On Saturday I ran my credit card at the grocery store and it was declined for lack of funds. I pay the bill in full every month and know that I had not come anywhere close to spending my limit in the past 30 days.

I swiped my emergency backup credit card and went on my way. I was about to call my credit card company and ask "what in the heck?" when I realized that in the past month my husband had spent three weeks in various African countries. Normally when he travels he uses his American Express, which has no limit and doesn't affect my credit card, but I'm willing to bet that there were plenty of places that wouldn't accept his Amex that would accept his Mastercard, which is a joint account with mine.

Now, this was a mild annoyance for me. I had another way to pay for groceries. But, it will become a bigger annoyance if his company doesn't reimburse him promptly. They often don't. (Partially his fault for being a procrastinator. Partially their fault for having a slow process.) The last thing I want to do is have to pay interest on his work trip.

And it made me think, what does a good travel reimbursement policy look like? Here are five things you might want to think about.

Per Diem, instead of reimbursement

The advantage of this system is that for meals and the like, your employees get the money up front. There's no need for them to keep receipts, and there's no need for you to have someone go through those receipts to provide reimbursement. But, if you decide to go this route, make sure your per diem is a reasonable amount for the location your employee travels to. If you offer $25 per day for food in New York City, that's going to be a bit tight. 

Direct billed expenses

The biggest expenses when it comes to traveling are flights, hotels, and rental cars. All three of these can be billed directly to the company. If your traveling employees are fairly new to the working world or aren't highly paid, offering these things can be the difference between an employee being able to go and an employee needing to stay home. 

All the points to the employees

Some companies collect the airline miles and/or the credit card points when they book the travel. Fair enough. But travel is a difficult and stressful task for most people. Let people keep their own miles and points if at all possible. Credit card points, of course, won't go to the employee if you're booking and paying in advance, but air miles certainly can, as can hotel points. If your employees travel a lot, you want them to have status at the hotels they stay at. It makes their stays easier.

Easy reimbursement

Do you require lots of documentation for each receipt? Why? Do you need to see the whole restaurant receipt and know what the person ordered? Why? Couldn't you just get a credit card statement and know that your employee spent $22.50 at Cracker Barrel

You may have really good reasons for your policies but you may not. Go over them and figure out what is easiest for all concerns. Remember you're taking up time your employees could be spending being productive rather than filling out paperwork.

How many layers have to approve the reimbursement? It should be limited to the employees' direct manager. If one of the higher-ups has concerns about the trip, it should have been raised before they went on the trip, not when the employee turns in her receipts.

There are many apps out there that help your employees scan receipts in the moment and submit them. Get one.

Fast reimbursement

If your employees have to pay themselves, that's money they can't use for other things. It's money that can be costing them interest, which means they are paying their own real cash for a business trip. That's not cool. Reimbursement should be as fast as humanly possible.

Whatever you decide, remember that travel is hard on people, so don't make it a financial burden as well.

Published on: Apr 30, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.