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DTS for Dummies Part 1: A quick trip into my personal defense travel revelations

Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond, a 111th Attack Wing photojournalist, stares in confusion at her computer screen while working in the Defense Travel System (DTS) at Horsham Air Guard Station, Pa., Aug. 8, 2016. DTS is the travel system that handles all military travel plans and travel pay for temporary duty, or in some cases home station training, for members outside the commuting area. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum)

Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond, a 111th Attack Wing photojournalist, stares in confusion at her computer screen while working in the Defense Travel System (DTS) at Horsham Air Guard Station, Pa., Aug. 8, 2016. DTS is the travel system that handles all military travel plans and travel pay for temporary duty, or in some cases home station training, for members outside the commuting area. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum)

HORSHAM AIR GUARD STATION, Pa. -- Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part commentary series about navigating through the Defense Travel System. In this installment, the author - who has amassed a considerable amount of turmoil with military travel over the years - concentrates on the DTS authorization process.

As a military writer, I know words; generally, they don't intimidate me. Yet, there are particular words that make me shudder: CBT (computer-based training), MOPP (Mission-Oriented Protective Posture) and DTS (Defense Travel System).

While the first two elicit my aversion to tedium and physical discomfort, the last one - DTS - provoked a fear of the unknown. Thoughts like, "Is this right? What does that mean? Am I going to get my travel card paid in time?" molded my inner monologue as I begrudgingly lumbered through the DTS process, generating continuous errors along the way.

"DTS is the travel system that basically handles all of your travel plans and travel pay for all TDYs (temporary duty), or in some cases home station training, for members outside the commuting area," said Tech. Sgt. William Estremera, 111th Comptroller Flight financial management technician
.
Travel and pay? I consider this important stuff.

So, I stopped the guesswork and asked the experts here about the process. By reaching out for help, I discovered a streamlined program that allows me to manage all of my military travel needs via a stable, single web portal.

While not a panacea for all DTS-related woes, settle in for my travels into DTS enlightenment during this three-part series -- neck pillow optional.

Know before you go (i.e. Look on your pay orders)

First things first: Before clicking into DTS, military pay orders need to be on hand. Members can find these on the Air National Guard Reserve Orders Writing System (AROWS) home page accessible via a common access card (CAC) while on a military or government network.

Got those pay orders? Now it's time to begin the DTS adventure! In order to travel, an authorization must first be created. To create that authorization, whip out those pay orders and start filling out the itinerary section.

"Creating a correct itinerary is the most important part," said Estremera "From the minute you begin the authorization, you want to have a clear picture of where you're going, when you're getting there, method of travel and to where the orders are directing you."

Sounds pretty simple, eh? Well, let's clarify.

Make sure you know where you're going and when. For example, the pay orders state that a member should report to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, but the member instead enters their TDY location as the city of Dover, Delaware. This would be an incorrect TDY location unless, of course, the member is reporting to an assigned location other than a military installation - a conference center, for example.

"The member [usually] isn't going to the town or city; they're going to the military installation per their pay orders," said Estremera. "DTS has different opinion as to what [being on an installation opposed to the area of the installation] entitles you."

Here's a hint: There's a line on your pay order that says, "ITINERARY." Follow the dates and locations as printed.

Stops? Look at your pay orders again.

Travel stops are really important to note on the itinerary. But unless the member is either at a location overnight or past midnight, they're not necessary to annotate on the itinerary.

Estremera gives the example, "If you're flying out of Philadelphia [International Airport], then you fly to [Chicago O'Hare International Airport] and the you fly to [Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport] and then drive to [Joint Base San Antonio, Texas]. If you didn't stay overnight at Chicago or Dallas, we don't need to know about that."

In the above scenario, the member would notate a flight from Philadelphia to Dallas. Then there would be ground transportation, like a rental car or shuttle, from the last airport to JBSA.

Acquiring accommodations and such

Master Sgt. Jeff Davis, 111th CPTF quality assurance manager, said that sometimes a member is instructed to stay in government quarters, but later discovers that no rooms are available. The member would then obtain a non-availability (NA) form and need to amend their orders to indicate off-base lodging.

No biggie.

It's not entirely uncommon for a lodging situation to change. In fact, a member may not even know where they will be staying until they get to their location. When in doubt, the finance office recommends to play it safe. "Always build the authorization as if you're going to stay on base," said Davis. "Because if you get down there and find out that you're going to be off base, you can adjust the itinerary on the voucher."

Estremera said members are covered for the increased per diem that comes with off-base lodging. "We can give the member more [per diem], but we can never give them less."

The main idea here is: If you're unsure whether you are staying off or on base, design your authorization itinerary to indicate you are going to occupy government quarters. Worst case scenario, you can possibly read over your NA form poolside at the hotel.

Is this DTS stuff driving you crazy?

"If a member chooses to drive instead of fly, that's fine; but, you don't get the travel entitlements for driving if it's cheaper to fly," notes Estremera

When a member wants to drive to a location that is greater than 400 miles round trip, they have to complete a constructed travel worksheet. This compares the cost of driving verses the cost of flying. The reimbursement will pay out the lesser of the two options.

Before heading on a road trip, there are a few items to note:
- If a member drives and a flight is cheaper, they must construct their itinerary as if they are flying;
- All the stops taken while driving don't count if they aren't part of the pay orders and it's cheaper to fly;
- Members interested in driving can work to configure the trip cost by including factors like off-base lodging, rental car and the duration at the TDY location to present to the approving official for permission and entitlements;
- While sometimes waiverable, members only get one travel day and qualify for one day of entitlements during travel; but if authorized to drive, they may qualify for pay for the duration of the journey;
- A driving authorization to a TDY location is a case-by-case basis;

I asked Estremera and Davis what were some of the biggest DTS faux pas they encounter.

"If you're not in status per your pay orders, you're not technically allowed to travel and you're not allotted lodging and per diem," said Estremera. "We see people claiming [unallocated] travel days quite often."

Davis bought up an issue faced by home station TDYs out of the local commuting area. Both he and Estremera stated that the National Guard Bureau (NGB) recommends not including a travel day, but instead allotting the member a later report time to compensate for the drive time. The caveat? If a member is on a shift-work schedule, they can be authorized an extra day specifically for travel to their home station.

For the record

Remember those pay orders off of which your entire authorization is based? Upload those paramount papers into the substantiating records section so they can, well, substantiate.

"Everything is easier if the authorization is done correctly," said Davis. "Since the voucher is pulled from the information in the authorization, what a member does or doesn't do correctly before or during their TDY can affect their voucher on the back end."

We'll cover the voucher conundrum of DTS in the next installment, but just remember it's best to have your information correct in the authorization.

While the DTS process has a few limitations and complexities, its overall efficiency and effectiveness is unparalleled when done correctly. An important item to note, a wing's finance office would prefer members ask for help when they are confused or unsure.

"If someone is having trouble with any part of DTS, I'd rather they ask me then try to do it themselves and have it be incorrect," said Estremera. "It's better to take the time to do it right than have to keep reviewing and resubmitting."