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How Expert Business Travelers Maximize Per Diem to Travel in Style

December 2nd, 2016 /

I freely admit that I like to travel well. Business trips make up a large portion of my working life, and being away from home is less of a chore if every journey is as enjoyable as possible.

While I now run my own company, I served in another role, early in my career, that had me on the road almost constantly, allowing me to become quite familiar with the magical staple that was my per diem. Over time, I developed a strategy for making the most of that money—and no, it didn’t involve living on less than $15 a day and pocketing the rest (as some of my coworkers attempted). While the tax-free income would have been nice, I didn’t find it worth the torture of scrimping and saving. Instead, I endeavored to strategically use every last penny of my per diem to make my trips as low-stress and comfortable as possible.

 maximize per diem

Business travelers in top-tier cities can take advantage of hotel discounts instead of sleeping cheap. Image by Flickr user Magnus Larsson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Maximize Your Hotel Benefits Instead of Getting a Cheap Room

Nobody likes sleeping on scratchy sheets in a room with musty carpet. Aside from your own personal comfort, though, it’s important to put your best foot forward when meeting with clients or potential partners—and it’s a lot easier to do that when you can get a good night’s sleep and when you have somewhere comfortable to decompress after a stressful day. Take my advice, and don’t cut corners on your lodgings.

With the newly-released 2016-17 per diem lodging rate of $158 for the month of December, it’s actually pretty easy to get a room at a decent hotel in top tier cities like LA or Chicago. Most government employees on a per diem will find the Ritz Carlton or other luxury spots well within their budget simply by asking for the reduced government rate, and small businesses and nonprofits can get in on the corporate rate action by seeking out travel membership deals like those offered by JetLux.

If you’re skeptical, let me assure you that it’s actually quite effective: membership services are able to leverage a large base of independent business travelers to negotiate significantly reduced prices at luxury properties. These rates are typically reserved for large corporations, and they’re lower than what you’d find advertised on hotel websites or through online booking engines. You can get a fantastic room at a surprisingly reasonable price and actually enjoy your night’s sleep.

Eat Well While Staying Within Your Per Diem

I’ve found that meal expenses are the one area where it’s best to economize. Restaurant food can be hard on your waistline, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I believe it’s important to take care of your body on the road, no matter how hectic your schedule.

My solution? Actually go grocery shopping. I usually pick up the following breakfast and lunch staples to store in my hotel room:

  • Prepared packages of fruits and vegetables. Carrots and cherry tomatoes, watermelon, pineapple—whatever you’re most likely to actually eat. These items are my go-to snack food.
  • Prepared salads for lunch. These usually hold up pretty well for a day or two, they’re easy to take along when you head out in the morning, and they’re often cheaper (with not much of a quality difference) than what you’d get dining out.
  • A box of your favorite cereal. No, you probably won’t eat all of it during the day or two you’re in town, but it’s still cheaper, and better for you, than anything you’ll find within walking distance of your hotel.

All this usually doesn’t run me more than $30-40, although exactly what you buy will obviously depend on your own eating habits. As a rule of thumb, I’d suggest sticking as closely as possible to whatever you eat at home.

Of course, sometimes eating out is your only option, whether you’re lunching with a client or grabbing something between back-to-back meetings. In these cases, I like to use HealthyOut, an app that helps locate nearby restaurants that fit your dietary specifications. And if I decide to splurge a little for dinner, I also depend on Groupon and Yelp for discounts at nicer restaurants. I still try not to go crazy in this category, though, because there are other ways I’d prefer to spend my remaining per diem.

 maximize per diem travel through selective spending

Save some money on meals and use your per diem amount on small luxuries instead. Image by Flickr user Eric Hill (CC BY 2.0)

Live a Little by Splurging on Extra Expenses

When I get a discounted hotel rate and consciously plan my meals, I’ve usually got enough leftover to spend on a few small things that drastically improve my travel experience.

Some of my favorite “extras”:

  • Get a shoe shine in the hotel lobby. I use this as a brief moment to pause and relax during busy trips. It also helps my shoes withstand the indignity of being hauled across the country in a carry-on.
  • Make use of hotel dry cleaning services. It’s a confidence boost to wear freshly pressed clothes when you’re heading into a big meeting, and, on a more practical level, this lets you get away with packing fewer dress shirts, freeing up luggage space.
  • Go to a well-known happy hour and treat your companions to a round. Socialization is incredibly important for staving off loneliness. Don’t avoid opportunities to go out just because of the expense—your mental well-being is worth it.
  • Take advantage of baggage handling services. Sometimes it’s just nice to feel like you’re being taken care of. I also tip well in these situations, more for my benefit than the employee’s. Feeling like I’ve done someone else a small kindness has a lingering, positive effect on my mood.
  • Pursue your interests during evenings off. Hit up a local movie theater to see a film your spouse won’t want to sit through. Catch some live music, or hit up an after-hours museum event. This is your chance to do fun things without having to consult anyone else, so take advantage!

I enjoy the challenge of spending every last dollar of my per diem in ways that maximize my travel experience. I’m not convinced that it’s worth bringing home extra cash if it means being miserable for the duration of your trip. Instead, be strategic. I’d suggest you start by considering a membership with JetLux. You’ll get luxury lodging, a restful night’s sleep—and have more of your per diem leftover for the experiences that matter to you.

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