Government employees can enjoy luxurious overseas business trips on the taxpayer’s dime thanks to generous foreign per diem rates established by the State Department.
Per diem rates include the cost of lodging, meals and incidental expenses that the government is willing to give civilian federal employees for their official foreign travel. The rates are meant to cover lodging at “adequate, suitable and moderately-priced facilities” and meals at “facilities typically used by employees at that location,” according to the State Department's office of allowances.
All federal employees traveling to foreign countries on official business can get reimbursements from the government at the rates the State Department has set.
The agency has established different per diem rates for various cities around the world, with some affording government travelers more amenities than others.
For example, the State Department allows each federal employee working in Cannes, France, to spend $702 per day for a hotel and meals in the summer, offering a lower allowance during the off-season that begins in October.
But in July, a three-star hotel in Cannes can go for around $100 per night off Expedia or similar travel websites. Even a posh five-star hotel can cost $350 a night or less, according to Orbitz.com and Expedia.
The top 10 highest-rated Cannes restaurants classified as “fine dining” on TripAdviser list their meal prices between $19 and $99.
While prices for the hotels and meals are listed in U.S. dollars, as are all per diems, the summer allowance in Cannes still amounts to 577.50 euros per day at present conversion rates.
That means anyone could eat three gourmet meals a day and check in to a swanky hotel for less than what federal officials are given to do government work in the same French city.
Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokesman, said embassies and consulates submit hotel and restaurant costs to the agency in order to establish rates that apply to the whole government.
She said because State Department posts "are asked to provide restaurants that approach American standards in terms of food handling, security" and other factors, travel allowances can be dependent on local customs as well. Embassies and consulates must submit updated lodging and meal costs at least every two years, Jhunjhunwala said.
The Cannes per diem rate has been in effect since Dec. 1, 2014. Previous summer allowances for the city have shot as high as $760 per day between November 2013 and October 2014, according to State Department archives.
Jhunjhunwala said the agency makes changes to per diem rates on a monthly basis, taking into account the input of its diplomatic posts and "fluctuations" in the exchange rate between a country's currency and the U.S. dollar.
Government officials in Rio de Janeiro can spend the equivalent of $518 per day all year long, with $157 set aside for meals and incidental expenses alone.
A four-star hotel overlooking the storied Copacabana Beach costs around $230 per night in July, according to Orbitz. That’s more than $100 cheaper than what government employees have to spend on lodging in the coastal Brazilian city.
The daily Rio de Janeiro travel allowance, effective since December 2013, is equivalent to 1,377.72 Brazilian Reals.
Other foreign travel allowances have remained untouched for years.
Federal employees on official business in Benghazi, for example, have been given a $196 per diem rate since September 1993.
Per diem rates for government officials traveling within the continental U.S. are set by the General Services Administration. The GSA also lists the rules for both foreign and domestic travel allowances.
Jhunjhunwala said officials can get reimbursements up to 300 percent of the maximum per diem rate under certain conditions.
"In such cases, the hotel rates or cost of food in a particular city may increase for a specific period of time due to circumstances beyond the traveler’s control. Examples include an international conference such as the G-8 Summit, a major sporting event such as the World Cup or the Olympics, and natural disaster limiting availability of hotel accommodations and/or food such as an earthquake or tsunami," she said.
Jhunjhunwala noted civilian government staff run their travel expenses by supervisors at their own agencies. The State Department does not keep tabs on the number of employees from across the government that receive reimbursements at the rates it has set, nor does it have data on the nature and duration of such trips.