat in the last row next to the lav, and at the hotel you’ll get the room next to the elevator.

I have a single sheet with all my flight itinerary, hotel address, confirmation numbers, important telephone numbers, and so on. This turns out to be incredibly useful for all sorts of reasons.

Take along a small bottle of hand sanitizer, and use it before every meal or break. If you are meeting people, shaking hands, and using doorknobs handled by thousands of others, it is not a contributor to good health. Frequent hand washing and use of a sanitizer can really help. I get small bottles in the “travel size” section at my neighborhood pharmacy.


Keep all of your receipts, boarding passes, etc. I have a poly-plastic envelope with an elastic cord into which I put all my receipts while traveling. At the end of the trip, the receipts get sorted into three piles: those that go to the university or sponsor for reimbursement purposes, those that go into my file for income taxes (all meal receipts, for example), and a pile I keep until I have been reimbursed and my frequent flier miles credited. This last pile is normally where stubs from boarding passes go, unless your sponsor/university requires them.

Never leave a hotel without a paper statement showing a zero balance! Some hotels will run a statement of all expenses and slip it under your room door the night before you leave. You then do an express checkout an don’t stop at the desk. However, without evidence you paid the bill (the zero balance part), some agencies won’t reimburse you! You can probably get a corrected copy from the hotel, but the process delays your reimbursement by weeks (or longer).

Need to send in the original receipts for reimbursement? Make sure you have legible copies to keep on file in the event there is a mixup or loss of items.

Don’t forget to ask for mileage reimbursement to drive to/from the airport. The current IRS rate is commonly used.

If you work at a public university you can sometimes get the government rate at hotels. You need to ask about that when you reserve the room, and you show your faculty ID when arriving. Be sure you only do this when traveling on university business.

Be aware of your credit limit. If you are doing a lot of travel and charging it all to one credit card, you may hit your limit without knowing it. Hotels often put a hold charge on your card when you check in and do not remove it when you pay your bill, so your card takes double the hit. It can be very uncomfortable to arrive at your destination, 3 time zones away, only to be told that your card has been refused. American Express cards have no such pre-set limit, but you also have to pay them when the blll arrives, and this can be a stretch if your reimbursements aren’t timely.

Speaking of reimbursements, some companies that may ask you to come visit to speak at their expense can be extremely slow to pay reimbursements because their internal processes are so complex. My worst experiences have been with big companies, for some reason. Intel is one example—over a 3 year period with 5 trips they never paid an invoice in less than 6 months, one took 10 months to reimburse, and I had to file as a business supplier to even get into their system! In situations like this you either need to dip into savings then wait for the payment, or carry the charge on credit. Be prepared for this if you have no experience with a host offering to reimburse you.

Actually, this brings up a worst-case scenario: You are asked to visit an institution in a foreign country to speak, at their expense. You buy non-refundable tickets (that is all they will reimburse) and then they cancel the visit or you fall ill or….. Nothing like having $2000 in non-refundable tickets and the bill coming due! There are solutions here—demand to buy refundable tickets, have them buy the tickets for you, or consider having them authorize buying travel insurance through the airline or travel service where you get the tickets. Even reputable places may have scheduling problems.

Don’t fly sick! If you are really ill, don’t feel you have to travel because you bought non-refundable tickets, or because they are expecting you to talk at the other end. Flying while ill can make you worse (I’ve had a perforated ear drum from the pressure change on the plane, once, flying with a terrible cold), can spread germs, and you end up not making a very good presentation. Ask to reschedule if it is a presentation. Most airline tickets can be used, for a small change fee, up to a year after the date of purchase. If you are flying to a conference on grant money, check on university policy—most will cover the change fee or even the cost of the ticket so long as you commit to buying non-refundable tickets to keep costs low.

Check the interest rate on your credit cards. Yeah, maybe you collect frequent flier miles by using that card, but it also may have an 18%-25% effective annual rate. if you are delayed getting a reimbursement, or it crosses the due date of the bill, you may be paying a hefty penalty for those miles.

Many places will ask for your SSN# on a W-4 before they will reimburse you. If you are a compensated speaker, you can’t get your honorarium without this. This poses two problems: taxes and possible exposure of your SSN. The taxes part is easiest—keep the receipts and if your reimbursement gets included in a form 1099-MISC filed by your host, then you list the amounts as deductible business expenses (talk to a tax advisor for specifics—don’t depend on this blog!). As for protecting yourself against identity theft, come up with a “dba” name (doing business as) for consulting, then get an IRS EIN (employer identity number). Use that in place of your SSN. It is all perfectly legal (although you may need to educate the clerks at the other end), has the same number of digits as your SSN, but it compromised it won’t contribute to fraud committed with your identity.

I may do a follow-up post with some specific hints on international travel. If you have suggestions for academic travelers, please post them in the comments.