The Guy Who Flew to School

The average American commute takes about 27 minutes, according to the U.S. Census. Given our morning rituals and the like, if you need to be in the office at 9 AM, you’re probably waking up no later than, say, 8 AM. College students travel even less than that to get to their classes; per various reports, between 45% and 60% of college students live on campus — they can roll out of bed at 7:30 AM and still make it to an 8 AM class without much of a problem. 

Bill Zhou, though, had a much different college experience. To make it to his 8 AM class at the University of California, Berkeley, he woke up at 3:30 in the morning.

Why? Because he lived in Los Angeles, about 350 miles (560 km) away from campus. Oh, and he took a plane to school. But he didn’t do it to save time — that wouldn’t have worked. He did it to save money.

Zhou graduated from college in 2019 and moved to Los Angeles. For the next few years, like many of us, he worked from home — COVID-19 kept him local. But once he was able to travel again, he did, and a lot. As he told California Magazine (a publication of the Cal Berkeley Alumni Association), “I flew a lot in late 2020, 2021, and early 2022. In 2021, I flew 230,000 miles. 2022 was the start of my commute year. I took 251 flights over like 210,000 miles.” All those trips allowed him to rack up a ton of frequent flyer miles and other benefits. And in 2023, those came in handy.

Why? Because he decided to go back to school — but the school he wanted to go to was pretty far away from LA. As he explained in the above-linked magazine article, Zhou wanted to join Berekley’s one-year master’s in Civil Engineering program, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the nation. But the “one-year” timeline wasn’t actually a year — it was “only from August until May [and] that’s only eight months after you take out winter break.” He wanted to rent an apartment near school but they were very expensive and required a 12-month lease, which was significantly more than the length he’d need the place for. And he wasn’t going to give up his place in LA — it was rent-controlled and he already had an offer to return to his previous employer upon graduating with his master’s degree. So he decided to stay in LA and fly to school each day. 

The Los Angeles Times summarized his schlep:

A “typical” day went something like this: For a class that started at 10 a.m., he would wake up around 3:40 a.m., take an Alaska flight from LAX to San Francisco International Airport at 6 a.m., have breakfast in the airport lounge, then take Bay Area Rapid Transit to campus.

After class, he would hang out with friends or attend office hours, then grab some dinner before catching a flight back to LAX, usually at 9:05 p.m. or 10:30 p.m.

In total, the trip took about four to five hours each way. Zhou often spent more time commuting than he did on campus.

He did, though, save a lot of money. He figured that rent near Berkeley would have cost him about $20,000, per his California Magazine essay, “I spent only $6,000 for my commute, including gas and the tax I paid for the air tickets and [public transportation] and parking at LAX.”  And yes, he graduated — in fact, he earned a 3.88 GPA (and never missed a single class.

Bonus fact: If you’ve been on a plane recently (and I have, so take my word for it!), you may have noticed that the captain turns off the seatbelt sign when the aircraft hits an altitude of 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters. That’s not the only thing that happens when the plane reaches that point. Most airlines use something called the “sterile flight deck rule,” which prohibits non-essential activities — including idle banter — in the cockpit when the plane is under a predetermined altitude, with 10,000 feet being the most common one used in the United States. The reason is to keep the flight crew focused during takeoff and landing. The rule has been in place in the United States since 1981, in large part because of a crash that claimed the lives of the father and two brothers of late-night TV show Stephen Colbert. That flight, Eastern Air Lines Flight 212, crashed three miles short of the runway on its descent, killing 72 of 82 people on board. An investigation into the crash showed that the flight crew was talking about “politics and used cars” during the landing approach, and were likely too distracted to appropriately handle the foggy conditions they encountered during landing.

From the Archives: Pudding One Over: The tastiest way to get frequent flyer miles.