From the October 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

When most companies focus on controlling travel costs, they target the trip itself: the airline ticket, hotel room, rental car and restaurant tab. But costs are lurking on the back end, too, when travelers return and have to account for their spending.

On top of being time-consuming and error-prone, the expense report process is surprisingly pricey. Factoring in the involvement of the traveler, approver, auditor and accounting personnel, the average manual expense report takes about 57 minutes and costs approximately $48, according to industry estimates.

Companies, even ones with only a handful of employees, have found that automated solutions provide a cost-effective alternative to manual expense reports. Vendors include Expense Reports Pro, ExpenseWire, ExpenSite and Gelco's ExpenseLink.

Though the bells and whistles vary, these all offer the same basic features. Travel- and entertainment-related spending is linked to the system, so any charges are immediately migrated to an expense report template. This "prepopulation" automatically sorts charges by date, amount and expense category (hotel, travel and entertainment, car rental, etc.) when travelers sign in. They enter out-of-pocket expenses and a business purpose, then hit "submit." Because spending rules and policies have already been loaded, any out-of-policy charges can be flagged for a manager to handle at his or her discretion.

The advantage of automated expense reporting isn't just speed, but also cost-effectiveness. "With our products, companies pay less than $10 to file, route, pay and audit an expense report," says Troy Thibodeau, Gelco Expense Management's vice president of marketing. "They pay as they go, which simplifies budgeting."

What his clients also find easy is implementation. "Not many processes [have] this big an impact so quickly with such little disruption," Thibodeau says. "It's not expensive, it's not difficult to implement and it's extremely popular with users."

Julie Moline is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant in New York City.