You Can Deduct Your Vacation—Just Learn the Tax Rules!

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Get ahead and get packed because you’re about to get advice on how to deduct your vacation expenses. We’re not talking about a lame, business conference vacation here. This is bona fide advice for getting legal tax advantages for even a luxury vacation. And, you can count the steps on one hand! It’s true. You only need to understand these five tax rules to legally deduct items like your plane ticket and hotel suite:

  • Business Motive—By a business motive, the IRS means a plan for how this trip will contribute to your ability to make a profit. The profit does not have to be immediate, but you should be able to show that you had a reasonable expectation of monetary gain from the trip.
  • Overnight Stay—As with any business travel, you can only deduct expenses for trips that last, at least, overnight.[1]
  • Importance of the Trip—Ask yourself this: are the business activities you will engage in during your trip important enough that you would take the trip purely for business reasons? If it would not make sense to take the trip, except for the personal pleasure of it, then you’ll have difficulty deducting the expenses.
  • Pass the Primary Purpose Test—This test applies to any business travel in the United States. Basically, you need to make sure that the majority of your days on vacation count as business days. To do this, you need to conduct business on more than 50 percent of the days you are away. Additionally, for any single day to count as a business day, your business activities must take up at least four hours of that day (half of a standard workday).
  • Keep Records—Most importantly, record everything about the trip, including notes about the other four rules above.

If you meet these five requirements, then you can justify the business purpose of your trip.

Doing Business in Luxury

It turns out that your business trips can be as luxurious as you desire. With the right planning, you can both accomplish important business tasks and take a well-deserved break. Consider some of the expenses that can be deducted when you follow the five rules:

  • Rental car expenses (even a Rolls-Royce, if you want!)
  • The best suite at your choice of hotel
  • Airfare (even first-class)
  • Boat tickets (cruise travel, too[2])

As you can see, there’s no need to skimp on luxury, relaxation, or adventure when you turn your vacation into a business trip. Plus, you get huge tax savings that are not available for a personal vacation.

Types of Deductions

Business travel allows for to primary types of deductions, transportation expenses and life expenses. The cost to actually travel to and from a location is always a full-expense deduction or no deduction at all. You cannot pare out part of the deduction for personal and part for business. Remember the rule about primary purpose? If you pass those requirements, then you’re clear to deduct all your transportation costs. However, if most of the days on your trip are personal days, then you cannot deduct any of those expenses, even if you conducted business on some days.

The second set of deductions, life expenses, refers to the costs associated with sustaining your life while you’re away from home. That includes your hotel stay (or other lodging) and your meals. Unlike the transportation deduction, however, life expenses can only be deducted on business days. So, if you take a whole day to visit a historic downtown district, any meals for that day and the hotel stay for that night are not deductible, even if the day before and after are devoted to business.

You can see why good record keeping is so important. The IRS is not just going to believe that you spent every day of a vacation in Maui taking care of business.

Getting Business Travel Right

The tax code is unhelpfully vague when it comes to what constitutes business travel. The language states that you can deduct expenses that are “ordinary and necessary” for conducting business.[3] Unfortunately for those of us trying to get the most from legal deductions without incurring the wrath of the IRS auditor, the courts don’t do much to narrow down these broad terms. To support the reasons for your travel deductions, the best you can do is check out the rulings in previous tax cases.

Let’s start with the kind of scenarios that succeed with deductions:

  • Meeting at a Resort—Charles Hinton III solely owned United Title Company, a North Carolina-based C corporation. Every year, he held an out-of-state board meeting in locations such as New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Puerto Rico. He only invited his corporate board members and certain business guests (e.g. bankers, real estate developers, real estate attorneys), as well as their spouse or guest. In addition to the meeting, attendees also discussed business topics, like underwriting policy.

All travel costs were deemed deductible, excluding those for the spouses and non-business guests. Otherwise, the trip was considered for business purposes because the interesting locations ensured that business guests chose to attend. Mr. Hinton’s corporation benefited from the business conversations and from the strengthening of relationships within the field.[4]

  • Expanding BusinessAlthough Raymond Jackson regularly traveled in his business’s sales territory, he was able to deduct travel expenses from outside his normal territory. The additional trips were intended to find new clients and expand his business, thus they were deductible as business travel.[5] Tip: If you are traveling to find initial clients for a new business, those must be considered start-up expenses.
  • The Seminar or ConventionConventions do provide an excellent excuse to travel, and most take place in areas that lend themselves to vacation activities. Because conventions are set up to be business activities, it is easy to justify your expenses as business-related. Just remember these guidelines: 1) the travel expenses to North American conventions are deductible as long as they advance the interests of your business; 2) any convention that consist of video lectures can only be deducted if the videos could only be viewed at the convention (they could not be streamed or downloaded from home); and 3) travel expenses cannot be deducted for seminars relating to your investment interests rather than your business or trade.[6]

Now, this next set of cases shows you what kinds of scenarios fail at qualifying for deductions (hint: you must have a substantial business reason for your trip):

  • Lack of Business Importance—A custom plywood manufacturer took customers on a trip to New Orleans for four days. The trip included attending the Super Bowl, going on a Mississippi River cruise, and hotel accommodations in the French Quarter. The court deemed the trip merely entertainment, stating that the sporadic business discussions were incidental.[7] The trip did not pass the rule about being important enough to take (and justify the expenses) without the personal element.
  • Lack of Business Motive—A minister took a tour group to Europe; however, no profit motive for the trip was evident.[8] Remember, a business trip must demonstrate the potential increase your company’s profit.
  • Lack of DocumentationA real estate salesperson lost out on deductions for five different trips because she did not keep records to sufficiently prove the business purpose of any of her travel costs.[9]

How can you avoid these scenarios? Just keep proper documentation of your trip and the expenses. It’s not difficult at all. Be sure to include 1) how much each expense cost; 2) when you departed and returned; 3) how many days you spent on business; 4) where you went; and 5) why your trip was business related or expected to generate profit. The IRS requires all of this information in order for your business travel deduction to qualify.[10] Most of this information can be found on your receipts, so keep those in a file. As far as defining your business purpose, you can simply put a note in the file or use some other dated note-keeping system.

You may not be able to include deductible expenses in every vacation, but now that you know the rules, you may start looking at your travels a little differently. If you can reasonably fit in business activities while enjoying yourself, it makes sense to take advantage of the tax savings. Review these five easy rules the next time a travel opportunity arises.

  1. Barry v Commr., 54 TC 1210, aff’d 435 F.2d 1290.
  2. Subject to luxury water travel limits, between $678 and $810 (varies by time of year) per day for 2015.
  3. IRC Section 162(a)(2).
  4. United Title Insurance Co., TC Memo 1988-38.
  5. Jackson v Commr., TC Memo 1975-301.
  6. IRC Section 274(h)(7).
  7. Danville Plywood Corp. v U.S., 899 F.2d 3.
  8. Blackshear v Commr., T.C. Memo 1977-231.
  9. Robinson v Commr., T.C. Memo 1963-209.
  10. Reg. Section 1.274-5T(b)(2).