This article presents the results of a qualitative study of the uses and abuses of travel compensation in the state administrations of three developing countries: Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania. We explain the incentive structures that drive abuses of standard compensation systems, and highlight the role of complicit managers who condone such practices. While abuses seem trivial when considered in isolation, in each of the countries they are considerable in aggregate terms and are likely to have distortionary effects on public service delivery. Incentives to change the systems and malpractices are weak because several categories of stakeholders benefit, albeit to varying degrees. The challenges must be understood in light of government incentive problems in pay-performance strategies and government–donor relationships. In addition to formal and external controls, solutions will require rethinking of the purpose and results of the many aid-financed seminars, which require out-of-office participation and programmes involving extensive travel.