In November 2019, just before the pandemic I found myself in a 5-star restaurant where I could not understand the menu, and nothing looked appetizing. It all started innocently enough. A group of us from Florida were at the conference reception, enjoying our drink ticket drinks, chatting away. Then someone suggested, we should all get dinner. And so, it begins. Soon after we are all on Google seeing what is close. And I was tossing out ideas like a carnival barker; there is a good-looking Noodle Shop across the street, does anyone want Italian? What about the lobby sports bar? All reasonable suggestions with a large menu. And then it happens. One of the group suggests the trendy 5-star restaurant with the vague name and she just so happened to be able to procure a table for six. After all, she has heard amazing things about this place, which that pretty much means I am going to be eating squid ink pasta and Salmon tonight for $79.99. I am not a 5 Star restaurant guy. But you cannot say no right? There goes my per diem and then some.
One of the things I miss most and least at the same time is higher education travel. Not to be confused with my previous post on conference going this one is a bit different. Because I am going to review the oddities and curious ways travel for higher ed conferences make little sense.
In my role, pre-pandemic I traveled a lot. Mainly throughout the state of Florida (after all, my three universities are in Orlando, Tampa Bay, and Miami and I went to Tallahassee quite often) and I probably flew to meetings and conferences six times a year. Honestly, it was a nice perk. If timing allowed, I would often take a personal day and book an extra night’s stay to tour Napa Valley, take a Hollywood tour, walk around NYC, see my cousin in Chicago, you all know the drill. And I enjoyed getting to eat at some fine restaurants iconic for their cities. My two personal favorites were The Salt Lick BBQ in Austin and St. Elmo’s Steakhouse in Indianapolis. Academic travel allowed for me to see snow from time to time, and I must admit, I really like airports. I just do.
Here is where higher education travel gets, well odd, it is the strange expectations and situations you find yourself in. The first is how our universities and colleges decide how much things should cost. Travel is expensive. And it is a reasonable expectation that you should not have to pay out of pocket expenses for your travel. Fair. As a state employee we look to Tallahassee to set the levels of reimbursement or allowance to make these calls. I get, on average, $39 a day for meals, can spend up to $150 on a hotel room (I think), we get .45 a mile if we drive. To be fair, except for Tallahassee during the legislative season and Miami, well anytime, these rates tend to be fine.
Of course, out of state is more of an issue. So, here is the odd thing. If I book into the conference hotel it can cost just about anything. In San Francisco or New York, it is common my rate will climb above $500 a night. But since it is the conference hotel, I am good. But what I could find a room for less two blocks away, let’s say $300? Nope. I would have to pay the difference from the state per diem and the rate I paid. And let’s be honest, the Food Network once had a show where the host tried to eat in New York for $40 a day and she had to eat at food trucks and delis (no shade there) but it makes dining out much more difficult. So, its generally accepted per diem is a supplement.
Oh, and transportation. We are almost required to use taxis. I love cities and love cities with good mass transit, and I like using a ride service. They are almost always less expensive, and it feels good doing it. But these are many times at your own expense for reimbursement, so you need to decide if that is what you want to do. And forget rental cars. If you want to do that you need to somehow prove you will not do anything personal during your stay, otherwise, not covered. And it’s not well-defined what personal is? Getting a meal, going to CVS for a toothbrush? These are essential and I guess private but also not covered. So, just use your P-Card and go.
Speaking of P-Cards, they can be a life saver but dang! I am always panicked that I am going to accidentally charge a meal, or something will not happen and I will get in P-Card jail (which is the worst). We are allowed exactly to tip like our taxi driver 15%, no more so I do keep cash to supplement that. And two things that are the worst! When you forget to take the sales tax off in state and hotel deposits fail to come off the statement in time. These are just like a knot on the rope you cannot un-tie, it just makes everything worse.
Okay, last thought, and I know this is more of a rant than a well-developed post, but it is a thing for me. While I appreciate getting to travel to places, I would have never seen had I not gone into academia can we cool it on the 5-star hotels in the most expensive part of town? I find it rich that on all the conference committees I have served on (and they are legion) the conversation of site selection is always some sort of class warfare. I have actually heard some of my peers say if we don’t book at the J.W. Marriott with a conference rate of $479 a night then people are going to think we are cheap, or they won’t possibly stay in a 3-star hotel. Bruh. Dude! We work in higher ed! The only time you will be able to afford these places is if your university is paying for it. When you are on vacation the Hilton Garden Inn is just fine then, why not now? Last thought, the city choices. I love San Francisco and New York but can we choose some less expensive cities? One of my favorite spots is Indianapolis. Reasonable room rates, good restaurants, and no one is gonna accuse you of vacationing when the event is in Indy. Besides, can you tell the difference between the Marriott Ballroom in Indy or Los Angeles? Ne neither.
But I do have a few tips for you to get the most out of higher ed travel once we get to do so again.
1. Even if I don’t have to, I always look for the best value for my travel, lodging, and meals when traveling. There is no need to max out the travel request when a lower cost option is available. Besides, I find the best food are the food trucks and dive bars.
2. I try to present at every conference I attend. I learned a long time ago I get more value when I am adding value. Presenting is a good way to do that. It can also get you conference or room discounts as a contributor or, at the least an extra meal or reception ticket.
3. I sign up for the hotel points. My work allows me to do so, and it usually gets me hotel perks like free wi-fi and breakfast and that can be less I charge back to my work.
4. If I am driving to the conference, I look for hotels with free or reduced parking. That can add up quick.
5. I never take more than I need when offered complimentary stuff. I don’t take promo items I don’t need; I don’t overindulge.
6. I tip the servers. I usually leave a few bucks under my banquet plate, in my room for the room keepers, and to other service workers. If I get these extras, then I should leave a little extra for them.
7. I find a roommate. I know I am a grown-up but splitting the cost of the room is a good financial decision and its fun to come home to a friendly face!
8. if it is part of the conference fee, I go. Receptions, meals, coffee breaks. You pay for it. Enjoy!
9. Do some research. I always check into the area and plan out where I would like to eat and if there is a CVS or store nearby, what public transportation looks like, etc. That way, when I am at the reception, I am ready with a suggestion that wont break the bank.