Travel — and travel scams — are back

Although COVID-19 remains a concern, many people have started traveling again — both for business and pleasure. Unfortunately, as travel demand has increased, so has travel-related fraud.

For example, some fraud perpetrators posing as airline employees call would-be victims to try to elicit credit card numbers. Other scam artists send phishing emails that appear to offer cheap seats or rooms. And there are plenty of fake websites masquerading as legitimate travel companies.

Don’t fall for fraud

As you plan your next trip, take these steps to help reduce fraud risk:

Ignore unsolicited communications. Whether you receive an email, text, flyer or telemarketing call regarding travel bargains, it’s probably smart to ignore it. Afraid of missing out on a legitimate deal? Directly contact the airline, hotel or rental car company featured in the promotion.

Book with established companies. Whether traveling for business or pleasure, make reservations with companies with names you know. If you’re booking with a new service provider, read online reviews by fellow travelers. Some review platforms allow you to search using keywords, others identify keywords frequently used by reviewers and allow you to filter for those reviews. Also perform an online search with the name of the company and words such as “fraud” or “scam.”

Watch out for lodging scams. Many travelers use online property marketplaces to find lodging. But you need to scrutinize listings. Some fraud perpetrators post ads for nonexistent properties with enticing, below-market rates. If a “property owner” asks you to move the conversation off the site to avoid fees, refuse the request. Reputable platforms provide certain protections, such as insurance in the event the transaction results in fraud. They also keep your credit card information confidential.

Work with trusted services. If you travel frequently for business or pleasure or don’t have time to research trips, consider engaging a travel advisor or travel agent. These professionals maintain close working relationships with legitimate companies, know about the latest deals, may be able to provide insider tips about your destination and can, of course, make reservations for you.

Go with your gut

Before booking your vacation or business trip, scrutinize it for signs of fraud. If you doubt the legitimacy of a service provider or are suspicious of individuals involved in a transaction, go with your gut and look elsewhere. Safe travel requires due diligence that starts long before your journey begins.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

As we continue to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be traveling again for business. Under tax law, there are a number of rules for deducting the cost of your out-of-town business travel within the United States. These rules apply if the business conducted out of town reasonably requires an overnight stay.

Note that under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can’t deduct their unreimbursed travel expenses through 2025 on their own tax returns. That’s because unreimbursed employee business expenses are “miscellaneous itemized deductions” that aren’t deductible through 2025.

However, self-employed individuals can continue to deduct business expenses, including away-from-home travel expenses.

Here are some of the rules that come into play. 

Transportation and meals

The actual costs of travel (for example, plane fare and cabs to the airport) are deductible for out-of-town business trips. You’re also allowed to deduct the cost of meals and lodging. Your meals are deductible even if they’re not connected to a business conversation or other business function. The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes a provision that removes the 50% limit on deducting eligible business meals for 2021 and 2022. The law allows a 100% deduction for food and beverages provided by a restaurant. Takeout and delivery meals provided by a restaurant are also fully deductible.

Keep in mind that no deduction is allowed for meal or lodging expenses that are “lavish or extravagant,” a term that’s been interpreted to mean “unreasonable.”

Personal entertainment costs on the trip aren’t deductible, but business-related costs such as those for dry cleaning, phone calls and computer rentals can be written off. 

Combining business and pleasure

Some allocations may be required if the trip is a combined business/pleasure trip, for example, if you fly to a location for five days of business meetings and stay on for an additional period of vacation. Only the cost of meals, lodging, etc., incurred for the business days are deductible — not those incurred for the personal vacation days.

On the other hand, with respect to the cost of the travel itself (plane fare, etc.), if the trip is “primarily” business, the travel cost can be deducted in its entirety and no allocation is required. Conversely, if the trip is primarily personal, none of the travel costs are deductible. An important factor in determining if the trip is primarily business or personal is the amount of time spent on each (although this isn’’t the sole factor).

If the trip doesn’t involve the actual conduct of business but is for the purpose of attending a convention, seminar, etc., the IRS may check the nature of the meetings carefully to make sure they aren’t vacations in disguise. Retain all material helpful in establishing the business or professional nature of this travel.

Other expenses

The rules for deducting the costs of a spouse who accompanies you on a business trip are very restrictive. No deduction is allowed unless the spouse is an employee of you or your company, and the spouse’s travel is also for a business purpose.

Finally, note that personal expenses you incur at home as a result of taking the trip aren’t deductible. For example, the cost of boarding a pet while you’re away isn’t deductible. Contact us if you have questions about your small business deductions. 

© 2021 Covenant CPA

As vaccination levels rise and major U.S. population centers fully reopen, business owners may find themselves pondering an intriguing thought: Should we have a company retreat this year?

Although there are still health risks to consider, your employees may love the idea of attending an in-person event after so many months of video calls, emails and instant messages. The challenge to you is to plan a retreat that’s safe, productive and enjoyable — and that doesn’t unreasonably disrupt company operations.

Mixing business with fun

First, nail down your primary objectives well in advance. Determine and prioritize a list of the important issues you want to address but include only the top two or three on the final agenda. Otherwise, you risk rushing through some items without adequate time for discussion and formalized action plans.

If one of the objectives is to include time for socializing or recreational activities, great. Mixing business with fun keeps people energized. However, if staff see the retreat as merely time away from the office to party and golf, don’t expect to complete many work-related agenda items. One way to find the right mix is to consider scheduling work sessions for the morning and more fun, team-building exercises later in the day.

