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The Long Way Home: Hacking Your Commute When Cars Just Aren’t Enough

airport signBrian Croxall has described on Profhacker how he hacked his 120 mile drive between home and campus, finding ways to make his commute both less painful and more productive. Two hours of driving each way pushes at the outer limits of sanity, but many academics have similar commutes or even longer. It might be family reasons, geographic preferences, or of course the current academic job market, but it seems that every department has at least one faculty member whose commute is so long that a car just isn’t enough.

I happen to be one of those faculty. For several years now I have flown twice a week, leaving home early Tuesday morning and flying back late Thursday night. About 400 miles separate work from home. And no matter how many audiobooks I could consume, if I had to make the six hour drive (each way) every week, I would go crazy. Or worse, as this sign at a rest stop on I-81 cheerily reminded me on one of the rare occasions that I drove:

road signSo I fly, every week, and I know I’m not alone. I’d like to start a discussion, then, about how to turn what at first might seem a high-flying glamorous jet-setting lifestyle but in fact is a series of ritual humiliations, odious aggravations, and expensive vagabondages into a commute that is at least tolerable and ideally, even worthwhile.

For this post at least, I’ll set aside the more complicated issues that arise with long distance commuting—for example, how to be a part of campus life or how to survive the stress it places on relationships—and focus on the nuts and bolts of the commute itself. Much of what follows could apply to less frequent travel, such as to professional conferences, as well.

In logistical terms, long distance commutes hit us in two places: time and money. Neither of which most academics can afford to spare. After racking up several tens of thousands of frequent flier miles, though, I have a learned few lessons.

The first has to do with those very same frequent flier miles. You’ve signed up for an account, right? With the airline you use most? I feel foolish even asking, but I suppose there’s someone out there who might not like the idea of an airline tracking every trip. Well, they do it anyway, so you might as well sign up.

Second, don’t simply sign up for the frequent flier account, get the airline’s credit card too. Unlike most Visas or MasterCards, there’s usually an annual fee associated with airline-issued cards, but in exchange you earn mileage for all of your purchases (and often, double mileage for buying the airline’s tickets with the card). I once scoffed at the notion of paying $79 every year for my US Airways MasterCard, but I’ve found that it pays for itself several times over. I’m able to redeem my mileage for at least several round-trip tickets each year. (Too bad I use those free tickets to fly back and forth from work rather than to, say, Spain.) I also get “priority boarding” which isn’t as exciting as it sounds, and occasionally—just occasionally—a free upgrade to First Class, which is as exciting as it sounds.

Third, know when to buy your tickets. There’s no way for me to statistically prove this, but I’ve decided that the best airfare prices are on Tuesday evenings. After you’ve been tracking ticket prices long enough, you’ll develop your own sense of what’s a bargain. And when you find that bargain—again, likely on a Tuesday night—buy as many of the tickets as you can afford. I need a round-trip ticket for nearly every week of the semester, but even if you return home less frequently, it’s worth buying the tickets in bulk when you find a good fare.

That takes care of the money side of things. Honestly, I wish I had better tips about saving money, but if you commute by plane regularly, you know there’s no cheap way to do it. You can’t even write it off on your taxes. (Your travel from home to your place of primary employment is not deductible. Believe me. Really, take my word for it.)

How about ways to make the time you spend commuting by plane more efficient? Or more productive? Or at least, less soul-crushing?

This tip sounds quite mundane, but I’ve learned that routine, routine, routine is key. For example, I park in the same general spot every week in the long-term parking. Knowing that my car can always be found within 50 feet of Shelter 11 in the Blue Lot means that I have one less thing to remember.

I also sit in the same area of the airplane every week. Assuming you don’t get that First Class upgrade, find your usual plane’s sweet spot. If you’re in the very front rows, the overhead compartments fill up too quickly. If you’re in the rear, it takes forever to get off the plane. Sit in the very back row and you risk not having any seat if, as has happened to me, the airline switches to a smaller plane at the last minute. I’ve settled upon Row 5 as my optimal row. And skip the window and stick to the aisle for a quicker deplaning.

security checkpointFinally, what about the dreaded security checkpoint? This is truly the random element at work in any commute. Consider the image helpfully telling me that it’s only “a 20 minute wait.” As the fine print cautions, though, “Actual times may vary.” And vary they do. I’ve been at this exact sign and it’s taken me only five minutes. I’ve been at this exact sign and it’s taken 50 minutes. The best you can do is arrive with extra time and be prepared to get through the actual scanning machines in as little time as possible: wear slip-on shoes instead of laces; have your liquids and gels in a baggy at the top of your carry-on; and for goodness’ sake, have your ticket and photo ID handy.

Now, what about productivity? I usually pass the time in line and on the plane taking pictures like the ones you see here, but I’d love to hear how you spend your time. What do you do during the actual flight? Do you read? Do you grade? Do you write? Do you sleep? Let us know in the comments, and I hope even the non-commuters will learn something valuable for their occasional flights!

[Photo Credits: No Toys at Dulles by Mark Sample / Creative Commons License; I-81 Driving Sign by Mark Sample / Creative Commons License; and 20 Minute Wait by Mark Sample / Creative Commons License]

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