Previously, we looked at domestic travel costs and how to properly account for them. Now I want to look at international travel. In general, the same principles apply as for domestic travel. But there are four aspects I want to highlight.
Most international travel is done in the frame of a project. The costs are therefore to be charged to the project grant. You should carefully read the conditions your donor may have in regard of international travel. Most donors stipulate that only economy class airfare is an eligible cost for instance.
Traveling with a lot of luggage for a workshop for instance can sometimes be cheaper with an upgrade, which may avoid heavy luggage charges for extra suitcases or extra kilos. The airline may recommend this to a passenger at check-in. Likely, your staff will jump at the idea of saving costs. Make sure that in case this happens they document this very clearly. They should compare the economy price ticket + luggage charge to the upgrade ticket price without luggage charge. And they should explain the need for bringing the extra luggage.
The Fly America Act is applicable to all US federal grants and contracts. This means that if you receive funding from a US funder you, too, must apply the Fly America Act to any and all international travel under that US grant. The Fly America Act demands the use of US air carriers or of foreign carriers that have a so-called code-sharing agreement with US carriers. Many European carriers are covered by the Open Skies agreement between the US and the EU.
It is good to check the Fly America Act carefully to understand which carriers are eligible and what to do in case you cannot use a compliant carrier. It is best to do this already while you are budgeting for a grant from a US funder. That way, you can include any (arguments for a) request for exemptions already at that stage. Or you might decide to organize the activity differently. Or you may decide to use other sources for covering international travel costs if you have that possibility.
In case you are able to travel with a compliant carrier which is not a US carrier, you should make sure to have a copy of the trail of proof that this airline is compliant (for instance it is part of the Open Skies agreement) annexed to the travel documentation files. Remember, you must always be able to show that you checked and what the result of the check was. Preferably on a date stamped print, with a date from before the ticket was booked.
In case of airfare, the ticket itself is no longer sufficient proof the travel actually happened. After all, you might have cancelled the ticket and gotten a refund. Nowadays, you need a traveler’s boarding passes for your administration as well, along with the ticket. Boarding passes used to be the only real proof a traveler had actually gone to the airport and registered for the flight.
With the online check-in that people now can do from their homes this argument is rapidly becoming less valid, though. Which is why I myself also keep (and present) my baggage stubs as additional proof, as these include my name and flight data as well. However, more and more airlines prefer hand luggage only on shorter flights. So that extra proof might not be always available, either.
I am sure the field of proof of delivery of flights will develop in the coming years, bearing in mind all these developments, with new rules and checks for auditors. For now, I suggest keeping boarding passes, baggage stubs, proof of travel to and from the airport, and proof of having been in the destination (for instance in the form of an e-mail afterwards, thanking for the meeting) as much as possible to make sure no doubts can arise about the reality of the travel and the eligibility of the costs.
If the trip is being made in the frame of a project, and if the costs are being charged to the project grant, you need to make sure that there is a clear, visible and verifiable link to the project. Auditor checks on this relate to whether there is a budget line for it, whether there was sufficient budget available at the time of booking and whether all conditions are met, as described above for instance. This more technical part includes also a clear reference to the project code and project budget line on the invoice and a signature of the relevant project manager approving the charge to the project.
In addition, auditors need to check that the travel was necessary and approved for the project implementation. Which means, they need to see how the travel is part of the approved project design (is this type of travel mentioned in the narrative proposal at all?). And they need to understand how it contributes to achieving the planned results (what is the aim of the trip itself and does this have a link with the approved aims?). A trip report can help verifying the link to the project objectives. The report should outline what was done and to what project result areas meetings or events contributed.
In addition to what I wrote in my post about domestic travel, I suggest that you develop a format for travel requests. And that you include in your policy that a traveler needs to submit a travel request to gain approval for the trip including costs and logistics.
In this format you can include questions as to the background and aims of the travel. The traveler can make clear what the link is between the travel and the project that covers the costs. You can also add budgetary questions, including regarding the mode of traveling. And you can add questions or tick-boxes relevant to certain donor conditions. For instance regarding airlines to be used, etc. This way you can address the above concerns prior to the trip itself, in the planning stage.
In your policy, I would add the following items on your traveler’s checklist of to-do’s:
- To prepare a clear paper trail connecting the travel to the project aims, activities and budget (which can be done in the travel request form, if you design that cleverly);
- To make sure to keep boarding passes, baggage stubs and any other document proof the travel actually happened;
- To prepare a travel report afterwards, including the programme and information about meetings and events attended including papers, leaflets, photos, etc.