The man whose business is travel: lies, damn lies and expenses

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The Independent Travel

"Forty-eight US, 25 British pounds or 520 Mexican pesos. You decide."

Leaving Mexico can be tricky. Partly, because the third great North American nation (it shares the continent with the US and Canada) is a wildly exciting destination for business travellers these days. But also because it shares the widespread and maddening Latin American practice of demanding extra tax from the visitor on departure.

At least I was given three currency options. I was most liquid in US dollars, so chose those. But another obstacle to my smooth journey home remained. I had unaccountably misplaced the print-out of my e-ticket. In many locations this would present no problem: a passport confirms the passenger's identity, and a boarding pass is duly issued. The difficult in Mexico was that the taxman's rubber stamp had to be applied to a document that showed the flight details.

Eventually a Mexican compromise was reached: I still happened to have a print-out of a domestic flight that I had taken a few days earlier. Even though it referred to a journey between two provincial Mexican airports, the document was deemed adequate. I handed over the cash, the paperwork was completed - and kept.

The good news was, I was on the flight to London. The bad news: the gap in my expense account had just got even wider.

Leisure passengers have two big advantages over business travellers. First, while holidaymakers are pre-disposed to be in a good mood, travelling executives have plenty of work issues on their mind. But much more importantly: tourists need not file their expenses at the end of the trip.

Whether you work for a giant corporation or act as a solo consultant, someone wants to know every detail of each transaction you make while you are away.

I am not talking here about exciting evenings spent in the company of new-found friends that conclude in demands for hundreds or thousands of pounds: if you choose to wander away from mainstream corporate entertainment, that is a matter for your conscience and your credit card. I mean the everyday expenses that are so easy to incur, so difficult to pin down.

You may find a Muscovite taxi driver who (a) has a neat book of receipt slips and (b) is prepared to use them, but in over 20 years of visiting the Russian capital I have yet to meet him or her.

Something to eat or drink? In theory, Italy is the place to be, and not just because of the wonderful cuisine. Handily for anyone who needs to itemise everything down to a single espresso, Italian tax law demands that a receipt be issued for everything served in a cafe or restaurant. Indeed, you are legally obliged to carry said chit at least 10 metres away from the establishment. Tell that to the Neapolitans: after your delicious pizza or gelato, the legal niceties may be overlooked.

Without wishing to single out Italy, it is also the only place that I have been reduced to take a photograph of myself ensconced in a hotel room (in the lovely town of Brescia, since you ask) when the proprietor flatly refused to have anything to do with paperwork.

Do you get the feeling that the person reviewing your expenses - whether your accounts department, or HM Revenue & Customs - has little sympathy with the tribulations of being on the road? Indeed, they may belong to the "lies, damn lies and expenses" school of thought, and search for examples of creative accountancy.

I have yet to discover how my self-penned note certifying the shortfall of $48 will be received. And as for the 100-peso note that persuaded the night receptionist to find a room slightly further away from the hotel's mega-decibel house band: well, some expenditure just needs to be put down to experience. And given the choice, I would rather have spent the last week in Mexico than Manchester.