UC Berkeley student commutes by plane from LA to avoid rent – NBC Los Angeles

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Bill spent 1,277 hours, equal to 53 days, commuting to school. He has traveled a total of 92,089 miles by plane, waking up early and getting home late, but he never missed a single class. 

When Bill, who preferred to go only by his first name, was accepted into UC Berkeley’s Master of Engineering program, he started looking for a place with a single bedroom and a private bathroom in the Bay Area, but everything was “outrageously expensive.”

Los Angeles and San Francisco are the second- and third-most expensive cities to live in, after New York City, according to Mercer’s Cost of Living survey. The monthly rent in Berkeley, CA is $2,933, which is $833 more than the national median.

He knew he wanted to come back to LA after his program, and he began looking for ways he could continue living in LA while attending classes in the Bay Area. 

After doing some calculations, intensely planning and creating a mega spreadsheet, Bill decided he would commute to school via plane. 

At first, he explained that his friends were in shock.

“They think I’m insane,” he said, but after a month of early departures and late return flights, that disbelief turned into respect, he said. 

Bill takes public transit to get to campus for his 10 a.m. class. Photo by Heyang Qiu.

The commute

In the fall, Bill woke up to a 3:40 a.m. alarm every Monday and Wednesday, and to a 3:30 a.m. alarm on Fridays. He would brush his teeth and get dressed then drive 35 minutes to LAX. 

He would take the free LAX shuttle to the main terminal, go through security, and wait for his flight to board. Bill said he became good at timing this whole process (he took 238 flights total as part of his commute), so he usually arrives at his gate 10 minutes before boarding. 

He sits through the hour and 20-minute long flight and arrives at SFO around 7:30 a.m. To catch up on the sleep he lost from getting up early, Bill said he mostly took naps while in the air.

He eats his breakfast in the Alaskan Airlines lounge while catching up on homework then leaves the airport around 8:30 a.m. 

He then takes public transit to campus about an hour away, arriving at 9:40 a.m., early for his 10 a.m. class.

At the end of the day, he would take a 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. flight home. He flew out of OAK, SFO or SJC depending on where the cheapest flight was. 

Bill would get back to his home at 9:30 p.m. He said it took four to five hours each way of the trip. 

Bill begins his 4-5 hour journey back to LAX after a long day of classes. Photo by Heyang Qiu.

Did Bill really spend 53 days of his life commuting just to save on rent?

While the cost of living by Berkeley is part of the answer as to why Bill embarked on his “epic commute” challenge, he has always loved transportation. 

“Through high school, I always tried to take different bus routes,” he explained. 

Bill completed his B.S. in Civil Engineering with a specialization in Transportation Engineering at UC Irvine, and he worked as a transportation engineer for two and a half years before starting at UC Berkeley. 

Bill said that when he travels anywhere, “my trip actually starts from the moment I land at the airport and take public transit into the city.” 

“The best way to get familiar with a city is just through regular public transit,” he said. 

The final flight

On Bill’s last flight with Southwest, he gave the crew “thank you cards and goodies as a way to thank them for carrying me through this commute and always getting me to class on time.”

He said that the crew appreciated his gesture, and when it was time for passengers to leave the plane they asked him to stay behind for a surprise.

They let him go into the cockpit and take a picture in the captain’s seat. He said it was his favorite moment from his year commuting by plane.

From Bill’s May 2023 Flyertalk



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