Hacking business travel: the good, the bad, the ugly

Last night I was chatting with a friend who's going to be in town next month for a work conference. Even in my spare time I'm always trying to help people save money, so I quickly checked whether I could offer him a better rate than what he'd paid for the conference hotel. I offered to book the stay for about half of what he had reserved the same room for, and then he asked the fateful question: "will the hotel still give me a receipt?"

Most people travel mostly for business, and business travel is expensive

Loyalty programs have a fundamental genius in their core value proposition: direct your company's travel business to us during the week, when hotels and airlines are engaged in a cutthroat competition, and we'll give you free flights and rooms on the weekends, when we're empty.

Credit cards directed at business travelers have a similar premise: use our product, instead of our competitor's, for your reimbursed business expenses and we'll share our cut of the transaction fees with you.

The travel hacker would ideally like to complete this circle by redeeming loyalty currencies for his reimbursed business expenses, thereby monetizing his points balances precisely when those points are most valuable.

Taxes make hacking business travel difficult

The core problem with hacking business travel is taxes: taxes make business travel cheap.

The marginal federal tax rate on a self-employed person is between 14.13% and 50.93%. That means a self-employed person who pays for travel in cash already gets a huge discount off retail simply by excluding the cost from her self-employment income. A nominal 3 cent-per-point redemption therefore becomes a 2.58 cent-per-point redemption for someone in the lowest tax bracket, and a mere 1.47 cent-per-point redemption for a self-employed person in the highest federal income tax bracket. Accounting for state income taxes would make the situation correspondingly worse.

For employees, the situation is similar. Even if you were able to negotiate with your employer for higher pay in exchange for making your own travel reservations (I'm not even sure this arrangement would be legal), the increase would have to be higher than the retail value of your travel expenses to account for federal and state income taxes.

But we think outside the box around here, so here are three approaches to hacking your business travel: the right way, the wrong way, and the illegal way.

The right way: just ask

If you work at a company where travelers book their own travel and are later reimbursed, then you could simply ask your supervisor or boss whether you could redeem miles and points for your travel and be reimbursed with cash. The human resources and accounting departments would probably have to sign off on the idea, but at a small company those might be the same person, and they might agree.

They also might not, so you have to be willing to risk flat-out rejection (and potential followup questions about your sanity) to go this route.

The wrong way: spoof reservations

Another option I consider moderately unethical would be to in fact book paid reservations, print off your receipts and, if necessary, your credit card statements, then cancel the reservations and rebook the same reservations with points.

Naturally, this would only work if the travel department doesn't require, or doesn't check, that hotel folios and boarding pass ticket numbers match the supporting documentation.

There are two reasons I believe this approach to be at least moderately unethical, even though at face value the outcome is identical to the "proper" method of paying cash and being reimbursed for travel expenses. The first is that I regard any technique that requires you to obscure your activity is inherently suspect. Now, we all may hem and haw and come up with circular explanations for carrying around thousands of dollars in gift cards, but the fact is that money orders are, in fact, perfectly legal to buy and use in the United States — if pressed, no one would feel the need to deliberately conceal their use of gift cards to manufacture spend.

The second reason I'm wary of this technique is the potential consequences for the travel hacker's employer in case of audit. While the travel or bookkeeping department might not bother to compare PNR's, ticket, or reservation numbers, that's precisely the kind of information an audit team might notice, or even look for. If your behavior puts your employer in legal or business jeopardy, I regard that behavior as ethically suspect.

The (il)legal way

While misleading your employer about your travel reservations may be unethical, trying to do the same thing with the IRS is an excruciatingly bad idea. If you're deducting business travel from your Schedule C or other business tax form, you'd better have supporting receipts showing what you actually paid for your travel. Redeeming miles and points, then claiming the cash value of your trips as a deduction, is a recipe for disaster.

On the other hand, it's also true that miles and points are treated as having a cash value in other situations. For example, when you win a stash of miles and points in a sweepstakes, or when they're awarded as a bonus for signing up for a checking account, you're issued a 1099-INT or 1099-MISC for the value of the points.

If you have a large enough business, and travel enough, it may be worth consulting with a tax attorney and getting some formal advice about what values you might assign to the miles and points you redeem for your business travel.

For example, if you could convince a tax attorney to advise you that Hyatt Gold Passport points are worth 1 cent each, then a 15,000-point redemption for a $400 hotel night would yield a $150 deduction, compared to a $400 deduction. Applying the same 14.13% tax rate to both deductions yields $21.20 in tax savings for the point redemption and $56.52 for the cash rate, for a total redemption value of 2.43 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point (an out of pocket cost of $400 minus $56.52, compared to 15,000 points minus $21.20).

Again, that's an avenue that's only worth pursuing if you have a large enough business that the savings involved comfortably cover any fees you pay to your tax attorneys.