One of the great perks of business travel is the opportunity to eat out in restaurants that are nicer and more expensive than you might indulge in in your daily life thanks to being on an expense account. Dining out while traveling for business can be a chance to splurge, although there are times when you might need to save money. Here are a few tips for dining out on the company dollar.
Be Aware of Per Diems vs. Actual Expenses
Many companies are moving away from reimbursing for actual expenses and instead providing employees with per diems. Per diem is Latin and means simply “per day.” This is a fixed allowance your employer may provide to cover certain expenses during your travels. The company will usually outline what is to be covered by the per diem, but meals and entertainment are the most common items. If you’re a light spender, you can come out ahead because you keep what you don’t spend on the trip. If you go wild, you’ll end up in a situation in which your per diem won’t cover all your costs. Either way, a per diem puts you in control of the decision about whether it’s a night for filet mignon or burgers.
Keep Those Receipts
Eating out on a business trip can be a real treat, but you’ll want to be reimbursed for those meals if your company doesn’t use a per diem. Many companies have a zero tolerance policy for lost receipts: no proof, no reimbursement. Remember, most companies require an itemized receipt showing what you ordered, so a credit card slip may not cut it.
Get Credit Card Rewards
Depending on your company’s travel and expense policies, consider putting your company travel on your personal cash back or travel reward credit card. Also, consider signing up for the dining rewards program with your favorite airline. Nearly all airlines have a dining program that allows you to earn frequent flyer miles for dining at select restaurants (all airlines use the same program administered by a third-party company called Rewards Network). Your company will still pay for the expense, but you reap the credit card or frequent flyer benefits.
Earn Points for Taking the Lead
Are you an organizer? If you like planning, consider taking on the role of planning group meals. You’ll be assured of ending up at a restaurant you actually want eat at. If you’re a member of OpenTable, you’ll also accrue points on your account that you that can use later for personal dinning. It’s a win-win solution.
Be Thrifty When You Need To
In business travel, there are times when your company won’t foot the bill for everything. In these instances, you may want to save money. There are two options to save money on dining out. First, do like the Europeans do and eat your bigger meal of the day for lunch. It’s usually cheaper. You can fill up for less and it’s more than likely that your company will cover your lunch, especially if you have business meetings. Also, consider hitting up the lounge for a free meal. If you don’t mind grazing, you can often get a free meal in the hotel elite lounge or the airport VIP club. Many lounges have snacks, appetizers or other food options, and some can be very elaborate. If you’re not picky and are willing to scrounge a little, it’s possible to eat for free. There’s usually an annual membership fee, but if you’re a frequent traveler, you often come out ahead financially.
Maximize Networking Opportunities
In any city you visit, there are likely companies that want to work with you. And you may want to work with them. I have found that having an informal networking dinner is an effective way of getting to know potential vendors or partners. This kind of dinner has a professional networking benefit, and the potential business partner will almost always treat you to dinner! Also, they know the town, so you’ll likely be treated to a place you would not have found on your own.
Know Your Company Norms
Learning your travel and expense policy is only the first step—it’s also important to understand your company’s expectations. For instance, some companies expect that you will seek out the nicest or trendiest place you can get a reservation when you travel. This may be particularly true if you’re entertaining clients or executives. Other companies may have a more budget-driven expectation. Then there’s the matter of what to order—if you’re the most junior person at the table, you probably shouldn’t order the lobster if everyone else has ordered pasta. Understanding expectations can help ensure everyone has an enjoyable time, and it will reflect well on you with your colleagues.