Recordkeeping for reimbursing business travel expenses can be cumbersome. Instead of reimbursing employees for the actual costs they incur for out-of-town lodging, meals, and incidentals, some employers opt to pay fixed travel per diems. These amounts are based on IRS-approved rates that vary by locality. Here’s what you’ll need to know to determine if this simplified approach is right for your business.
Low-Down on the High-Low Method
Under the “high-low method,” the IRS establishes an annual flat rate for certain areas with higher costs of living. All locations within the continental United States that aren’t listed as “high-cost” automatically fall into the low-cost category. The high-low method may be used in lieu of specific per diem rates for business destinations. Examples of high-cost areas include San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (See the chart below for a complete list by state.)
Under some circumstances — for example, if an employer provides lodging or pays the hotel directly — employees may receive a per diem reimbursement only for their meals and incidental expenses. There’s also a $5 incidental-expenses-only rate for employees who don’t pay or incur meal expenses for a calendar day (or partial day) of travel.
The following items aren’t considered incidental expenses:
- Transportation between places of lodging or business and places where meals are taken, and
- The mailing cost of filing travel vouchers and paying employer-sponsored charge card billings.
You should consider reimbursing employees separately for these expenses, and then deducting the amounts as ordinary business expenses.
No More Receipts
If your company uses per diem rates, employees don’t have to meet the usual recordkeeping rules required by law. Receipts of expenses generally aren’t required under the per diem method. Instead, your organization simply pays the specified allowance to employees.
But employees still must substantiate the time, place, and business purpose of the travel. Per diem reimbursements generally aren’t subject to income or payroll tax withholding or reported on the employee’s Form W-2. It’s also important to note that per diem rates can’t be paid to individuals who own 10% or more of the business.
The IRS recently updated the per diem rates for business travel for the fiscal year 2023, which started on October 1, 2022. Under the high-low method, the per diem rate for all high-cost areas within the continental United States is $297 for post-September 30, 2022, travel ($223 for lodging and $74 for meals and incidental expenses). For all other areas within the continental United States, the per diem rate is $204 for post-September 30, 2022, travel ($140 for lodging and $64 for meals and incidental expenses). Compared to the prior simplified per diems, both the high-cost area per diem has increased by $1, and the low-cost area per diem has increased by $2.
The IRS also modified the list of high-cost areas for post-September 30 travel. The following locations have been added to the high-cost list:
Crested Butte/Gunnison, Colo., has been removed from the previous list of high-cost localities. In addition, certain tourist-attraction areas only count as high-cost areas on a seasonal basis. Starting on October 1, the portion of the year in which the following locations are high-cost localities has changed:
Important: This method is subject to various rules and restrictions. For example, if you use the high-low method for an employee, you must continue to use it for all reimbursement of business travel expenses within the continental United States during the calendar year. Your company may use any permissible method to reimburse that employee for any travel outside the continental United States, however.
For travel during the last three months of a calendar year, you must continue to use the same method (per diem or high-low) for an employee as you used during the first nine months of the calendar year. Also, your organization may use either:
- The rates and high-cost localities in effect for the first nine months of the calendar year, or
- The updated rates and high-cost localities are in effect for the last three months of the calendar year, as long as you use the same rates and localities consistently for all employees reimbursed under the high-low method.
CAA Temporarily Suspends Limits on Meals Deductions
In terms of deducting amounts reimbursed to employees on their company’s tax return, employers normally must treat meals and incidental expenses as food and beverage expenses that are subject to the 50% deduction limit on meal expenses. For certain types of employees — such as air transport workers, interstate truckers, and bus drivers — the percentage is 80% for food and beverage expenses related to a period of duty subject to the hours-of-service limits of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Important: Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), for 2021 and 2022 only, business meals provided by restaurants are 100% deductible. Starting on January 1, 2023, the previous limits on deducting business meals while traveling are scheduled to resume.
