As a grad student, often when you travel your supervisor will cover your basic travel expenses. However, if you’ve never had to deal with reimbursement before, there are a few things you should know.
Beware that you’ll often be required to pay for expenses up front and then get reimbursed afterwards. This can sometimes mean a long wait of 8 or more weeks before being reimbursed after you get back from a trip. If at all possible, you’ll need to try to have the cash available up front. If you don’t, there are usually options available if you look. Either getting a cash advance for part of the costs from your department (you don’t pay it back, they just take it out of your reimbursement amount after) or asking around for travel grants. You can also see if your supervisor or department has a credit card that can be used to book your flights or pay for other fees up front.
However, it is almost a guarantee that you will need a credit card. Booking hotels, paying for airfare or conference fees online all require one. Also, since you may be putting a lot of charges (airfare + hotel + conference + meals) on it at once, you need a fairly high limit (at least $2000) or multiple cards you can split it between (Bonus – use a rewards card).
Things to know before you go
- Up front costs – you may be able to get some of the conference costs covered up front. If there is a department credit card, they may be able to pay for airfare or conference fees ahead of time. Your university might also supply a pay advance where they give you some set amount of money towards your trip upfront, and then just deduct that money from what they owe you after you submit for reimbursement.
- Travel grants – Many universities have travel grant programs where you can apply to get part of your trip covered. This is excellent, especially if your supervisor is unable to pay for part of your trip. Some of these programs let you apply once per year, so if there’s some conference you want to go to and your supervisor doesn’t have the money available to cover your costs, see if you can use these to help out. Others are once per degree, or up to a certain amount. Do your homework and find out.
- What’s covered – ask your supervisor ahead of time what costs they will cover and what they won’t. That way you start your trip off informed versus coming back and realizing that you either could have had something covered but didn’t get a receipt (get a receipt for everything) or something you expected would be covered isn’t.
- Hotels – if there are others from your university going, ask around to see if someone needs a roommate. Splitting hotel costs is great for everyone (including your supervisor).
- Flying – if you’re traveling by air and you can book the flights, do check around for cheaper prices. However, if two air lines have similar price ranges, and you get points with one, go with it. It’s a little bit of a bonus to collect those extra miles. It’s possible that your university may still have a preferred way of booking flights. If they do, use it, other wise it’s up to you.
- Passports – conferences often require travel to other Countries. As a Canadian, you’ll often head south to the States. But you may also end up in Europe, Asia, South America, etc. If you don’t have a passport, get one. It’s better to be able to say yes when the chance arrives, versus struggling to get everything in order last minute. Also, if you’re an international student, look into what visas you may need to travel. How hard are they to get? How early can you get one? If possible, get them in way in advance.
Most schools/businesses require original receipts in order to get reimbursed. This means, make sure you keep track of everything.
- Flying or other transportation – For flying, you’ll need both your boarding passes as well as a print out of your itinerary that gives all the flight details as well as the breakdown of the costs. If you’re driving, keep track of your mileage. They will usually reimburse you on that, not on gas receipts. But keep both incase.
- Hotel – hotels are expensive, even with the conference discount. Travel reimbursement will usually cover the basic costs of the hotel, as in the fee per night plus taxes. Extras, like internet, movies, and minibars won’t be covered.
- Taxis/shuttles – these aren’t great for giving receipts, so make sure you ask. They don’t have to be fancy, but they need to say the total. If you’re tipping, make sure the tipping cost is written on it.
- Meals – depending on your supervisor, food costs will either be repaid based on receipts or by a per diem (a set amount per day). Per diem’s are nicer, since you don’t need receipts. It also means, that you can eat where you want, and just cover the extra. Or eat very cheaply and “make” money off the trip. If you’re being reimbursed for each specific meal, you should know that alcohol is pretty much never covered. So, you’ll have to do some math when inputting receipt amounts. Also, there are usually set amounts that they will cover for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Conference Fees – conferences are expensive. Typical fees can easily range from $300 up, with some being over $1000. This is a lot of money to pull out of nowhere, so if you can get it covered up front, even better.