Craft a flexible budget

Next, work on the budget. Determining available resources early in the planning process will help you set limits for variable costs such as location, accommodations, food, transportation, speakers and entertainment.

Instead of insisting on certain days for the retreat, select a range of possible dates. Doing so widens site selection and makes it easier to negotiate favorable hotel and travel rates. Keep your budget as flexible as possible, building in a 5% to 10% safety cushion. Always expect unforeseen, last-minute expenses.

The good news is that the hospitality industry is generally trying to rebound from the very difficult downturn it suffered because of the pandemic. So, you may be able to find some special deals offered to “draw out” companies that haven’t held a retreat in a while.

Also, if you wish to truly minimize the health risks, you might want to focus on venues with outdoor facilities, such as farms or golf resorts. You could hold sessions mostly outdoors (weather permitting, of course) where it’s very safe.

Reunite and reenergize

Holding a company retreat this year may be a great way to reunite and reenergize your workforce. As convenient and practical as video meeting technology may be, there’s nothing quite like seeing each other in person. We can help you assess the costs and establish a reasonable budget that supports an enjoyable, productive and cost-effective retreat.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Summer is just around the corner, so you might be thinking about getting some vacation time. If you’re self-employed or a business owner, you have a golden opportunity to combine a business trip with a few extra days of vacation and offset some of the cost with a tax deduction. But be careful, or you might not qualify for the write-offs you’re expecting.

Basic rules 

Business travel expenses can potentially be deducted if the travel is within the United States and the expenses are:

  • “Ordinary and necessary” and
  • Directly related to the business.

Note: The tax rules for foreign business travel are different from those for domestic travel.

Business owners and the self-employed are generally eligible to deduct business travel expenses if they meet the tests described above. However, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct such expenses. The potential deductions discussed in this article assume that you’re a business owner or self-employed.

A business-vacation trip

Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity may be 100% deductible if the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. But if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, generally no transportation costs are deductible. These costs include plane or train tickets, the cost of getting to and from the airport, luggage handling tips and car expenses if you drive. Costs for driving your personal car are also eligible.

The key factor in determining whether the primary reason for domestic travel is business is the number of days you spend conducting business vs. enjoying vacation days. Any day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours counts as a business day. In addition:

  • Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays — if they fall between days devoted to business and it wouldn’t be practical to return home.
  • Standby days (days when your physical presence might be required) also count as business days, even if you aren’t ultimately called upon to work on those days.

Bottom line: If your business days exceed your personal days, you should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip and deduct your transportation costs.

What else can you deduct?

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Examples of these expenses include lodging, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days aren’t deductible.

Keep in mind that only expenses for yourself are deductible. You can’t deduct expenses for family members traveling with you, including your spouse — unless they’re employees of your business and traveling for a bona fide business purpose.

Keep good records

Be sure to retain proof of the business nature of your trip. You must properly substantiate all of the expenses you’re deducting. If you get audited, the IRS will want to see records during travel you claim was for business. Good records are your best defense. Additional rules and limits apply to travel expense deductions. Please contact us if you have questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Does your business reimburse employees’ work-related travel expenses? If you do, you know that it can help you attract and retain employees. If you don’t, you might want to start, because changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) make such reimbursements even more attractive to employees. Travel reimbursements also come with tax benefits, but only if you follow a method that passes muster with the IRS.

The TCJA’s impact

Before the TCJA, unreimbursed work-related travel expenses generally were deductible on an employee’s individual tax return (subject to a 50% limit for meals and entertainment) as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. However, many employees weren’t able to benefit from the deduction because either they didn’t itemize deductions or they didn’t have enough miscellaneous itemized expenses to exceed the 2% of adjusted gross income (AGI) floor that applied.

For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA suspends miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of AGI floor. That means even employees who itemize deductions and have enough expenses that they would exceed the floor won’t be able to enjoy a tax deduction for business travel. Therefore, business travel expense reimbursements are now more important to employees.

The potential tax benefits

Your business can deduct qualifying reimbursements, and they’re excluded from the employee’s taxable income. The deduction is subject to a 50% limit for meals. But, under the TCJA, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible.

To be deductible and excludable, travel expenses must be legitimate business expenses and the reimbursements must comply with IRS rules. You can use either an accountable plan or the per diem method to ensure compliance.

Reimbursing actual expenses

An accountable plan is a formal arrangement to advance, reimburse or provide allowances for business expenses. To qualify as “accountable,” your plan must meet the following criteria:

  • Payments must be for “ordinary and necessary” business expenses.
  • Employees must substantiate these expenses — including amounts, times and places — ideally at least monthly.
  • Employees must return any advances or allowances they can’t substantiate within a reasonable time, typically 120 days.

The IRS will treat plans that fail to meet these conditions as nonaccountable, transforming all reimbursements into wages taxable to the employee, subject to income taxes (employee) and employment taxes (employer and employee).

Keeping it simple

With the per diem method, instead of tracking actual expenses, you use IRS tables to determine reimbursements for lodging, meals and incidental expenses, or just for meals and incidental expenses, based on location. (If you don’t go with the per diem method for lodging, you’ll need receipts to substantiate those expenses.)

Be sure you don’t pay employees more than the appropriate per diem amount. The IRS imposes heavy penalties on businesses that routinely overpay per diems.

What’s right for your business?

To learn more about business travel expense deductions and reimbursements post-TCJA, contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you determine whether you should reimburse such expenses and which reimbursement option is better for you.

© 2018 Covenant CPA