The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia affiliates use travel in the conduct of their programs. Travel can represent a huge portion of a project budget; each Wikimania, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to transport people from around the world to one city. This page is to share best practices for travel planning so that we can all get the best out of our travel budgets.
If you have information, share it here!
We all know that the Wikimedia projects are online projects, and that there are many alternatives to travel. These alternatives should be explored before travel is considered. If your goal is simply to get a gathering of people together to listen and share information, that might be more effectively achieved through a Google Hangout. Teleconferencing is easy to manage, costs nothing (or almost nothing), and can be arranged at the last minute. Travel, on the other hand, requires at least one month of advance planning and substantial logistical planning, including planning for flights and hotels. Don't underestimate the burden planning travel itineraries might impose on a program manager whose job it is to plan the meeting you're transporting people for.
Regardless, travel can also be highly beneficial and worth the investment. When your meeting participants are physically present, they can meet with and network among fellow meeting participants. Virtual meetings only facilitate formal exchange—the content of the meeting itself—while in-person meetings facilitate both this formal exchange and informal exchanges that are crucial to building relationships with colleagues. These relationships lay the foundation for a social network, allowing participants to depend on each other for professional and moral support. Participants being able to bond with each other and the hosting organization is necessary in volunteer organizations such as ours.
Wikimedia DC's experience hosting GLAM Boot Camp in 2013 demonstrates the potential value of investing in travel. Twelve participants were recruited from the United States and Canada to come to Washington, DC, for a three-day conference. For some attendees, it was their first time ever meeting other Wikimedia volunteers in person. The participants in this selective workshop all reported that the conference helped them improve their relationship with the Wikimedia community, and many of the participants are actively engaged in Wikimedia outreach to this day. More information is available in the grant report.
If your organization has an experience on the impact of travel, feel free to add it here!
Goals for travel planning
Travel planning and associated policies should be trying to achieve a number of goals:
- Getting the right people to the event
- Reducing cost
What benefits will derive from attending the event? Who will be able to contribute the most to the event? Who will benefit the most from attending the event? Start by knowing the priorities on who should travel.
Reducing cost is fairly obvious. We are mostly spending donated funds and we need to be mindful of that. It must be noted that the goal of reducing cost may be in conflict with the other goals. Being explicit about the goals will allow a policy to develop that is mindful of cost and other considerations. For example, many of the people travelling will be volunteers, who must fit Wikimedia activities around their other commitments, e.g. work and family. The travel plan needs to be convenient to their other commitments.
Maintaining safety of the participants is obviously important. Participants should never be expected to engage in a unsafe activity. In this regard, the policies must recognise that some participants may be at greater risk than others in specific situations. For example, late-night mass transit is more likely to be a risk to women, older people, or people with disabilities travelling on their own, as they are targets for mugging and harassment. Travel policies should be adopted to be as inclusive as possible, allowing participants to choose alternatives despite the added cost if it would benefit their safety. Non-inclusive policies, including policies seeking to "maximise attendance" by mandating the cheapest option, will prevent people from traveling and fully participating. Remember that the cheapest person to transport is not necessarily the best person.
Specific best practices will depend on the country and the nature of the travel. If your experience differs from what's posted here, make a note of it here and help us encompass all perspectives.
Note that some of these best practices are applicable in multiple countries.
- Australia—Generally, advance purchases (2 weeks or more) can result in cheaper tickets. The use of demand-driven pricing means that the price of tickets can rise or fall as the date of the flight gets closer. Some last-minute tickets on underbooked flights can actually be cheaper but cannot be relied upon. Cheap tickets often have restrictions in relation to refunds and rescheduling and luggage, but frequently these are not a problem in practice. However, if the travel policy mandates the use of cheapest tickets, will the organisation cover the extra cost imposed when those restrictions become a problem, e.g. a flight is missed due to city traffic jams? Generally flights between the state capitals are cheaper than to regional areas, due to demand and competition. However, Australian distances generally mandate air travel.
- United States—For domestic flights in the United States, plan flights at least three weeks out. Flights between countries require more advance planning. Once you are closer to the date of the meeting, costs can increase extraordinarily. The temptation is to book the cheapest flight there is, but do so with caution. Certain itineraries introduce hidden costs. For instance, flights arriving late at night may require your attendee (or your organization) to pay for a potentially costly cab ride from the airport, as much cheaper mass transit won't be an option. If your itinerary involves stopping at one or more airports before reaching the final destination, plan for at least one and a half hours between flights to account for potential flight delays. Paying attention to the timing of the flights can save you time, money, and trouble—this is especially important if you are planning travel for a lot of people.
