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Dear Scotty, Please Explain the New Travel Per Diem Rules!

Dear Scotty,

I had put in paperwork to go to a conference in November, and it seems that the travel requests have gone through a number of iterations. In July, my dean informed me that the amount had moved from $40 per day to $50 per day with no receipts, but it was only 75% of that amount on first and last days of travel and I may have to remove some meals from this amount.

Then my dean let me know that it had changed again to be no fixed dollar amount. I’m so confused. What is the actual policy for meals and reimbursement, and how am I supposed to figure out the right amount?

-Eugodda B. “Kid” Dingme


Dear Eugodda,

It has been a very interesting few months for travel policy. The AP for travel (AP 7400) was revised and updated in 2013, and then later the policy was revised and board-approved on July 6, 2017. This new policy did change a few things:

  1. Lodging and per diem qualifiers: Meal per diems are provided for travel that is 40 miles or more from both the traveler’s home and primary worksite and when there is an overnight stay. These same rules apply for lodging allowances.

  2. Per diem amounts: The per diem amount became $50 per day, except for the first and last days of travel, which was 75% of the normal daily amount.

  3. Receipts and exclusions: Receipts were no longer required for meal per diem (a big change!).

  • There was a new caveat – if meals were included in conference fees, included at a hotel, or served for free on a plane, then a fixed dollar amount would be deducted: $10 breakfast, $15 lunch, and $25 dinner.

  1. Non-permissible travel expenses: Under non-permissible travel expenses, a significant change appeared, making “travel expenses during sabbatical leave” no longer permissible.

This was the policy in place when I went to a conference in early July of 2017, and I had to revise all my travel documents to accommodate the new procedure. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit more discussion and frustration about non-reimbursement of sabbatical travel expenses, so the district revised the policy again on August 17, 2017. Katie White emailed a summary of changes on August 21, 2017. This new policy had even more changes:

  1. Lodging and per diem qualifiers: No new changes.

  2. Per diem amounts: The per diem is now indexed by the GSA (Government Services Agency) website, but the same 75% rule applies to first and last days of travel.

  3. Receipts and exclusions: All of the same rules above apply, but the dollar amount from GSA site is used to reduce the per diem.

  4. Non-permissible travel expenses: Sabbatical leave travel expenses have been removed from the list of non-permissible expenses reimbursable to the employee.

  5. Travel ban states: Katie’s August email also pointed to AB 1887 which, as of January 1, 2017, banned travel to eight states for all governmental agencies (excludes community colleges). Please be mindful of requesting travel to the 8 banned states and only request it for essential district required travel for your program: Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

It is good to see the district revise its policy on sabbatical travel (now reimbursed as any faculty travel). As for the new per diem, the GSA checks different cities, counties, and states to find the approximate costs for reimbursement and posts those indexed amounts. Every 3 years, GSA updates their dollar amounts (last updated in 2016). An advantage of having the new AP7400 link to an index instead of a fixed dollar amount is that inflation is built into the model!

The GSA has multiple categories for the reimbursement rates, and it depends on your city. The chart below shows the 6 categories for food costs. Amounts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are indicated separately. There is also a column for “First & Last Day of Travel,” computed at 75%.

*Incidental expenses are defined in Federal Travel Regulation Chapter 300, Part 300-3 as: Fees and tips given to porters, baggage carriers, hotel staff, and staff on ships.

To see how this works, let’s take a few quick examples. What about a conference in Portland, Oregon. The GSA lists many cities in Oregon as follows:

The standard rate for any city not listed is $51, but Portland is the second highest in the state at $64. For first and last day, you would get $48 and for each full day it is $64. Meals included in conference fees would be deducted. If you went to a Wednesday through Saturday conference, where one lunch was included in conference rates, your per-diem would be:

  1. Wednesday ($48),

  2. Thursday ($64),

  3. Friday ($48 = $64 - $16 lunch);

  4. Saturday ($48);

  5. ...your total would be $208,

The old policy would have been 4 days at $40/day for $160. For comparison, other cities at the $64 rate are New Orleans-LA, Buffalo-NY, Oceanside-CA, Kansas City-MO, and Tacoma-WA.

Some other cities have an even higher per diem rate. Using the same conference dates as the Portland example, San Francisco would come in at $74 per diem:

  1. Wednesday ($55.50),

  2. Thursday ($74),

  3. Friday ($56 = $74 - $18 lunch);

  4. Saturday ($55.50);

  5. ...your total would be $241.

The old policy for San Francisco would have been 4 days at $40/day for $160. For comparison, other $74 cities similar to San Francisco are Santa Barbara-CA, Monterey-CA, New York City-NY, and Seattle-WA.

While it is possible to select a “standard rate” city at $51/day and remove some meals and end with less than was previously available, please realize that most conferences are held in or around larger cities. For those wanting to see what could happen, here’s an example of a 3 day conference: travel Wednesday, conference Thursday, travel Friday, with the lunch meal removed on Thursday.

  1. Wednesday ($38.25),

  2. Thursday ($39 = $51 - $12 lunch);

  3. Saturday ($38.25).

  4. Your total would be $115.50, while the old policy would be 3 days at $40/day for $120.

Since this policy is to reimburse your meals, this new policy really modifies to adapt for the cities where the food costs are significantly more expensive than prior amounts allowed. Furthermore, in the case where the reimbursement from the old policy is less than the new, it is actually the case that you used to be “over” reimbursed; a conference could have included a meal that was unaccounted for in the reimbursement.

The two schools I worked at prior to MiraCosta both used this approach, and it is becoming standard across the country. It takes just a minute to look up your city when you are planning your travel, and the website allows you to select by state, city, and/or zipcode to instantly determine your per diem.

Fiscal services are working on a spreadsheet that will help you calculate meal costs based on the new policy change, but it has not been sent out to everyone yet. In the meantime, this article can help you navigate the per diem issues that may come up!

NOTE: for those traveling outside the continental US, you’ll be redirected to another site to check for Hawaii or Alaska (or other countries).

Follow up: Based on my own personal experience with this new travel policy, the MCC accounting department will check the conference documents to see if any meals were covered in the conference fee. If so, they will be deducted. For many faculty and staff, conference meal options might only include items not consumable for personal or religious reasons, so another meal must be purchased. In this event, Accounting has asked that a separate note be included to indicate the issue so that the county will include the full reimbursement amount.

Scott Fallstrom


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