The Ultimate Guide to Employee Travel Stipends

One of the most enriching experiences employees can have is personal travel. Offering your employees a travel (or vacation) stipend to feed their wanderlust helps you create a happy culture of diversity and fulfillment.

Employers are increasingly realizing that encouraging employees to take paid time off work to travel and relax is good for the bottom line.

A recent U.S. Travel Association study showed a 22 percentage point gap between mega-travelers and homebodies when it comes to happiness with physical health and well-being - a powerful finding considering the rise of employee burnout.

So, to make sure their employees aren't squandering valuable travel opportunities enhance their life (and actually using their PTO to do it), more and more employers are offering personal travel reimbursement.

Would offering an employee travel stipend in these post-coronavirus times be a valuable benefit to employees? According to the New York Times, the answer is yes. The newspaper quoted a study conducted in the spring of 2020 indicating that one-third of Americans planned to travel after coronavirus restrictions eased.

Here's what is covered in this guide:

  1. What is an employee travel stipend?
  2. Benefits of offering an employee travel stipend
  3. What an employee travel stipend can cover
  4. Are travel stipends taxable?
  5. Example employee travel stipends

What is an employee travel stipend?

First, a definition:

An employee travel stipend, also called a vacation stipend or travel reimbursement, is an allotment of funds that workers can use during each calendar year at their discretion to pay for personal travel expenses.

Companies who offer such a stipend for employee personal travel, which is different than business-related travel, are typically on the forefront of employee benefits and employee experience because it's:

  1. not a commonly offered benefit and therefore feels like unchartered territory
  2. since "travel expenses" may sound expensive, many companies don't even think it's something they can reasonably afford. However, it's just as affordable and flexible as any other stipend you could offer, while offering major benefits (which we cover in the next section)

Another thing to note is that there are no federal or state laws require employers to offer a travel stipend to their employees, so they can establish their own requirements for how their employees can use it. For example, employees may need to submit photos proving they spent time at a vacation destination before receiving reimbursement.

Benefits of offering personal travel stipends

Many employers already benefit by offering paid vacation time and encouraging employees to use it - here are some of the specific ways that doing so can be good for business:

  • Fewer sick days taken
  • Fewer workers’ compensation claims filed
  • More energy and motivation after their return
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced use of healthcare benefits

A travel stipend can help attract talent

Offering an employee travel stipend to spend on their vacations is a hugely attractive benefit to offer for attracting talent. It's a benefit that isn't standard, would appeal strongly to individuals who already love to prioritize travel on their off-time and most of all.. .who wouldn't be excited to say "my company pays for my vacations"?

A travel stipend can also help retain talent

For your employees who have benefited from and become accustomed to this unique offering, it's very likely that it'll be a reason they stay longer at your company. This is especially true if you also have a healthy company culture that supports and appreciates their experience and contributions as an individual.

If you're interested in exploring a travel stipends or any other type of stipend for your company, talk to a Compt stipend expert who can help you set up and manage your ideal program.

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Things you can cover in a travel stipend

While each organization can determine what expenses qualify for an employee travel stipend, here are some common examples of vacation expenses to consider.

  • Airplane tickets
  • Bus tickets
  • Dining allowance
  • Fuel for road trips or a rental car
  • International data plan
  • Luggage and packing
  • Passport fees
  • Pre-paid phone card
  • Travel applications
  • Vacation activities

What you can also do when offering an employee travel stipend is to offer a different stipend amount for employees with more seniority or based on excellent performance reviews.

You'll also have to think about how you'll offer the stipend and the verification requirements: will you just drop the cash into their paycheck (which has some pitfalls we cover in this post) or have employees submit receipts for reimbursement when they return to work after vacation (a standard and business-friendly way to approach it).

However you do it, your people or HR team will need to get buy-in from your finance department to fund employee travel before announcing this benefit. Some companies start with a small vacation stipend to allow the opportunity to review the benefit before investing in it more heavily. Working up to a more robust benefit is generally the preferred approach rather than starting with a larger travel stipend amount and having to dial it back due to budget issues.

Are travel stipends taxable? 

Because the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does not consider travel stipends regular income, it does not require employers to withhold tax (federal tax, social security tax, or Medicare). This rule has long applied to travel stipends for business purposes. Although personal travel stipends for employees are a newer development, the current IRS policy also applies to this benefit.

If stipend taxability is of interest to you, check out this helpful resource: Which Fringe Benefits are Taxable and Nontaxable?

Examples of travel stipends by top companies

A CNN Money report about companies who pay for vacation days highlighted several top companies that offer personal travel stipends and software company FullContact offered the most generous employee travel stipend at $7,500 per year.

  • About FullContact's employee travel stipend: The "vacation stipend benefit" as they call it, is on top of FullContact offering a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation each year. FullContact insists that employees use all of heir PTO and also requires employees on vacation to be fully off the clock, meaning they cannot call work, check emails, etc. Although FullContact cannot enforce it, the company encourages employees to disconnect and not use technology at all while away from work.
  • Both AFAR Media and Bamboo HR each offer employees a $2,000 travel stipend to pay for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and typical vacation activities. Each of these employers recognizes that employees do not always have the funds to go on vacation even when they receive paid time off from work. They see the travel stipend as a simple way to solve that problem.
  • Evernote, a company that produces computer and smartphone applications. Evernote offers employees a $1,000 annual travel stipend, but they must take five or more consecutive days off work to cash in on it.

Other examples of employee travel stipend programs:

  • In addition to a typical 21 days of annual paid time off, seven days of sick/safe leave and 10 paid holidays, employees at SEO & Marketing software company Moz receive a $3,000 per year vacation expense reimbursement.
  • It's probably no surprise that Expedia encourages employees to go on vacation. Employees at the major travel site get a reimbursement of $250-$750, depending on tenure, and also receive discounts on retail and travel packages purchased through the site.
  • Another travel site Travelzoo offers their employees a $1,500 travel stipend and three extra days of PTO to “book a hotel stay, vacation package, cruise, or flight offer that we negotiate on behalf of our 28 million members worldwide,” according to Michael Stitt, President of Travelzoo North America.
  • Time tracking and scheduling software company TSheets provides employees with a $1,500 per year travel credit. There’s just one catch — “you have to completely disconnect while you’re on vacation: No calls, no emails, no Slack,” NBC reports.

Just getting starting with stipends? Check out this detailed guide on how to set up your perk stipend.

Or, if you're more familiar with a vendor-based approach and need more information, here is a helpful Perks Vendor Cost Calculator to see what a difference going vendor-less makes.

Learn everything you need to know about Employee Stipends

Check out our free ebook that shows exactly why employee stipends have become the most common new benefit.

Ready to see how travel stipends would work at your company?

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