Where possible, have attendees stay in the same hotel, and have this hotel be as close to the meeting venue as possible. (In fact, you could have the hotel be the meeting venue; depending on the requirements of the meeting, this can save you money.) Ideally, your hotel has a social space (such as a lounge or bar) where meeting participants can socialize after-hours. Hostels are a good low-budget option; Wikimedia DC and Wikimedia New York City have good experiences with the Hostelling International locations in their respective cities.
It never hurts to shop around for hotel prices using the many on-line services, but again note the restrictions on cancellations/changes and ensure the travel policy explains what happens in those situations. Be particularly wary of special event rates for events. While it is implied they are specially low, they can be turn out to be specially high. Check if a direct booking or on-line booking can get a better price at the same hotel or one within walking distance.
- Novice travellers—Be careful if your travellers have not travelled internationally before. They may need advice on certain matters, including immigration procedures, currency, time changes, language, and culture. In particular, check they have a passport or other acceptable identity document.
- Jetlag. Long-haul flights are tiring and interfere with the body clock. Try to arrange arrival a day in advance of their event or else the benefit of their attending will be reduced if they are too tired to participate effectively.
- Passports and visas. As soon as international travel is proposed, prospective travellers should ensure their passport is current and does not expire until six months after the proposed travel. Always check the visa requirements for the country you are visiting or in transit through, even if you have visited that country before, as rules and processes do change in response to world events. Make sure your travellers travel on the correct visa; a tourist visa is not appropriate for all visits. Some visas take many weeks to obtain, which means you cannot undertake other international travel during that time while the embassy has your passport for processing. Therefore, obtaining a visa may need to be scheduled well in advance to accommodate other planned travel. Also, as an organisation, be aware of whether any of your travellers are not citizens of your own nation or will be travelling on some other nation's passport, as their visa requirements may be very different to that of your own citizens; do not assume the situation is the same for all of your travellers. Even your own citizens are born in other countries or even having recent ancestry in other countries, they may encounter different visa situations. Also, criminal offences (even minor ones) and certain occupations (e.g. journalists) even when not travelling in connection with their occupation face restrictions in relation to visas. Generally there is little right of appeal in the event of a visa being refused, and one refusal can become be a lifetime barrier to entry. Therefore, take considerable care and accuracy with visa applications and people likely to be at risk of refusal should weigh up the risk of applying against the benefit of travelling. Remember that people may be tired from a long flights when they undertake inbound immigration formalities; remind them of the importance of being alert, accurate, cooperative and courteous in answering questions at that time.
- International roaming. Given that Wikimedia is an online organisation, it is realistic to expect our travellers to access the Internet while travelling. While many telephone and data providers support international roaming, it is often at very high cost. Be sure the traveller is aware of this and offer advice about the alternatives. For instance, your organisation may want to consider providing local SIM cards for data usage.
Other best practices
- Travel policy—A travel policy clarifies who is allowed to authorize travel and what expenses are covered. This can make it easier for your organization to book travel and can help prevent unnecessary arguing. For examples, see the Wikimedia Foundation Travel Policy and the Wikimedia DC Travel Policy.
- Per diem—If you have the budget, provide a per diem allowance to cover the cost of meals not provided during the meeting. This ensures that participants can fully participate in the meeting, not having access to the usual resources they may have at home. Per diem allowances should be calculated according to a standard rate. In the United States, use the rates published by the General Services Administration.
- Travel insurance—Should this be taken out trip-by-trip or should an annual whole-of-organisation policy be used? Check if volunteers are covered by whole-of-organisation policies. Some individuals may have personal annual policies and may not need separate travel insurance. If travel insurance is not taken out (or events occur not covered by the policy), does the organisation intend to cover those expenses, e.g. replacing a stolen laptop, emergency hospital treatment, or is the person expected to travel at their own risk? Intending travellers should at a minimum known their situation in relation to insurance.
- Private cars—If private cars are used for transport, determine up-front what is the reimbursement rate. It is more than just the petrol cost. Most government agencies or tax offices have a standard per-kilometre rate worked out by people who are expert at that task. Save time and arguments within your organisation and just use one of those government rates. Often volunteers are happy to use their own car at their own expense for short trips without any reimbursement; just be careful that the willingness of some does not put pressure on others whose financial circumstances do require reimbursement from requesting it.
This information can help you prepare budgets for future travel. If your organization has analyzed the travel costs for a recent project, note it here.
- Domestic U.S. air travel—Wikimedia DC booked twelve roundtrip flights between New York City and various points throughout the United States approximately three weeks before the planned WikiConference USA in May 2014. There is no apparent correlation between price and distance from New York, seeing as airfare is also affected by factors such as supply and demand. The mean price for a roundtrip was $439.38, while the range was $287.00–$576.00. Note that this is for travel in May; prices will fluctuate at different times of year.
- Page 36, The New Volunteer Workforce. Winter 2009.