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Life as a Super-Commuter: What it's Like to Fly to Work

This article is from our friends at LearnVest, a leading site for personal finance.

For Mary Beth Williams, home is where the heart is—and that’s Chicago.

Thing is, Williams only has a handful of days each month to kick back at her two-bedroom condo in the Windy City.

The rest of the time, she shares a small rental apartment with a roommate in Boston, where she works as a healthcare executive. But Williams isn’t complaining. She’s used to it. Before she started this gig in 2010, she was flying back and forth for a similar job in Philadelphia.

Williams stumbled into her jet-setting lifestyle of shuttling back and forth between time zones. One day in 2005, she says, she got a call from a recruiter in Philadelphia asking if she would go fill in for six months as an interim director for a program at a children’s hospital—and they agreed to fly her home every week. The gig was exactly what Williams was looking for at that point in her career, so she jumped at the opportunity. Then, six months turned into four years, with Williams flying back to Chicago every weekend.

Why fly to work, you might wonder? Actually, Williams is among a group of people who have been dubbed “super-commuters” by researchers at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation.

For super-commuters, the distance to and from work is 180 miles or more, which, for some, can mean hopping on a plane. (Others may choose to take a train.) This subgroup of professionals accounts for about 3-10% of the working population—and that number is only expected to rise.

Why Workers Are Traveling Farther

According to the NYU report, super-commuting is becoming more popular across the country. A few of the well-traveled routes becoming even more common? Boston to Manhattan, Dallas-Ft. Worth to Houston, Austin and San Antonio to Houston, and Northern California to Los Angeles.

“People are more likely to be mobile in regard to their jobs and homes because of the collapse of the real estate market,” says Mitchell L. Moss, one of the co-authors of the NYU report and a professor of urban policy and planning. When people get a job in a new city, he explains, they can find it difficult to sell their home in their current city, so they’re forced to wait it out.

While some people are forced to super-commute because of a slow real estate market, others go the distance for work simply because there’s greater opportunity elsewhere. Plus, with increasing mobile technology, says Moss, “there’s more flexibility in the modern workplace.”

Three years ago, Ian Bearce, a 40-something dad who lives in Minneapolis, landed his dream job working for an ad agency in Manhattan. He did the math and weighed his options: Finding a similar job in Minneapolis would be tough, but the cost of living in the New York City metro area was so much higher. Plus, in the Midwest, he and his wife, Megan, have a bigger family network, an invaluable resource that meant built-in babysitting and help with their two kids, ages six and four.

“We were put in a situation where we had to decide: Do we uproot our family? Can we financially even do that?” says Megan, who is a licensed family and marriage therapist in her late 30s.

The answers: no. And no.

So, now, every Monday, Ian wakes up, says goodbye to his wife and kisses their two sleeping children before leaving the house and hopping on a plane at 7 AM to get to the office by noon. During the week, he sleeps at his apartment in Brooklyn, and then on Friday he leaves the office between 4 PM and 6 PM to head to the airport and make it back home by 9 PM—at the earliest.

Ian admits that his schedule sounds like a whirlwind, but he’s got the back and forth down to a science. “Like anything in life, it has positives and negatives,” he says. “You have to take the long view. It was definitely harder in the beginning, but now we all have a rhythm down.”

The Costs and Benefits of a Super-Commute

As you can imagine, flying to work can get pricey, so who pays for a super-commute?

Williams pays her own tab for her rent ($800 per month) and flights ($200 a pop), but she made sure to factor in the expenses when she negotiated her salary. Williams only travels twice a month, unlike Ian Bearce, who flies to work every week (though both say that they save money by booking their flights at least a month in advance).

Sometimes, however, employees don’t have to be concerned with cost-cutting because their employer is footing the bill.

Take Nick Ensig, 30, who isn’t exactly a super-commuter: The 150-mile round trip between his home in the Pennsylvania suburbs to his office in downtown Manhattan falls just short of the researchers’ definition by 30 miles. His employer fully compensates the travel costs associated with his daily four-hour commute. Ensig, who works as a building commissioner, loves his job, but says he still feels the pinch of having to trek so far away from home. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I worked in the Philly market, it was like being in the minor leagues, like being a Triple-A ballplayer,” he explains. “Working in New York, it’s like being in the major leagues.”

Ensig and his wife, Angela, sometimes talk about relocating to New York when his two children, ages two and one, are in college, but for now they’ve decided that it makes more sense to stay put. They’re not ready to trade the many comforts they have in Philadelphia for the convenience of living close to his job.

“Our quality of life is better here,” he says. “My wife has a great job in a public school as a guidance counselor with great benefits that save us about $7,000 a year, and we have family who live a few miles from our house.”

Initially, Ensig’s gig in New York City, though it came with a hefty 40% raise, was a hard sell to his wife, whom he praises for the sacrifices she has made. Without her support, he says, he’d never be able to make it work—or make it to work. Still, he worries about the downsides of being constantly on the go.

“I’ve only been to my daughter’s day care about six times, and that kind of hurts,” he admits.

How to Make Going the Distance Work Long-Term

The Bearces know a thing or two about the toll that a commuting spouse’s absence can have on family life. That’s why, though they don’t get to see each other much during the week, they make the most of their time together during the evenings and on weekends.

“Obviously the hardest part about super-commuting is being away from my family,” says Ian. “What makes it easier is that Megan makes sure that our limited time together is meaningful.” And, for better or worse, the non-commuting spouse is the one who is left to run the household. “The mundane life tasks fall to Megan during the week, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time on them during the weekend,” he explains. “She’s also great about documenting our family outings. She sends me photos and videos of day-to-day life when I’m away.”

Williams, who isn’t married, says working in Boston and living in Chicago has also forced her to become more organized.

“I don’t put things off [anymore],” says Williams, who pays bills as soon as she receives them and makes salon appointments in Chicago months in advance since she only has a small window of time to get a haircut. “When you’re splitting your time between two locations, your time is more structured,” she says. “You can’t forget to do things, and you’re not able to do a lot of things spontaneously.”

Of course, there may be extra time to do other things, like catch up on email as your plane is taxiing on the runway. Then again, if you’re a super-commuter, maybe you just catch up on sleep.

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  • Photo of woman at airport courtesy of Shutterstock.