May 1, 2023

What is travel tracking?

What is travel tracking?

Learn about travel tracking, the process of collecting and analyzing data related to people's movements while they travel. Discover the different types of tracking, such as device tracking and itinerary tracking, along with their limitations and benefits, including safety, tax and immigration compliance, carbon tracking, and cost savings.

Travel tracking is collecting and analysing data related to people's movements while they travel. While it can be done in a work or a personal context, it is most common in a work context.

In this guide, we explain in more detail what travel tracking is, several techniques for tracking and their pros and cons. First, we dig into the benefits, including safety, tax and immigration compliance, carbon tracking, and cost savings. Then we discuss what the process of travel tracking often looks like before looking at potential privacy issues and offering some thoughts on how to handle those.

What is travel tracking?

Travel tracking is knowing where people are, where they were or where they will be when they travel. Most often, it’s used in a business context when staff members travel for work. However, it can also be used for an individual or a small group, such as a family.

Several types of travel tracking exist, ranging from low to high accuracy.

Device tracking involves tracking GPS-enabled devices and their movements in real time. These devices could be smartphones, tablets, wearable devices, or even GPS-enabled suitcases. The devices send location data to a central server, which is processed to record where the devices and (hopefully) their owners have been. This also includes things like apples Air Tags, which are location aware, even though they don’t technically use the GPS network.

The idea is that by giving someone a device and tracking it, you can keep track of where the person is. However, if the person and the device get separated, you have no idea where the person is. This means device tracking is limited when the goal is to know where someone is.

Passive itinerary tracking addresses this problem by tracking someone based on their planned itinerary. A picture of their itinerary is built up by combining their flight bookings, hotel bookings, car rentals and so on. By analysing a traveller’s itinerary, travel tracking software can predict their movements and offer personalised information, such as country guides and local weather alerts.

The limitation of this technique is that if someone fails to follow their itinerary, for example, due to a change of plans or missing a connection, the system now has the wrong data about where that person is.

Active itinerary tracking takes itinerary tracking further by asking the traveller if they have followed their plans. For example, checking that they were at the airport on time to catch their flight. This can be done by sending them an SMS or email.

This is much more accurate than passive itinerary tracking. However, it still has limitations; if a traveller takes a trip that isn’t planned or entered into the tracking system, it can still lose track of them. For example, if a traveller follows a planned itinerary from New York to London Heathrow and, while there, does a day trip to visit a client in Oxford, there is a good chance they bought a ticket to Oxford at a train station and didn’t log this as an itinerary with the tracker.

Complete tracking is the gold standard of travel tracking and combines data from multiple types of tracking to obtain the most accurate picture possible of where someone is. It combines active itinerary tracking with device tracking, check-ins and adds additional data to complement this. For example, suppose a traveller uses a company credit card when travelling, and the bank issuing that card makes the information available to the company. In that case, the location of transactions can be included when working out the traveller's location. Another example is giving travellers access to an easy-to-use process for manually telling the travel tracker where they are.

The limitations of this method are that it’s harder to manage technology, and often travellers are unwilling to be tracked with this level of granularity. In practice, it’s generally a matter of agreeing on which level of tracking is suitable for which situation. The riskier a destination, the more suitable a detailed and accurate tracking approach is.

The benefits of tracking travel

The benefits of travel tracking are similar for both personal and business travel; we’ve written a summary and complete guide about each benefit. The benefits are:

Safety: It’s much easier to keep travellers safe if you know where they are: you can respond to incidents faster. It’s easier to provide medical support in the case of an illness, as the medical advisor can look up which medications are allowed in the local country with less effort. It also helps to keep travellers safe if you know where they are going because you can provide them with pre-trip safety briefings. This is especially important for business travellers who may be visiting high-risk areas. Read our travel safety guide.

Tax Compliance: For business travellers, tax is a big issue. Travellers may have to pay local payroll taxes from the first day they work in a country – even if they only visit for a few days. In some situations, they may also become a tax resident and end up with a large tax bill. Using a travel tracking tool makes gathering the data a tax accountant needs to file accurate tax returns much more straightforward. Read our global tax guide.

Immigration Compliance: For international travellers, travel tracking can help ensure compliance with immigration laws and regulations. This includes tracking entry and exit dates from different countries and any visas or permits needed to enter certain countries.

Carbon Tracking: With the growing awareness of climate change, many travellers and organisations are looking for ways to monitor and reduce their carbon footprint. A travel tracking tool with the correct data can generate a carbon emission record, which can, in turn, form the basis of an offsetting or carbon reduction program. Read our page on carbon tracking.

Cost Saving: By tracking travel expenses and movements, travellers and employers can identify areas where they can save money, such as sticking to one airline and its loyalty program, consolidating trips to ensure that fewer people travel to a particular location., etc. Read our guide on reducing your travel costs.

