Justification Nation Part 7: Leaving on a Jet Plane – Budgeting Travel on Sponsored Projects

TicketsBudgeting travel on sponsored projects used to be a reflexive activity. Not anymore. President Obama’s executive orders in the past several years have made budgeting travel a very careful exercise. Travel still occurs quite regularly on sponsored projects,  but your justifications for travel expense should be presented with great care.

Budget requests must separate travel into “domestic” (which includes the United States and its possessions, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico) and “foreign” categories and include requests for travel to conferences, fieldwork or related research activities.


Every sponsor expects that the research team will share its preliminary findings or progress at a research conference – this is part of the dissemination plan. It’s important to ensure that individuals who attend these meetings have an active role in presenting the data.

You’ll want to be familiar with the provisions of the Fly America Act and the Open Skies Agreement when budgeting and charging federal grants for travel, which requires air travel to be booked on US-based carriers or approved air partners. As a general rule, a domestic conference for one person, on average, costs approximately $1,500; an international conference, approximately $2,000-$2,500. This budget estimate is for three days, and includes an average per diem, hotel, and cost for an airline flight.


For field work and other research-related travel (collaborating with researchers at another institution, for example, or projects at a national laboratory or other external facility), you can generate a detailed budget for all expenses related to the travel, including airfare, ground transportation, mileage, car rental, living expenses, per diem rates for meals and other expenses related to the work they will be doing.

travelNote that for work done in certain areas of the country or certain areas of the world, the per diem rates are adjusted (check the GSA website and your institution’s policy) and if your investigator will be traveling to a dangerous part of the world there is a budget consideration for that as well – it’s on the State department website (there is a budget factor depending on what area of the country may be affected by political problems or war). These charges are acceptable to include on the grant and should be mentioned in the budget justification.


In this environment of limited sponsored research funding, it’s really important to be creative with meeting costs and limited travel dollars. Many investigators want to have research meetings in person, when that’s not always possible. You can suggest several alternatives:

  1. This idea is not new, but it is helpful: pick a meeting in the field of research that your PI and his or her collaborators regularly attend each year and hold a research meeting while everyone is already in attendance.
  2. Use video conferencing or SKYPE to link collaborators face to face on a regular basis.
  3. Use conference calling to discuss research progress on a regular basis; there are free conference calling services available.

A judicious use of travel dollars will allow your research funds to be used for salary and other expenses, and will be highly valued by reviewers!

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