I was just accepted to a PhD program and they wanted to fly me out for an open house. They said they would reimburse travel costs up to $500. However the issue is I have less than $500 in my bank account and certainly not enough to buy a plane ticket. I emailed asking if they could buy the ticket directly. Is this common? Can universities do this?
You should definitely ask if they can buy it directly for you. I know my department has done this in the past with students who don't have the cash on hand to wait for a reimbursement.
I've traveled several dozen times for university-related business, including several grad interviews. In every case, the vastly preferred method was for me to pay and be reimbursed. However, in almost every case, there was some way around this if needed, it was just much more complicated. Examples have included
- Getting an advance and submitting an expense report later (unlikely for you because you are not yet an employee/student)
- Getting a university credit card tied to my grant (ask after you are a student - I had this as a grad student and it made life much easier)
- Using the department travel card (or having the secretary do it for me if I wasn't trusted)
- Using the university travel agency to book directly
The last two should definitely be options for you.
As graduate program director I insisted that we start buying tickets for all of our interviewees, rather then promising to reimburse them, for exactly this reason. It took a little bit of pushing, but in the end I was able to make it happen. I'm at a big bureaucracy-bound state school, so if we can do it, anyone can.
Your request is entirely reasonable and as a program director I would be very ashamed if my program were unable to meet it.
I would say for a graduate program to fly you out directly would be very uncommon, unless you were invited to give a specific talk - but given that you've just accepted to be a student there, I imagine this is not the case.
You might be able to ask them, however, to buy yours (up to $500) if you explained your case.
The world is run by people after all...
While it is not unreasonable to ask a department to fly you out, it may be worth looking at getting a credit card. While taking on debt is not ideal, having the ability to "float" expenses like this can be very useful.
Additionally, if you are currently a student, many US universities offer short term loans. The terms of these loans is variable. For example, University of Nebraska loans up to $500 for 90 days at 9% APR and University of Washington loans up to $2500 to undergraduates for an academic quarter with no interest but a $30 fee.