How a travel tracker works

Travel tracking involves collecting and analysing data related to a traveller’s itinerary, movements, and activities. Let’s take a closer look at how it works in practice.

Generally, travel tracking is done in three stages: pre-trip, on-trip and post-trip.

Before the trip, tracking typically involves building a picture of the traveller’s upcoming itinerary. There are several ways of collecting itinerary data. The main ones are:

  • Automatically importing all travel bookings made via a travel agency. Many companies work with one or more Travel Management Company (TMC) to book their travel. A travel tracker can automatically import all trips booked through those TMCs if integration is set up.
  • Forwarding booking emails for automatic import. A travel tracker should give the option of allowing travellers to forward their booking email to the tracker, which will then automatically add the trip details to the tracker.
  • Manual entry: A traveller or an administrator can always use the tracking software to add information to an upcoming itinerary.
  • Reviewing trip requests: In a business context, it’s not uncommon for staff to request approval for a trip in advance; this can help gather data on an itinerary that may or may not happen.

On Trip
During the trip, tracking can involve several methods, including:

  • Device tracking: GPS-enabled devices can track a traveller’s location in real-time.
  • Itinerary tracking:
    1. Passive – deducing the traveller's current location based on their planned itinerary
    2. Active - Interacting with a traveller via SMS, email, or mobile app to confirm that they have successfully followed their itinerary or to update the tracking data if they’ve had to change their plans.
  • On-trip activities: For example, credit card usage, which can be automatically captured via an API, and the location of the transaction can be used to update the system with the traveller's current location.

Post trip
After a trip has concluded, the tracking system can be updated if what it recorded doesn’t match what happened, for example, if a flight was diverted and landed somewhere other than where it was scheduled to land.

Leakage is when travel happens but is not tracked. This can be a severe problem if it leads to inaccurate tax filings or something happening to a traveller on a trip that no one knew they were taking.

There are several causes for leakage:

  • Trips not reported: Travelers may forget or decide not to report specific trips or activities. This most often happens when a trip is booked via a different channel than is typical, so it isn’t automatically tracked or when someone combines a work and leisure trip and doesn’t correctly enter it in the tracker.
  • Trips modified: Travelers may modify their plans before or during a journey, and these changes often aren’t entered into a tracking tool.
  • Trips cancelled: Travelers may cancel or change their travel plans, resulting in incomplete or inaccurate data, especially if they don’t cancel the booking.
  • Bad data: Sometimes, incorrect data can be sent to a tracking system through human or technical error. This can even include cases of TMCs only sending partial data to the travel tracker.
Privacy Concerns

A common topic that often comes up when discussing tracking travel is privacy and the concerns that surround it. Travel data can tell you a lot about an individual and an organisation, and people are often concerned about tracking granularity, intrusiveness and who has access to the data.

These concerns are balanced against the benefits that travel tracking can bring and the legal duty of care that an employer has for its travellers – travel data can often be critically important in supporting an employee who has issues during a work trip.

To strike a balance between these concerns and the benefits of tracking, collecting data necessary for your situation, and only that data, is important. Then it's essential to be transparent about what data you're collecting, how it will be used, and who will have access to it.

A good travel tracker will allow you to customise the level of tracking based on the situation and your policies. For example, tracking someone with a GPS-enabled device may be a level of monitoring that people are comfortable with and find reassuring when travelling to a high-risk country. However, it might be less accepted when travelling to a safer destination.

It’s worth noting that travel-related data, such as how many days you spend in each country, is often required when completing tax returns or during immigration audits. Therefore, an employer needs to collect this information in some way to operate legally and meet their compliance requirements.

Generally, these are decisions that each company needs to resolve for itself. The role of the travel tracker is to provide enough flexibility to meet whatever policy is put in place.

A travel tracker should have built-in security regarding who has access to the data, encryption, and regular security audits. This is a much higher privacy standard than the spreadsheets that we’ve often seen companies use before they introduced a technology-based solution, as it allows access controls which prevent the data from lying around in files that can be opened by anyone who has a copy of them.


Travel tracking is an activity that can offer several benefits to both personal and business travellers, such as safety, tax compliance, immigration compliance, cost savings, and carbon tracking. Travel tracking software can predict travellers' movements and offer personalised information by analysing their itinerary, creating a log of the travel and locations they visited, and tracking them based on their confirmed movements. However, leakage is a potential problem when a trip happens but is not tracked, and it can have profound implications. By understanding how a travel tracker works and taking appropriate precautions, travellers can stay safe, comply with regulations, and reduce their environmental impact while enjoying their trips. However, it is crucial to be aware of the privacy concerns associated with travel tracking and to ensure that the appropriate steps are taken to protect personal data.

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