High-Cost Area List for 2023
Key City (Effective Dates*)
|Alabama||Gulf Shores (June 1-July 31)|
|Arizona||Phoenix/Scottsdale (February 1-March 31)|
|California||Los Angeles (October 1-October 31; January 1-September 30)|
|Mill Valley/San Rafael/Novato (October 1-October 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Monterey (June 1-August 31)|
|San Diego (February 1-August 31)|
|San Luis Obispo (June 1-August 31)|
|San Mateo/Foster City/Belmont|
|Sunnyvale/Palo Alto/San Jose|
|Colorado||Aspen (October 1-March 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Denver/Aurora (October 1-October 31; April 1-September 30)|
|Durango (June 1-September 30)|
|Grand Lake (December 1-March 31)|
|Silverthorne/Breckenridge (October 1-March 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Steamboat Springs (December 1-March 31)|
|Delaware||Lewes (July 1-August 31)|
|District of Columbia||Washington, D.C.|
|Florida||Boca Raton/Delray Beach/Jupiter (December 1-April 30)|
|Bradenton (February 1-March 31)|
|Cocoa Beach (February 1-March 31)|
|Fort Lauderdale (October 1-April 30)|
|Fort Myers (February 1-March 31)|
|Fort Walton Beach/DeFuniak Springs (October 1-October 31; March 1-September 30)|
|Gulf Breeze (June 1-July 31)|
|Key West (October 1-September 30)|
|Miami (December 1-March 31)|
|Naples (December 1-April 30)|
|Panama City (June 1-July 31)|
|Pensacola (June 1-July 31)|
|Punta Gorda (February 1-March 31)|
|Sarasota (February 1-April 30)|
|Sebring (February 1-March 31)|
|Stuart (February 1-March 31)|
|Vero Beach (December 1-April 30)|
|Georgia||Jekyll Island/Brunswick (March 1-July 31)|
|Idaho||Sun Valley/Ketchum (December 1-March 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Illinois||Chicago (October 1-November 30; April 1-September 30)|
|Maine||Bar Harbor/Rockport (October 1-October 31; July 1-September 30)|
|Kennebunk/Kittery/Sanford (July 1-August 31)|
|Portland (July 1-August 31)|
|Maryland||Ocean City (July 1-August 31)|
|Falmouth (May 1-August 31)|
|Hyannis (July 1-August 31)|
|Michigan||Mackinac Island (July 1-August 31)|
|Petoskey (July 1-August 31)|
|Traverse City (July 1-August 31)|
|Minnesota||Duluth (October 1-October 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Montana||Big Sky/West Yellowstone/Gardiner (June 1-September 30)|
|Kalispell/Whitefish (June 1-August 31)|
||Toms River (July 1-August 31)|
|New York||Glens Falls (July 1-August 31)|
|Lake Placid (July 1-August 31)|
|New York City (October 1-December 31; March 1-September 30)|
||Kills Devil Hills (April 1-September 30)|
|Oregon||Lincoln City (July 1-August 31)|
|Portland (October 1-October 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Seaside (July 1-August 31)|
|Pennsylvania||Hershey (June 1-August 31)|
|Philadelphia (October 1-November 30; March 1-June 30; September 1-September 30)|
|Rhode Island||Jamestown/Middletown/Newport (October 1-October 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Hilton Head (June 1-August 31)|
|Myrtle Beach (June 1-August 31)|
|Utah||Moab (October 1-October 31; March 1-September 30)|
|Virginia||Virginia Beach (June 1-August 31)|
|Wallops Island (July 1-August 31)|
|Washington||Port Angeles/Port Townsend (July 1-August 31)|
|Vancouver (October 1-October 31; June 1-September 30)|
|Wyoming||Cody (June 1-September 30)|
* If no effective date is listed, the location is a high-cost area all year long. – Source: IRS
For More Information
Don’t let expense reimbursements for business travel become a source of frustration for you or your employees. Contact us for ideas to simplify the reimbursement process that will pass IRS scrutiny, while eliminating administrative red tape.