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I know this question may be off-topic on academia SE, but really am not sure where to ask. I was admitted to a great PhD program recently, and was also invited to participate in their Open House in March. I was informed that I would be reimbursed for travel expenses. However the email says to book flights as early as possible to "qualify for a more competitive rate". Does this "rate" refer to the ticket price or the rate at which I am reimbursed? I'm afraid to ask the secretary since I don't want to make a bad impression.

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    In the future, you can ask the Travel Stack Exchange, but this is technically reasonable here too. – Compass Feb 26 '15 at 3:04
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    "Qualify for a more competitive rate" means "pay less". – JeffE Feb 26 '15 at 3:16
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    I personally don't think asking for a clarification to the secretary will make any bad impression. In my experience they get these kind of questions all the time from people they manage. – mkc Feb 26 '15 at 3:16
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    From experience, I can tell you that one single short email requesting clarification never makes a bad impression. Ten emails doing so on a range of points are another thing entirely. (It happens more than you'd ever imagine.) – Corvus Feb 26 '15 at 3:18
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    Instead of "...refer to the ticket price of the rate at which I am reimbursed", did you mean "...refer to the ticket price or the rate at which I am reimbursed"? – Trevor Wilson Feb 26 '15 at 4:36
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By "qualify for a more competitive rate," it seems pretty likely that they simply want you book early to get a cheaper flight.

  • yes, and I totally understand and would like to do so so that the Department does not to throw out too much cash in the case I don't accept the offer (even though I probably will). – user90593 Feb 26 '15 at 2:46
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Yes, yes it does. The hard part for you is that you need enough financial capacity (credit card, usually) to float cost of the airfare until you actually take both the flights. The university won't be able to reimburse you until you've actually taken both the flights. Even then, it may take them a month or two to pay you back. They won't pay your interest payments.

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    +1 for particular attention to the financial consideration of this reimbursement thing... that interest payment was exactly what I was thinking about :). Well, as long as they will pay me back in full. – user90593 Feb 26 '15 at 2:44
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    It gets easier when you have a full-time job and can just eat the cost of the airfare while you're waiting for the reimbursement. My university offers a Diner's Club card with a 60-day grace period to be used for official travel purposes that might save you one interest payment if you work it right. You might not have enough time to do that, but you might inquire. – Bill Barth Feb 26 '15 at 2:55
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    It's not that I disagree about the pay-yourself-first-get-money-back-later arrangement being somewhat likely in this case, but does any part of the question state this is the case here? Your statement "The university won't be able to reimburse you until you've actually taken both the flights." sounds extremely certain, as if you had some knowledge that I'm not seeing provided in this question. – O. R. Mapper Feb 26 '15 at 14:27
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    @O.R.Mapper, it's the way all universities I have ever interacted have worked. They either book the airfare on your behalf and pay directly upfront, or they require you to book it on your own and ask for reimbursement after the fact. The logic in the latter case is to not pay you until you have actually taken the flights. Otherwise, you could book, get reimbursed, and then cancel the travel and take their money. It would be rare in my experience for any large bureaucracy to trust you not to steal from them. – Bill Barth Feb 26 '15 at 15:40
  • @BillBarth: Well, paying oneself in advance is not required in the first case that you describe. And with that in mind, I'm actually used to booking flights myself via a travel agency that has a partnership contract with the university, and they will automatically send the bill directly to my travel expenses department, so I don't have to pay any money for that. It's possible that's only feasible for staff, though, not for prospective staff as in this question (and paying myself to get reimbursed later is also what I have to do for anything I do not book via that particular travel agency). – O. R. Mapper Feb 26 '15 at 16:03
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In addition, also talk to the travel websites as well, booking super-early doesn't always save you the most cash. But yes, you will want to book earlier than "last minute".

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    "booking super-early doesn't always save you the most cash" – indeed that is true. During busy travel periods (i.e. summer holidays, Christmas) the fares rarely drop once airlines start actively managing them. If you must travel on certain dates during peak travel times, it's best to book very early. – Moriarty Feb 26 '15 at 13:43
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Basically, the email is telling you to book ahead because flight costs increase dramatically if you try to book too close to the actual travel date. For instance, for domestic flights within the US the cutoff is typically 21 days before the flight: ticket prices can become two or three times more expensive if you try to book after that point.

Of course, there's also the department's interest in having to pay less for your ticket, because that means there's more money available for other purposes (to pay for other students' tickets, hotel costs, meal costs during the visit, and so on).

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I think the university's primary concern is paying as little as possible. Therefore they are nudging you to buy your ticket sooner rather than later.

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