Travel Do’s and Don’ts for Research Projects
Travel expenses can be confusing. There are four main things to consider when deciding whether to engage in business travel. Scan this list for answers to pressing questions regarding expenses and travel audit red flags, which is brought to you by Beverly Rymer, University of Houston Director of Contracts and Grants. And, away we go!
Are the costs:
Is the travel necessary and have you provided a purpose statement of how the travel will benefit the University’s research enterprise? “The benefit to the University’s research enterprise is a by-product of taking on the work for the sponsor,” said Rymer.
Is the expenditure prudent? In other words, could the sponsor’s money be better used in another way? Maybe since COVID there has been an online component added to the conference, etc. “Choosing reasonably priced airfare and accommodations is important,” said Rymer.
Does the cost associated with the project solely benefit the award, or will other activities/awards benefit as well? If a cost benefits two or more activities/awards the cost should be allocated to the projects based on the proportional benefit.
Are you requesting allowances that are consistent with the University’s travel policy and practice? For example, if personal travel is included in the trip, have you provided comparative quotes to show the cost adjustment made? This rule also applies to travel on grants.
Specific stipulations for some sponsors
Be aware that several organizations have special rules, as well. For instance, for NSF ICORPs Awards, travel to customer discovery interviews typically does not need approval by NSF, however, teams must obtain written prior approval from their NSF I-Corps program officer for either international travel or travel to an academic conference.
In a similar way, Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) does not allow gratuity expenditures on its awards and, of course, all travelers must be listed on the personnel list or list of individuals working on the project. But you must also be in compliance with your University’s guidelines, completely.
Audits and red flags
In addition to following the sponsor guidelines, staff must follow UH policy when preparing, reviewing, and approving travel expenditure documents. Here are some of the travel audit red flags to avoid when itemizing your receipts.
The description on the travel request form does not match the expenditure report, receipted expenses, dates, and/or activities.
Lack of itemized receipts, unclear and/or missing receipts. Backup documentation does not explain and support expenditures.
Failure to include travel activities in progress reports, when the trips were not budgeted or approved by the Sponsor during the award stage, but travel was approved by the university.
Incorrect Allocation of Costs
Travel supporting more than one activity (as described in the travel itinerary) is not distributed to all benefited funding sources.
Cancellation Fee on the Grant
Airline cancellation/rebooking fees and hotel “no show” fees charged to the grant.
Airline tickets showing arrival and departure in locations other than the official travel destination without acknowledging personal days and providing backup documentation of comparative airfare quotes.
Participant Support Cost Travel Mislabeled as Student Travel
UH student participation is budgeted and funded from participant support costs, but expenses are coded as “student travel” instead of “participant travel” in Concur and PeopleSoft.
Meal Receipts Review
Including unallowable costs such as alcohol, personal guest meals, receipts with expenditure dates outside of the trip days or aligned with personal days.
Trips Benefiting More than One Activity
Backup documentation shows the trip benefitting more than one activity/award, but the entire cost is charged to a single grant.
Projects requiring travel and meeting arrangements for a group of attendees, such as conferences and seminars, with documentation that does not itemize the cost of each traveler’s airfare, lodging, meals, etc.
Package deals (all-inclusive fee) from hotels for conference accommodations must itemize these costs for each guest.
The Big Idea
Whew! The Big Idea? Consult the sponsor or you University’s Division of Research Office of Contracts and Grants or its equivalent when in doubt about what to itemize and submit as far as travel expenses…and remember, at some institutions, travel restrictions are still ongoing due to COVID. Saving yourself the headache of travel audit red flags will increase the probability that future travel will be approved by your university, as well!