By Claudette Roulo
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2014 – Big changes are happening with the Joint Travel Regulations, and they could affect your next permanent-change-of-station move or how you are reimbursed for temporary duty assignments.
As of July 25, Army uniformed and civilian travelers are directed to use their government travel credit cards for PCS moves, Harvey Johnson, the director of the Defense Travel Management Office said today.
The Air Force has a similar policy already in place, Johnson said, and the Marine Corps is preparing to implement its own administrative message regarding use of the government travel card for permanent changes of station. “The Navy is conducting a pilot [program] to use the card for PCS, so I believe it’s imminent for all the services,” he noted.
The change applies to both uniformed and civilian personnel in each of the services, Johnson said.
“Ultimately, we want to extend this initiative to all federal civilians and uniformed members, because at the end of the day, we believe it’s the right thing for our cardholders,” he said.
Reducing the fiscal burden for movers
By using the government travel card, movers no longer are forced to pay out of pocket for moving expenses, Johnson said. The new policy also generates a number of other benefits, including eliminating the need to apply for advance travel pay and reducing the chance of becoming delinquent on a personal credit card.
“We want to make sure that people still have it within their budget to continue to travel,” he said, “but we’ve got to travel smarter, more efficiently and try to return money back to the Department of Defense.”
Every time travelers use their government travel card, their service receives a rebate, Johnson said. A 5 percent increase in usage across the department generates an 11 percent rebate, he said, adding that “services get that money back in their budgets, … a return on investment that we need during sequestration.”
Additionally, using a government travel card allows the department to understand how travelers are spending, Johnson said. “And that allows us to negotiate better rates, whether it’s with the rental car companies or amenities with hotels,” he added.
Authorized moving expenses
Just about any moving-related expense is authorized, Johnson said. “So, if you think of the big categories, there’s air, there’s rail, there’s rental cars, then you have things like lodging, meals and other travel-related expenses,” he said.
The Joint Travel Regulations and the Joint Federal Travel Regulations were consolidated into one regulation on Oct. 1, so all travelers now have one volume to refer to for questions about official travel, Johnson said.
An extensive list of authorized expenses can be found at Appendix G of the Joint Travel Regulations, he said, which is available at http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/site/travelreg.cfm. Travelers also can call the Travel Assistance Center at 1-888-HELP1GO, which is open 24/7, Johnson added.
Incidental expense definition changing
An expanded definition of what constitutes incidental expenses during official travel went into effect Oct. 1, he said. The change will save the department about $18 million annually, Johnson said.
Per diem payments are made up of lodging, meals and, for travelers in the continental United States, a $5 daily incidental payment. The definition of what qualifies as an incidental expense — which travelers are expected to pay for from that $5 daily payment — now includes ATM fees, baggage tips for uniformed personnel and, within the continental United States, laundry expenses, Johnson said.
“These were previously expenses that were miscellaneous reimbursable expenses,” he noted.
The expanded definition will affect only a few travelers, Johnson said, and no one should end up paying out of pocket. For example, only about 13 percent of travelers were claiming ATM fees, he said, and they averaged out to about 76 cents per day, well under the flat $5 daily incidentals payment.
“This incentivizes people to plan ahead,” Johnson said. “Should you make an ATM withdrawal? Certainly, if it’s necessary. Should you make one every day? I would offer there’s probably a better way to plan for that.”
If travelers find their average incidental expenses are in excess of the incidentals payment, they should contact their approving authority to ensure actual expenses are authorized on their travel orders.
Mission-related expenses continue to be reimbursable, and should not be confused with incidental expenses, he noted.
“So, if my mission calls for … [me] to do certain things — make an extraordinary amount of phone calls using the hotel phone, or other mission-type expenses — they are still reimbursable,” Johnson said. Travelers should still ensure that their approving authority has approved such expenses, he added.
Behind the policy decision
The travel management office used three guiding principles when considering these policy changes, Johnson said.
First, do no harm — reducing costs to the government shouldn’t come at the expense of travelers, he explained.
Second, Johnson said, “We’re looking to fairly compensate travelers for expenses occurred.”
And third, use data to test and back up recommendations. “I truly believe the data tells the narrative. As you start to look at the data from prior years, … the picture becomes quite clear on what sort of travel solutions are out there,” he said.